Kele Okereke is a musician who has no problems casting himself in a variety of roles. The one most folks are familiar with sees him fronting Bloc Party: one of the most enthralling rock outfits to slip out of Britain over the last decade or so. With Okereke at the helm, the band have crafted a variety of aesthetics over the years, with each musical personality revealing itself via Bloc Party's three full-length albums.
With the band on a much deserved hiatus, Okereke's newest part is that of the solo musician...and he's got the album to prove it. Released last month, The Boxer finds Kele pursuing an extravagant new sound; one that's the product of a new fascination with samplers, synthesizers, and a well to do studio environment. The result is a robust collection of songs that seem the perfect companion to late night forays into electronic/dance culture.
And yet, when he arrived at The Guest Apartment last month, he did so with nothing...save his vocal accompanist, Lucy. The synthesizer and amp that were reserved for the session were apparently lost in the endless traffic grid of New York, with little to no hope for an on time arrival. Yet Kele, adventurous as always, took to the roof of The Guest Apartment, sporting nothing but the spare acoustic guitar we leave kicking around in the event of such emergencies.
The result is a session that presents Kele in yet another new role; one I imagine most folks have never seen or heard. The crooner, the singer-songwriter, the guy with the guitar: this performance takes unlikely steps towards this terrain, and in doing so, sheds Kele in an earnest and endearing light, stripping two of The Boxer's cuts ("New Rules " and "Unholy Thoughts") down to their most skeletal parts and pieces. Cut with candid conversation about his work, our latest segment of The Guest Apartment showcases a familiar star in an surprising new way. Don't fight the urge to encounter The Boxer in this exciting, yet unlikely new ring of performance. - David Pitz
beautiful cityscape behind us, beautiful day. Well, not so beautiful, and music. music - Oh you know, I think it was just a year off Block Party, it wasn't a year off making music. We're all doing other things. I think we just needed a bit of space to do something else. Yeah, the title of the record is "The Boxer. " I like the title because it kind of suggests the sense of perseverance that you know, much like a boxer. You know, as a boxer has to keep going even though he's knocked down, even though he's in pain, he has to be focused on summoning the energy and the strength from somewhere within him to carry on. And I thought that was an inspiring image, you know, making this record did feel a little overwhelming at times. I was doing this all by myself for the first time. But I just kept going. I used to want to bend the world, but now I just get by. I shoot an arrow to the sun, or as far as it will go It's all right, I'm learning to be laid back about things. I'm learning to be laid back about certain things, I used to want to bend the world, but now I just get by. Shoot an arrow to the sun or as far as it will go. It's all right, there's nothing to prove anymore and nothing to lose. Burned away all my desire. The hunger's gone but it's, it's all right. I'm learning to be laid back about things. I'm learning to be laid back about certain things. about certain things, about certain things. - I didn't really have any agenda when I went into the studio to make this record, you know. I did it in the few days we had off in between touring in 2009 and it was, it was exciting for me was, it was gonna be a new way of working. I'd tell myself no guitars, just put some, you know, just program some bits and play some synthesizers and see where you end up, and that's kind of where it started. Anyway, it's not the sound of a band trying these things, it just sounded one person's imagination I guess, that's probably the difference. I've got no way of knowing what our music was sort of...what sort of reactions our music elicits, the music I make elicits in other people. I only know about what sort of reactions it provokes in me. And, yeah, I don't know, yeah, I guess it feels to me more euphoric records for those reasons, but it was a very, you know, it was a very rewarding process taking these records, and maybe my euphoria has more to do with achieving the task and the music. I don't know, it was just a new way of thinking about music for me because, you know, I think a lot of the music that we made in Block Party was kind of quite melancholic, and that was great. Now we're seeing such a lot of people but I didn't want to try, I didn't wanna do that the first time. I wanted to try something else. All right, this is called "Unholy Thoughts. " I met the devil last night at an after show but then he led me in a cab. No more coke heads, no more cocaine. You're getting sloppy, and someone has, someone has to say, here is bad, here is bad, here is bad, here is bad. I hear their thoughts now when they speak, I feel their eyes now catching my soul accusing me. We're only partners between the day, these thought they multiply and one by one become unholy. Here is bad, here is bad, here is bad, here is bad. The mind is powerful. The mind is powerful. But it will not work, I will not work, in reverse, in reverse, in reverse, in reverse. - We played an acoustic version of "New Rules," yeah, and an acoustic version of "Unholy Thoughts. " Both songs that appear on my record in a very different format. It was interesting playing them both... It was interesting playing them just with an acoustic guitar that was, I don't know, I haven't done that for any of the songs. It's the first time I've done that, so it was interesting hearing how they felt. Yeah, it will be interesting to see what it looks like or sounds like at least. I think actually "Yesterday's gone" is more of a stronger indication of, you know, that was more that set the blueprint. That was the first song that I wrote, I knew that by the end of it, it had something great about it, and something joyful, and that's what something I wanted to carry on through the record. I was surprised that it was a good as I wanted it to be. I'm just proud of it. I can't wait for people to hear it and for people to like, you know, immerse themselves in it, because I think it's very joyful and I hope that people get that. Hello, I'm Kele, and you're watching Baeble Music. music
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