Interview with Declan McKenna: What carries greatness most of the time is simplicity.

In English, Interviews by indiespect

Declan McKenna has already released his second album «Zeros» in September 2020, but only now has he brought it live on stage in Switzerland. At the beginning of the week, the exceptional talent was back at the Plaza Zurich for his first concert since the support tour for Blossoms in 2017. More than enough reasons for an interview with one of the great hopefuls of English indie.

Foals are:

Yannis Philippakis (voals, guitar)
Jack Bevan (drums)
Jimmy Smith (guitar, keys)

Indiespect: Thank you for taking your time.

Declan McKenna: Yeah, of course. I was only playing Fifa on the bus. So, nothing really important. (laughs)

Indiespect: But maybe you still needed some time to relax after your show at Les Eurockéennes de Belfort?

Declan: Yeah. We spent the whole day yesterday relaxing, and some of my band have just gone up to the lake, but I just stayed here. Yesterday it was so hot and there was physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, cryotherapy, all this stuff backstage. We just did all of it. We were so relaxed by the time we got to the stage, Then I started stressing and I couldn't find some of my makeup. But yeah, we've done pretty well for ourselves on this tour so far.

Declan McKenna

Declan McKenna

Indiespect: Did you also stay for Muse after your show?

Declan: We did. I've watched pretty much the whole show. Henry who's not full time in the band – he's doing additional instruments on this run and has done it a few times before as well – is a lifelong Muse fan. It's part of the reason why we've bringing him on this run of shows because he's so into Muse. They're a nostalgic very important band for him. So he was living for it, loving it. It was a nice gig. Intense is the word for a Muse live show. So many undeniable hit songs, really sick tunes. Yeah, it was great.

I don't know if it's because I've grown or maybe because I've done more big venues now,
but I feel like the venue seemed so much bigger back then.

Declan McKenna

Indiespect: Now on to your music. It's the second time you're playing this venue after supporting Blossoms back in 2017. Do you still have any memory of that?

Declan: When I was 18. I remember that show. I remember being here. I definitely remember the venue. It's funny, though, returning to places. I don't know if it's because I've grown or maybe because I've done more big venues now, but I feel like the venue seemed so much bigger back then. But the thing I remember most vividly about that day was this backstage area here. I assume it's also a club. It has light up floors and a smoke machine. I spent the whole day in there and then after the show everything was lit up and going crazy. Our bus driver came in with this weird costume that he had hidden somewhere that we hadn't seen, yet. Maybe he was dressed as a clown or something. One of the really vivid good memories of that tour was then. It was just the early days and I was just 18 as well. So we were partying and just having a great time. It's a really memorable tour for me.



The classic disco floor at Kosmos, Plaza Klub in Zurich.

© Stefan Tschumi

Indiespect: Now, five years later, you gained much more experience and played a lot of gigs. How did the touring life change for you?

Declan: I'm still very young and I still wanna put a lot of energy into the shows, but I don't have the bounce back ability as I would have at 18 or 17. I just had relentless energy and I would always be finding things to do. When we could go out to places and stuff like that, and the next day I would just be fine. I've always struggled with things like tonsillitis or at least I give myself a chance to get sick and feeling unwell fairly regularly. Especially in those environments, dirty venues and stuff. So I'll just be more mindful of all of that now, a bit more chilled. I want it to be more sustainable because it's really tough when you get to the end of the tour and you've been burning the candle at both ends. That's changed a bit. And also just the show is more locked in. I still like to keep elements of randomness every night. We change the setlist almost every show. Just to mix it up a bit and make sure not everything is pinpoint. At the same time we've just been playing together for so long in my band now. It's different but it's still one of the most fun things to do.

I really get into the flow of making music and I want to keep going and keep going.
Obviously playing shows just puts a bit of stop to it.

Declan McKenna

Indiespect: In a podcast episode of «George Ezra & friends» back in 2018 it felt that touring is not your favorite part of the job. More the creative part in advance and the wrtinging of new music itself.

Declan: Definitely. Because this is what you remember at the end of the day as a fan of music. You want the shows to be awesome, but it's the songs that are the really important thing. Initially I was so swept up and loving playing shows because it's my first chance to go to a lot of places. When I first started touring, I'd never been outside of a couple of countries in Europe. And then, I got to go to Japan, to America or Mexico when I was 17 or 18. It was just the whole experience of it. There was something completely new and energizing about that. As I was saying, I had so much energy for it because it was so exciting. But when I come out on tour, as much as I enjoy the shows, the minute I'm working on the next album, I'm a bit like: I wish I had more time for the music, because it's hard to get the balance between the two. I really get into the flow of making music and I want to keep going and keep going. Obviously playing shows just puts a bit of stop to it. You can still do stuff, but it's it's not quite the same, until you've got your Snoop Dogg situation with your studio in the back of the bus and your producer on the road with you.

Indiespect: An idea for the future.

Declan: Yeah, it is very much an idea for the future. I think I can do a lot on my own, but it's just the time setting stuff up. And you wind up doing very sort of bootleg versions.

Declan McKenna

Declan McKenna in his stage outfit during his concert in Zurich.

Indiespect: Even if it's now out for almost two years, «Zeros» is still your current record. Every time I listen to it I'm amazed of the music and the depth of your lyrics. You are now 23 and obviously were even younger when you wrote those songs. So, I was wondering when you realized that music is the key to process things like insecurities in your life?

Declan: I've always kind of used it as a form of expression. It's just over time where you find new ways to do it. Sometimes that's through being completely honest and open. And sometimes that's through finding words which escape normal conversation. That's just been the journey of the last 15 years of my life, even, since I was a child, really. I wanted to use it as a form of expression. It felt like I could do anything with music. That's always been been it for me. I could be direct or abstract and both of those things also go together. A lot of people want art to have a direct meaning. As I go on, I really appreciate a clear concept in music. You can say so many things in one song. «Zeros» was a real exploration of going deeper on the idea that I could be direct and abstract at the same time and voice things that I was feeling in a moment, but also voice things that have a wider message as well. A lot of that is just embracing the moment, embracing the things that you're feeling right now. Even in that creative mindset, you're so impacted by everything that's going on around you. The more I just let my inner voice speak in those little moments of emotion, the better and stronger these ideas and messages can be portrayed in music. It's been a long time I've been doing all of that really. I can't even pinpoint when it started.

There's a place for art to have meaning but there is also a place for art to be a pure escape and just to feel good.

Declan McKenna

The amazing record
Release: 04.09.2020

  1. You Better Believe!!!
  2. Be an Astronaut
  3. The Key to Life on Earth
  4. Beautiful Faces
  5. Daniel, You’re Still a Child
  6. Emily
  7. Twice Your Size
  8. Rapture
  9. Sagittarius A*
  10. Eventually, Darling
Review (German)

Indiespect: Last year you released the single «My House» which is way lighter. Was there a point in the pandemic where you thought about your lyrics ond did they drag you down at some point?

Declan: I feel like that a little bit sometimes. I just want the art to be an expression of myself at any point in time. I don't want it to have an intense message and that being something that is forced or something that I feel like I have to do. And yeah, through the pandemic I was just sometimes like: I can't come into all of this right now. It's just not possible. And I don't think any message I could have given about what was going on, would have really said much. At least I was struggling to do that. So, I've found myself writing something that was definitely related to the situation that I was in or we were all sort of in. But it's just feel good song and I want some of my music to be that. There's a place for art to have meaning but there is also a place for art to be a pure escape and just to feel good. A lot of my favorite artists explore all of those things at different points in their career or even in the same record. With this next record is it's going to be a combination of the two and it's going to be very honest moments and very weird ones that are just there because the music feels good to listen to. That's kind of what it's meant to be. «My House» has some sentimentality. too. But it's still a feel good track. That's great. (laughs)

«My House» – one of the lighter Declan McKenna songs.

© Eva Pentel

Indiespect: When you play abroad, like in Switzerland, there are people that don't even understand your lyrics and just enjoy your music. Most of your songs have some kind of uplifting melody, and if you don't listen close enough, you could think it's all happy go lucky.

Declan: There's a lot of artists where I've been a bit like that. When I was getting into «Everything Everything» for the first time it was just because they sound great and they're really fun. But the lyrics are strange as hell and definitely going into some deep, deep shit, you know? Now it's a bit more transparent with them. But this is an example of a band that, if you don't think about it, it'd just be great music. It's not trying to constantly proclaiming things, but it wants to seep into your psyche over time. Like right now, Brazil is having a sort of a moment on TikTok, but it's not because of the message of the song, it's just because it's a catchy tune and people like listening to it. That's as important as anything when making music. It's about the emotion at the end of the day. That is partially the lyrics but it's also with the sound and nice melodies.

Brazil is having a sort of a moment on TikTok, but it's not because of the message of the song, it's just because it's a catchy tune and people like listening to it.

Declan McKenna

Indiespect: One year ago you said in an interview that you were writing music for theatre and and you couldn't tell anything more about it. Is this still ongoing?

Declan: Yeah, I don't think I can. I honestly haven't seen where it's going for a little while. I'm thinking, the songs I wrote with that in mind are going to get used. But it was a project where it could go in a number of directions and I was one of many pretty big names, like writers, involved in it (laughs). I'm none the wiser at the minute on that. I feel like these things take a long, long time to come together as well. There's so many components and obviously I just don't even understand how theatre gets put together, really. So I'll see it. But I thought was very interesting what we did and hopefully it will be out at some point.

Declan McKenna

Declan McKenna and his band.

Indiespect: In the last days and weeks you've been playing at Glastonbury and opened for Muse in Belfort. Now you're back for a club gig. How does it feel to come from big festivals to play club shows again in the middle of festival season?

Declan: It's quite random. Putting these shows in made sense because they were on the European run and we could either go home or we could visit some places that we hadn't played in ages. In Zurich we haven't played since that tour with Blossoms, since I was 18. It's just nice to come somewhere and club shows are great. Yesterday was a massive gig [Les Eurockéennes de Belfort], supporting Muse, and was probably a bigger crowd than we had at Glastonbury. But we were vibing off each other more than the crowd because they were waiting for Muse. Obviously people are enjoying it as much as they want to enjoy a support act. But being here tonight, it's the people who are here to see us, who haven't seen us maybe ever. That's a different buzz all together and that's kind of what it's all about. So I'm excited for the shows.

Touring America is unlike anywhere else because you can just keep on going.

Declan McKenna

Indiespect: In autumn you return to the US and I saw that almost all of the shows are sold out. For an artist from the UK it's not that easy to to get your feet on that ground. Do you know what made you so popular over there?

Declan: It's crazy, especially «post-COVID». It was unexpected that people would react so quickly. We didn't put on massive shows like Brixton Academy like we've done in the UK. But they're fairly big and they're much bigger than anything else we've done in America before. We haven't been back and done a tour there since 2018. We did one off gig when we were recording the album in 2019. I wasn't expecting it. We've got an almost sold out tour, it's pretty much almost definitely going to be sold out. We were really gunned to do an American tour. I wanted to get back out sooner rather than later. We put the tickets on sale, a couple of months before the tour. Just seeing people react instantly was just like: oh my God, they're still there. They're still waiting for us to come back. It's really, really exciting and it in America we haven't done anything other than a couple of interviews, some little performances here and there. It's easy to imagine a world where people just kind of forget about it. I guess this is the power of the Internet these days. We just kept a bunch of people that want to see us. That's just great. And touring America is unlike anywhere else because you can just keep on going. We've got a month of shows there, but it still people are asking: why aren't you playing in Minneapolis while you are here? It's great because it means we can come back. (laughs)

Declan McKenna

Ready for the big stages: Declan McKenna

Indiespect: I won't keep you much longer. Just one thing regarding your lyrics again. Did you always have the talent to tell stories or did it come while you were writing when you were younger?

Declan: I don't know. I've always been into writing of all different forms, and I think I've always had a bit of creativity when it comes to making up a story, a narrative and kind of trying to apply me to it. It just developed a lot as I've gone on. It's just practice and at first it's almost like imitation. I remember in school when we would do English classes, I'd write stories, but almost like one of the Lemony Snicket books or it'd be like something my brother had written. Songwriting is a similar thing. Those skills got honed together. It starts with a sort of imitation and then it becomes your own thing, because you want to be able to find your own way to do the things that you enjoy when you're consuming a piece of art. So yeah, I wouldn't say it's a skill I've always had. When I was seven I played some songs with my sisters. They weren't as good but there's something great to some of those, though. We had a little band with my cousins when we were really, really young and some of them were just beautiful, so pure and natural. There's no filter at that age and you don't really have much fear. I used to just write about anything, it could be completely made up. And that's almost like a lesson now, to keep the pureness, keep your natural way of doing things. The more you try to impress people or to show off, the further you get away from what's actually great about what you do. That's kind of the lesson of looking back. It's just the simple stuff that carries your essence and in a way that can be seen. What carries greatness most of the time is simplicity.

The more you try to impress people or to show off, the further you get away
from what's actually great about what you do.

Declan McKenna
Declan McKenna

Fans and artist are satisfied after the show.

Indiespect: It's amazing. Even when you talk it sounds like some of your deep lyrics.

Declan laughs.

Indiespect: Did you have a name for the band?

Declan: So funnily enough, we had a few names. We were called «The Stripes» for a while, I remember. It's funny because my housemate Josh was in a band called «The Strypes» with a «y». And there's a few bands that are called like that, like the White Stripes. I actually know a story of someone being in a room with Jack White and telling him about «The Stripes» and he was like: how did he get away with that? Not about my band obviously. (laughs) I don't think there's any trace of us left on the internet.

Indiespect: Maybe you would have to redo some of those songs.

Declan: Yeah, I'd love to do that. There's were some good moments we had. We had some clangers, but we were having fun. It was amazing.

Indiespect: Thanks again for your time!