Songwriter revisits that pivotal teenage year
Kele Okereke: Around 1997, me and my family took a trip to visit my parents’ friends in Liverpool. John and his wife were two of the first people that my parents met when they moved to England from Nigeria. I was born in Liverpool and this was the first time I’d been back since we moved to Manor Park in east London in the 1980s.
Whenever I think about who I was as a teenager, the one abiding memory that I have is that I desperately wanted to be older. Everything seemed like a waste of time, like going to school. I was gifted, in that I did well at school without really trying, but it didn’t really speak to me. When I was 15/16 I discovered pop music and that was a very exciting, seductive world for me. I knew that it was giving me pleasure on some level, so thought this is what I have to move towards.
I remember really falling in love with ‘Dog Man Star’ by Suede. I’d never had that kind of intense reaction to music before. I became obsessed – I would listen to that record every day and it just took me somewhere else. Britpop was a sexy moment for music, and I guess I was swept up in it. My sister had a copy of ‘Parklife’, and I’d listen to that when she wasn’t in. It definitely felt like this moment, seeing all these young bands coming through. Before that I was listening to my parents’ music and Michael Jackson. Britpop made me appreciate the power and lifestyle of being a musician.
The first show that I ever went to was The Cranberries at Wembley Arena with my best friends and our mums. Later in my teens I would go to a lot of smaller shows in Camden. It was a nice community because where I went to school, on the border of east London and Essex, kids weren’t into alternative music, and if they were it could be quite dangerous – lots of my friends had been attacked, and you were likely to get punched in the face just walking down the street. So there was a tribal thing about it. That was how I met Russell [Lissack – Bloc Party’s guitarist] because I’d always see him in our local pub. Russell was a friend of my best friend at sixth form college. He didn’t go to college because he’d dropped out to do nothing but play guitar – it was the only thing he was interested in, and to me that was the most romantic view. It was a godsend and it meant that we could start working really quickly.
During my free periods at college I would get the 179 bus from Woodford to Chingford, to Russell’s house, and we’d set up in his living room, much to the annoyance of his mum, and we’d make sounds together. When we finished we’d eat a frozen pizza and play Super Smash Bros. on the Super Nintendo. We’d do that every week for a year and spent another year trying to find other musicians in the Essex area.
I played one show before we did any with Bloc Party. It was with a make-shift band with a guitarist at college – the guy who would introduce me to Russell. It was at The Standard in Blackhorse Road. We covered ‘Killing In The Name’ and it was where I saw Russell play guitar for the first time – he was playing in an Ash tribute band.
The first time we played together was in Camden to 12 people. We were called The Angel Range and I remember being completely petrified – I didn’t look at anyone and felt like I just needed to get through it. Although I’d spent so much of my time dreaming about being a musician, I hadn’t actually considered what it would entail; the performance element of it. I didn’t enjoy performing for the first year, and it was only when we released our first album, and seeing how people were reacting to the music, that the whole process became more enjoyable.
Now it’s completely second nature, but it’s something I had to work at. And yet, when we first burst onto the scene and I started having to do interviews for the first time, so much was made about me being shy, but I never felt like a shy person. I could be an extrovert when I needed to be, and I definitely wasn’t debilitatingly shy because I realised very early on that nothing comes to you in this world if you aren’t willing to go out and take it. I wasn’t a singer, and I had no plans to front a band, but I knew that if I didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen. That’s always been my attitude – that to get things done you have to bite the bullet.
As told to Stuart Stubbs
Read previous Sweet 16 columns with Gary Numan, Kathleen Hanna, J. Mascis, Shirley Manson, Thurston Moore, Matt Berninger and more.
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