Kele Okereke: ‘Tenderness is important’

The Bloc Party frontman on masculinity, his magpie eye for musical influences and the lessons of impending fatherhood

You’re appearing at the Being a Man festival at the Southbank Centre later this month to talk about masculinity and the creative process. Has it stoked up any thoughts?
Being a gay man, I have a slightly complicated relationship to the idea of masculinity. If I think about masculinity, I think about assertiveness, machismo and aggression, which I don’t relate to so well. From an early age, boys are told that it’s better to conceal what they’re feeling and present a rough, tough exterior. I’ve never really subscribed to that.

Do you let your emotions come to the surface?
Yes. I think the last time I cried was about a month ago.

That’s pretty healthy.
Although prior to that, I don’t think I cried for over a year. I’m not really a volatile person. I’m lucky that I get to expel a lot of those feelings and emotions in my music, so when I’m at home, it’s a safe place. I don’t like to argue with my partner. I know that some couples thrive on that, and I get it, but I’ve never really been that kind of person.

What was it that made you cry?
I was having a conversation with my partner and sometimes in the heat of the moment you can forget what it is that you’re putting out there as a human being or as one half of a relationship. It was just a moment of clarity, really, where I realised that I was in the wrong and I had to change something in myself. That’s where the tears came from.

Do you feel more at ease in the company of men or women?
Definitely women. I’ve always had lots of female friends. My relationships with women are more expressive and I’ve always been someone who enjoys talking and listening. With men, there are limits to how fully they express themselves and over the years I’ve found that quite stifling. It was a problem in the past in my band, Bloc Party. We didn’t really talk to each other about what was going on in our lives or what we were feeling emotionally. When we parted ways with some of the original members, I knew instinctively that if we were going to carry on as a band, we had to change the energy and the best way was to have a female member in the band.

And has that made a difference?
It has. It’s a slightly different situation because Louise [Bartle], our drummer, is 10 years younger than us, so it feels like I’m looking out for a daughter or something. She’s the only young person in my life at the moment. It’s definitely making me feel more paternal, which is interesting.

I hear you’re becoming a father. How are you feeling about the prospect?
I’m excited. I’m petrified. I want to do a good job. I want to be present and that is the most important thing for me, but it still feels quite far away.

When’s the baby due?
It’s going to be in the second week of December, so not long after the festival. I’m feeling excited. I’m reading a lot. I didn’t realise how important sterilisation was to the process, for example. Every feed, you have to clean the bottle – I’d never even considered stuff like that. One thing I do realise is that, after the end of this year, my life is never going to be the same again.

Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a long time?
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a father and I’m very lucky that my partner has always felt the same way. I get why lots of gay men don’t feel like this, but for me it has always felt like something would be missing.

Do you know whether it’s a boy or a girl?
Yeah, we know, but we’re not telling anyone.

The music industry has changed drastically since Bloc Party formed in 1999. How is it for you in 2016?
For me, it is a good place. I make a living – a good living – from being creative and expressing myself. Being in a band, it’s like the best parts of being a teenager – I still have this sense of adolescent awe and excitement about things. I am definitely conscious that things are getting harder for musicians, but I think that’s just a challenge to make better art. People are always going to love music, so I think the challenge is working out new ways to connect with people.

You cited William Blake as an inspiration for the latest Bloc Party album. Are all of your influences so highbrow?
It’s not a contrived thing. I’m a very curious person and I think that comes from studying English literature at university where you had to read five to eight books a week. Thankfully, I still have that curiosity. I remember reading something that Jim Jarmusch said about inspiration: anything that resonates with you, be it works of art, books, nature, conversations, anything that you hear – if it moves you, you should feed it back into your expression and I think that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always been a magpie when it comes to inspiration for music.

Watch the video for Virtue by Bloc Party.

Aside from preparing for fatherhood, what else are you up to?
Touring with Bloc Party is kind of done for the year, but I’ve been doing some other things. I’m just finishing a new record…

A solo album?
Yeah, a solo work that’s quite different to what I’ve done in the past. Over the years, with Bloc Party, I’ve been moving away from playing the guitar to exploring more electronic textures, but this record is the opposite of that. It’s something that is very intimate and it’s really for my dad. But it’s not finished yet, so I don’t want to talk about it too much.

Going back to the subject of masculinity, are you proud to be a man?
I don’t know. I’m proud to be this man. But when I think of the ills and the evils that men have perpetrated since the dawn of time, I don’t know if I am. If I had a son, I think I’d worry about how to make him a good son, how to help him appreciate tenderness and the internal world and not be a ravager or a destroyer. I feel that tenderness is important and it’s not something I think men really give much credence to. Hopefully by the time I do this festival, I’ll have worked out exactly what I feel.

Kele Okereke is at the Being a Man festival, which explores masculinity in the 21st century, with an in-conversation and acoustic set at the Royal Festival Hall on 26 November


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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