After years spent confounding expectations fronting Bloc Party, Kele Okereke has decided to once more switch gears. With a solo album already under his belt – 2010’s critically acclaimed The Boxer – and Bloc Party still on hiatus, Okereke has continued his love affair with house music. Zoning in on the dancier elements that bubbled away on that debut, the singer has followed up last year’s Heartbreaker EP with a classic house 2 tracker, again for Crosstown Rebels. Led by the sleazy bass jack of Candy Flip, it looks like Okereke’s house career has hit the floor running. We popped round Kele’s house to talk his relationship with dance, what’s going on with Bloc Party, and Indie monoculture…
R$N Dance music can be quite solitary to write, was it strange for you to put this EP together after years of working in a band?
It wasn’t so odd for me, given I’d made my solo work previously. This seemed like the next step – I had time and ideas. I made a collection of songs that became the Heartbreaker EP, and I didn’t have any label in mind, I just wanted to make music. Then I found out Crosstown were interested and that was a dream come true for me. They commissioned me to make more music, so that’ll be the next EP. It was about doing something I hadn’t done before.
R$N So does the EP for Crosstown indicate the kind of direction we can expect from you in the future?
I’m working on another EP at the moment that’s similar in tone. I guess its club music, it’s going to still be house music, but it’ll be a different flavour.
Did you write with any particular DJs in mind?
No, I mean I guess I was listening to Kompakt at the time, and I wanted to make something that felt subtle. House music’s become quite a dirty word right now, it’s everywhere - you hear it on the radio all the time, but that’s not really house music that resonates with me. As a term it’s going through a change in its meaning. When I was making the Heartbreaker EP I was just making something I’d want to dance to.
Is this love of house a new thing for you, or has it been there throughout your life?
It’s been there from the get go. When I met Russell, the guitar player in Bloc Party, I was in 6th form college and he’d dropped out of school to play guitar - that’s how I met him. Where I grew up in Ilford there weren’t so many kids that were into music at all, so you’d find yourself hanging out with ravers, and people who were into nu-metal, just people who were into alternative music. It was a very small scene but you were all together. So I ended up going to raves at the same time as I went to gigs – it wasn’t something separate in my mind. I’ve never seen the need to make boundaries, and it seems that boundaries make even less sense now that everyone listens to everything on their iPod at once anyway.
Do you remember any events you used to go to?
We went mainly to raves in the countryside, but we went to some clubs as well – we went to a club called Peach at the Camden Palace – which is now Koko. That was a real hard house night. I didn’t fully subscribe to it because I wasn’t into E’s or drug taking, and that was a big part of the scene. We also used to go to Bagleys, and as I grew up in Essex every other club was a 2 Step garage night. And I used to go to lots of gay clubs – Heaven was always free if you were under 19 and had your passport.
Talking of Russell, what’s the story with Bloc Party now?
Russell just had a baby so he’s going to be out of action for a while. After we finished making our third record, Initmacy, we had time out, and we didn’t know what was going to happen – if you’d asked me then if we were going to make a 4th record I would have said I don’t know. Now we’ve made that 4th record we’re in that same space again, we all need some time out to do our own things.
It seems to me that between the 3rd and 4th album that you started appearing in more of a dance-y space
Well kinda. The first time I started getting into the idea was when we made our second record, the first single from that, The Prayer, we made completely in the studio. It wasn’t something we’d done before, and I realised when we made that track that your only limited by your imagination when you make your music in the studio – it’s not about your ability as a musician – you can go as far or as high or as low as you like, and that was an exciting discovery for me as a song writer and a music maker.
Have you considered doing the thing of singing over your tracks when you DJ? Like Sonique used to do…
Hahaha I haven’t done it yet… I think it might confuse people, and I haven’t really been playing my tracks. I kinda don’t want it to be about my personality as a singer yet, it’s more about the music I like and the music I want to share. Since I’ve started putting music out people have stopped coming up to me and asking for Bloc Party tunes…
Is the dynamic between being on stage as the frontman of a band and as a DJ very different?
It’s different in some respects. The main difference for me is that when you’re playing live there is the time between the music that you perform – you build a crowd up, then it dissipates. Whereas with DJing its one continuous thing. Obviously there are peaks and troughs in that, and people might wander in or out throughout. But other than that, to me it’s not that different at all – you’re in a room or a field full of people and you’re the conduit for all this energy. Whether I’m singing with the band or DJing, there are moments when you feel that you’ve got every ones attention. It’s a very subtle, intangible thing, but you know they’re into it.
It seems to me that the indie scene Bloc Party inhabit is quite conservative in who can and can’t be seen as ‘indie’, and you stood out as one of the only black gay frontmen in it, whereas house music has its roots in the black and gay culture – does it feel different for you to have moved from one to the other?
Hmmmm. I guess so. In the beginning of Bloc Party’s career there was a lot of focus on things that weren’t to do with the music, but I don’t know if it would be different if I’d started off making dance music and then switched to indie rock, because I’ve had no experience of that. I guess there’s less curiousity aimed at DJs. I don’t really have much of a perception of how other people perceive me – I don’t really read reviews or interviews or anything –
Haha so I can write anything I like then-
Ha well, I might read this.. I think what your saying is, the world I lived in before was a very straight white world, and the world I’m working in now definitely isn’t as white, and it might not be as straight, and you’re asking if I feel any different.. ahhh… I mean, I don’t know, if I was to gauge my involvement in my music career with how I was presented in music magazines I think it would be very different to what I’ve experienced myself. My shows weren’t super white and straight. The people that were into Bloc Party weren’t really like the people that are into Kasabian. I preferred that, I never wanted to be part of that world. I hated that sort of thing, bands like Oasis, when I was younger, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. It’s difficult in one respect because everything you say or do is filtered through a music press that has its own bias’s, but I don’t engage with that anymore. All that matters is making sure that the people who listen to what I do, and care what I do, I do the best I can by.
I’ve always thought it was great making up your own choices about music, and not ruling out any genres. I remember going to Trash and hearing Madonna next to Joy Division next to Aphex Twin next to Destiny’s Child, and you got the feeling that something was really skewed, and that that stiff indie protectionist attitude had been thrown out the window
So do you think the house music was a logical progression for you?
I was speaking to Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip and he was telling me about how everyone in his band has other things, and then they come back and do Hot Chip, and that’s fine. There was a time when if you heard about an artist doing a solo project it meant the death knell for the band, but that attitude has changed now, people accept that musicians have other interests that they might want to explore, it’s not just that one narrative
And the process of recording and getting something out is so much easier now
Yes you’re right, it’s not so expensive to make records any more. Now that everyone has the software in their houses you don’t need big bucks to make a record. I’d like to carry on doing stuff that’s outside of people’s perception of me in a band. I like to be in that sink or swim position. I was always more excited about drawing a line in the sand and saying right we’ve done that, that’s something we can’t do again.