Interviews

The Open-Hearted Evolution of Kele Okereke

If Bloc Party's 'Silent Alarm' soundtracked the house party, his latest solo album 'Fatherland' soundtracks the dinner party ten years later.

by Daisy Jones
06 October 2017, 1:00pm

All images courtesy of PR

I'm standing awkwardly outside a huge Victorian house in southwest London, and there's a woman with her face pressed up against the door, eyeing me through the glass. "Who are you?" she asks, her voice travelling through the letterbox as I shift my feet from side to side. "Um, I'm here to interview Kele? Kele Okereke?" I offer, my voice coming out weirdly higher and more cockney than usual, as if I have now been replaced by the Artful Dodger. "No. No. He's not here." She replies, before I hear her feet padding away from the door and into the distance. I hover there for a few more moments in silence, blinking in the drizzly air.

The wary woman, it turns out, is Kele Okereke's mum, and when I eventually get into the house after a few confused phone calls, she greets me with a huge smile. "I didn't know who you were!" she says, laughing, as a big drooly French bulldog who I will later learn is called Olive proceeds to affectionately headbutt my ankles. Kele, a man so tall I have to crane my neck to catch his eye, ushers Olive away and shakes my hand. "Shall we sit in the garden?" he asks, and I follow him through the house, which is all floorboards and high ceilings and freshly painted walls (he's only just moved in with his partner and one-year-old daughter Savannah), to some wooden chairs outside, where we sit in the early autumn breeze.

I am a little nervous to interview Kele for two reasons. First, because I completely rinsed his debut album Silent Alarm and its follow-up A Weekend in the City as a young teen, so it feels weird to now be in his home, meeting his mother, using his toilet, etc. And second, because over the years he's gained a reputation for being kind of "difficult" in interviews. And though I suspect this is more hearsay than fact, I decide to break the ice by mentioning it anyway, asking him whether he finds the whole set-up uncomfortable. "I think that's a very weird thing to say," he replies slowly, his voice deep and softly spoken. "It immediately makes the interviewee put his back up and think 'is this going to be a fight? Or is this going to be a conversation?' It's not my favourite question." This, I realise, is probably where he gets that reputation; Kele isn't at all rude or cagey, but he is direct, and speaking to him can sometimes feel as if every claim you make needs to be sufficiently backed up – which is fair enough, I think.

Like a lot of artists, Kele is best known for the music he made at the beginning of his career. As part of Bloc Party, he put a voice to that frenetic, buzzy feeling you get when you're young, broke and living in a city like London. Their first two albums, released in 2005 and 2007, sound like uneasy night-bus comedowns and minimum wage jobs, like late nights and mouldy flats, like those chaotic years in your twenties when all you think about is who you're shagging and how you're going to make rent that month. And while later albums Intimacy, Four and Hymns don't shy away from those themes or flourishes, they somehow don't capture that same restlessness, that same headrush-y hybrid of bleakness and euphoria that those first two manage so effortlessly.

That said, early Bloc Party tracks are more than just raw energy and catchy riffs. They also articulate a kind of tenderness and intimacy that is difficult to achieve without descending into cliche or hyperbole. Not just with their words (though simple lines like "I'll love you in the morning when you're still hungover" still prick like a pin), but in their melodies too. I remember hearing "Two More Years" for the first time, and being floored by how the actual notes alone evoke the unique pain of personal desire in such an affecting way. Or how "Positive Tension", a song that might sound like abrasive post punk to a passing listener, has some of the most tender, romantic chords buried between its spiky verses. Or how "Sunday", which opens with a bunch of pummelling drums, descends into a kind of hazy-eyed softness, like waking up next to somebody you really like, even though you've got a dry mouth that tastes like old rollies and a banging headache.

But it's been over ten years since those albums, and Kele doesn't like to dwell on them. "All my albums feel slightly uncomfortable to listen to," he explains, shifting in his seat slightly when I bring them up. "It's nice on one hand, because you're immediately transported back to where you were when you made the album; the conversations you were having with people, the clubs that you were going to, the music you were listening to, it all comes back. But at the same time, you hear the things you'd like to do differently if you had the time. There are lots of things from all of our records that I'd like to change. But that's just part of the creative process, I guess. Luckily, I don't really have to listen to any of our records. Maybe when I'm old, I can look back and listen to the journey from start to finish; that might be nice for me, but maybe not for anyone else."

Of course, the main reason I'm here is to chat about Kele's latest album, Fatherland, which sounds nothing like any Bloc Party material, and definitely not like either of his house-influenced solo records, The Boxer and Trick. Instead, it's a collection of almost poppy, acoustic ballads that fizzle with optimism and warmth. Like, if Kele's earlier work was pinger-fuelled chats with your crush behind the sofa at someone's after-club party at 4AM, Fatherland is the morning after the morning after, when you feel clear-headed again and can barely remember what was said, and want to go for a swim, actually. "Yeah, I never thought I'd make an album like Fatherland," Kele admits when I mention how different, how upbeat and organic, it sounds. "If you'd told me that I'd make an acoustic album like this when I was 20, I'd have told you that you're insane. But in 2016, when I made the record, it felt like the right thing to do. If anything, I'd have thought that if anyone has been paying attention, I'd expect that the next thing that I do is going to be the opposite of this."

Perhaps, I suggest, Fatherland sounds more optimistic than anything Kele has done because he is more satisfied than ever before. He is no longer that angst-ridden twentysomething trying to make ends meet in east London, staying out late and taking drugs, jumping between toxic relationships. He is 35 now and settled with his partner and daughter in a house that has bay windows and framed art. Does he consider himself happier? "Yeah, I definitely do," he nods. "I think that's partially through age and being at a different point in my life. When we started, we worked really hard nonstop without taking a breath, and now in my life, I'm able to take a breath and enjoy life because it is enjoyable. It's great that I can be creative and share that with people and make a living from it. I'm hoping that in my forties I'll feel even more grounded than I do now."

As it happens, Fatherland wasn't even supposed to be an album. It wasn't even supposed to be heard by anybody other than his daughter. "I wanted to make a set of lullabies for Savannah, but then it mutated and became an album," Kele explains. This makes sense when you hear a song like "Savannah", which has the kind of acoustic guitar plucks and steady rhythms of what you'd listen to when winding down. "If there's one lesson this life has taught me, open your heart be kind," he sings, his deeply soothing voice miles away from the punchy, Robert Smith-style echoes of previous work. In "Royals Reign", the song that closes the album, his voice floats over nothing but a classic, lighter-raising piano, before bursting into a layered gospel refrain that feels ready to be lifted into a Sunday church service. "You've lost your leading man / all eras come to end" he sings. It sounds kind of like Elton John.

"I feel like when we started, there was so much emphasis on this cathartic expulsion of energy and frenetic intensity – especially in the live arena – and it was great and people liked it and we enjoyed playing it in that way," Kele says, of how his sound has mutated over time. "But there comes a point in any creative person's life when they realise that there are other things they can do that comes instinctively, and by travelling the world and meeting lots of people and being exposed to different types of music, you start to realise that there is more than one way of doing things."

For somebody who has built a career around the idea that there are isn't just one way to do something – that styles are there to be played with and reinvented – Kele chooses to be surprisingly rigid in his everyday life. Each morning, he tells me, he eats the same thing for breakfast, which admittedly sounds delicious: a handful of blueberries, four brazil nuts, an apple (preferably a Pink Lady), then muesli with yoghurt followed by a bagel with butter and then a protein shake. "My partner thinks I'm insane," he tells me, laughing softly. "I'm a very meticulous person. I might give the impression of being spontaneous, but with everything I do, there's been a lot of planning, a lot of deliberating beforehand, to make sure that I'm getting the best out of it… I tend to have a clear view of where things are going, in a lot of aspects in my life."

So where are things going? Or perhaps, more aptly, where are things for Kele right now? Because music in the UK has evolved massively since the indie years from which Bloc Party emerged, kicking and screaming about banquets and helicopters. Young people are more into pop and grime and rap these days, three genres that arguably speak to the times more accurately and excitedly than dudes with loud guitars. But the Kele of today doesn't really fit into any of those aforementioned labels. Then again, he's not really making music for kids anymore. He has changed and grown up, and perhaps so has his audience. If Silent Alarm soundtracked the house party, Fatherland soundtracks the dinner party ten years later. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Not everything has to contain a sense of urgency and chaos.

As our conversation comes to an end, I'm not entirely sure what I've learnt about Kele Okereke beyond his music and work ethic. I get the impression that he is a person with razor-sharp perception – an ability that can occasionally spill over into defensiveness or irritation once he detects an ulterior motive lingering behind someone's words. But that's just from our one brief interaction, which I ended up really enjoying. On my way out of the house, I give Olive one last cuddle and wave goodbye to his mum, leaving their haven of calm for the bustling streets of London outside.

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