The night before I meet Declan McKenna, I am flicking through the music channels on television and spot ‘Wish You Were at Glasto’ on MTV Rocks, a programme of various music videos from artists scheduled to appear at 2017’s Worthy Farm iconic festival. Among tracks from the likes of Radiohead, London Grammar and Kaiser Chiefs, is ‘Brazil’, one of many politically-fuelled numbers from rising indie rocker Declan McKenna, who at this point was preparing to wrap up his week-long Glastonbury warm-up tour ahead of his third appearance at the festival, despite being just eighteen years old.
Fast forward 24 hours, and McKenna and I sit tucked away on a squashy sofa next to a mini fridge packed with Red Stripe, in a dressing room at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach, having just ended his soundcheck, which I was lucky enough to catch the end of. With his performance on the John Peel stage now less than a day away, I ask if he’s nervous and whether it feels like heading back to his roots, following his break onto the music scene by winning Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015.
“We feel in a really good place with the set we’re going to play. It’s a fun place, y’know? It’s a great time. It’s not somewhere I’d call home necessarily but it’s definitely somewhere I’m very fond of, and somewhere where I’ve had some great (and not so great) experiences, but it’s a great place to explore, enjoy yourself and let loose a bit. I love Glastonbury.” Any signs of nerves are well hidden, as I move on to ask whether he gets star struck at Glastonbury.
“I think I would get star-struck, but there’s a small number of people who would do that. I do have a tendency to talk shit generally, but I think it sort of multiplies when I meet someone. You’ve just gotta go for it in whatever aspect of life it is.” he admits, laughing. As for who he’s most looking forward to watch on the weekend, “Justice is my main one. That’s going to be awesome. Maggie Rogers is another one. I really want to see Dizzee Rascal, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, but there’s so much music going on, I’m just going to see as much as possible really.”
I’d recommend to anyone who can possibly get James Ford to produce their album
Some of McKenna’s other stops this summer include performances at Latitude, Lollapalooza, Reading and Leeds, of which he says “growing up around London, it’s the festival spot, so I’m very much looking forward to that”. However, perhaps the biggest event of his summer will be the release of his debut album in a month, What Do You Think About the Car?.
“We’re just in the process of getting everything done for the release, signing CD sleeves and all of that. I’m glad to be getting to a point of just putting it out in the world and having people listen to it and know the songs.” The album is produced by James Ford, who has worked with Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine, Haim and Depeche Mode – was it an obvious or personal choice to work with him?
“Kind of, it wasn’t a case of ‘who do you want to produce your album?’ ‘JAMES FORD!’, but I’d seen some of the people he’d been working with, he’d done the last Foals album, so I sent over my demos and he was into them. It was really a no-brainer for me, I’ve liked a lot of the stuff he’s worked on, so it was really exciting to have such a talented producer interesting in what I’m doing. I had a great time with him, he’s a great guy – I’d recommend to anyone who can possibly get James Ford to produce their album!” he quips.
As he prepares for his debut release, I turn his attention to albums which have recently been released and ask what he’s currently listening to. “I’m really excited for the Arcade Fire album, and there’s this guy Okudaxij who I was showed to by Will Joseph Cook and said it was the best thing he’d heard in ages. I think he produced it in two days, it’s really basic recording and it’s just amazing.” Aside from current passions, I question who McKenna takes influence from musically.
I think it shows in my music, there’s a lot of different influences which come together
“A lot of influence comes from new wave and indie, but before that there was a lot of pop. Green Day, Busted, Westlife, anyone like that. Then indie and that sort of scene came about, and that’s what made me want to be in a band, to some extent. I got into it quite young because my brothers are a bit older than me and they were into The Mystery Jets, Foals and those sort of bands, and it’s just gone from there. I’d say nowadays my biggest influences are David Bowie, Jeff Buckley or ABBA – they’re a big one for me. There’s a lot really. I think it shows in my music, there’s a lot of different influences which come together – some songs sound like one influence, some like others, but I’ve just made the songs I’ve wanted to make and just had a lot of fun.”
Besides musical influences, I comment on the political tone and possible thematic inspirations which are weaved into McKenna’s songs, such as LGBT issues and politics, and ask if this was a conscious effort or if it just happened to come about.
“It just kind of comes about. I think it’s always been part of my writing, just observing the world and finding something to write about, but also finding something I care about, and whilst it’s not searching for it particularly, with the internet there’s so much out there it’s hard to ignore. So yeah, more and more becoming interested in the world, the way the world works and who it works for, as well. I think that’s big part of what I write about, who the world works for and wanting it to work for everyone. I don’t think there’s a theme necessarily to the lyrical content of the album, but if there was one, it would be that, as well as just general confusion. A lot of the songs are based around questions, and the title is a question.” I take a second to use this opportunity to ask where the album’s title originates from.
“It’s from a home video from when I was four years old. We’d just got a new car, the car my parents still have, and my sister turns the camera on and says to me, ‘Dec, what do you think about the car? Do you like it?’ and I say, ‘it’s really good, and now I’m gonna start singing my album’, and I just started to sing something, so we sampled that at the beginning of the album, and it’s just always stuck. It’s almost something which will throw people off, because you’re almost asking what they think about the album, but you ask about the car. I kind of like the idea of throwing people off.” He explains, laughing.
Thinking back to what McKenna mentioned about the internet regarding the last year in global politics, does he think artists should use their influence on social media platforms? “To an extent, yes. Where it can be done, I think it should be done. I think there are a lot more artists now who have seen they can make a difference. One of the biggest differences was the recent general election, with the result closer than it was expected to be, because of our generation, and scenes we’re promoting such as grime, which promote young people being involved. It’s good for people to use their influences, but at the same time, there’s a time and a place.”
“I constantly have this political thing over my shoulder, with people labelling me as a political singer, which is true to an extent, but it’s also just observing the world around me. When we go through tragedies or hard times, I think at least in the immediate aftermath we should just try and be positive, and if there’s going to be politics, it should come after, because I really disagree with a lot of kneejerk politics.”
I think it’s always been part of my writing, just observing the world
Having touched lightly about his labelling as a political singer, I comment on his music videos which have messages worn through about various topics and are unique and stand-alone in the themes they cover in the spectrum of his music. McKenna explains often his video ideas fall through, and that “especially in the last two videos, it’s often about finding a director who is able to convey my ideas,” something he feels he does badly. “I’ve told director Taz (Tron Delix) the basis for my ideas and he just went wild with them. That’s what we’ve done with a lot of the videos, we’ll talk about the ideas and themes I want to convey and we’ll have quite a different director each time, who’ll put it in their own way. I like the idea especially as there’s no one theme to the record, the music videos can all be very different projects which show different things from different perspectives.”
One video which does this particularly well is ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’, which features the song and a diverse mix of young people and their hopes and concerns for their futures. Were they people McKenna knew and asked to be involved?
“A lot of them were, it’s funny, some of the people I knew on the shoot, I didn’t even realise had gone and been casted. A group of the people were my friends, but it’s meant to be a big group of young people from all around London really. I liked the idea of having a music video that didn’t have much of a narrative, but was more of an opportunity to get young people to have their say on the world. I could do that and not put it in the music video but people wouldn’t watch it. I guess the point of the video was to show that there are a lot of young people with views on the world who we should be listening to more.”
“With myself you can kind of get heralded as this incredible young person who talks about politics, so I wanted to show that we’re all doing it,” he explains with modest honesty, laughing. “I think that’s the point of ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’, there’s a young generation who are scared and confused and have been thrown into a completely new world which no one has had before, who want to do something about it and change that.” I agree, noting the stance of the majority of the youth election result and how young people have strong attitudes to change and progress.
there’s a young generation who are scared and confused and have been thrown into a completely new world which no one has had before
“Absolutely. It’s whether the world around them chooses to let them know that they can actually change the world, because everyone wants to, but if you don’t think your vote is going to count or aren’t told you should go out and vote or that the parties are different, then you’re going to feel disenfranchised from the political elite, which I have, which a lot of my friends have. That’s the problem, it’s not that young people are lazy, the young people who don’t vote don’t know why they should vote, or who they should vote for.”
As we reach the end of the interview, I take a moment to think about the maturity and simplistic wisdom of McKenna’s views from someone who has been old enough to vote for less than twelve months. This maturity spreads further than his views on the state of the world and the people in it, as he thanks me for the questions as I thank him for his time and wish him the best for his future tours and album release. An hour later, I watch his energetic performance and crowdsurfing attempt over other members of his generation, equally as passionate as the young man who they sing along with, and can’t help but feel just as hopeful that there will one day be a society in which these people are listened to and believed in.
Declan McKenna’s debut album, What Do You Think About the Car? is out July 21st.