DECLAN MCKENNA is undoubtedly Dork’s prince of indie. Now he’s back, with a new album on the way, and a brand new vibe.
Words: Martyn Young.
Photos: Derek Bremner.
“I live by the sea, so I spend most of my time by the sea.” Declan McKenna is sitting in his bedroom at home in Brighton, eating a pain au chocolat, and is very much at peace with the world. “We’ve been paddle boarding recently,” he continues. “When the weather is good, I’ve been paddle boarding.
“The first person to take me paddle boarding, funnily enough, was Eli Smart when I went to meet him for the first time in Hawaii as I’d been working on music in LA. We went paddle boarding on this lake, and he said he hadn’t even seen it there before, but it was probably midnight or very late as it was dark, and there was all this bioluminescent algae.
“This was my first exposure to paddle boarding. You could stick your oar in the water and move it around, and all the bubbles would go bioluminescent and bright white colour. A fish would go past under the water, and it would be literally glowing.”
Now, you might wonder what all this fish talk has to do with Declan and his new album? Well, nothing, but maybe equally everything? “I just like being in the water at the minute. I find it the most calming thing, whether it’s on a boat or swimming. It makes sense for the album that I’ve been making.”
The album he’s talking about is ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ and the bioluminescent trippy fish he’s talking about provide an apt illustration of the bonkers, vivid, odd pop brilliance of his best album yet. A collection that is idiosyncratic, playful, ambitious and resolutely Declan in a way that defines one of our most creative talents.
We’ve followed Declan right from the start at Dork. All the way back to when we spoke to him for the first time in Issue 1, in 2016, pre-debut album, when he was first finding his musical feet and proclaiming that “I’m always changing things about how I’m making music.” We were there with his first Dork cover feature in 2017 as he burst out with his dynamic debut album ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’ and we chronicled the birth of his dizzyingly ambitious opus ‘Zeros’ with a second cover feature as he tried to navigate the uncertainty of peak pandemic.
This time, though, things feel more relaxed in the world of Declan McKenna. The ambition and drive are still there but filtered through the prism of all the knowledge and experience he has gained from almost a decade of creation and evolution. Making up for touring lost time during the wilderness years of Covid that coincided with ‘Zeros’’ roll-out, the last year has been jam-packed for Declan.
“It’s been a long year!” he exhales. “It feels like I haven’t really had much of a chance to stop. I started the year finishing off the album, and then I continued finishing off the album for about six months after that. Then I was on tour, and I was still finishing off the album somehow, and I’ve got the album announced, and it still feels like we’re finishing off the album. There’s just been so many layers to it. I’ve made an album I’m really proud of.”
The album he has made definitely occupies its own space in his discography. It’s ambitious in a very different way from his previous album, centred on a more reflective vibe. “It’s a little bit more specific sounding than the other stuff I’ve worked on. It’s a much more sensitive record. It’s quite exposing and sonically quite vulnerable,” he explains.
“I had more places to hide working the way I did on the first and second albums because the sounds were so full. That hasn’t been what I wanted on this album. I wanted the sounds to be vulnerable and smaller. Some of them sound very raw and very loose, with rough edges. When it came to mixing it and being on tour, it’s been quite a stressful experience because there have been many things to think about with how I execute the final version. Almost giving up control and going right, that’s the final song now.”
“It’s a much more sensitive record. It’s quite exposing and sonically quite vulnerable”Declan McKenna
The period of relentless touring coupled with making the album has been a different experience for Delcan. “The amount of shows has been hard work,” he admits. “I have really enjoyed the shows, but the only thing that’s tough with touring is just the balance between focusing on the shows and how tired you get and how much time you need to recover and everything else with an album on the way. The balance between the two can be quite disorienting. It’s been a great year with amazing things coming out of it, but it’s definitely been full-on. It’s also off the back of last year, which was a lot of touring and making the album. The end of making this album is almost like the end of an era for me and the start of a new one. It’s a really exciting place to be at.”
Declan is determined to experience this new era differently. “I just want to enjoy it,” he exclaims. “The main thing with ‘Zeros’ was creating it had a lot of fun moments, and I found recording it was very fun, but the majority of the time working on it was quite insular and quite intense. It was off the back of my first-ever album tour, which lasted a really long time because it was from before ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’ to a couple of years after. It was a complete whirlwind. Going into making more music after that was really intense. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do something to challenge myself. I still have that element, and I still like to challenge myself, but my approach this time around has been something quite different and a little more social. It was almost revolving the process around doing it in a really fun way.”
In part, the desire for enjoyment comes from the rather unpleasant experience he had when it came to actually releasing ‘Zeros’, with the album originally scheduled to come out in spring 2020 before Covid struck, causing delay after delay and fundamentally changing the whole experience of the record.
“With ‘Zeros’, the release as well as the process wound up being quite intense,” he explains. “It was meant to be a live album. 9/10 of the songs were based around a live take of me and the band playing the songs. That was all taken away, and the original plan for the release couldn’t happen. We made the most of it, but it’s a time I really struggled to enjoy. I didn’t really know what there was to enjoy. I don’t really care for promoting my own music. I felt like this was all I had to do. I was doing all the promo and stuff all at once, and there was very little I enjoyed of any of that. It was really not that fun a time. The release week was just bizarre as well. It’s normally when you see people, and you perform in person, but it was very difficult.”
Now, with a new album in tow and a different, more open way of working, ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ feels like a liberation. “This feels very different, and the way I’m trying to embrace it now is by just knowing actually what are the elements that I do like about what I do, which is not necessarily self-promotion or being on computers,” he explains. “It’s more making music in the way that I enjoy and performing. Those are things that give me a lot of life and energy.
“I’ve realised that after having a bit of success still, the most important things to me are the same things that I’ve always cared about. Everything else is just noise, really. If you’re not focused on the music being great and the shows being great, then you’re not focused on the right things. There’s been a lot of lessons learned, but I don’t look back on that period of time positively at all.”
“The end of making this album is almost like the end of an era for me and the start of a new one”Declan McKenna
‘What Happened To The Beach?’ is a mad album in the best way. Sometimes uncategorisable and sprawling with its sound collages, weird sounds, funny vocal effects and hooks that float in and out, it also contains some of Dec’s finest songwriting and most heartfelt moments. There’s a looseness and comfort that makes it a complete joy. Throughout, there’s a kind of playful and silly maturity at work which highlights an artist with complete creative freedom revelling in shaking things up in the tradition of a great British lineage of eccentric alt-pop genius’ from Elvis Costello and Kate Bush to Damon Albarn and Alex Turner.
“Part of what I wanted to do was stop trying,” laughs Declan. “I felt like I had less to prove. I didn’t need to do something intense. I just wanted to let my own inspirations flow and let my own creativity come out and enjoy that. It’s a really good way to make music, to create the vibe that you want the music to feel like when you’re making it. That was what the producer Luca [Buccellati]’s attitude was. I’ve been able to make music that sounds like music I listen to every day.”
The music he’s talking about is from creative visionaries like St. Vincent or Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who take spacey kaleidoscope sounds and filter them through a free-wheeling woozy pop prism. A priority of mood and feeling over grandstanding or sloganeering.
“I’ve been listening to records that embrace that attitude, and it just makes me feel good,” he continues. “I’m talking about it a lot in this way that it’s a shift from music that has so many words, the first two albums share the fact that they have a lot of words, the hooks and the verses on these songs and everything about them, for the most part, have a lot fewer words, not for lack of meaning but in some cases it’s very stream of consciousness and very simple.”
Simplicity is at the heart of the album’s lead single and song of the summer contender ‘Sympathy’, with its wonky hooks and bright pop sensibility and its key refrain of “You don’t need to be clever”, a philosophy that Declan carried out across the whole creation of the album.
“It was the first tune me and Luca started working on in LA,” he explains. “We wrote that together really quickly. The whole sentiment of it was realising itself, and Luca, in his own way, was seeping in the ideas of simplicity and fun that he embraces. All of that was coming together and making something. All it needed to be was reassuring. The album is a release.”
At 24 years old, Declan is certainly not an old man, but he’s learned a lot and now has the perspective to both look back to who he was then as a 15-year-old writing a song like ‘Brazil’ and tie those values into who he is now.
“I’m alright with being simple”Declan McKenna
“A lot of the messages embrace things that I really cared about and emphasised when I was a bit younger and have come back around to in a slightly different way,” he says. “It’s just about being yourself. I would have been such a champion for that when I was younger, but maybe I wouldn’t have thought about it or thought it was a cringe sentiment for a few years, but I’ve come back to that in a slightly different way now I’m a bit older and have been doing this for longer. I really like that, taking those simple messages in a more mature way and not feeling the compulsion to do it in an intense or complicated way. I’m alright with being simple.”
When he first emerged as a provocative and socially engaged writer on his first record and early singles, there was a lot of chatter about Declan being a ‘voice of a generation’. While he still fervently believes in the socially conscious values he has always displayed, he’s now far more content to look inward and take a more nuanced and less incendiary perspective.
“It’s not about rejecting the ideas that I have and the way I express it, but obviously that will change over time naturally,” he reflects. “Some of those first album tunes I wrote when I was 15 or 16; my life was very different then, and I was very different. I’m still true to my values, but you want those things to be your own. It’s difficult when it starts getting rationalised by other people, be it through a media lens or discussions with your label who might want you to keep up the brand a little bit.”
All of this reflection on the fevered way he used to write and his impetus to do things differently now or simply have no rules at all is all wrapped up in ‘Nothing Works’, a rollicking banger that is one of the album’s key tracks.
“That was the last song I finished writing for the album,” he says. “I was with my friend Jake Passmore, who co-wrote the song. I’d been working on this album in quite an abstract, simple way with these feel-good messages. Not all of them are feel-good, but the overall message is positive and self-assured. Jake was saying you’re so great when you’re direct and do things this way. All these sweet nothings that really meant nothing to me when I was like, ‘I’m making this album because it’s the album I want to make’. I just can’t do things another way.
“I’ve been writing songs since I was a child. I know what works for me and what doesn’t and what doesn’t work is if they want me to write a song. I wrote ‘Brazil’ and had an episode when I was 16, and I was like, God, am I ever going to top this? So I was trying to write ‘Brazil’ again and trying to repeat myself.
“Not really knowing where you’re going when you start an idea; that is what creativity’s about. That’s where the magic happens”Declan McKenna
“It’s taken me years to realise this, but trying to write in ways that you used to is not creativity at all. That is almost like using a different part of your brain, painting by numbers or building a Lego structure where you know what you’re going for when you start. What I really embraced on this album was the opposite of that. Not really knowing where you’re going when you start an idea. That is what creativity’s about. That’s where the magic happens. You’re really not thinking about it; you’re just impulsively going for things.
“When you think about other people’s expectations or your own expectations, I think it’s very hard to do anything worth listening to. Creativity happens in a different way. I started this verse where I was like, what’s the point? Why do things this way? The song sounds a bit downtrodden, but it’s completely tongue-in-cheek. Nothing works other than doing things your own way. It’s mocking the idea that I would approach things from your idea of how I used to write songs. That rounded it off because it was me justifying the whole thing. The whole premise behind the album.”
One of the qualities that makes Declan so brilliant and such an engaging personality in the modern pop world is his capacity for being unafraid to be silly and ridiculous and a bit over the top. This playfulness and humour is at the heart of everything on ‘What Happened To The Beach?’
“I’m really trying to be an advocate for goofiness,” he laughs. “It’s part of my own personal brand that I can really get behind because people are always so scared of it. When goofiness comes around, people don’t know what to make of it. You really find your people through goofiness.
“It’s again one of those things from when I was younger that I’ve embraced more and more now. I think it’s really important with music to not just challenge people but push yourself to your limits and do things in the way that only you can. If that’s something goofy or something very earnest and simple and straightforward, then that’s something that can only be expressed with art or, for me, with music. It’s important to me. It’s more important than ever that the music is wonky and presented in a way that’s playful and silly.”
“I’m trying to be an advocate for goofiness; it’s part of my own personal brand”Declan McKenna
Despite the freedom and creativity, there is still an element of risk involved with an album so stylistically different. Amplifying the oddness, though, and providing a stunning counterpoint are heartfelt and tender moments like the heartstopping ballad of ‘It’s An Act’, maybe the best song Declan’s ever released and certainly a career highlight.
“I knew that this album was somewhat surreal, at least in the context of my own catalogue,” he admits. “I knew there had to be some moments that brought it down to earth a little bit. I think ‘It’s An Act’ does that. It’s a real lockdown moment. It genuinely came out of quite a sad time. It’s another side to the album that is actually quite emotionally vulnerable. It kind of stays in the character of the album but breaks down the fourth wall a bit. I thought it was important to have one or two moments on the album that weren’t a show.”
The journey we’ve chronicled over in Dork with Declan has seen him become one of our most cherished favourites. For Declan, it’s been a rise that has allowed him to fully realise his singular vision. “It’s taught me to never stop learning,” he says of the last eight years. “It felt like one huge learning curve. Confidence is important, but never be so confident that you don’t feel like you have something to learn. You’ll change your mind in six months to a year’s time about who you are and what you want to do or what it is that makes you feel good about yourself, and that’s fine; that’s part of life. The journey has been amazing. For me, having those experiences under my belt now at 24, I just feel so capable now.”
People always say about ascending artists that they’ve finally ‘found their voice’, but maybe the best artists never really find their voice? They’re constantly shape-shifting. “I’ve always found it hard to stay in one place,” smiles Declan. “Maybe if I formed a band and said we’re going to be a shoegaze band, then maybe finding your voice would have happened. I think what’s important about my voice is that you know that it’s me regardless of aesthetics. Especially in the modern time when you’re not restricted to what instruments you have in your room because you have your computer, you can have any sound ever. Genre is so transient now. You can have a hip-hop hit with a banjo. It doesn’t matter.
“It’s important with music to not just challenge people but push yourself to your limits”Declan McKenna
“The important thing is having something that ties it all together, and that’s your own personality. Even that is going to change. St. Vincent, who is one of my favourite artists, tweeted a while ago that ‘I’d rather be offended than bored’, and I think that is so true of the way that you move as an artist. You’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t, so you may as well change and evolve and see where you end up and who you can drag along with you.”
A lot has changed for Declan in the near decade he has been making music both in his own career, but also in the wider musical landscape. How much of the precocious 15-year-old who first wrote ‘Brazil’ does he recognise in himself now?
“A lot! I’m still motivated in the same way to create and perform. I’m still, in a less intense way, hell-bent on uniqueness and being yourself and doing things your own way. I just think I’m a more relaxed version of myself, really. I’m still figuring it out, but now I value rest a lot more, and I value being bored a lot more. Giving my brain a chance to breathe.
“Back then, the music that I would consume and try to make would never let up. I think the main difference is that now I value the space that gives your brain a chance to reset and think and evaluate. Back then, I was always moving. That probably is to do with being in the music industry for the first time and my age. The world was so exciting to me; it still is, but I want to be able to actually take it in now and not be so on edge all the time. The message is still the same; the desires are still the same. I’m still hoping that Spurs are going to do something. I’m still trying to play guitar like St. Vincent.”
Another key aspect of ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ is the conceptual world which Declan and his collaborators have created. A kind of surreal dreamscape as featured on the album artwork and music videos, inhabited by giant cows, vivid bright skies, playful pigeons and his trusty new metal detector. It’s a creative thread that runs through all the imagery for the album.
“We found that on eBay,” he tells us about his magic metal detector. Okay, so maybe it’s not actually magic. “It was an old metal detector, and we got it kind of working. It’s been bashed around; it’s gone out to America with us in a flight case.
“With the visuals, I’ve worked with two friends on everything. I’ve been going to them as confidants. One is Jake Passmore, who previously directed the ‘My House’ video and is just a multi-talented and stylish human being. King of vibes music, I would say. He’ll just throw on some Henry Mancini or world music album that is very calming.
“Genre is so transient now. You can have a hip-hop hit with a banjo. It doesn’t matter”Declan McKenna
“The other person is Henry Pearce. There is nothing that man can’t do. He’s my keyboard player, flute player, he plays the violin, he’s been my sax player. He’s just started a band himself, which is doing really well. They are called Soft Launch, and they are incredibly good. They have so many good songs in the bag. You’re going to be all over it, I promise,” Okay, Dec, Dork’s Hype List is next issue, thank you very much. Anyway, carry on.
“Henry has been the photographer for everything. These two guys I’ve gone through everything with. We were discussing the themes for the album because it felt very abstract, and I didn’t want any of it to be weighed down by heavy subjects. I wanted it to have the visual and aesthetic focus but not make it feel really cynical like the last album. That was very dark and stuff. I didn’t want that, but I wanted some sort of consistency. I think it was Jake who came up with this, but he had the idea of the metal detector as the album being a search for sound. It’s the thing I was talking about of not quite knowing what you’re looking for. You’ll have to see what comes of it, but as yet, no one has a clue what I’m looking for. That connects to the album and the way that it’s been made.”
It’s an aesthetic that’s influenced by the wide open spaces and expansiveness of the American landscape. “Henry’s very interested in the history of America and the aesthetics that come out of California. Route 66 and shit like that. That, combined with some of the influences he’s picked up, led to the idea of these big, sprawling, placeless landscapes. Landscapes that you couldn’t pin down what they are. We shot in the Penguin Pool at London Zoo and Devils Dyke near Brighton for the artwork. The idea of the pictures is that we warp it in a way that’s kind of subtle and puts it somewhere that doesn’t really exist. That’s the line between everything. The metal detector and the search going on. I jump in between these strange, placeless vistas.”
Of course, here at Dork, we love a good animal in a pop video or pop image, and Dec brings this to life with his fantastical cows and the pigeons in the ‘Sympathy’ video; who knows what creatures might pop up? “Well, the album is called ‘What Happened To The Beach?’. It’s not exactly an environmental album, but I’m very conscious of the fact that we’ve only got so much time left to save all these guys. I’m a big animal lover. A big vegan,” he exclaims.
“The message is still the same; the desires are still the same. I’m still hoping that Spurs are going to do something. I’m still trying to play guitar like St. Vincent”Declan McKenna
Perhaps the final bridge for Dec to cross with this album is to get that elusive Number 1 record after ‘Zeros’ narrowly missed out to an old Rolling Stones album in a chart battle in 2020. This time, The Stones are back again, but fortunately, releasing this year well before Dec’s album comes out in February 2024. “They’re staying well clear,” he laughs. Dec is determined not to get caught up in any chart nonsense.
“Whatever will be will be,” he sighs. “The thing is, it’s not going to be such a hyper fixation this time around because I’ll have other stuff to do. In this day and age, obviously, Number 1 means something, but I don’t think it means what it used to, and I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of the campaign. I don’t look back on that time as a fun time. I didn’t enjoy the process of trying to get a Number 1. It’s not a passion for me. The thing that has felt important and has lasted with me is that people are still listening to it. There are people turning up to those shows wanting to hear those songs. I still listen to it myself, and even though there are things I would do differently, I really went for something, and I’m proud of that. That’s the important thing.
“I really do believe that an album is never made in that first week, and it’s after a long period of time when people are still listening to it and saying that’s a good one. That’s when you know that you’ve done something because there’s been some shit number ones in the last few years.”
2024 is going to be a huge year for Declan McKenna. With a new album, a new UK tour and a new sonic world for fans to dive into, it looks set to be a defining period of his career. “We’re going everywhere,” he promises. “There’s a lot to look forward to. It’s been a hot second since I’ve toured the UK. The other main thing is more music and some really cool ideas for the videos around that. Each new single is going to have different stuff around it. They are varied in concept.”
Bursting with ideas and commitment to have fun and do things his way, Declan McKenna’s new phase of liberation is upon us. Declan concludes by whetting our appetite for what’s to come with three words to describe ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ “Intimate, messy and wobbly.” Welcome to Declan McKenna’s wobbly era. ■
Taken from the November 2023 edition of Dork. Declan McKenna’s album ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ is out 9th February.
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