Touring, as it turns out, is not conducive to a healthy sleeping pattern. That’s certainly not something you need to tell Declan McKenna, who’s chatting to DIY via Zoom ahead of a late-night afterparty performance at Chicago’s Lollapalooza. “When you’re playing shows like that, I can barely get to bed - that’s my problem,” he explains. “It’s why people end up just drinking so much, because it’s so hard to actually wind down.”
Although still only 24, Declan speaks with pragmatism and a sort of worldly wisdom; slightly incongruous with his Hawaiian print shirt and messy mullet, but perhaps unsurprising, given he released breakout hit ‘Brazil’ in 2015 and has been working ever since. “I’ve been on tour since I was a teenager, so I’ve learned a few lessons,” he smiles. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re 17? We’re going to pay you in Stella’. It seems like most new bands - at least those coming out of the UK - have a similar issue, and they don’t realise that it’s just completely unsustainable to drink every night.” These days, Declan might try and unwind offstage with a book or a film (Pete Doherty, eat your heart out), but more often than not, he’ll end up “working on a song or playing some music” - neither of which, he explains, are exactly slumber-inducing.
From these stolen moments, however, come ideas - to tweak a chord here, or add a beat there. Years on the road touring debut album ‘What Do You Think About the Car?’ and 2020’s ‘Zeros’ have given him ample opportunity to re-evaluate some of his earlier material. “We’ve worked on a few of the older moments that I know people want to hear, but which aren’t necessarily fitting into the current world,” he elaborates. “[There are] songs like ‘Paracetamol’ from the first album, which had fallen out of favour because it felt aesthetically a little static compared to what was going on with the ‘Zeros’ tour.” But the indie kids can rest easy - he’s no Thom Yorke, declining to play fan favourites precisely because of their popularity. There’s now “a new version of [‘Paracetamol’] which feels right”, while ‘Brazil’ remains “one of the least revamped songs”.
As for the aforementioned “current world,” at the moment it exists as a hybrid between the eclectic indie pop of his debut and the glam-rock space cadet he became with ‘Zeros’. But with new singles ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Nothing Works’ pointing to yet another sonic shift, how will his third album ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ broaden these horizons? Put simply, it won’t. Or rather, it’s set to see Declan narrow his focus as opposed to aiming for “the hugest point that I can imagine a song going”, as with second album track ‘Be An Astronaut’.
“Just for a little bit there, towards the end of doing the first album, I started to feel a bit like, ‘Oh I have to take this really seriously now’,” he explains. “But music doesn’t work like that - it’s not something you can just regiment yourself into doing the ‘right way’. Creativity doesn’t present itself by beating your head against it; it’s more about finding ways that you enjoy it and trusting that something good will come of it.” With ‘What Happened To The Beach?’ then, he’s not forcing himself to reinvent the wheel for the sake of it, but just rolling with wherever it takes him.
“Music isn’t something you can just regiment yourself into doing the ‘right way’.”
Having worked on the record with producer Gianluca Buccellati (Arlo Parks, Lana Del Rey) in LA, Declan explains that “the core of each [new] song is somewhat simpler, but I’ve almost put the energy that I was putting into the classic songwriting side into the production. I think we were a nice pairing in that way: that was kind of where I was going with the album, but I maybe didn’t have the complete assuredness and confidence to just do it.” For someone that’s always had a particular Britishness to his sound - foregrounding his Enfield accent, or latterly channelling the likes of Bowie and Marc Bolan - LA might seem like a world removed. Why record there? “I find just being in a new environment inspires you,” he shrugs. “There are people [in LA] who are so open to collaborating and it’s so great, but it really felt like the furthest thing from actually home to me.”
Though conceived in London and brought to life in California, the new album’s visual world isn’t grounded in either but instead injected with a certain liminality. Take the video for ‘Sympathy’, which was shot on location at East Sussex’s Camber Sands beach and features, among other things, some suspiciously friendly seagulls. “I felt like it had to be beachy and summery, but also with this idea of an infinite, placeless plane,” he says, explaining the various references he and friends Henry Pearce and Jake Passmore drew on when devising the video’s concept. He continues: “The stuff we’ve been inspired by has made us want to make something that lacks a really specific place identity.” It’s a mission that also found them shooting the lead single’s artwork in the most unlikely of places.
“Henry has had dreams about the disused penguin pool at London Zoo since he was a child,” Declan says casually. “Back in the day, they had amazing Art Deco buildings which were beautiful, but just absolutely not where a penguin should live.” Right - and this is somewhere that you can now hire out for music-related shenanigans? He puts a finger to his lips before grinning. “Well… Harry Styles did for his ‘As It Was’ music video, but Henry’s been dreaming about this place for years, so that’s why we shot there.”
Throughout Declan’s soon-to-be tripartite discography, this is the core throughline - that he drives the creative concepts, whether they be inspired by a quintessential English coastline or, er, former Antarctic animal enclosures. “I have to be very involved in decisions, otherwise things get away from you,” he says, explaining that rare days off are often spent catching up on email admin. “This is one of my big music industry lessons - if you don’t have control over things going out under your name, you’re a stone’s throw away from them becoming absolutely fucking nothing like you wanted it to be.”
Devoid of ego but quietly confident in his vision, third time around Declan is letting go of any preconceived notions about the type of music he ‘should’ be making, and is instead just enjoying himself. “There are songs [on 'What Happened To The Beach?'] that almost feel like a bit of a joke,” he laughs, “stuff that I think is really good, that I think really slaps, but that I would have never put on another one of my albums because I would’ve thought it wasn’t a serious song.” Older and wiser (well, relatively speaking), Declan McKenna is happy to trust his instincts; after all, they’ve got him this far. The only thing he might need tips on now? How to get some much-needed shut-eye.
'What Happened To The Beach' is out on 9th February via Columbia Records.
As featured in the September 2023 issue of DIY, out now.