The Afterparty: An Interview with Bloc Party's Kele
Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke talks his new solo album, Trick, and explains how the album pushed him to make music in an entirely fresh way.
Solo albums from the mouthpieces of beloved rock bands should typically come wrapped in police caution tape, best handled with thick gloves and stored at a distance from children and the elderly. The self-indulgence on these records, untethered from collaborators' push-pull, can reach toxic levels, a breeding ground for half-baked genre experiments and ego-stroking creative clutter.
Kele Okereke, leader of one of the decade's finest guitar bands, Bloc Party, is here to change the pattern with his second solo effort, Trick. A richly textured, subtly adventurous album, Trick sees Kele embracing the predilection for electronic music strongly displayed on Bloc Party's Intimacy and in pockets of his band's other material -- and doing so without ever seeming like merely a dabbler. Trick has Kele writing with a curator's eye, drawing from decades of electronic and club music to make a pop-friendly record with serious depth and real feeling.
It's not his first go-round as the only dude onstage. In 2010, he released The Boxer, a club-friendly, high-energy album that prioritized movement and release above all. But with Trick, Kele says, there's a "definite shift between the two records." Calling the new album "more delicate and spacious," he goes on to explain: "The Boxer was the first time I'd ever made a record by myself, and I was so excited about every idea -- I think the result was a record that's euphoric and very hands-in-the-air, but I didn't want to do that for this record. There are other ways to be effective, without going for that euphoric feel."
And Trick is a more emotionally dynamic album, with euphoric moments, yes, like opener "First Impressions" with its silky melodies, but finding space for stretches of downcast contrast in "Stay the Night" or "Closer". That more nuanced sound, Kele says, came from his time spent afterhours in clubs. "I'd been DJing so much in the last two years," he explains, "and just being in those spaces at three, four, five in the morning, and seeing how the music you're playing is so deeply connected to how people are feeling -- that's why sonically the record has a more post-club feel. It made sense to me. Although it's not club music, per se, it has some of the textures of dance music."
The impulse to craft a new sound in his solo material came from an understandable desire for new sounds, literally. "I started making the album in 2012 while still touring with Bloc Party for Four," he says, "and having space to work on something so different to what I was doing everyday was a nice kind of counterbalance to me, sonically the opposite of what I was doing at the time."
The relief Kele felt in the new material's freshness made it easier to write music in such a different vein. "It's not hard to reorient myself while touring," he explains. "It's just how I prefer to work. You know, you're excited about making a record, you love it so intently, but then you go on the road and you're playing that record for a year, so it's good to have a place for creativity while I'm touring."
Off the road, Kele wrote most of the songs at home on an electric piano: "I bought a Wurlitzer last year. I don't really play the piano, so it was kind of an incentive to have it in my living room all that time. I went into the studio to lay down the basic rudiments on Logic and to bounce files around, doing basic arranging and programming." He had help from engineer Alex Brady Epton, or XXXChange, who'd worked on The Boxer, but he was looking for a different role in his own writing process, wanting to free himself to focus more on the songwriting itself than the production of the record. That focus included exploring different vocal techniques.
"Making this record gave me more confidence to sing in a lower register," he says. "With Bloc Party's music being so high energy and high strung, my vocals reflected that, so singing in a lower register or a gentler, more masculine tone was something I'd not really done so much." Those deeper tones, combined with the falsetto prevalent on much of Trick, left Kele excited about the potential new ground in his songwriting. "I'm keen to apply it to Bloc Party," he says, "to make a record that has a different tone."
And since Bloc Party occupies such a huge place in the indie rock landscape of the last ten years or so, Kele's fresh forays may have initially met with ambivalence from longtime fans. "Of course there's going to be a moment of resistance," he says. "Every time I've ever released a record it's met with some kind of resistance, in that people were expecting it to be something else. With A Weekend in the City, people were like, what the fuck?" He laughs. "'This isn't like Silent Alarm.' And when we made Silent Alarm it was, 'What the fuck? This isn't 'Banquet.'"
He's able to laugh off those reactions, believing as he does in his new material. "I've never been concerned with other people's reactions," he says. "I do this because I have a need to do this, and if nobody liked the music I made or if nobody was talking about it, I'd still feel the same way. I'm just lucky people do want to hear it, and I can make a living with it. But if not, I'd still do it all the same."