Here at Dork, we’ve always known Declan McKenna is a little bit special. Going right back to when he appeared in issue one, to starring on the cover the following year, establishing himself as one of our brightest new stars. Dec’s more than just another boy with a guitar; from the start, there was a spark in his eyes that suggested he had big plans and humongous ideas. Now, four years later, not even a global pandemic is going to stop Dec from firmly blasting off to the next level as he ushers in a whole new era.
‘Zeros’ is the sort of creative statement that Declan has been building up to from his early days writing songs as a teenager in his parents’ bedroom. A striking development from the rabble-rousing bangers that caught the initial wave of hype culminating in his successful 2017 debut, ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’. It’s a record that deals with big themes and big concepts that question the heart of humanity itself. It’s bold, distinctive and questing – and it’s the work of a fearless artist pushing their creativity to the extreme. “It’s about our perception of life and our perception of the end of the world,” he begins boldly.
Despite his enthusiasm for the record’s release, there’s no doubt this has been a troubling and frustrating period for artists across the creative spectrum as plans have changed and creative visions halted. Everything has generally become a right old mess. Declan, though, has remained positive, spending lockdown looking for new ways to create while building up anticipation for an album that was originally due back in May. “I’ve been really busy making stuff to go on the internet,” he explains. “I’ve changed course as a lot of different things just weren’t going to happen anymore, so I needed to find different ways to get creative and make music. It’s my job!” he laughs.
Indeed, Dec has been all over the virtual place these past few months. He’s popped up on Insta doing Q+As with fans, hosted live-streams, and even still managed to turn up on the telly with his memorable appearance on Sunday Brunch featuring multiple Decs performing ‘Beautiful Faces’. He may not have been able to release the album as planned, but Dec was definitely going to make sure we didn’t forget about him. “I started the lockdown just writing stuff and then everyone was like doing shows and stuff, so I thought I should maybe do some of these or else I’m going to miss the boat on that. It’s been fun. We’ve made some really cool recordings, and I’ve been working with my housemates on different photoshoots and film projects,” he says.
Nevermind the restrictions of lockdown, there have also been other frustrations for Declan to deal with. “I’ve been quite stressed with moving house, and my studio flooded the other week, and a load of my equipment got wet. There’s been a helluva lot of twists and turns during the lockdown amplified by being a bit stuck in one place. I’m buzzing the album is almost finally out though. It’s not quite the way I imagined it, but I’m excited.”
It’s been over a year now since Declan upped sticks with his band to Nashville to begin making the album. The one thing that characterised the lengthy sessions for ‘Zeros’ with producer Jay Joyce was a desire to make a proper band record; to harness the fevered energy and flamboyant exuberance of Declan’s stage show on record. “I really made a focus on this album on the live energy and space. Making sure stuff was epic but not overcrowded, and I had moments of expansiveness and moments of simplicity,” he explains. “I was feeling confident in myself and confident with my band and the team around me who were just awesome. I don’t know if that means anyone will like the songs more, but as long as I’m happy, I think that’s a good place to start.”
The ability to work more collaboratively was a development from the way he made his debut, which still had the hallmark of his early days working songs up from loop pedals with basic equipment. “There’s nothing like experience and time with equipment to help you learn both how to come up with more ideas but also to help you execute them,” he says. “Part of it was improving my role as a producer even though I didn’t actually produce the album. Increasing how much I could influence the sound of the record and what I wanted creatively.”
Declan’s creative vision is at the centre of everything on ‘Zeros’. With a beating pop heart and an experimental edge, it’s a clear progression. “The songs that come to me naturally are just pop songs. I’m not trying to be a crazy math-rock artist or anything like that, but I like experimentation to be at the base of my work. I always end up writing pop songs, but there has to be something new about it for me. It has to feel fresh and give me that burst of energy you get when you hear a song you really like. I have to experience that with a song I’m writing, or I just give up straight away.”
While Declan is obviously proud of ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’ it’s clear that there were elements of the way the record was made that frustrate him, looking back. The platform built by the record’s success though has opened up new avenues for him to work a bit differently. Initially, the process was trial and error. “I was so used to writing in my bedroom at home and having no space and no equipment to do it and then when you have that stuff all the time and all the freedom in the world you can almost lose what you were doing in the first place,” he admits. “I was just trying to get inspired in different ways; keep it fresh for myself and not getting into a boring style of writing. It’s always been about experimenting for me. The first record was a lot of loop pedal stuff that I was experimenting with from a young age. This one was diving into my laptop and discovering more but also taking moments to just sit at a keyboard or pick up a guitar and write a song. A song like ‘Be An Astronaut’ was 30 min on a piano.”
A lot of ‘Zeros’ is about sonic exploration. It’s about ramping up the sounds to the max, and it pulses with exhilarating energy from the glam rocking piano-led opener ‘You Better Believe!!!’ to the fever dream rushes of tracks like ‘Sagittarius A. Star’. The record is characterised by energy and wild abandon. Still, it is underpinned by Declan’s lyrical wordplay and fantastical idiosyncrasies that position it as a record that flits between oblique fantasy and harsh reality.
It was a different way of writing for Declan. With less of a reliance on overt, grandstanding statements, he instead favoured an ever-evolving mystery and a series of playful, witty and, at times, heartbreaking character sketches that shine a light on some greater universal truisms of the modern world we live in. “The ideas that I thought would be the concept of the album never stopped changing,” reflects Declan. “I was thinking about space” – a recurring theme on the record – “and how that metaphor tied into so many things that I care about; the environment, denied aspirations of a lot of young people in the world. All of that was very important to me.”
“I wanted to put it into a storyline that wasn’t too forceful or regressive,” he continues. “I wanted it to be about the emotions of characters, leaving it up to the imaginations of listeners to tie it into what is happening in the world. Weirdly, the album has become more and more relevant for me in terms of how I feel in my personal state and how I look at the world. It’s been a year since I recorded the bloody thing! I’ve dwelled on it for a long time, and the world has changed immeasurably. There were a lot of ideas going into it, and once you get to the end, it’s like that breath that you take in and just listen to it all and you’re like, right, this kind of makes sense.”
A big part of Declan’s appeal and why he has fostered such a close and engaged community of fans is that he’s a positive voice in showing that you can be yourself and not conform to stereotypes or expectations. The album title, ‘Zeros’, highlights people in society who feel marginalised, and it’s a theme close to his heart. “A lot of the album was inspired by people on the outskirts,” he says. “Not even just people I can particularly relate to, but all the normal human emotions that lead to people becoming outsiders in our community. The way the world is set up means people get left in these strange extreme corners of society and are completely pushed out. It’s happening time and time again.”
Warming to his theme, Declan elaborates on his desire for societal change in a humane way. “My role in the revolution is simple. It’s the same thing a lot of musicians have done over time, and that’s just telling people to trust themselves and believe in themselves and believe in their identities,” he says passionately. “To not listen to the social constructs that tell you otherwise. Trust your mind, and trust your body. When we do that we move towards a much more trusting and caring world. The more people understand themselves, the less they will damage other people.
“Unfortunately, our world is a very damaging place. We’re seeing that the brunt of that is being felt by young people, at least in the UK. So many different demographics are hit. I’m trying to reach out to people and just be that reminder that we have a long way to go, and you can trust in yourself and not just follow social constructs that have been made up to fill a hole that doesn’t make sense in the modern world anymore.”
“So, that’s what I think my role in the revolution is!” he laughs exuberantly after giving a stirring speech. “It’s the idea of a soft revolution inside ourselves. That’s where everything starts. It would make the world a better place if everyone truly understood and loved themselves.”
It’s this sort of committed belief to fight for humanity and equality that had Declan initially lauded as something of a ‘political’ writer and frequently labelled as a ‘voice of a generation’. The different storytelling approach on the album is in part a reaction against those early perceptions, but that fire for change is still very much there.
“A lot of the first record was inspired by reading the news and just seeing constant streams of negativity. I was trying to call out the hypocrisy of the world,” he says. “I found a lot of the time being called a political artist quite frustrating because it sounds quite limiting. I don’t really mind it, and I understand people are going to label me as whatever they want, it’s not the worst thing someone could call me. Life is political. The world is political. The more people hesitate over that fact leads to frustrating conversations where you can’t talk about things seriously because you can’t acknowledge that things do get politicised.
“For many people, it’s not a matter of choosing sides, it’s a matter of life and death. If you define accepting people’s identities as politics, then that is a dangerous game as it is so invalidating to so many people. I’m still the same person, I still think the same thoughts, but I just wanted something that wouldn’t necessarily be shrouded in buzzwords, in terms of the ideas I was presenting. It leaves things a bit more open and leaves it for people to think for themselves, which is important in this day and age when there’s so much you’re just taught to believe.”
“I don’t want to force people to follow my lead,” he adds. “I don’t think I’m an activist in the way that certain organisations are activists because I don’t really fill that space and that role, but it’s that little reminder that people should trust themselves and be good to themselves and through that good things will come.”
Unlike last year’s comeback banger ‘British Bombs’, which doesn’t feature on the album, with ‘Zeros’ Declan takes on a more subtle but no less powerful approach. The songwriting process this time saw him utilising character sketches and vignettes as an easier way to illustrate his own thoughts and feelings.
“I was listening to artists like Blur, Kate Bush and St. Vincent and how they used characters,” he explains. “I was going down that angle and trying to acknowledge the roles in society the characters on the album represented. I was immersing myself in the artistry of it. The more wild and abstract I can get with it, the more meaningful it is.
“Throughout that period of time where I felt a little lost and was figuring out life for myself, writing these characters as well as social and political connotations I found a lot easier and more of an exciting creative expression for what I was talking about.”
The ability to float off in all manner of lyrical flights of fancy allowed Declan to indulge in a lot of his childhood obsessions. “I was interested in space when I was growing up and read a lot of books about the solar system. In my teenage years, I listened to a lot of music from the 60s that was about the space race,” he says. “I like how corny that stuff is now. You can make a space concept album and people are like, well done, that’s the thing everyone does. The thing I was trying to consider was the idea of how humans have a tendency to look up for something larger than themselves. Space is used as a metaphor. Different religions are used as a metaphor throughout the album.
“A lot of it is just about human struggle and how we take away our responsibilities by looking at these things and by branching out further than what we’ve got. We have Earth, and we have each other. If we can’t look after those, then nothing else is going to look after us. Different people believe different things, but the one thing we can all agree is real is us and Earth. I was very interested in space and spirituality as an escape that makes us feel like we’re powerless when really we are very powerful and have very important responsibilities that we have to be aware of. That was one of the big things for me. A lot of the time humanity is going in a dangerous and destructive direction that most people don’t want.”
Declan Mckenna has always been unafraid to tackle big themes, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the end of the world. “I was writing about space and heaven, floods and hell on earth,” he says. “We fantasise about these things a lot, but we almost don’t take the reality of it very seriously as a society. People, on the whole, don’t want us to destroy our planet and destroy each other. We have a world where a few people have divided and conquered everything.”
We’re living in a moment where there’s a strong sense of global urgency and desire to enact real change. He recognises that incendiary, rage-filled songs like his own ‘British Bombs’ could be hard for people to process right now. “We live in a stressful world, and it’s a really stressful time, and it feels like telling people to be wary of all these things going on can be a bit forceful and difficult to process for people who are just going through it right now.”
Ultimately though, the tidal wave for change is growing. “There’s a lot of pain in the world but what’s coming out of it is people want change,” reflects Declan. “What’s happening in America is really significant and has inspired people over here. It’s important to carry out the change here that we hope will happen in America. We still need structural change for the sake of so many people.
“So many artists and people on the internet are talking about Black Lives Matter or the Yemen crisis every day. There wasn’t the space for that on the internet before, but we’ve created it. So many people are realising how much work needs to be done to protect so many people. People are demanding change, and hopefully, we can bring about an end to all that stuff that is not wanted by the majority of people.”
Despite its moments of portent and dread, ‘Zeros’ is an album flecked with playful lyrical asides and a hopeful quality. It’s a record that celebrates the weird and the wonderful, beginning with its kitsch retro influences. “It started very glam and very seventies,” laughs Declan. He’s been pictured lately with some gloriously glittery suits and shirts, and that’s a shiny aesthetic reflected in the music. One of the most striking things about the album is the imagery and sci-fi dystopian visual aesthetic that ties everything together.
The CGI videos and virtual reality concepts were something Declan has been looking to do going back to the debut album. “I’ve been working with Alfie Dwyer who does all the CGI stuff,” he says excitedly. “He has made so much stuff. I’ve always wanted to do CGI but never found someone for the first album, apart from the label saying we’ve got someone for 10 million pounds a day. It was nice to find someone who could be a mate, and I could collaborate with and not feel like I was working with someone who I’d find intimidating.”
He laughs at the idea that this could be considered an era in the modern pop star term. “I don’t know where they start and end,” he laughs. “I had concepts for the visuals, and we tied it all together, but it’s tough to call it an era. It all just blends together.”
There was a feeling of experimentalism that carried over from the music to the visuals with Declan again working with close friends. “Once I finished the album, I spent a lot of time with my friend Poppy who helped me design and conceptualise a lot of stuff and develop the ideas as we’re good mates and creatively compatible. We had a fun time hanging out, figuring out where things connected and the themes of the record.
“It was all about the people I was collaborating with and finding people I was able to bounce off. I was working with Wil Hooper a lot who directed the videos. We both had ideas about pop culture and the things we love about pop culture and presenting the videos as pop culture from another world.”
Helped by lockdown and a need to be as creative as possible, Declan also brought some of the songs to life through TikTok. “The CGI TikToks have been fun,” he exclaims. “There are infinite possibilities. TikTok is quite rigid, so it was a way of subverting it a little bit. A lot of the stuff that trends, relies on it being tied to a trending song. So it was a way of co-opting those things and making something that was kinda funny and a bit weird. I wasn’t really sure of TikTok at first, but I think you just have to embrace the modern way. People will scoff at it, but there’s a lot of creative stuff happening. You shouldn’t overlook what the younger generation are doing. I’m a big advocate for embracing all that.”
2020 has arguably been the strangest year in modern history, and suitably, Declan McKenna’s ‘Zeros’ is a record that forces us to question our place in the world and how it works. “It’s about reality and what reality is. It’s the big question looming over everything. What makes people lost in reality?” he concludes.
Taken from the August issue of Dork. Declan McKenna’s album ‘Zeros’ is out 4th September.
Words: Martyn Young