Kele Okereke on exploring gay marriage in the post-Brexit era for his new play

"It is more about who we decide to give personal residency to in our lives"

Kele Okereke has spoken of the ‘liberating challenge’ of writing music for new play ‘Leave To Remain’ – exploring sexuality and marriage in a post-Brexit society.

With the soundtrack released today, the show comes with songs penned by the Bloc Party frontman and Matt Jones – telling the story of “a young gay couple suddenly faced with an uncertain future, told through a mixture of music, drama and movement”.

“I feel that obviously the title evokes images of Brexit, and certainly the action in the play exists on a post-Brexit landscape,” Okereke told NME. “I will say that it is primarily a story about two people that are in a relationship and in love. Because of Brexit, one of the characters is relocating to a different part of the world so they are forced to contemplate marriage to stay together. So I think it’s not really a discussion on residency; it is more about who we decide to give personal residency to in our lives.”

He continued: “I get the questions about the British political landscape, but it is primarily a story about gay marriage and really what happens when families come together.”

The project came together when Okereke and Matt Jones starting talking while visiting the same gym in East London. They first started to plan to turn their idea into a TV show, then after realising how long that would take, moved towards translating it into a graphic novel.

“I started thinking that actually what I do for my day job is make music, so was there any way we could somehow incorporate music into the narrative that we were working out together?” said Okereke. “We talked about making a graphic novel so we could tell the story and the music would inform the narrative.

“Someone suggested we turn it into a musical and they introduced us to the Lyric Theatre and they were really into the idea. We came in and workshopped it in 2016 with just me, a handful of actors and Matt and Robbie, the choreographer. It has been quite a twisty road to get here but it is finally here.”

He added: “Initially every song was going to reflect a chapter in the graphic novel so we were planning on releasing the songs episodically. There was a basic framework in place that has pretty much stayed intact throughout the process.”

Matt Jones, Billy Cullum, Robby Graham, Tyrone Huntley and Kele Okereke attend the press night performance of ‘Leave To Remain’ at The Lyric Hammersmith on January 24, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Asked if it was a challenge to tailor his lyrics towards a narrative rather than personal experience, Okereke replied: “I must say that I found that quite liberating because when I make records with Bloc Party or when I make records by myself, I’m usually or always the main expressive point. Whereas with this project, I had to be very focussed about what I was writing about and I had to be a lot more literal than I would have ordinarily chosen to be because I was essentially using the music to tell the story.

“It was a challenge on some levels but it was also quite rewarding knowing there was a framework that I had to exist in.

He went on: “One of the main characters is of Nigerian descent and the other main character is American and it was important to me that the music somehow reflected the clash of cultures. That’s why I tried to immerse myself in quite a lot of the music of my parents, kinda West-African high-life music and I thought how could I bring that into contemporary Western settings. So that’s where the electronic influence came from.”

Did he draw any inspiration from his own life experiences?

“I don’t feel like the lyrics are specifically autobiographical,” said Okereke. “They feel kind of fictional. On some level all writing is autobiographical and certainly there are some aspects of this story that I can relate to, but it is not my world. It is a fictional story.

“Matt, the writer, and I spoke a lot in the beginning about the story that we wanted to tell and he asked for my advice and experience on some of the things he was going to bring to the script. He also spoke to a lot of other people. He spoke to a lot of other gay men about their experiences in life and with their families.”

While the soundtrack has been recorded by Okereke himself, it is the cast of the play who are performing it on stage. The frontman admits that this was an unusual experience for him, but one that pushed him to avoid many of the usual cliches of musical theatre.

“It’s interesting to see how they have been reinterpreted for the stage,” said Okereke. “I’m not traditionally into musical theatre. When I knew that we were going to be making a musical production, I really tried to see as much stuff as I could in those two years just to get a sense of the language of musicals and crucially how I could subvert it into something that I would enjoy.

“To me, traditional musicals have a very trite language and I just wanted to try and play with the form a little. So the moments I’m more proud of are the moments that have a slightly more experimental or abstract feel in songs like ‘Chi Chi Convinces’ and ‘Damian’s Seduction’. They just have a very different, atypical quality to me.”

Check back at NME soon for more of our interview with Kele Okereke

Kele Okereke’s ‘Leave To Remain’ soundtrack is out now. Read the NME review here.

‘Leave To Remain’ will run at the Lyric Hammersmith theatre until 16 February 2019, with tickets available here.

Meanwhile, Bloc Party recently announced a run of UK tour dates performing their classic debut album ‘Silent Alarm’ in full.