Kele Okerkeke is aware that he has a reputation for being miserable. He thinks people have got him all wrong, but he stopped trying to change their minds a long time ago. Instead, he seems to take a perverse pleasure in living up to his po-faced image.
“This is all getting a bit heavy,” he says with a wry laugh.
Indeed it is. The interview is only ten minutes old and already it’s covered xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, global warming, the failure of multiculturalism in Britain and the deplorable apathy most of the UK population display to all of the above.
The conversation jars – almost comically – with the surroundings. It’s a Friday afternoon in an East London bar filled with people gearing up for the weekend with a liquid lunch. The stereo plays ’80s pop songs. It’s loud enough so that you have to raise your voice to be heard. When volume suddenly drops, Kele winces at the awkward juxtaposition of subject matter and situation. What would the people in the neighbouring booth think! He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“We can’t all be Ricky from Kaiser Chiefs, can we.”
Apparently not. Kele looks more like a student than the face of a band that’s sold well over a million albums. The 25-year-old Bloc Party front man is wearing a T-shirt, hoodie and the duffed up look of someone nursing a hangover. He drinks mineral water and strokes his short, trademark dreads gingerly.
Today, Kele is on his own. A fortnight previously, while on tour in the US, Matt Tong (27, drums) suffered a collapsed lung. Too ill to fly, he’s still in New York. Gordon Moakes (30, bass) is spending some time with his wife. Russell Lissack (25, guitar) doesn’t do interviews.
It seems appropriate. Bloc Party’s new album, A Weekend In The City, is very much Kele’s record. He wrote all of the songs. He’s clearly very proud of it. The problem is that it’s an intense record, dealing with all the thorny subjects mentioned above, and many more besides. Talking about it necessarily involves getting “a bit heavy”. Kele has a stutter. When things get really heavy, it becomes more pronounced. He’s stuttering a lot.
“I promised myself that this record was going to be as ugly as it had to be,” explains Kele with a resigned shrug that seems to suggest that he’s given up hope of ever convincing anyone that he’s not a sour-puss. “I promised myself that I was going to be completely honest about how I was feeling as a 25-year old black person living in the UK. It’s painful in places, but I wanted it to be a document of where my head was at, not some rubbish abstract ineffectual art rock album that wouldn’t change anything. I wanted it to be real.”
None of which seems to have lessened A Weekend In The City’s appeal. Upon it’s release in February it reached Number 2 in the UK (their debut Silent Alarm got to Number 3). Perhaps more significantly, it went to Number 12 in the US (a ten-fold improvement on Number 114).
“This record is a bleak record,” says Kele, who seems as surprised as anyone at his band’s success. “It’s a questioning, angry record. There’s no getting away from that. I worry about things. I worry about the world. I worry about my life. I make music that reflects those neuroses. Britain right now is fucked up. Why aren’t more people addressing that? If we’re too serious for you, then don’t buy the record. We’re never going to be The Fratellis or The Kooks, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
With that he slumps back in to the banquette, a confrontational smile playing about his lips.
A few weeks later, Bloc Party are in Bournemouth. It’s 5.30pm and they’re soundchecking at The Old Firestation, a warm-up show ahead of the UK tour to promote A Weekend In The City. Outside, a gaggle of particularly enthusiastic fans are already queuing.
The band are in a good mood. After his recent health scare, Matt is back. As is his wont, he’s taken his T-shirt off to drum. Russell fires off wiry guitar riffs from behind his trademark fringe (the style is known as ‘a Bloc-head’ to fans.) Gordon mooches around stage right laying down rock solid basslines. They flash each other smiles as they rattle through the new songs. They’re having fun.
The soundcheck complete, they chat with the support act, Absentee. Front man Dan Michaelson gives Kele a homemade T-shirt. It’s a tribute to the late R’n’B singer Aaliyah. Kele sheepishly admits that he’s a big fan. “I’m going to wear that tonight,” he says. “Shame he missed the ‘h’ off the end.” He heads off upstairs to the Bloc Party dressing room, where they send out for a curry.
In the weeks since the meeting with Kele, Bloc Party have pulled off a much needed act of re-branding. Their debut album, Silent Alarm, defined the new wave of post-punk that exploded in 2005 in a spiky jumble of angular art rock guitar, muscular bass-lines and Gang Of Four influences. As exciting as it was, by the end of the year post punk was suffering from creative burn out. Bloc Party needed a new plan for the follow-up.
By the start of 2006, Kele had drafted Bloc Party’s post punk exit strategy. It was to be a concept album documenting a hedonistic weekend in the city – Kele’s native East London to be precise.
A Weekend In The City isn’t a total reinvention – it’s indentifiably the work of the same band – however, Bloc Party have developed and become more sophisticated. The searing heat of Helicopter has cooled to a more penetrating slow burn. There are more downtempo songs – Kreuzberg, Waiting For The 7.18 and Sunday. When they do hit the accelerator – Song For Clay (Disappear Here), Hunting For Witches – you get the sense they are in control of the furious energy, not simply hitching a ride on it. They were always the guitar band it was OK for dance fans to like, but there’s a newfound electronic edge to the percussion, particularly on first single The Prayer, Perhaps the biggest difference of all is Kele’s voice. He used to deliver every line with the same cadence –“You’re just as boring as everyone else” from Positive Tension is the archetypal example. Here he’s blossomed, if not into a front man with a huge range, then one with a range, at least. The sum of these new developments is the difference between the sudden shock of someone screaming in your face and the subtler, more long-lasting impact of seething, silent rage.
Powerful stuff, but it doesn’t seem to bear much relation to most people’s idea of a good weekend. “This record was written in the latter half of 2005 and the start of 2006 when I was going out all the time,” says Kele. Didn’t he have fun? “It didn’t provide me with any enjoyment at all.” Ah.
Really? None at all? On, which details a cocaine-fuelled night out, includes the lines “I am on/Switched on/A sudden clearness and clarity” and “You make my tongue loose/I am hopeful and stutter-free”.
“I never felt happy getting off my face,” responds Kele. “I’ve never felt it was a real experience. If anything, it’s about nullifying or blanking something out. I remember coming back from tour and feeling so disappointed with what life means to people. Working all week to get fucked and then do it all over again. It bothers me because it’s a con. It’s not a real experience. I wanted this record to portray that, this real sense of disgust at the modern experience.”
There you have the basis of Bloc Party’s miserablist reputation. Kele could undoubtedly do with lightening up a bit. But it’s important to remember who he is – the son of Nigerian immigrants.
“I’m a second generation black person,” he says. “I’m on the periphery of British society. Things that people take for granted, I’m excluded from, like walking down the street and feeling safe. As the child of immigrants, you notice how apparent race and discrimination are in society. After the 7 July bombings I was amazed at the tone of all the mainstream press. How they were whipping people up into this xenophobic frenzy towards Muslims. Race is only discussed when there’s a negative conotation. That’s what Hunting For Witches is about.”
Unsurprisingly – depressingly – Kele has first-hand experience of racism. His cousin, Christopher Alaneme, was murdered in a racist attack in April of last year. Alaneme’s funeral is mentioned in Where Is Home?.
Then there’s the everyday stuff. “I live, just off Hackney Road,” says Kele. “I have to walk past The British Lion, which is a National Front pub, everyday. When England were playing in the World Cup I was walking with my flatmate, who’s this Austrian girl, and someone thought she was my girlfriend and they started shouting abuse at her. That’s on my doorstep in so-called liberated East London. That’s the reality.”
An uncomfortable silence settles. The look on Kele’s face reads: Yeah, A Weekend In The Cit> is a pissed off record.
Wouldn’t you be?
In any other band, Kele would be the most difficult member to interview by some considerable margin. Not in Bloc Party. Guitarist Russell Lissack refuses to speak to journalists face-to-face and will only answer questions via e-mail.
“He’s just really shy,” explains Gordon. “When we first started, we’d do interviews and he’d just sit there. We’d try and bring him in, but he wouldn’t know what to say and it would be very awkward. In the end, when I used to pair off with him for interviews, I’d say, Go on, have the afternoon off.”
“The others don’t let me do interviews,” jokes Russell. “I think they’re afraid I’ll embarrass us by spilling the secrets on what really happens in the Bloc Party camp. Oh, the horror…”
Kele and Russell met as teenagers through mutual friends. According to Russell, at first they hated each other. However, they bonded over music, particularly ’90s American math rock pioneers Polvo.
They decided to form a band at the Reading Festival in 1999, after which they spent a year writing songs in their bedrooms. Then, in 2000, they recruited Gordon, a graphic desinger at the time, via an advert in the music press.
“When I joined, one of my favourite bands was Manic Street Preachers,” remembers Gordon. He cites the band’s 1994 album The Holy Bible as a big influence. “I’m just in awe that anyone can see quite so deeply into the human psyche,” he says. “When it came out I was 16 and it resonanted with me. It’s not a particularly well publicised thing, but I was a cutter.”
At this point, Gordon pulls the sleeve of his shirt up to reveal a forearm lightly corrugated from self-mutilation. It’s so shocking there isn’t anything to say. It’s hard evidence – one of the hardest forms of evidence you can think of – that Bloc Party’s existential angst is keenly felt. They are serious in every sense of the word.
Gordon says he self-harmed because he wasn’t happy at college; he felt like he didn’t fit in. It’s a sentiment all four members of the band echo. For Gordon, The Holy Bible articulated feelings he couldn’t.
“I was into songs that were about things and tackled issues,” he says. “I remember talking to Kele about it and he was very resistant to the idea. When I first met him, he just wanted to write love songs. I was a bit put off by that.” It seems Gordon managed to talk him round. Or maybe life tarnished Kele’s romantic idealism.
From 2000 to 2003, the band played gigs as Union and The Angel Range. During this time, they worked their way through eight drummers. It wasn’t until they met Matt Tong that the line-up was complete.
Matt’s memory of Kele is very different to Gordon’s. After gaining a degree in Philosophy & Sociology, he was studying music technology in London. He used to drink at the bar at the Curzon cinema in Soho, London, where Kele was an usher. “He asked me to join the band a few times,” says Matt. “I always turned him down. I had this annoying, blasé attitude towards everything back then. He seemed very serious about the whole process, which put me off. But he gave me the impression he really did give a toss, and eventually I found that really persuasive.”
In May 2004, Bloc Party released their first single, She’s Hearing Voices, a blistering slice of art rock. Around the same time they published a manifesto on their website. They described themselves as “an autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day”.
“I have to admit that it came from me,” says Gordon. “I designed the website. Instead of tour dates, it said ‘agenda’; instead of links, it said ‘comrades’. It was tongue-in-cheek. No one took it that seriously. It helped create an identity. I don’t think that hurt.”
It earnt Bloc Party a reputation for being pretentious, but they never wanted to be just you average rock star anyway.
“The phrase ‘rock star’ reeks of Towers Of London,” says Kele, who unlike most musicians is not afraid to name names. “You know, big hair and tight trousers. It’s been debased because of the ease with which the costume can be achieved. Anyone can walk into Topman and look like a rock star. It seems like a license for obnoxious behaviour. It’s just not interesting.”
Russell, architect of the band’s spiny guitar sound, finds Radiohead’s anti-hero stance far more appealing. He’s a huge fan of Johnny Greenwood, Radiohead’s guitarist, who he bears more than a passing resemblence to, both sonically and sartorially.
“He’s one of the only interesting guitarists of the last 20 years,” he says. “I hate bands that just emulate the same old sounds over and over – the same ideas, people in guitar shops still playing Led Zzzzzzeppelin solos. But Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler and Smashing Pumpkins were just as big an influence over the way I play. I’m happy to be compared to Johnny Greenwood. It’s a hell of a lot more flattering than being called ‘the new Noel Gallagher’.”
Matt picks up the thread. “Ten years after Britpop there’s another British music renaissance going on,” he says. “People are living vicariously through bands, just like they did in the ’90s. I don’t think people want to be challenged by bands at the moment. They want to be taken on a flight of fancy. That’s not what we’re about. A song like On is about the highs, but also the lows.”
Kele has just stuck two fingers down his throat and jack-knifed forward, letting out a huge, BLEURRGGGHHHH – the universally understood gesture for something so repellent it makes you physically sick. The question that prompted this violent response? It wasn’t so much a question as a fragment of one. It began, “In The Observer…” Then, BLEURRGGGHHHH. Is there something wrong? “No,” he says, disengenuously. “Carry on.”
The question was going to be: “In The Observer, you said that it was a sin to hide behind abstraction. Why?” Not a terribly provocative question, you’d have thought – a little boring even, the filler with which interviews are padded out. However, in the same article, Kele discussed sexuality openly and at length, something he’d never done before. He talked about being propositioned by “straight boys” and how it was taboo for straight men to admit to being attracted to their own sex. He explained that I Still Remember is “a gay love story”, but denied the lyrics detailing a schoolboy crush, including the lines, “We left our trousers by the canal”, were autobiographical.
It was quite a change from his previous point blank refusal to discuss sexuality at all. However, while he talked about issues affecting gay men, nowhere in the piece did he admit to being gay himself. That didn’t stop it from being presented as Kele coming out of the closet, something he is understandably upset about. It seems he’s in no mood to discuss it any further.
Actually, there isn’t very much to discuss. Yes, there are a number of gay references in A Weekend In The City, specifically the aforementioned I Still Remember and the line, “I’ve been waiting for you in The Joiners Arms,” in On (The Joiners Arms is a gay pub in East London known for after-hours parties). And yes, Kele seems interested in sexuality in broader terms than just boy-on-girl. In the past he’s invoked the names of well-known bisexuals such as David Bowie and Brian Molko. But so what.
The issue isn’t who Kele fancies, but why he goes into a tailspin every time the subject is mentioned. Fudging the issue doesn’t tally with someone who says that one of his band’s main aims is “to make people think differently.”
This is someone who talks bitterly about the apathy consuming young people in the UK, whose jaw tightens when he says that no one wants to talk about anything serious any more, who talks with disgust of people who only care about where the next party is or whether their dealer will deliver.
Yes, he has a right to privacy. But this is exactly the kind of knotty subject he claims he wants to discuss. It’s hard not to see the virtual pool of vomit slowly cooling on his dressing room floor as a bit of a cop out. But there it is, and so we skirt around the subject.
When Bloc Party take to the stage of The Old Firehouse, it is to a full house. People are literally hanging from the rafters. The band open with Positive Tension, She’s Hearing Voices and Banquet, a crowd-pleasing trio from Silent Alarm. The energy levels spike dangerously as the audience surges towards the stage. “You’re going to have to pace yourselves,” Gordon warns. New songs Hunting For Witches and The Prayer do little to calm things down. They’re already fan favourites.
The Kele on stage tonight couldn’t be more different to the self-conscious, recalcitrant individual who turns up for interviews. He beams between songs and flirts outrageously with the audience, looking up from under his brow in a way that – bizzarely – recalls Princess Diana’s famously coquettish interview with Martin Bashir.
Kele’s having a blast, but he already has his eye on the next record. The last song Bloc Party wrote for A Weekend In The City was The Prayer. It features fractured synthetic beats and is the most experimental thing they’ve ever done. He’s itching to explore the interface of guitars and electronics further.
“That song was a real turning point for me,” he says. “We couldn’t take it any further because there was no time. I’m aching to get back in to the studio and try and fuck some stuff up, try some less obvious arrangements, just try and play with the format a little. I’m super confident about album three.”
He talks fervently about The Smiths – he’s a recent convert – and especially Morrissey’s lyrics. His favourite song is Still Ill, from 1984’s Hatful Of Hollow; he loves the image of two people kissing beneath an iron gate. Who’s kissing who? Who knows.
“I want to make music that isn’t obvious, that isn’t just a three-minute guitar pop song that you’d hear on the radio,” he says. “Lyrically it’s the same thing. Recently I’ve become fascinated with conveying ideas in the simplest way possible. Something that the guy in the kebab shop would be able to understand. Something that everyone would be able to understand. That’s what I like about Morrissey’s lyrics. He uses very mundane language to conveys something that’s so complex. He managed to reach people with it.”
Most of all, Kele wants to challenge people.
“Our aim is to confound ideas about what a guitar band should look and sound like. There are no rules about that, or about anything else in the world. So many people behave and think in traditional way, not just about music, but everything. I want to challenge all of that.”
For once Kele sounds fired up. He should try it more often. It suits him.
Bloc Party’s new album, A Weekend In The City is out now.
Written for the spring 2007 edition of Dummy.