Since releasing of ‘Silent Alarm’ with his band Bloc Party in 2005, Kele Okereke has garnered a reputation as something of a restless spirit. Whether pushing his skinny guitar band to write crossover bangers, setting up shop as an electronic solo artist or daring to drop down all barriers and write a tender acoustic album about fatherhood, he was never an artist you could accuse of standing still or revisiting the past.
Then, last year, everything changed. Bloc Party made the unexpected move of touring ‘Silent Alarm’ in its entirety, every music lover of a certain age lost their collective shit in a haze of sweat and spiky guitar riffs and some people started to wonder whether Kele was still the nostalgia-adverse innovator he claimed to be.
“I hadn’t listened to that album since 2005!” he reveals, confessing that his self-critical ear usually prevents him from looking backwards, “Usually I just hear the things I could have done better. I was glad to be able to reconnect with it from a distance and I can see why people like it, it’s infectious. It might controversial to say given that there are now two different members in the band, but it actually felt better playing these songs than the first time around.”
- - -
- - -
Now it’s 2019 and Kele’s back to his typical forward-looking self, kicking off the year by soundtracking a full stage musical, complete with an entire accompanying album of his original compositions. The musical in question is zeitgeistily entitled Leave to Remain and was dreamed up by him and Matt Jones, the TV writer whom Kele has been friends with since 2005.
“He lived in East London then moved to South London at the same time as me, and was a big music fan,” he says, explaining that the project actually began seven years ago with a few of its songs predating both ‘Hymns’ and ‘Fatherland’, “We first talked about (Leave To Remain) as an idea for a TV show, but what I didn’t realise about that industry at the time was the amount of time you spend sitting on your hands trying to get something into production! Then it became sort of a concept album, with Matt writing a corresponding graphic novel, until finally we hit on the idea of reaching out to a few theatre companies and turning it into a musical.”
- - -
Really this is a story about relationships...
- - -
Through Matt’s script and Kele’s songs Leave To Remain, which begins its run at the Lyric Hammersmith on 18 th January, tells the story of Obi and Alex, a couple living in London who are suddenly forced to confront the prospect of marriage when the latter’s visa runs out.
“It’s a gay love story, but it’s also about marriage and how it affects families,” he explains, “People seem to forget just how recently gay marriage was made legal in this country and I don’t think this is being represented enough in culture.”
With the Windrush scandal fresh in the memory and the threat of Article 50 looming ever larger over Britain, it would have been easy to use such a story to hammer home a political message. But, despite the theories fans have about ‘Helicopter’s lyrics and the anti-hysteria message of ‘Hunting For Witches’, Kele has always been more interested in the emotions of people than the movements of politics. The focus of Leave To Remain is no different.
“It’s set against the backdrop of Brexit and what’s happening there, but really this is a story about relationships, with these two lovers forced to contemplate a married future too early. It’s not actually about UK residency.” Politics wonks, consider yourselves warned.
- - -
- - -
Musically ‘Leave To Remain’ isn’t quite like anything he has previously recorded as a solo artist, whatever the moniker. There’s a new focus on West African rhythm and instrumentation that Kele uses to reflect the clash of cultures at the heart of this story, while also opening up a new creative avenue for him to explore.
“I’m a big fan of discovering music and get excited when I’m exploring something that’s new or I haven’t been exposed to before,” he answers when asked whether he generally writes music with a release under Kele, Kele Okereke or Rowland Kelechukwu Okereke in mind, “I’m not thinking of personality, I tend to work on instinct and intuition while making sure I’m not doing same thing all the time.”
Although he may still be more famous for the more collaborative (if not always more cooperative) music of Bloc Party, Kele has now amassed a seriously impressive body of solo work to match the seriously impressive body he debuted on the cover of ‘The Boxer’ at the beginning of this decade. It’s funny now, looking back from the tail-end of the 2010s, to remember how that record was perceived to be nothing more than a side project, a probable one-off rather than the flexing of newly discovered creative muscles it proved to be.
“That was a very important record for my development as it was the first time I had the guts to go it alone, even if I did have some help,” he admits, “It gave me the sense of confidence I needed to stand on my own two feet.”
- - -
I tend to work on instinct and intuition...
- - -
Since then Kele has audibly matured on each new release, transforming from the combatative, shirtless underdog who just wanted a chance to write dancefloor bangers into the thoughtful father figure who pens West End ruminations on the nature of family and commitment. Fans of his original incarnation as a guitar-toting indie god need not worry, he doesn’t seem to be calling it a day on his main band just yet. Just don’t be surprised if his solo records soon outnumber his Bloc Party ones.
“I love collaborating!” he insists, “But what I’ve learnt over this decade is that I have this increasing desire to be the sole creative force behind my music, or at least some of my music. So having this outlet to exercise that desire also allows me to be more open and organic with Bloc Party.”
So that full ‘A Weekend In The City’ tour you were saving for this summer? Maybe you’d be better off spending that money on an evening at the theatre instead.
- - -
- - -
Leave to Remain runs at the lyric Hammersmith from January 18th. For more information and to book tickets visit lyric.co.uk. Kele Okereke releases the soundtrack to Leave To Remain on January 24th available on all major streaming services.
Words: Josh Gray
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.