Kele Okereke at Trinity
The Bloc Party man, solo artist, and DJ gave an interesting talk to The Phil today.
“We had no idea that the music would resonate with so many people. There was no game plan.” Thus began Kele Okereke’s talk at Trinity College hosted by The Phil this afternoon, as he became the society’s latest honorary patron.
Okereke has had a notoriously tricky relationship with the press in the past, that veered from him being introverted in interviews to making up lies out of boredom and then complaining about how the press misrepresents him elsewhere. But having interviewed the Bloc Party man twice myself, maybe three times (definitely once for the Sunday Tribune, once for Ceol ar an Imeall) the encounters were always utterly pleasant, leaving me wondering whether his grumpy reputation was in fact just another construct of the music media. He has certainly mellowed in recent years, expanding his creativity with an excellent solo album and a couple of interesting EPs, along with a burgeoning DJ career that has gone from ‘get the bloke from the band to play and charge everyone a tenner in’ to a more interesting articulation of his love of house music.
So here’s what he said today.
On the press
Okereke said he always treated dealing with the press as the flipside to the opportunities posed to be a musician. Aspects weren’t nice, he said, but the positives far out way occasional irritants.
He did admit to making up a story that Madonna once came to their dressing room to say hello, and because their manager didn’t know who she was ushered her away. They then got into an imaginary fight, with the manager putting her in a headlock. That one ended up in the National Enquirer, “which was always a goal of mine.”
On his Heartbreaker EP
A lad in the audience referenced his EP on Crosstown Rebels. House music didn’t feel like a dramatic transition, Okereke said. After making The Boxer and The Hunter, making a dancefloor-orientated project felt like a natural thing. “I’m willing to take as many risks and detours as I see fit,” he said, “I have a lot of interests outside being a singer in a band.”
On lyric writing
It was rightly pointed out that Okereke’s lyrics have been a stand-out element of his career, yet he was understated in his analysis of them. Lyric writing is about expressing how he’s feeling at the time, he said, “I don’t have any other pretensions.” He said writing is about trying to make sense of his life, make sense of what he’s feeling.
He felt frustrated that the album was described as ‘a break up record’, “I never said that.” Okereke seems not to respond well to being told what his music is about.
On writing a novel
Okereke is currently writing a novel. He decamped to New York for a year between 2010 and 2011 with the sole intention of writing, and started out writing short stories based on the experiences he was having in the city. He decided less than a year ago though, that those stories no longer reflect his live now, so with “a heavy heart” he has put them to one side, and is instead focussing on the novel. He has the idea, and knows where he wants it to go, and now it’s really about finding time to write it, “it needs to be cohesive and coherent.”
On getting ideas from going out dancing
That’s where a lot of his musical ideas come from, he said. “One of the saddest aspects of writing music as a job is… you’re trying to make out why you’re having an emotional reaction to it [as in music, when you listen to it], why does it work…” Going out dancing, music moves him in a different way. You get the feeling that’s when he switches off and just lets things flow.
On the success of Bloc Party
“We were definitely at the crest of a wave,” he said about the time when Bloc Party emerged, “not every band at the time had the level of success we achieved.” He struggled to mention other bands, but brought up The xx in a contemporary setting, “A band like The xx, they’re a British guitar band to a certain extent, with worldwide appeal. And what they do is quite good – that’s the key, isn’t it? Doing something that stands out.”
On listening to his music
He spoke about the period after making a record when you love it intensely, and then when you start to share it you see flaws in it. He said he can’t really listen to any of Bloc Party’s albums from start to finish without thinking how he would have done things differently. That’s understandable I suppose for any artist.
He mentions ‘Ion Square’ and ‘Real Talk’ as two songs he particularly likes. “There are times when you don’t feel as motivated… when that happens I tend to ditch it. You have to feel passionate about it.” If something isn’t moving the way he likes, then it doesn’t deserve to be put to tape. “One of the cool things is something you wrote two or three years ago completely resonates with your life now. It’s like you’re writing notes to yourself along your life.”
That said, he spent a lot of time working on ‘The Prayer’ with Jackknife Lee, one of the first tracks that didn’t emerge from the band as a unit jamming, but from Okereke and the producer pouring over it. He insinuates that all the band didn’t really get it initially, but he persevered with it, “Sometimes you can go around for weeks and weeks… to see what is there, what is supposed to be there.”
He mentions ‘Banquet’ as a track that took him by surprise in terms of the positive reaction to it, and that Bloc Party had the potential to go a different direction from the get go if they had released something other than that.
His favourite remix of a Bloc Party track is Mystery Jets’ remix of ‘Pioneers’, “They tapped into it… I like it went it feels like a ‘version two’.”
On their relationship with the label
There was never any pressure from their label, Wichita, for Bloc Party to move in a certain direction, he explained. When they were starting out, he said they had every label in London trying to sign them, but they went with Wichita because they liked the people and as music fans, they knew from the beginning they were in it for the long run, “You hear horror stories from bands about wrangles with labels,” he said, repeating the oft-heard story of Klaxons having their album sent back three times.
He hasn’t thought too much about working with other people at the moment, but he said, “I quite like the idea of working with someone like Trent Reznor,” saying that it would be interesting to work with someone from a different world.
On his own journalism
A member of the audience referenced the article Okereke wrote in the Guardian about Pope Francis. Okereke said that he’s coming to terms with the fact that the first part of Bloc Party’s career, their main access to their fans was through the music press, when you’d talk passionately for an hour and have your interview condensed into soundbites. Now with direct communication with people who are interested in what you have to say, the power of that is dawning on him, “I need to be able to trust myself, and say what I want to say.”
Someone asked whether he thought British society was less racist than it was when he was growing up, “From my own experience, I think it must be,” he said, “I think that these sort of things move in waves… on some level it must be, but at the same time there’s a kickback against the political correctness movement of the ’90s.” He said that, “it seems like there are lots more racist views going unchallenged in the mainstream,” citing a famous example: “Look at the John Terry incident… he went completely unpunished. People just shrugged and went ‘oh well’” as if that was to be expected from a footballer from a working class background. He said that he feels that in public, people might be cautious about expressing such views, but he doesn’t think the sentiment has gone away, “in 10 years time, in 20 years time, it has to be different. People will integrate.”
He also said, “I am a black man living in the western world. Every day I see examples of a certain type of inequality.” He mentioned a pub he was in on Sunday, and when he went to the bathroom there was an African guy as a toilet attendant, “It just seems like such an antiquated thing.” Well, he should bring that up with the Button Factory where he DJs tonight, who still have black toilet attendants last time I checked. Get real, please, Button Factory.
On his sexuality
Okereke came out some time ago. I remember reading a great interview with him in Butt magazine at the time. “Given what I do, the fact that I’m speaking directly to young people… people feel that there’s someone they can identify with,” he said, adding, “I think it’s good that we’re getting to see lots of representation.”
Okereke finished with, “I’m just a human being, still working out what it means to be a human being.”
Here’s the interview I did with Kele for last season’s Ceol ar an Imeall.