In the middle of 2009, mid-way through the biggest American tour of their career, Kele Okereke and his three Bloc Party alumni agreed that it was time to put a temporary full stop on band matters. A sabbatical was required. As of November, they would spend 12 months apart. It was a mutual decision. This was a major deal, over the course of three platinum records, with a transatlantic portfolio that was the envy of their peers and moving towards a sound that was assimilating the long-armed traditions of the four-piece British guitar band into shapes it had previously not imagined itself contorting into, Bloc Party were peaking. By way of an adieu, they signed off with the peculiar measure of releasing One More Chance, a piano house record that skipped boldly onto the centre of the dance-floor. In some ways, this should have been expected. Kele had previously guested on a Chemical Brothers track. Their first album Silent Alarm, a la Janet Jackson's Control, was commercially released in original and remixed formats. On their last full-length record Intimacy, the band had warped influences from bleeding edge American R&B, pounding techno motifs and soundsystem dub-plates into the confines of a festival-friendly UK rock act. 'We had gone pretty far,' muses Kele now. 'But for me, we had not gone far enough.'
Kele had intended to walk away from music for a year, to spend time catching up with himself. He began his sabbatical learning to kick-box, training hard at the gym and home-making the flat he had just bought, something he refers to as 'the first grown up thing I had ever done.' He simply could not leave his creative impulses alone, though. He booked time between these wholesome pursuits in the EMI recording studios at the bottom end of Tottenham Court Road. 'It was just me and an engineer. I plugged in synths that I had no idea what they would do. I began programming drum beats, which I had never done before. It was completely back to the drawing board. It was exciting and terrifying. In most cases I sat down, pulled a drum beat out of nowhere and arranged stuff around that. This was as exciting to me as the first time I picked up a guitar.'
He found the role of being primary, sole decision maker around his musical direction surprisingly to his taste. 'The key for the sound of the record was to take things to a really filthy place. To go as harsh and as physical as I could make it. The reason for going there was that these are the sounds that make me the happiest in the world.' He began working with discordancy, manipulating frequencies into states he had not heard before but made their own peculiarly spacial sense. By the time he had written the freeform, cascading, Josh Wink-ish techno meltdown that constituted the second half of the song Rise, he had an emotional blueprint for what would become his first solo record, The Boxer. With this, he could do anything and everything he had ever dreamt of, condensing his bold explorations and innovations with 21st century pop music.
He liked very much what he heard and an internal decision was made. 'Rise polarised everything. I genuinely believe that everything I had been doing in Bloc Party had been leading up to this moment. It felt like everything I had been attempting to do with music was just falling into place for the first time.' A solo record became an all-consuming priority.
Was Kele Okereke, a contrary figure by accident (the black, gay singer in a British indie band? Yeah, right) as well as design (he challenges himself on absolutely everything, from politics to religion to his choice of haircut: 'The corn rows are new. You see everything is starting again?'), about to make, gulp, a dance record? 'It was not as clear as that,' he voices aloud, 'I'm a bit weary of the term 'dance music' because it rather suggests something that can only be appreciated in clubs. The point of this record is that it is something to listen to at home. To completely fall in love with. To absolutely immerse yourself in. I prefer the term pop music.' So if there's a dance element, it's deep, too.
You don't really get shallow with Kele. But that is not to say you do not get fun. His understanding of what he could be as a pop star (solo! Unashamed!), melting the distinctions of dance music and cerebral pop came from two unusual touchstones. For the previous twelve months before crafting The Boxer began, he had committed to a monogamous love affair with the Gary Numan album, The Pleasure Principal. 'I connected to the idea of a star, an actual pop star that had discernible depth. I loved the way the sound worked. There was this sense of it being on the cusp between live instrumentation and electronics. Of two disciplines meeting and not really working while still inhabiting the same space.' The other was Adam Ant, whose 'ridicule is nothing to be scared of' line has long been a mantra rubbing the central cortex of Okereke's brain: 'As a second generation child of immigrant parents you see traditions that you're not really a part of and you want to understand the chemistry behind them. With me, it's always been about pushing down the walls of things that aren't supposed to belong to you. Growing up a black child in this country there were always perceived notions of what you can and can't achieve. You can only aspire to certain areas. With everything that I've done I've always wanted to stand against that and to show that everything is possible.'
If the reference points for pop stardom were strictly old school, the template for the music was shiny and brand new. After trying out several producers, including one major name American R&B hitmaker ('He sent me beats made directly for the radio and they bored me'), Kele found his natural ally in XXXchange, the sonic evangelist that crafted the sound in his Brooklyn bedroom of both the last Spank Rock and Kills records. 'Those records are diametrically apart and I loved the fact that he found the correct sound for both.' After fashioning a dozen tracks on his own in Central London, Kele decamped for two individual three week periods to New York to graft the final audacious touches to the brand new him. The New York periods were pivotal for Kele. 'I have to move there. I've been moaning about London too long now. I've found a place I love and I belong in. I just inhaled the city.' The NY connection is perhaps why in spirit, if not in sound, there is an emotional correlation between The Boxer and even older school block party hip hop (ironic? Oh yes).
The title of the record and its opening shot, the sexy call and response meter Walk Tall, sets up the stall for this cheeky, heartfelt, open record. 'It was about putting something out there that had a sense of defiance. Training to within an inch of his life, using his body as a powerful presentational tool, became key to all this. Walk Tall was its soundtrack. For first single, the dirty club joint Tenderoni ('it's about pashing on somebody that is maybe a little too young for you'), peppered with dirty bass squawls and a ridiculously propulsive beat. The rest of the record is just as bold. In On The Lam he has broken into two step garage, fashioning a record with sped up vocals that owe as much to Sweet Like Chocolate as they do Alphabet Street. He sets the lover's lament of The Other Side to a scintillating soundbed of samba house beats and driving piano. On Unholy Thoughts he tears religion apart with a coruscating line on guilt and a celestial choral breakdown into the closing cadences of All The Things I Could Never Say.
The album is marked by both its ambition and its sense of the new. It is a fearless work. 'In culture right now any period of music is ripe for the picking. It's all up for grabs. The effect that Youtube has on the consciousness of a new generation is incredible. In 20 years time, for kids that can't remember a time before Youtube and that speed of interfacing with every bit of cultural and musical heritage as a natural extension of themselves, well, can you imagine what art they are going to be making? The possibilities for future pop stardom are incredible.'
For Kele Okereke, one suspects they start right now