Search The Line of Best Fit
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Nine Songs
Kele Okereke

Ahead of the release of The Flames pt. 2, Kele Okereke talks Kate Crudgington through the pivotal songs in his life.

17 March 2023, 09:00 | Words by Kate Crudgington

The restorative and the destructive power of the natural elements and the way they can reflect human behaviour have fuelled Kele Okereke’s creative output in recent years.

Inspired by the binary opposites of fire and water, the Bloc Party frontman released his pensive solo effort The Waves pt.1 back in 2021, and is now preparing to share its follow-up, The Flames pt.2. Written and recorded in his home studio, Kele Okereke used his guitar, loop pedals and minimalistic beats as musical aids to experiment with and refine his extrapolations on life during a time of intense global uncertainty and change.

When we speak on a cold day in January, he acknowledges the impact that the morning sunshine has had on his well-being. “The sun is in the sky today, so I feel better than yesterday,” he tells me, “I'm in a good space, you've caught me on a good morning.”

Okereke’s Nine Songs selections move across moods, from a strong sense of nostalgia for dancefloor moments listening and dancing to Peaches and James Holden, admiration for indie underdogs like Les Savy Fav, and the electronic pioneer SOPHIE, as well as respect for the technical abilities of Blur guitarist Graham Coxon. I tell him his taste is excitingly eclectic. “It's my age. I'm old now, so that's why,” he laughs, before explaining the common thread that links his song choices.

“I tried to look back at music that has pointed me in the direction I went with on The Flames. I can see some parallels, but it's kind of in between.” He speaks precisely, and with sincere admiration for each of the artists who have written the pieces of music he has chosen. It becomes apparent there is a myriad of influences behind the sounds on The Flames; from the edgy euphoria of Spanish popstar ROSALÍA to the enduring potency of the outro to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”.

“I was really interested in the production aspects of the recordings,” he elaborates. “With The Flames, there was a sense of wanting to make things sound incredibly brittle and incredibly up close. I think with The Waves, there was a sense of things needing to feel like they were drifting.

"That's why there were no beats and everything was just suspended in space, or I guess bobbing freely on the water. With The Flames, I wanted the opposite of that. I wanted there to be direction. There's no better way to do that than with propulsive rhythms.”

“Oily Water” by Blur

I've spoken quite a lot over the years about music that informed me when I was younger, but I realised I've never really spoken about Blur. I think they were a big influence, certainly to me, and to Russell, the guitar player in Bloc Party.

Graham Coxon is such an inventive and interesting guitar player. It was always such a pleasure listening to what he was doing, and then watching him perform, trying to work out how he was doing it.

"Oily Water" was one of the first songs that I heard where I wanted to figure out how he was making the guitar work like that. It was one of the first moments that got me thinking about the sonic space that a guitar can inhabit. Graham is a phenomenal blues player and a country player too; he is incredibly versatile, but he's also very exciting, because he's taken his playing off the fretboard. There was a really inventive use of guitar pedals from him, that as a young person definitely started me off on a path.

Parklife was one of the first indie rock records I ever heard. My sister had a copy of it. Although I appreciated it, there was a lot of stuff from that time in the ‘90s that Blur kind of represented that I wasn't really so into, when it started getting a bit Loaded magazine. I liked them more when they ditched the Carry On film vibe and it got a bit darker.

My favourite record of theirs is Blur. You can hear the influence of American noise bands in Graham's playing, like Dinosaur Jr and that's the most exciting Blur period for me personally. With their earlier records there's this kind of psychedelic quality that they have kept in places, and “Oily Water” is more psychedelic.

“Tragic Monsters” by Les Savy Fav

Les Savy Fav are probably the last indie rock band that I remember really, really loving. I thought they were so awesome. Their songs are so concise, the arrangements are always so imaginative. The way that everything's put together, there's literally no fat anywhere in their music.

The real magic, I think, is when you go and see a band live, and Les Savy Fav were such an incredible live band. Tim Harrington was an otherworldly front person. He would have the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, it was really incredible.

The reason I've picked "Tragic Monsters" is because I really liked the sound of their record Go Forth. It has this really gnarly, kind of overdriven - but not in a rock way, in a more synthetic way - close-sounding, hot feel, like everything's in the red feel. But it's also incredibly melodic and singable, it's a very interesting sounding record.

I remember speaking to Syd Butler, the bass player, about how they recorded that album and how they recorded the drums, because I was curious as to what kind of choices they made. He said they really struggled because they recorded the drums in a very high, wide room. There was a lot of space - which is great if you want that kind of John Bonham, Led Zeppelin sound - but they wanted the opposite.

They wanted everything to feel dead and quite closed, so they had to really struggle to make that work, but they did it. It's a great song and a great sounding record.

“Metal Fingers in My Body” by Add N to (X)

“Add N To (X) were a British synth combo from the early to mid-90s that I really liked. They really stood out in a sea of identikit indie bands. It was really refreshing to see a band where these analogue synth sounds were front and centre. The keyboards weren't just in the background, it was aggressive, driving, synth music. It didn't seem like anybody else was doing that at the time and I really loved them.

John, our Bloc Party drum tech, used to drum for Add N To (X). He was always telling me stories about what life on the road with them was like, and it sounds like it was fun. I remember this track, particularly because it had a really naughty video that I think might have been banned at the time. I remember that was a shocking moment.

BEST FIT: An explicit video, especially one that ends up being banned, is one way of making sure you create a cult-like following, isn’t it? I remember the controversy around The Prodigy's video for "Smack My Bitch Up" lasting long after its release in 1997.

I feel like back then, it felt shocking if a band had banned video. You felt like you had to know why. It also meant that bands or artists were taking a chance, because people might not actually see the video if it wasn't played on commercial stations. Now you can have explicit content in videos and there are so many ways you can get around it. I guess traditional music streaming channels that play videos are less popular now, so it doesn't feel like it has quite the same effect if someone releases an explicit video.

BEST FIT: I work on The Box’s network of music channels, and in terms of the impact of explicit music videos, you’re absolutely right. I grew up watching music videos on those channels before YouTube and Spotify took the focus away from them. I’d phone up and vote for the videos I wanted to see! Due to Ofcom compliance regulations, we’re unable to play most of the explicit content in music videos, but there’s still a strong nostalgia for the platforms, especially Kerrang! TV. If you want to see the explicit video that accompanies a new track though, you can access it at any time online. But 10- 20 years ago, it was a completely different landscape, wasn't it?

Thank you for reminding me about The Box. I often wonder about that channel, because I remember watching it when “Wannabe” by The Spice Girls came out, when that video was played every single hour and thinking this was the start of something. I've always been curious as to whether music channels like The Box are still operational in today's world and it sounds like they are.

“The Leanover” by Life Without Buildings

Life Without Buildings are a very special band to me. They're a ‘90s indie band, but the thing I like about them is that they have this magical alchemy of what makes their sound: they've got this driving, tribal kind of drumming and this very clean, precise guitar work, but it's really about the singer, Sue's vocals. She has this very childlike, innocent delivery where it sounds like she's making up the lyrics as she's singing them.

It's very hard to explain. It's a free association kind of style, and you know, it's not for everyone. It can be hard to follow. But if you get it, or if it moves you, it's like she's speaking in tongues or something. It's a very hard thing to quantify.

BEST FIT: I don’t think you can passively listen to this song? Like you say, it will divide listeners into two groups, but that’s how music and art often works. People’s reactions to it are both interesting and, in a way, redundant, I guess?

Yeah, for sure. I think that was a complaint I've heard levelled about them by people, but whatever, you know? I like it, so it's good for me. That's always been my view, to be honest. It feels slightly naive to be saying that, but ultimately, you make art for yourself, and I think you just have to remember that. Because it can be hard sometimes, when you're part of a bigger industry, to remember what it is you're doing it for.

I keep coming back to Life Without Buildings’ record, Any Other City, and specifically to this track. There's a yearning in it that's really very hard to explain. But I really, really love it.

“Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches

This track represents a specific time and a period in my life. I saw Peaches play The Teaches of Peaches, at the Royal Festival Hall for Grace Jones' Meltdown last year and going back and listening to that album in its entirety brought on this wave of emotion, memories and feelings.

I remembered vividly listening to this record at parties in London and in Berlin, and being marvelled by how it cut through, specifically this track, which is the 'big' track.

It was so powerful for me, because up until that point I had this sense that for things to be powerful in music, they needed to be big. Emotions needed to be big, and sounds needed to be big - that had been kind of ingrained in me.

But listening to The Teaches of Peaches and falling in love with this record, you realise its real charm and power lies in the fact that it's not big. It sounds very kind of knackered, very low-fi and cheaply recorded, but it shows the power of a great lyric and a great beat.

Listening back to that record now, it still sounds great. The production on it is perfect - it's skeletal, but it works. This record was lightyears ahead of everything else I was listening to at that time. I remember when the song originally dropped and being in clubs hearing it, and it being a real moment.

“Motor” by SebastiAn

In the mid noughties, there was a lot of great French electronic music being put out. Everyone talks about Justice - and Justice are fine - but my favourite French producer at that time was SebastiAn.

I always felt in his releases that he had a sense of precision and know-how about constructing music, which I don't think some of his contemporaries had. I was always impressed with his artistic choices. I remember when the Motor EP dropped, hearing it in clubs and thinking the world was ending or something. It was such a huge, scary sound.

The track is based around the manipulation of this inorganic sound of a motor revving, and he's managed to construct something musical and also very moving with this sound, and that blew my mind at the time.

It was something I was thinking a lot about when we were recording The Flames, this idea of constructing something musical out of something that wasn't traditionally a musical sound.

“Renata” by James Holden

I got into James Holden when I started DJing in the late noughties. He was always an artist I would put on, but I was actually more interested in what he was saying with his records, rather than the hot tracks he was dropping. He was someone from that time that I remember having a lot of time for.

The Inheritors is probably one of my favourite electronic records of the last twenty years, the balance between the electronic textures and the organic textures is sublime. You really get the sense when listening to the album that things are building and growing. It feels alive, you can feel the warmth and the light in it.

With so much electronic music, you can hear the grid, or you can hear things in expected kinds of places - and that's fine. But the strength of The Inheritors is that it feels like a performance. There's this idea that is circling throughout the songs on the record, and it takes you somewhere. You can imagine him getting hands on with his equipment and coaxing these sounds out.

There is something quite organic about how the whole thing is put together. On this track "Renata", there's all these gurgling synth arpeggios, and then two thirds of the way into the track, the live acoustic drum sound brings the whole thing together. It's a really clever balance.

“Lemonade” by SOPHIE

I think about Sophie a lot. Her music has a very special place in my heart. I first came into contact with her when I heard "BIPP” and I've been a fan ever since.

Her music took on a different sort of resonance to me in the year that we had the Covid-19 lockdown, when the clubs were closed. Whenever I wanted to dance, I would put on her mixes or extended mixes. I was dancing by myself around my house and it became a bit of a ritual for me, listening to her music.

When I started having ideas for The Flames, I thought it could be interesting to reach out to her, but then obviously she passed in the most tragic, but kind of free-spirited way ever. She was staring at a full moon on the top of a roof, the roof collapsed and death came and took her. I think about that image of her last moments staring at a full moon a lot.

But in terms of the music and in terms of this song, I think she's fascinating to me because she makes her own worlds. Taking all of these non-musical samples - like the sound of the bubbles in lemonade, the sound of effervescence - and then stretching them and pulling them and making something musical out of them. It just seems so wilful. There's something quite irreverent about “Lemonade”. Under this veneer of saccharine pop, there's something quite dark in the music, in the sound, and in the feel. I like that balance of darkness with light.

Someone told me this song was used on a McDonald's ad in the States and I thought that was so brilliant. What a brilliant way to subvert the masses. It has this extensive glossy pop feel, but to me, it's so brittle it's kind of industrial and the sounds are so out there - but it is pop music as well. It's a brilliant mix.

I've always had time for her. It's a real shame she's gone and the world isn't going to hear what she was going to become, but at least we'll always have these records.

“Saoko” by ROSALÍA

I think ROSALÍA is one of, if not the most interesting pop stars out there right now. It gives me hope when a pop star like this comes along and you can hear that there is a depth and intensity to the sound. I love that her records are sneaking things into the mainstream.

In this track, you can hear the industrial-ness, but you can also hear this Reggaeton-feel flowing through it, and then I think there's touches of The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails.

BEST FIT: I’m a big fan of The Downward Spiral and I think it’s because underneath all of the abrasive noise and synth textures, there’s this almost funk-type feel to some of the rhythms on the tracks?

I can kind of hear a funk, or at least a groove element in there that maybe people wouldn't ordinarily associate with it, because it's so abrasive. I was listening to “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails a lot when I was making The Flames, specifically the last half of it, where all the synth sounds come in. They all stack on top of each other.

Kind of like with this ROSALÍA track, it’s just so naked, then all of a sudden, there's this jazz piano break that comes out of nowhere. It's bonkers and experimental in a way that I can get down with. I'm always excited to hear what her records sound like and I hope that there are many more.

The Flames pt. 2 is released 24 March via KOLA Records/!K7

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