Ever since he first emerged in the early noughties as the lead singer of the British alt rock band Bloc Party, Kele Okereke has been a leading light in the British indie scene. With his open hearted and genre expanding approach to songwriting, Okereke is forever rattling the indie old guard who would prefer to keep the genre monocultural and narrow minded. Two decades on, and a successful move into the DJ arena and theatre later, Okereke is back with his fifth solo album, The Waves Pt. 1.
After joining Instagram to share covers and reworkings of old songs during the early stage of the pandemic, Okereke's new ideas for songs - unlike anything he’s ever written before - began to take shape. Written and recorded alone during the height of lockdown, The Waves pt. 1 is a lo-fi experimental beast that merges spoken word sections, found sounds, shimmering guitar riffs, and late-night strolls through the streets of London to evoke the solitude and uncertainty of the period it was created in.
As we celebrate Pride this month, Kele Okereke speaks to M Magazine about the cinematic soundtracks that inspired his new album, queer representation in the media, and the differences between the indie scene and the dance world.
'The only thing I've ever really done in my life is make music, so in a time of uncertainty I turned to the only thing that really gives me comfort, apart from my family and my friends.'
Congratulations on the new record. You recorded it during lockdown, what made you decide to start working on an album?
It wasn't really so premeditated. At the start of 2020, I was due to start working on a new musical and at the same time, we were speaking about making a Bloc Party record. My 2020 was going to be quite busy, but when the pandemic happened, that all got put on ice. I was just at home looking after my two kids, my 19-month-old and my four-year-old, this year and everything just kind of switched around. The only thing I've ever really done in my life is make music, so in a time of uncertainty I turned to the only thing that really gives me comfort, apart from my family and my friends.
The Waves Pt. 1 feels almost lo-fi in its sound on songs like How To Beat a Lie Detector. Was that sound intentional or the result of necessity because you were working on your own?
I've always personally preferred the lo-fi aesthetic. With The Waves, because of how the initial songs were created, there was a kind of scarceness of sound, it was just me and my amp. I wanted that nakedness to carry through into the music and lots of the music I was listening to at home was in a similar sort of vein. I was listening to quite a lot of classical music and ambient music.
Yes, it sounds quite introspective and there's almost a cinematic quality to it.
It's interesting that you say cinematic because I was listening to quite a lot of Ennio Morricone and just the power of small kind of musical movements. With what I do with my band with Bloc Party, we've always been kind of pushed into this dramatic, grandiose place with how we write and how our songs make people feel. It felt nice to kind of go the opposite way this time and go inwards and not try to fill all the space with emotion. Just being aware of the absence of things really.
I thought I'd like to try making an instrumental piece, and then I kind of got waylaid with songs. In my mind, I was scoring something potentially for film. Now that I've done this, it would be awesome to try something for the big screen, because it's just so powerful. The right image with the right music, it’s the most powerful thing ever.
I really loved the cover of Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat. What made you want to cover that song?
I actually covered it for my Instagram page, but I felt I don't think I've done this justice. It was in my mind when we were recording the songs for the album, and last minute I worked something out. It took on a different meaning for me because it was during the time of the lockdown, because in the song the character is trying to escape his situation. I think there's an element of that idea of escaping the period that we're in right now that resonated with me. I was nervous about covering it but I heard from Jimmy [Sommerville] that he liked it so that was good.
'I think for such a long time, the only depictions I saw of gay men in film and television always seemed to be kind of laced with tragedy.'
Will there be The Waves Pt. 2?
Yes, there is. I don't want to talk too much about it because it's still in the ether right now, I'm still pulling bits of it out. With The Waves, there was very much a sense of wanting to make music to calm me, to take you away somewhere gently. But part two is going to be the opposite. It’s about music to wake you up, to snap you out of it.
You wrote the music for Leave to Remain (2019), a musical that covered the topics of gay marriage and queer interracial relationships. Why did you want to tackle these subjects?
I wrote the music and Matt [Jones] wrote the dialogue, but I guess we had an initial idea together about two men who are about to get married, but one of them isn't quite so sure. We felt it was something that we understood. It wasn't like there was a decision to only in intentionally talk about queer relationships. It was something that is part of us, so of course it was going to be queer.
In terms of queer representation in the media it does feel like things are at least kind of starting to change. Does that give you hope for the future?
The one thing I remember talking about with Matt was that it was important for us to see two men in love and somebody not kind of dying of AIDS, or for it to not feel tragic. I think for such a long time, the only depictions I saw of gay men in film and television always seemed to be kind of laced with tragedy. Obviously, there's been a wave of brilliant queer television in the last few years. I'm all for more stories, more diverse depictions of the way people live.
It was amazing to see a multicultural group like Bloc Party in the early noughties but the environment you came up in is very different to that of today. Today it feels like there are a lot more Black indie artists. How does that feel for you to see the indie landscape now which seems more diverse?
I don’t know, there were always people of colour in indie bands. When I was growing up you had Skin from Skunk Anansie and Sonya from Echobelly. I think there always are going to be people of colour that want to make alternative music, like Jimmy Hendrix through to Willow Smith. I saw something of hers recently and apparently, there's this new scene of alt emo Black kids. That didn't really exist when I was younger.
It's more that the conversation around Black people who make alternative music seems to have changed from ‘why are you here’ to ‘you should be here’.
I don't know what they're asking Willow Smith in her interviews. I don't think I ever had anyone explicitly ask me, why are you here? I think it might have been in my head somewhat.
'I don't know if I was more embraced by the dance community because of [my identity], but it felt more familiar because there was a precedent of Black and queer artists in that world, so maybe I didn't seem so alien.'
I remember reading the music press back then and it was a weird relationship.
Maybe there was a racial subtext to things that I wasn't aware of. Probably less so at the NME, but in places like Q magazine, from what I've been told from our press people, it was like a boys club. There would have been people that would have had a problem with me because of who I was, what I looked like, but it was never said explicitly. It might have manifested in them not taking me seriously. I think an element of that still exists now, but at the same time, I don't think it's healthy to be thinking about how you're being perceived. The only thing that you should be thinking about is what you're making.
You previously wrote that you felt your experiences of being Black and gay in the dance world were easier than in the indie scene. Why do you think that is and is that still the case?
I don't know if I was more embraced by the dance community because of [my identity], but it felt more familiar because there was a precedent of Black and queer artists in that world, so maybe I didn't seem so alien.
The dance world seems a lot more expansive in terms genre and being able to explore.
I think indie music is still very much mired in this kind of history of the Beatles through to Oasis or the Arctic Monkeys. It's just four white guys, and that's what people that are into indie music want, hence the kind of lack of reaction to what's happened with Morrissey’s statements over the last few years. There have been artists coming out like Billy Bragg to condemn what he's saying but where has the reaction been from the rest of the community?
Is there any new Bloc Party material on the horizon?
We had been writing for about two years and finalised the tracks that we were going to record and then the lockdown happened so we had to put it on hold. I can't say too much, but yeah, we're working again, so there should be something soon.
Stream Kele's new album The Waves Pt. 1 on Spotify.