Interview: Declan McKenna

Finlay Holden chats with indie icon Declan McKenna in the build-up to the release of his second album, Zeros.

Finlay Holden
31st August 2020

Finlay Holden chats with British indie icon Declan McKenna, who has been extremely busy over the last few months in order to prepare and promote Zeros, the follow-up to his hugely successful 2017 debut What Do You Think About The Car?

You’ve clearly been busy throughout lockdown releasing songs, announcing tours, and doing lots of promos - but has this period affected you in negative ways as well as those positives?

Yeah, lots of negative ways! It’s been hard work; it’s been a completely different environment to what I’ve been used to, and the people you’re collaborating can’t really gauge where you’re at with things in the same way as normal, so it makes you more susceptible to being really overwhelmed with stuff, which I’ve definitely felt a few times in lockdown - just having way too much to do, and struggling to achieve the same things from home that I would normally be able to do with other people around me.

It has led to some good things, some of the recordings and videos I did were really fun to make, but it was a big change at such a busy time and left me with a lot to deal with. With this new album, I’m trying to do something that I’ve been planning for ages, but the big picture is; I can’t go anywhere! So yeah, it was hard, but I found some nice moments as well and had a bit of creative time at the start. There were cool elements to it, but I’m quite a social person so losing that element was definitely a struggle to adjust to and set boundaries with.

Your recent single ‘Beautiful Faces’ talks about how we are all victims and propagators of the anxiety that social media and modern culture can induce - during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as time spent online has inevitably skyrocketed, is that something you have felt?

Yeah, I’ve definitely been engaging more with social media - there are elements to the internet that I really love as a young adult who has grown up with that in my hands constantly. There are positive conversations, but also those that non-intentionally amount to a lot of stress and problems, and ultimately pressure can be piled on just by seeing so much out there. People being presented in a ‘perfect’ way can be a big part of it.

Also, I'm looking forward to the future because that technology is just gonna become that much more immersive. The universe isn’t good at slowing down progress, so I’m a bit worried about what the positives and negatives will become.

The universe isn’t good at slowing down progress

Being a public figure on those platforms, you must see loads of comments about yourself on there too. ‘Humongous’, the opening track from your first record, saw you discuss your struggle to handle all the feedback you receive, be it criticism or adoration. Do you think it has become easier to deal with this as you’ve matured, or is it as overwhelming as ever?

It's still not always easy to deal with, I just try to avoid reading about myself. There is just so much of it and it’s not healthy, not one bit. You can sit around blaming people for saying things but ultimately people on the internet do say stupid things all the time and that is the reality that we live in, so thats what you have to find your own way to deal with. I think nowadays I understand the way things are a little bit more - that doesn’t mean I’m okay with certain things, but I can just accept them and get on with it.

That song is still relevant in ways, I was feeling all sorts of different things, as the world I was living in does absorb you a little bit and take control. When you’re 13 or 14 and you get your first Facebook and there’s some crazy beef about some absolute bullshit, back then that stuff took control; times that by 5000 and that’s what I get now.

Following your debut LP’s success, do you feel expectations of your sound moving forward or any pressure to change things up?

I’ve always evolved as an artist; even before I released anything properly, it was always about experimenting and trying different things and not really fitting in just one box. Anytime I try to write a single or pop song, I just end up with a shit Pulp song… even for the songs that I create which are pop songs, which you think are the simplest songs, the inception has to be something new for me because I think you get inspired by that and get better by experimenting, so it evolves naturally. 

I was maybe a little bit worried initially, but as I started writing new songs I just felt that they were so much better and I felt so much more confident in them. Whatever people take from the songs, I definitely feel more happy with the recordings than I did after recording the first album. I was just going naturally with my progression as a songwriter and it’s been a fairly positive experience really.

I haven’t had anyone be like “this is so shit man” or “this is so much worse than the first album, you’ve gone too far” yet, so I’m chilling!

Spotify CEO Daniel Elk said this week that “you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough” - as it has been three years since your last album, have you felt any pressure to change your artistic process in order to succeed in the modern music industry?

I’m not really a big ‘writing singles just to write singles’ person - those can be positive for your career in the modern landscape, as your man Daniel is saying, he just misses the point of art by just making such a general statement about that. My main problem with it was with him saying that “the modern landscape of art is about creating a dialogue with your fans”, I just think that is complete and utter bullshit. As if you, as the head of a company like Spotify, can just go around saying that the art that we’re putting out is the same as fans going “yeah, we liked it,” and that it takes the same energy to do both of those things. It's not a dialogue, art is an expression of something and putting it into that hole is very dangerous.

I get that there is a point to that because popularity is very algorithm-based at the minute, and the algorithm favours consistency and repetition and that can benefit artists careers, but it is scary to see someone in that position really pushing for that; you’re gonna miss out on a lot of great art if people don't take their time to reflect on it and think hard about what they're doing. It's been 3 years since my first album and I've still got fans!

Your latest release ‘Be An Astronaut’ has live performances dating 2 years back; do many of your songs change much during the time in between demoing them and the final release?

Yes, they do. With ‘Be An Astronaut’ I had a really solid idea about how it would sound, because I demo my songs quite intensely. If I wanted to, I could probably just use the demo recordings and flesh them out into the final tracks, which is kind of the modern way of doing things, but I ended up taking this into the studio with my band. I could have had it recorded the year I wrote it but I just wasn't recording then; I wrote it at the start of 2018, so 2 and a half years ago, which is maybe not quite standard but it depends…  

‘British Bombs’ I wrote at the start of last year and it was out by August. It depends but I do always demo quite heavily, even though I do want things to change in the studio - you need to always keep creating and not just try to replicate or emulate the demo. Sometimes it takes ages, some songs take ages to figure out, like ‘Eventually, Darling’ is the last song on this album and that had a lot of different stages and kept evolving as I wrote it. ‘Beautiful Faces’ is a good example, it took over a year and I only finished it in the studio where I wrote an alternative version for the whole song and then we used the first verse from the original version and the second verse from this new version that I literally wrote on the day that we were recording it. So the point is; it's always just so different.

Alex Lawther was a great choice to star in your music video for ‘The Key to Life on Earth’, and I heard that you’ve been fans of each other for a while - is there anyone you’ve connected with that you’d like to get in a video in the future?

Oooh, thats a good one! I kinda want to get Cillian Murphy? I feel like he's been in a music video before so maybe he wouldn't want to do it, but I am a big fan of Cillian Murphy. Inception is still my favourite film! And of course, he's in the Batman movies as well - anyone who's been in Batman would probably make the list. Cillian actually came to my Dublin show with his kids a few years ago, so I think I could make that happen.

Pre-order Declan McKenna’s new album Zeros, coming 4th September 2020


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