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Sparring With The Boxer: Kele Okereke Interviewed
Ben Hewitt , June 15th, 2010 07:49

Ben Hewitt and Kele Okereke discuss his new solo album The Boxer, and don't discuss close-minded indie and Liam Gallagher

Kele Okereke doesn't seem comfortable today. He's not rude or impolite; we exchange pleasantries amicably enough, and he's happy to speak at length about his new solo album The Boxer. But there's an edge of suspicion just lurking underneath the surface, ready to snuffle out any question that he feels is inappropriate or may land him in hot water. Ask him about his sexuality, and you'll be met with short shrift; ask him about other artists who have tried, with unspectacular results, to make the crossover from indie-rock to dance music and you'll be rebutted with a swift "Next question, please". And ask him about Liam Gallagher... well, let's just say you'll regret it.

Mostly, though, we're here to talk about The Boxer, his first solo album made while Bloc Party are on indefinite hiatus. To all intents and purposes, it's the record Bloc Party should have made after Silent Alarm: dark and dangerous, taking the pulsating core of tracks such as 'She's Hearing Voices' and 'Luno' and twisting them through synthesisers. Forget the muddling and mithering that plagued their second LP A Weekend In The City - it's fierce, ferocious and focused, armed with killer dance-floor tracks such as 'Tenderoni' and 'Walk Tall' as well as slow-builders like 'Rise' and 'Other Side'. Regardless of the future of Bloc Party, another solo album is surely in the offing - not that Kele is giving much away on either topic...

Hi Kele. How's it all going so far?

Kele Okereke: So far it's all going really well.

Good. Are you excited about the release of the album? I guess it's getting to that nervous stage where you find out what everyone thinks about it...

KO: Yeah, I finished making the record before Christmas last year so I've been sitting on it for six months. I'm excited for people to hear it and what they make of it.

Well, I guess the most obvious place to start is how much of a departure it is - how it's more dance-orientated and...

KO: Have you had a chance to listen to the record?

I have, yeah.

KO: Good.

And it obviously sounds different; and in the opening track, ‘Walk Tall', you seem to allude to that with the lines "Cut your ties to the past/ And wave it goodbye". So would you say it's a departure?

KO: Er... yeah, I guess. I kind of feel musically this record is... I wouldn't have been able to make this record if I hadn't made Intimacy. I think a lot of the techniques that we used making that record were things that I carried on making the next record. I don't think it's a complete departure. I think anyone that's been paying attention will see where it's come from.

Yeah, I think that dance element has always been present in Bloc Party.

KO: Yeah.

But with The Boxer, was there a conscious decision to take it further?

KO: There wasn't really much of a game plan at all. The only thing I was really adamant was about was to not start in the same place. I didn't want to start writing songs on the guitar. I wasn't into the idea of starting a bunch of songs on the guitar. I wanted to challenge myself, and with new ways of working comes new ways of thinking about music.

How did you find working on your own?

KO: I really enjoyed it. But then, there was also a producer there that helped me focus my ideas; that helped me reorganise things. It wasn't entirely by myself. Making music isn't about doing it all my way, it's about working with people you trust and something great happening. I had someone to bounce ideas off.

But in terms of coming up with those original ideas, were you able to pursue things you might not have been able to in Bloc Party?

KO: I don't know. Yeah... possibly. But I never felt frustrated in Bloc Party. If anything it was the opposite - the others always let me explore everything I wanted to explore. I can't stress this enough: this record didn't come out of feeling frustrated with being in Bloc Party. It came out of us saying we were going to take some time off and I wanted to carry on being creative. It was just a challenge for me, and that's where the genesis started, in trying something different. There was no game plan.

I've never gone into a studio myself to make music. Usually in Bloc Party the drummer was responsible for the rhythms ideas, the guitarist - Russell - was responsible for the melodic ideas. I'd never made a record entirely by myself. And I wanted to try.

Yeah, I read this was the first time you'd tried using things like drum machines on your own.

KO: Yeah, it was the first time I'd used Logic myself. We'd used drum machines in Bloc party, but it was the first time I'd done it.

Did you have any difficulties or teething problems with that kind of stuff?

KO: Well, there was an engineer on hand. I found it liberating - I had another session yesterday with the same engineer - just to keep my hand it. And it's a great feeling to be able to go in with no idea about what you're going to be doing and pull a song out of the air. It's really the best feeling and the reason I do this. I like making music. Touring and performing is fun and it's great, but it's the pulling something out of thin air that I find exciting.

We were talking earlier about the record maybe moving further into dance territory. What's the reaction from dance press and DJs been like?

KO: I've been getting a lot of offers from people who work on music who want me to sing on their tracks, which is nice, but to be honest right now I'm more excited about the idea... now that I'm by myself and enjoying it, I'm kind of excited to see where it's gonna go. So I'm not really thinking about collaborating right now, because I've got more ideas that I want to bring to fruition.

Cool. One of the things I did want to ask you was whether you'd found there'd been any suspicion or mistrust about crossing over from indie to dance, because there's been some which have been a bit lacklustre in the last couple of years...

KO: Next question, please.

Next question? Alright. Was one of the reasons you wanted to make a more dance orientated record because of a distaste with the indie scene?

KO: I still listen to the indie records that I liked when I was a kid. I still feel that, you know, going and seeing a rock band - when they're good - is a very powerful thing. It's not like I'm not into indie music, there are just less things I find exciting. [But] There are still things that I find exciting. What was the question?

Sorry, it was whether you felt a distaste for that scene - not so much in the music, perhaps, but the culture or attitude.

KO: Well, I've never been a big fan of the elitism that surrounds the indie scene. I always hated those kids at school that wouldn't listen to something because everyone else said it was good.

Or the people who listen to something until it becomes popular.

KO: Yeah. Because I think ultimately the power of music is great, and it seemed for those sorts of people it was more dictated by the idea of it concerning intellectual pretensions, and it wasn't about the music at all. I noticed that very early on, so I always had a bit of suspicion about that world. But then, I feel most importantly it's about the quality of music. I haven't been hearing much indie music that I've been excited by - but that's not to say that I won't.

I mean, one of the other things with indie is that it can seem quite close-minded. And as someone who has spoken more openly about your lifestyle recently, and with a lot of indie bands being typically straight and white...

KO: OK, next question.

Right. Well, one of the things I wanted to ask you about was lyrics, and the personal aspect to them, because both Intimacy and The Boxer seem to be very personal records.

KO: I don't know. In terms of lyrics, I try not to think too rationally about it. I try to write from a place where I just feel some emotion and I think so long as you have that, then what comes will be valid. You have to write from a place that is real. I guess with The Boxer there's been a focus with what's been going on in my life, and I feel with the last record there might have been a focus on more personal affairs, but that's because I've been going through situations that have been quite monumental for me. And writing is a form of therapy. You write to make sense - well, I write to make sense - of the emotions you're going through.

So it's cathartic?

KO: Yeah. And the next record will probably have a different slant as well, but as long as it's come from an honest place, that's what's important.

I think that's one of the reasons why Bloc Party were so popular, and remain so popular - because there's that personal strain people can identify with. But does it make you uncomfortable when people will try and scour those lyrics for autobiographical detail?

KO: No, not really. It's like... my job as a songwriter and as a musician is to just be present and commit honestly to what I'm writing. Once the record is done and it's out there, it's not my responsibility anymore. It's what people bring to it. And I realised that really early on. I don't read reviews, I don't read interviews. I look at the pictures sometimes, but I don't really care about what people bring to the records. I don't really care how they read things, because it's not my responsibility anymore.

OK. I wanted to ask you a more general question, about intelligence in music, because I remember when Bloc Party were starting out, Liam Gallagher said you looked like a bunch of university students. And that always seemed strange to me - that that should be an insult, and that intelligence in music is something to scorn or be suspicious of. Is that something you're happy to talk about?

KO: Well, I would if you hadn't have paraphrased it by talking about Liam Gallagher.

Sorry.

KO: It's fine. But I can't really answer that now, I'm sorry. It's a shame.

Well, I can rephrase it if you want?

KO: No, because you've said it. And I don't really want to bring that up. And you've said it - if you hadn't said it and you'd put it in the piece, it would have been... I don't know. Next question.

OK, we'll move on then.

KO: It's a shame, because it was a good question, and I'd have liked to have answered it.

Yeah, I was just trying to put it in context.

KO: Yeah, but I don't want to keep getting asked questions about other people.

Sure. OK. Shall we move on...

KO: And you've said it, so I can't answer that question now. Which is a shame, because I would have liked to, so carry on.

Of course... I mean, obviously I completely respect what you're saying, but I'm really happy to just rephrase it.

KO: Yeah, you can, but you've said it. So it would be one thing if you hadn't said it and then put it into the question, but you said it, so I don't know until I see the interview whether you will or won't do that. And this is an interview, so carry on.

OK then. This is another broader question. I know you've spoken before about not feeling particularly happy living in England, and on Question Time last night, there was a section about the English flag, and whether people should be proud to fly it outside their house etc - especially with the World Cup coming up - or whether it still has those extremist connotations. What's your view on that? Do you still feel that way about living in England?

KO: I don't know. Hmmmm. To be honest, I don't want to get into this, because it's like football season and there are flags everywhere. I'd rather just talk about the record. I think it's a very interesting question, and obviously I have my views about it, but I'd rather just talk about this record. Because I'm going to upset some people if I'm honest.

Right. Are you going to do another solo record, or does that depend on the success of this one, or what happens with Bloc Party?

KO: Well, I've already started writing the second one. I think there will definitely be another record at some point. I have no idea what's going to happen after this year. This conversation will be have to had between the four of us - I can't really say anymore than that.

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