Kele Okereke: "This is a new territory for me, singing about desire"
We talked to the Bloc Party frontman from bed about his most personal album to date.
Kele Okerere has been a familiar presence in music over the past decade, be it through his glittering career as the lead singer of Bloc Party, or through his solo dance project, Kele. In between these two pursuits, he finds time to crop up as a guest vocalist on tracks by the Chemical Brothers, Tiësto, or electronic producer Sub Focus, and to tour the world as a house DJ. He can also be found, on the pages of Noisey, writing open letters of support to Azalea Banks, or bemoaning the decline of black culture in British dance music.
So, yeah, unless you have zero interest in popular music of the post-Millennium, you should know him.
Should you want to know him better—a lot better—you could listen to his new album, Trick. Coming four years after his solo debut, The Boxer, Trick is named after a slang word for a one-night stand. Where the Boxer was a euphoric celebration of dance culture (he describes it as "hands in the air"), Trick is slinky; a quiet, pulsing study in desire, of love offered and lost. To listen to this album is to feel that you’ve accidentally come across Kele’s diary, or, a la some farcical romantic comedy, are accidentally locked in a room in which he is passionately making out with an unknown loved one. For Trick, Kele adopts a new style of singing, a closer, more raw experience than on any previous work, and he sings about love in an unguarded way, a result, he says, of a shift in experience brought on by the approach of his mid-30’s.
In the years following the release of Block Party's 2005 album, Silent Alarm, the word most commonly associated with the band was "zeitgeist," and the most regular comparison was with Blur. It must have gotten boring, but even now both of these are tingling in background our conversation. In his collaborations and constant forays into new territory, there’s a sense that he's a second wave Damon Albarn. Though his band has reached veteran status (their fourth album Four reached number one in the UK two years ago), here he is, emerging, at the center of a new scene.
Songwriting has always been the foundation of Kele’s success: be it the shouty hooks of "Banquet," the secretly melodic songs like "Hunting For Witches," or those memorable lines that still pop up in your brain years later ("As if to say...he doesn’t like chocolate"), there’s a reason why Bloc Party lasted so much longer, and shone so much brighter, than other British bands of the regrettably named "art-rock" era. Now, thanks to the sonically cleaner palette of dance music—a direct contrast to the distortion-filled spectrums of Bloc Party’s four-person rock set up—the melodies of Kele’s songs are secret no more. While in the past, he would riff lyrics over the top of his band’s compositions, he now has freedom to craft before arriving in the studio. The result is a step towards pop mastery, and a "mature" album that’s full of the joy of new discovery.
So let’s get back to Trick, around the 30 minute mark, where Kele is singing, “My hotel room, it’s not far, we can talk for hours, I’ll show you stars…" Without sounding too much like a creep, it’s like being offered a glimpse into a private world, before which there were only two inhabitants, and soaking it in before that moment where decency requires you to raise your hand and say HEY GUYS I’M HERE, JUST TOOK A WRONG TURNING FOR THE BAR, HAHA…
In the light of this, it’s probably fate that, when I called Kele for this interview, he was in bed. Here’s how our conversation went down:
Where are you right now?
I’m in bed. I’ve never done an interview in bed before, so this might be the most intimate Kele interview ever.
I should hope, so where is home to you?
Home is South London. Brixton is home.
When did you move back? i know you’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin and New York…
I moved to London at the start of 2011. Previously I lived in East London so when I moved back, I headed for south london.
Is that where you made the majority of Trick?
That’s where i started the record, and then i worked with a producer (XXXChange) who lives in Brooklyn, so i was in new york for a lot of last year.
Did you do a lot of work on your own?
I did the initial programming, and the playing, but I was conscious that I wanted to focus on the songwriting. I didn’t want to get bogged down in all of the production. Alex and Tom’s forte is more detailed work, so I basically wrote the songs and tried to get them as good as possible.
How did your time as a DJ affect the way this album sounds? Is that a really shit question?
No it totally wasn’t. I know how I want to answer. I think the biggest influence that DJing has is that it forced me to listen to music in a different way. The way that electronic music is designed to be played is on loud speakers. It’s really different from indie or rock music, as there’s a huge degree of separation. All its parts are clearly defined so that when you hear it on massive sound systems, different elements aren’t competing with each other. It was a shift for me, given that I’ve been working mainly with rock music, where it’s really about filling up spaces and detail.
Does that give more freedom in the songwriting?
It made me more conscious about my voice and my lyrics, because they would be right at the front of the track. I think that’s really the first time that I had that opportunity. Usually with Bloc Party, everyone is competing to do their bit, then once it’s all arranged I sing something on top. By this time, the terrain is already mapped out. With this record, it was just starting with a vocal idea. My vocal is the basic element then wrapping the song around that.
I love the TLC reference in "Closer," that begins with "22rd of Loneliness." It was probably just a bit of fun, but are you a fan? Why did you decide to drop it in?
I have been a fan of TLC since crazysexycool came out. I just think they are the coolest girl band of all time. There was something so beautiful and dangerous about them, like all the best pop stars really. The lines "22nd and 23rd of loneliness" comes from their song "Creep." I always liked that lyric and it seemed to fit the idea i had in mind for my track "Closer," the idea of a recent unresolved heartbreak.
I get a sense of the places you were writing about when I listen to the album. The songs almost feel like little vignettes that make up a bigger picture. I read online that you’re a fan of the author Hanif Kureshi, which is weird, because the album reminds me a bit of his work, which is really spare and dedicated to the spaces between people.
I was always a fan of Hanif Kureshi, since I was at school. What I first liked about him was that he was writing about a multicultural Britain, so it was nice to see that perspective as a young child, to hear a different voice. It’s interesting that you picked up on that because I don’t see it, but then maybe you don’t see what other people see…it’s nice that you said that. I feel like i did something right.
Aw. I guess it was something in the fact that his work is so full of desire, and this album, to me, is the same.
This is a new territory for me, singing about desire. I alway resisted that kind of lyricism when iI first started. I always thought there was something kind of lazy about it. You’d turn on the radio and there’d be a song - someone singing ‘I love you, I love you’. Now I enter my mid-30's, I understand that kind of position. Love is so true of how we operate as human beings on this planet, and to dismiss that kind of questioning nature just seems a bit naive now.
I feel the same way. The more i progress with pop music in my life, the more I just want it to reflect that one core experience of being alive, whereas when I was younger I wanted it to be really clever and not mention the word ‘love’ at all.
I also read an interview that said that your time in New York radicalized you ‘as a black man,' which was really interesting.
It was kind of a shock to me, living in New York. Obviously I’ve experienced racism living in the UK—I don’t know any person of color who hasn’t. I think it was particularly something for me, seeing how it’s segregated. People of different ethnicities don’t hang out together, even if they’re sharing the same space. You go to a bar or club and it’s full of white people, or you go to another and it’s full of black people. This happens in the UK too but here I’ve always insulated myself from that experience. Being a stranger in New York and being on my own highlighted how there is a barrage…a wall of negativity…you have to deal with every day. When I was there I wasn’t interacting with people so much, I was writing a book and I was spending a lot of time by myself. I was curious about people. I didn’t tell anyone what i did, I was an observer. For the young black people that i met it was so constant.
A constant self-assertion?
Yes, it shocked me, and it made me sad. I knew that my time there was finite, and that at some point I’d go back to the UK, but lots of people I met weren’t going to be going anywhere. It takes it’s toll. It was hard to watch.
Have you done a lot of DJing in America, in the house scene over there?
I’ve done mainly after shows, rather than touring. I was there for two weeks over march and may. i was super nervous.
Did Azealia Banks ever write back to your open letter?
I don’t know if she wrote back, but I’m sure someone would have told me if she had it. I didn’t really address it to her, more to the rest of the world. I was a fan of the music, and, more importantly, of what she was all about. I don’t plan to write any more articles, but in that moment I felt it and I wanted to share it. I think she’s doing fine, she seems smart and she’s young, so I, like the rest of the world are eagerly anticipating.
You seem to be someone who is constantly seeking new experiences. Do you see this extending to other creative formats? Like you said you were writing a book.
I’m definitely not shy when it comes to approaching new things. I just started writing the first episode of this script, about a gay marriage, and I’ve just been asked by Sky to do some kind of writing for a new project, but I shouldn’t say too much. I’m definitely not frightened about trying other things. I’m a creative person, i get a buzz making things and using my mind. I don’t imagine that’s gonna stop.
Emma also makes music as Emmy The Great and she's on Twitter.