For his first solo album, Bloc Party front man Kele Okereke has teamed with producer XXXchange (Spank Rock) to craft a set of beat-driven electro-rock rave jams. "The key for the sound of the record was to take things as harsh and physical as I could make them," the British singer says. Yes, the get-in-the-ring cover art for The Boxer and the new video for its first single, "Tenderoni" (which calls to mind a kickboxing class hosted by Daft Punk), are pretty butch. But it seems Okereke is actually just punching through his emotions to reveal shades of vulnerability and advocate personal empowerment. Turns out the dude has a tender side. Out sat down with Okereke -- whose solo stage name is simply Kele -- to talk about how his sexuality influences his songwriting, how he really feels about boxing, and just what the hell "Tenderoni" means anyway.
Out: Let's start with the requisite question: Why a solo album and why now?
Kele: The reason I'm putting out a solo record is that all the others in the band wanted to stop and have babies, and I didn't really want to do that. I'm gonna wait until I'm 35 before I start to think about having babies. And I'm only 28, so...
I'm noticing a different sound than what you've worked with on the Bloc Party records. What do you think being a solo artist has allowed you to do that you couldn't or wouldn't do with Bloc Party?
It was never a case of feeling I couldn't do anything with Bloc Party at all. I feel that they were always very encouraging of letting me do what I wanted to do. There was no frustration about musical direction, it was more just that they wanted to take some time out, and I didn't really want to. I wanted to carry on working. So that's really where this record came from. And I guess it's more of an electronic record, but that was because I didn't really want to repeat where I'd been before. It could have easily have been just a record of me and a piano and a double-bass player, or something. It was just about not repeating myself.
Talk about how you chose your collaborators for The Boxer and how you all worked together.
On the record, in terms of collaboration, there's only really two singers -- two amazing singers, two girl singers from London -- Jodie Scantlebury and Bobbie Gordon. They were introduced to me by my friend Dan who plays guitar for a band called the Noisettes because they're the Noisettes' backing singers. And they did some amazing work on the record for me. But apart from that, it's mainly just me and the producer, Alex XXXchange. He played some synths on the record and did some percussion. It was just the two of us.
The title, The Boxer, is curious.
Is it self-referential? Was there some kind of personal battle that you were coping with that set the tone for the record?
The title The Boxer, that was kind of misleading because I'm not really so much into the idea of boxing as a sport, I think it's kind of gross. I'm not really into watching people fight for sport. But I do like the idea that, as a boxer, you have to rely on nobody else but yourself to find the energy and the fight and the gumption to carry on going. I thought that was quite an inspiring image, that even though you're being hit and you're being knocked down, you have to keep going. And maybe making this record felt a little bit like that? I didn't really know exactly what I was going to be doing. I'd never done anything like this on this scale by myself. And there were times that it was overwhelming, but I did keep going -- I had to keep going. Making this record is the thing I'm proudest of -- the achievement I'm proudest of -- in my life, for sure.
"Tenderoni" is the first single. The title is interesting and kind of humorous, but it seems that the message is pretty serious. Tell me a little bit about the story behind "Tenderoni."
The story behind "Tenderoni" -- behind the music of that song -- was that it was one of the first songs that I wrote in the summer of 2009. You know, Alex and I worked on it together. I wasn't really feeling it, to be honest, but then Alex did a lot of work on that track, behind my back, secretly when I wasn't there, and he kind of turned it into something else. And then when he played it back to me, I was really impressed with it. It had a very kind of instant, kind of driving feel. I guess lyrically, it's about watching someone you care about go down a path that maybe you don't think is good for them and trying to stop them. It's very hard when you're into someone and they have problems in their life that you can't affect -- all you can do is be there for them.
What kind of path? Is it drug problems?
You know, I don't know. I can't really go into it. I don't want to be specific about the problems, because it's really not about the problems. It's about the relations. It's not about their problems; it's about the relationship that you have with someone that is going through something that is bigger than themselves.
Before you were seemingly uninterested in discussing...
Sexy stuff, yeah.
...your sexuality with the press, but you finally discussed it a bit in, I think, 2007. You came out, more or less. And then you just did a pretty extensive interview with BUTT magazine, where you opened up more about your sexuality. So why did you decide to discuss it at this particular time?
I've never had a problem about being open about my sexuality. My issues were kind of -- I didn't want to talk about it in relation to the music I was making. I didn't see that it was relevant to the music that I was making. If you talk to the music press, and it becomes part of an angle, it becomes part of, like, a pitch. And I didn't really want to do that. But then speaking to BUTT and to Attitude -- I think those two interviews were probably two of the best interviews that I think I've done. Because there's a sense that there's not an angle. It felt, with those pieces, that it was just an interesting conversation that we were having. I think that whenever it's being talked about in the music press or cultural magazines, it's always this part of some sort of agenda. I reckon that's a by-product of being a personality and having a fan base where people want to know about you.
We obviously interview a lot of gay musicians.
Who's my favorite gay musician?
That wasn't my question, but... who is your favorite gay musician?
I was just joking, I'm sorry. Finish your question.
There are often two camps. Sometimes a gay musician will say to me, "Well, my sexuality doesn't really figure into my music at all. I just happen to be gay, bisexual, queer, trans, whatever." And other -- I'm just thinking off the top of my head -- Jonsi from Sigur Ros, who's got a solo album out, too. He said it factored very heavily into his career because he needed some kind of outlet growing up. And he was closeted and he didn't know any gay people, and he was young in Iceland, and he needed some kind of creative outlet to kind of channel those emotions. He said, "If I weren't gay, I don't know if I would be a musician." So, where do you stand as far as how much your sexuality factors into your artistry?
I definitely think it factors heavily into my perspective and how I see the world. You know, being black and being gay, you see the world from a different perspective than is the dominant way of looking at the world. You see that there are other ways of expressing yourself, and there are other ways of living that aren't maybe represented fully in mainstream media. And I think that that was always the key. And that's always been the key to what it is I've set about to do with what I do musically. I've always tried to break down boundaries. I've always been skeptical of the idea of things being separated. Because, like with Bloc Party, and even with this record, people see me as a singer and a guitar player in a rock band. It was important to show that there were other things that I could do. It was important for me to show that there's more than one way of seeing the world. And there's more than one way of behaving. And that's an attitude that I've always tried to uphold.
How has the BUTT piece been received? How do you feel after having done the interview?
I feel great. I think it was a great interview. Yeah, I feel great.
Is there a sense of relief now that you don't have to dodge those questions?
Not really, because it wasn't about coming out -- I did that in 2007. It was nice to do a good gay interview in a good gay magazine and speak directly to gay people without feeling that there was some sort of witch-hunt going on, which it kind of felt like looking back at some of the pieces that I'd done. And some of the pieces that I'd done, it kind of got a little bit... reactionary. Like, I remember reading The Observer thing that I did in 2007. Looking back on it now, it feels a little bit exploitative. I did an interview for The Guardian Guide, which is a big, liberal newspaper in the U.K., and I did an interview where I spoke for two hours about what it was I was passionate about musically and about the record. But the only thing they seemed to focus on was that fact that I was gay, and it's like, when you spend two hours talking about what you care about, to see it then just reduced to that, and to not even be really be focusing on the music, it's hard to then be excited by the prospect of doing interviews. I don't know. I'm glad that there are some good interviews out there that I've done so people can see them.
Did you incorporate your sexuality at all into this music? Would you say that there are "gay songs" in this album -- if you even think gay songs exist?
I think "Walk Tall" is, for me, about being defiant. It's about holding your head up high. And I think that, while not explicitly a gay song, I feel that it's -- I think that young gay kids can definitely take some of the message of that song in how they carry themselves. I think it's about finding the strength from within to live the way you want to live. I feel that this whole record is about finding strength and positivity and celebrating where you are right now. I don't know if that's exclusively a gay thing -- I just feel that it's a positive record that I hope is affirmative for people.
Tell us what your current television obsession is.
Oh, stop it. OK, God, well. My current television obsession. You're going to get me in trouble; everyone thinks I'm a serious guy. I was just talking about how I was recently really into the new season of The City, -- The City and The Hills. Of course, it's the most heinous show on earth, but I'd always catch it by accident when it was on television. And the people in it are so brain-dead -- the characters in it are so brain-dead -- but it's like watching, like, a live Bret Easton Ellis novel. The dialogue and the way they speak just doesn't seem real. And I think with this season of The City, and especially The Hills, the final season, it seems all these fresh-faced kids living in L.A. are so completely fucked up now, what with the old messed up brother [Spencer Pratt] and the effects of being on the show for years. They're all having plastic surgery; they've all got anger management issues. One of them's a cokehead. You see that this show has ruined them, and I think that's fascinating. I don't know. And it looks great -- it's really easy to watch because it's like watching Beverly Hills, 90210 but real... or semi-real.
The Boxer is in stores and available for download now. For more information on Kele, including tour dates, visit his official website.