Some Sad Puff on an Acoustic Guitar: An Interview with Bloc Party's Kele Okereke
Kele Okereke: "When we started Bloc Party, it was going to be about energy. It wasn't going to be about some sad puff on an acoustic guitar. And ten years later, I have become that sad puff with the acoustic guitar, which seems kind of poetic to me for some reason."
It's Friday night, around 8:30 in South London.
A few years ago, Kele Okereke, best known for his work in Bloc Party, would have been laying the foundations to a typical Friday night. If he had to work, it most likely would have been spent either tuning his guitar for a 10 p.m. Bloc Party gig or getting something to eat in preparation for a late night of DJing or performing as a solo artist. But tonight, he's hunkered down with his daughter, Savannah, whose first tooth recently just came in.
Release Date: 6 Oct 2018
Such is life as a new parent in your 30s.
Okereke's latest album, Fatherland was written while he and his partner were awaiting the arrival of their daughter by way of a surrogate mother from the United States. It was recorded in Portland, Oregon with Bloc Party bassist Justin Harris producing.
The album is a major departure for Okereke. The dance-oriented grooves of his previous solo albums The Boxer and Trick have been replace by folk-leaning acoustic guitar, flutes, and horns. The dapper "Capers" has an old-timey feel to it.
Gauging by the album's title, listeners may anticipate Fatherland would focus primarily on a person dealing with the responsibilities of being a new dad. But most of the songs on the album deal with relationships and all of their mature messiness. You could think of the album as a sort of hybrid between Beck's Sea Change and Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love (though Okereke said he's never listened to much of Springsteen). There's an equal smattering of warmth and paranoia throughout Fatherland, which Okereke described as a transitional album to PopMatters via a phone interview.
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Album-wise, how would you describe Fatherland?
The intention was to make something that marked this moment in my life Something that had a sense of intimacy. I think that can be heard in the music. To me, it's a collection of really gentle songs. Songs like "Streets Been Talking", "Do U Right", and "Portrait" seem to be about saying "goodbye" to aspects of my life, or the person I was. That's what
Fatherland feels like to me, really. It feels like the ending of a chapter and the starting of a new chapter.
It's a noticeable departure from your previous solo albums.
When I started making Fatherland, the only thing I really knew was that I need to get out of the clubs. I needed to get away from the dance floor. I remember at the time, promoting Trick that I was starting to feel a little weary about constantly being up at three in the morning at clubs.
I never really composed music on an acoustic guitar. I always kind of avoided it. But I started to see that there was a power in that form of delivery. And I guess I wanted to explore it.
There's a lot of folk elements in it.
When Bloc Party first started in the UK, there were a lot of singer/songwriter acoustic bands that I absolutely hated, and I wanted nothing to do with [that]. When we started, it was going to be about energy. It wasn't going to be about some sad puff on an acoustic guitar. And ten years later, I have become that sad puff with the acoustic guitar, which seems kind of poetic to me for some reason.
How did becoming a father affect you as a songwriter?
Impending fatherhood was definitely in my thoughts in 2016. It was something that I've obviously been planning with my partner for a long time. For years in fact. I think that has manifested in the record, somehow.
I don't know if Fatherland is about the reality of being a dad because I recorded it before we even met our daughter. But I feel it's more about the sense of anticipation, knowing in a few months time, our lives are going to completely change. On a personal level, I needed to shape up in a way that I had never had to do before.
How is Savannah now?
She's doing fine. She's very happy. She likes to laugh, but she also likes to get in the way. She's very curious about things. Every day, I feel like I see something different in her. Yesterday, we saw her first tooth. I feel very lucky that I'm able to experience all of this with her and my partner. It's the best thing I ever did. I just hope I can be there, and be a constant for her.
There's a lot of uncertainty in the lyrics -- mainly about romantic partners.
I do feel that certainly with songs like "Do U Right" and "Portrait" -- those songs essentially deal with lovers in the past that might still have some kind of hold over me. Writing those songs was a way of trying to draw a line under that.
Another key thing that happened during the recording of Fatherland was you traveled to Nigeria to see your grandmother. How often did you travel to Nigeria growing up?
I've been to Nigeria about four times. The last time before last year was '93 or '92. It's kind of sad. My parents go frequently. They go every year, but for the last ten, 15 years, I've been traveling a lot. I haven't really had any spare time. The times they've gone back, I've been out on the road. So, that time in February was the first time that I had real time off. I knew that I had to go see my grandma. It was a lucky break in my schedule.
How was it like going back after not seeing Nigeria for so long?
It brought back a lot of memories. It's funny, because the last time I went, I was like 13 or something. Just driving along these dusty, red roads. The people and foods. It did feel quite familiar, which was slightly odd to me. I think I was there for only four or five days.
Are you planning on touring to promote Fatherland?
I'm doing some shows in the UK in October, which I am excited about because it will be great to share the music with people. But I'm kind of not excited about traveling, and being on the road for a few weeks because it's going to be the first real time that I've been away for a long time [from Savannah]. I don't really know how that's going to feel. I'm kind of tentative about touring because I'm quite enjoying this domestic bubble that I'm in right now.
You've said that Fatherland marked a transition in your life. Other artists have released albums that marked similar transitions. Were there any of those albums that you particularly gravitated to while recording Fatherland?
The album I'm enjoying quite a lot at the moment that I think definitely reflects a change in the artist and the singer's life is the latest Björk album ( Vulnicura). She obviously wrote about the breakup of her marriage. I've been listening to it quite incessantly. You can really hear the heartbreak in her, coming from her soul in that record.
Is the music path on <i>Fatherland</i> something that you see yourself exploring on future records?
If I'm honest, no. I feel like making this record, working with all of these amazing musicians to make the record was something that was fun, and it was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. But I don't imagine this is going to be the sound of future records to come.
There is a part of me that worries that people might think that this is what I'm going to be doing now forever. And that isn't the case. It couldn't be further from the truth. I feel like it was great fun making Fatherland, but there are other things I'd like to explore.
I'm already working on the follow-up to this album. I feel with what I'm doing right now, literally right now, it's a combination of everything I learned as an artist, as for as a songwriter, and as a musician. I definitely enjoyed making Fatherland, but that's not how I'm going to bow out.