After their Intimacy release in 2008, Bloc Party was iced for indefinite hiatus. Far from stifled, the band’s lead vocalist, Kele Okereke, used professional alone time to focus on his other early passion: dance music. Following a solo LP in 2010, Bloc Party’s 2012 comeback, and two club-driven EPs in the last 12 months, Kele’s a long cry from retirement. He talks to ZOE KILBOURN about his second solo album, Trick, which drops on Monday, October 13.
Given the traditional house spirit behind his recent Candyflip and Heartbreaker EPs, you might see Trick as a Kele curveball. It’s very different to his recent DJ-oriented work, to Bloc Party’s 4, and to his solo debut, The Boxer.
“For me, I was just conscious of two things,” says Kele. “I wanted the record to have a sense of space. I wanted it to feel like it wasn’t crammed full of stuff, and I think that kind of musical direction came from the fact that I was DJing so much, and all the music I was hearing in clubs on loudspeakers is music that doesn’t have so many elements, where basically it’s stripped down to the essence of what really makes that song work. I wanted to carry that approach through to the production, so that there wasn’t so much stuff going on, and so that it had a more lean, more streamlined sort of feel. I guess that was something from the offset I did. I wanted it to feel like it wasn’t finished so much.
“I also I knew I wanted vocally to approach the music in a different way. I think I have quite an emotional sounding voice, and I think that’s what people in the past have really responded to, but I was conscious that I didn’t want it to sound so much the way I’d sounded in the past. Obviously, it’s my voice, and I’m always going to sound like me, but I was conscious on songs like Coasting and Closer and First Impressions that I should just take my voice to a different place. It was cool. I definitely gained a lot of confidence during the making of this record, and I was kind of interested to see where it takes me now in my next musical project.”
Some of that difference is down to instrumentation. “For this record, I bought an electric piano, a Wurlitzer,” he says. “I don’t really play the piano, but it was a way to get me into composing on a piano as opposed to guitar or something. That’s kind of how lots of the songs started – basic ideas I kind of worked out on a piano and then from there we kind of built – I did a little bit of programming to get the beats in place and then we filled everything in around them. It was kind of a laborious process, but that’s how everything started – with this electric piano. The chords at the start of First Impressions – that’s the sound of a Rhodes, with jazz overtones added to give it a richer feel – that was one of the first things I wrote without embellishing.
“In Coasting, I’m singing the whole track in falsetto, which is not something I usually do – it’s like the male head-voice. It’s got a very different sound. It’s kind of more gentle. I sang in falsetto on my reocrds in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever sung the whole track that way. It’s something more soul singers do. I guess it’s not something I’d do usually, but it’s all me, there’s no trickery.
“Although I’m very proud of The Boxer, I feel that, musically, I wanted to explore other kinds of territory,” he says. “The thing with The Boxer was that I spent a long time writing in the studio when I made it, so I think I got really excited about showcasing lots of different ideas. I think because of that the album wasn’t such a cohesive record. This time, I wanted to make something that worked in one listen, where everything goes well with everything else. And because I’ve been DJing so much, I felt that I kind of wanted to make something with a post-clubbing sort of feel. Not necessarily a rage feel, but more the early hours of the morning when everyone is a little more subdued and introspective.”
Featuring gentle synth patches, quiet glitch snares and full-track falsetto, Trick’s musical sparseness is neatly teamed with lyrics about intimacy, closeness, burgeoning relationships. Those overarching themes, though, may just be general Keleisms.
“If I’m honest, there wasn’t too much thought about the lyrical concerns before making the record – it just kind of happened organically,” says Kele. “Looking back, it does have a very cohesive framework. All the songs have lovers talk to lovers about initial attraction or, I don’t know, the fact that they’re falling away from each other. It’s all quite absorbing, it’s all about the need for human contact.”
Even Doubt, Trick’s cry-in-the-wilderness lead single, is about human relationships. “It’s definitely like a spiritual song framed in the body of a kind of love song. It’s someone telling their lover or God or whoever that it is the love of this person that sustains them. It still to me feels like a love song, even if it is to God or something.”
Kele’s focus on introspection extends to his general musical attitude. A regular columnist for Noisey, Kele recently wrote about his experiences in both indie and dance worlds in Thump, Vice’s dance equivalent. In his piece, On Being Black And Gay…, Kele describes the energy behind his DJing as ‘introspective as opposed to the extroverted spectacle of the rock show’. Given many DJs focus on reading and moving a crowd, that interpretation might seem counterintuitive.
“There’s obviously a big thing in dance music now where it’s really about the spectacle and the drop and making music that lots of people en masse can respond to, but that’s not really the fun of DJing,” Kele explains. “That’s not really how I like to do things. I really like the idea that everyone in the audience feels like they’re being singled out by the music, that it’s touching them in a personal way rather than a mass collective kind of rally feeling.
“When I’m DJing, I’m on stage completely on my own and I’m expressing something completely of my own choosing, of my own desire. I’m choosing the songs, I’m mixing them together, I’m creating an experience for other people. I know that people are into it, and other people are following me, but to me it’s quite a selfish form of expression. I don’t mean that in a bad way – I just mean that I’m completely concerned with expressing something I want to express, something I want to feel. I know that there are people out there watching and getting off on it and dancing – and that’s a total kick, watching people dancing to it – but to me, it feels like it’s quite a solitary experience.”