Declan McKenna goes 'hyper-surreal'

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

Image source, Columbia Records
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The singer says his new album is inspired by everyone from David Bowie and Bob Dylan to Abba and Robbie Williams

"I seem to get asked a lot about music that doesn't have any meaning," says Declan McKenna.

"Like what do I think of love songs, or stuff that isn't political or providing any social commentary. And I'm like, 'I literally love that stuff. Are you kidding?'"

The Hertfordshire singer found himself pigeon-holed as a protest singer after his first album arrived in 2017, crammed full of lyrics about transgender suicide, xenophobic media reporting, and corruption in FIFA.

The topics may have been weighty, but songs were a sun-soaked and effervescent brand of indie-pop, helping the teenager rack up an impressive 230 million streams and 200,000 sales in the UK alone.

When the time came to record a follow-up, however, he railed against his reputation as "the voice of Generation Z".

"You get a bit cynical about the music you've been making and you want to make something super-expansive and crazy," he says.

The result is Zeros, an album that puts politics aside to tell a story of human fallibility in the face of an existential crisis - which could be environmental catastrophe, technological dystopia, or any number of looming disasters.

With one foot in the real world and the other in science-fiction, the record froths with ideas, from the Bowie-esque pop opera of Be An Astronaut to the foreboding Rapture, with its ominous computerised refrain: "Jet black, jet black."

The lyrics are intentionally more abstract (McKenna calls them "hyper-surreal") allowing the listener to put their own spin on the stories... and hopefully sparing him the same old questions.

"I spend more time thinking about the music than I do the lyrics, by a long way," he explains, "but I always end up talking about one buzzword to describe a song which had a whole story. It can feel reductive, I think."

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The aesthetic is continued in McKenna's latest video, which sees him team up with actor / look-alike Alex Lawther (The End Of The F***ing World) to portray "two people, who are very similar, in conflict with each other".

It explores key theme of the album - that "people who are pushed away or feel left out of society" can come together and "care about each other when things go wrong". Even though it predates the coronavirus lockdown, the song feels oddly appropriate as communities around the world rally in support of one another.

"Responsibility is key at this point in time," he says, "because we don't know what the future is going to look like and we have to be responsible."

A few weeks before the lockdown took hold, McKenna sat down with the BBC to discuss his new album, which has now been postponed from a planned release in May to 21 August.

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Declan McKenna: "We don't know what the future is going to look like and we have to be responsible."

You recorded the album in Nashville - so have you gone country?

Not in the slightest. I mean there's definitely an influence, but I definitely didn't want to make anything that sounded too country or Americana.

Although you do play slide guitar on a song called Emily...

Yes! It's basically this technique I stole from St Vincent, called 'glam tuning' where all of the strings are tuned to the same note and I'm basically just slamming the whole guitar. It's pretty cool.

You recently tweeted that it upsets you when everyone says you steal from Bowie because you're "ripping off St Vincent too" and here's the proof!

[Laughs] You're always stealing! I like to think our brains are a bit like algorithms. Whatever you give it and feed it, you get out the product. It's the fun of creativity, piecing together what you know and making something new.

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You must have been listening to a lot while making this album. Every song seems to have six or seven different styles.

That comes from all the different stages of recording. I started out at home on a laptop, then I demoed the songs with a band, then we actually recorded the album in Nashville. So the songs developed as we went on.

Would you say that's rare these days, when so many songs are built around loops?

When I started out, I wrote Brazil on a loop pedal. I was a looper: That was how I performed and how a lot of my music was written. I don't think I used it at all on the new record. I was trying to step away from that and say, "Can I write the song on a single instrument and just let it grow?"

Other times, I was writing quite digitally again, where it's a bit groove-based, it's a little bit of playing around. I don't have the longest attention span, so I had to find new ways to get myself excited to write songs!

If the album was a movie, what would the tagline be?

I would put "the fastest gun in the solar system" just because I love that lyric. I wrote it with my friend Jake who was really interested in the sci-fi /real life attitude of the album. He started throwing all these weird, space western ideas at me.

I'd have gone for "the apocalypse never sounded so much fun".

It's true because the songs, at their core, are so sad, but with all the production, the groove, they're quite fun.

If there's a theme to the lyrics, it's catastrophe.

Yeah, destruction was on my mind the whole process of the record. I was constantly thinking, "Wow, we have no idea where we're going to end up in a couple of years time and it's terrifying".

Image source, Getty Images
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The singer rose to fame after winning Glastonbury's emerging talent contest

You sing several times about fleeing the planet and all its problems. Would you get on a flight to Mars?

I don't know. I was thinking a lot about escapism. It can make or break you - like, if your escape is going out and getting pissed all the time, it's not conducive. But if you find your own ways to switch off that allow you to still have quality time and still enjoy yourself, then I think escapism is important.

There's a lot of people doing it accidentally, on social media, I think. That whole world is leading to a very isolated and strange existence that we don't really yet understand.

We're engaged but distanced at the same time.

It's odd. It's not enriching your life in any way. It almost stunts your day.

A prime example for me work-wise is in the studio. When you're just sitting there and you're peaceful and thinking about the record, those are the moments you tie things together and think, "Oh, this is how we'll make it loads better". Whereas if you're on your phone you're zoned out and you don't have that.

But it's an awkward one for me, because I love loads of internet culture and love being on my phone - but it's very hard to get the balance because it's an addictive tool.

Image source, Joe Magowan
Image caption,
McKenna and Lawther met through a mutual friend after fans pointed out their physical similarities

What's the solution in the studio. Do you have a phone policy?

I just try and put the phone away.

Do you stick to it?

I pretty much do, to be fair. Like when we were in Nashville, I knew we had a couple of weeks and that was pretty much it, so I was really focused. When I'm at home it's a different story.

What's the best YouTube wormhole you've fallen down?

My friend introduced me to this account called Knobs which is very aesthetically-pleasing videos about guitar pedals, so I've been watching a lot of guitar pedal reviews!

Is that directly linked to your eBay expenditure?

Uhhh, it depends. I have to really convince myself to buy something online. If I'm in a guitar shop and I'm playing a pedal, it's very hard not to [take it home].

Is there one you're over-using at the moment?

On the record, there's a pedal called the Judder by MWFX which makes this chopped-up guitar sound - djd-jdj-djd-jdj - and I just got obsessed with it.

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You address our obsession with technology on Beautiful Faces. Am I right that the song is deliberately designed to sound overwhelming, to evoke the constant buzz of notifications?

Yeah, that whole aggressive engine-like synth sound. It's a big, intimidating thing but the lyrics are quite simple, so I think the sound carries the idea.

How do you think social media affects our brains?

There's a lot of dread involved. My generation has a lot of very anxious young people. It's so intense and it's so draining to see an ISIS beheading followed by a cat meme. [In the end] you're not feeling things in the same way that you might have reacted prior to the internet - either to the hilarious or the terrible. You might have a stronger reaction when there's not so much of it.

Is that a problem for music - if people don't feel things the same way?

No. Music still moves me. I'm very romantic about it. I don't know why I need music, I just do, and that's what I love.

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