“It's a confusing decision, there have been a lot of those in world sport at the minute,” says Declan McKenna at the mention of the Qatar World Cup. “It's hard to understand what purpose it serves other than financial.”
McKenna shot to fame thanks to the song Brazil, which scrutinised the moral and socio-political minutia of the decision to host the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and what that meant in reality for the people of Brazil. He has similar qualms about the upcoming event.
“It just feels forced and not for a positive ethos for world sport. It feels like a strange decision but it ultimately seems to boil down to money being made for the right people and the right places.
“There has to be a commitment to change rather than it just being make money for a select number of people,” says McKenna, noting that “if it's not long-term change, it's not positive (change). The way things were framed for Brazil was how good it would be for tourism, but two weeks of good tourism doesn't justify a lot of the stuff that was done or the homes that were destroyed or people who were thrown out of their natural environments...”
The reality behind the spin is something which features heavily throughout his new album, ‘Zeros’, which tackles themes such as propaganda, climate change and conspiracy theories, utilising the backdrop of a doom-laden world on the brink of apocalypse.
“It's sort of about the way that how we feel comfortable living now is based in a lot of things that don't make us truly happy,” explains McKenna. “I guess what people expect in a world - for example in the UK, with so much wealth - what they (may) feel they deserve is very much altered by what they are told they need and what they are told they want. I guess that comes into the music a lot.”
McKenna effectively demonstrates this by placing emphasis on things like Nike and Quavers with the lyric “Comfort you can feel” on opening track You Better Believe. He notes that the album tries to ground itself by mentioning “quite mundane aspects of human life,” whose importance has been “hyped up in our minds.”
You Better Believe “dramatizes what people need and what is actually a threat” explains Kenna of the opening track, which explores identity politics. “Threats to society can be deemed as a person's identity or something somebody likes doing." The refrain "you're gonna get yourself killed" refers to “somebody not assimilating in the way they are expected,” McKenna explains, “whereas the overarching theme on the album is that there are much greater threats.”
The old adage ‘divide and conquer’ was at the forefront in his thinking surrounding the track. “If we are divided on things that really shouldn't matter, then it makes it harder to draw our focus onto the true threats to our societies. Fighting those true threats - the dangers to the environment and the danger we pose to ourselves - is about collaboration and will not be reached if we cannot find agreement and push in quite a strong way for change."
"The story of You Better Believe is that one thing is being made out as the end of the world when, actually, the end of the world is nigh in a very different way to what people are claiming it to be. For the first time on the record it poses the idea of somebody being pushed into this dark hole by not being accepted as a human.
There are many dark places in the world for you to go via the internet, to find yourself in and become disenfranchised and separate from society. Sometimes a little bit of that can be a good thing, sometimes it's an extremely bad thing. Maybe I put that in there as something to be aware of as the future goes on and the technology develops.”
McKenna has concerns about the rise of authoritarianism throughout the world. “Liberties are being squashed and attacked, there are people who don't feel safe in their own country and people who are oppressed and dehumanised. That's such a dire thing to see and observe.”
Of course, McKenna has never been afraid to tackle controversial topics head-on as displayed in his 2019 stand-alone single, British Bombs, which tackled the hypocrisy of Britain’s involvement in the Yemen conflict. He was pleased to see the issue of Britain’s colonial past becoming front and centre issue during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“I think it's worth addressing in a big way. We have a very dark past as a country and it's almost funny realising the history of a lot of the things we are very proud of seemingly as a nation, like our museums, are full of shit we just stole and stuff that doesn't belong to us,” McKenna explains.
“That's just a taste of a small aspect of a huge can of worms of wrongs that were done by the British nation for hundreds of years... and it's on display for free. It's good that the conversations are coming up about it because we, along with other Western nations, did a lot to damage other countries and other people.”
“That's what creativity is all about for me. It's finding a sort of contrast and making a point of mixing emotions in a way that's very real and very human,” says McKenna when we mention the juxtaposition of the glam approach to songwriting with the apocalyptic and often austere and Orwellian approach to lyrics on 'Zeros'.
This approach is a freeing experience for McKenna, allowing him to move past his own ego which allows him to stop taking himself “way too seriously.”
“Being allowed to make the record serve itself in being fun, and framing it in a way that can be digested, can be enjoyable still. That's what's fun - finding stuff that feels poignant to me, however abstract, and framing it in an interesting way that feels new.
...It's a fun record. I wanted it to be fairly direct in its sound and abstract in its lyricism and that allowed it to be quite fun. That was as important as anything.”
McKenna believes that now is the perfect time for escapism to make a return to the forefront of the musical landscape, and escapism can be quite healthy as long as it doesn’t impact negatively on your headspace as an artist and a person.
“I'm often weighing up the balances of being present, but also being able to escape. Creativity is partly an escape, even though I'm talking about, or trying to talk about, things I deem important throughout my music. I try to be honest. In many ways, I'm also escaping the world by doing all of that...escaping reality as well as framing it in a new way. I admit it's something that's hard to get a good balance with, but I hope this record is some kind of help to both sides of the scale."
One of the things Declan McKenna was definitely escaping into and being informed by during the writing and recording of 'Zeros' was glam rock.
“A lot of great ‘60/’70s records I was listening to really inspired the record,” says McKenna citing the likes of Bowie, Elton, T-Rex and Kate Bush. “I approached it in a more modern way and made a record like the ones I was listening to at the time of making this album. It's always been about making my favourite music really, that's all I can attempt to do.”
To help McKenna achieve the modern glam sound he was after he acquired the services of producer Jay Joyce (Cage The Elephant) and decamped from London to Joyce’s Nashville-based studio complex in a converted church.
“The reason I decided to work with Jay Joyce was that I was listening to 'Melaphobia', looked who the producer was and it was him. Cage the Elephant are a great example of a modern rock band who have a lot of the energy of rock'n'roll records and are very well-recorded but manage to keep themselves modern and approach things in a new way. I was definitely inspired by them in a few ways on this record."
McKenna had previously toured with Cage The Elephant, including a performance in The Academy, Dublin (read our review here).
“It's nice when bands like that work these days and it feels fresh and energized, because it's easy for it to feel the opposite of that. Playing in a guitar band, it's easy to fall into the trap of doing something which has already been done. I like it when it feels fresh and lively, Cage the Elephant are one of those bands that do that brilliantly.”
Nashville provided McKenna and his band with the perfect escape from London life, the slower pace allowing them time to both concentrate on the record and explore in equal measure. It's something that fostered the spirit of experimentation McKenna craved.
"Jay is very much about being in the moment when producing and being able to experiment and go on tangents. There's a big sense of freedom recording out there without having the obligations we would normally have being at home and being in London.
That was kind of important - having space from everything, being able to focus on the record and come full circle to finding the balance between being present and there for something and then being able to escape.
It really helped and the studio we were in - a sort of converted church that Jay has built into a studio now - is just outrageous. Everything we could possibly want was playable and on hand within a few minutes of asking for it. Jay's energy and creativity helped push everything through in the time-frame we had and it was great working with him."
Obviously, guitars aren’t as cool as they once were and, as McKenna has stated above, the sense of freshness is more important than ever, but also harder than ever, to achieve. That said, ‘Zeros’ is very much a guitar album with many of its riffs paying homage to the likes of Mick Ronson and T-Rex whilst also striving to be purely Declan McKenna. In order to achieve a sense of freshness on ‘Zeros’ guitar solos were split into two categories, ‘scripted’ and ‘unscripted’, with McKenna’s guitarist, Isabel Torres, taking the scripted lines whilst McKenna supplied the unscripted experimental moments.
“There are quite a few little guitar solo moments...we had fun, you know? A lot of mine was the slightly more chaotic approach, like in Beautiful Faces and Sagittarius A*. They're more sort of bizarre, shaking, wavering sounding guitars and that sort of intensity was needed, so there's a good balance.
"I ended up writing a lot of guitar solos onto the album because the guitar was front and centre even though it channelled a lot of different things. An important aspect of it was that this is a record that revolves around guitars, hopefully in a slightly new way, I tried to find my own slot when we were putting the guitar front and centre."
Like any space mission, ‘Zeros’ has had several false dawns and aborted test runs with its release date pushed back several times.
“It's been annoying. The record's been done since last year and I've just been waiting to get it out and have it be in the world. It's a shame it's had to be that way really 'cause obviously we'd planned things a different way and tried to tour, but everyone's had a rough time and I pushed the record back a few months.
Hopefully the world is going to change a lot in the next few months and things will get better. I'm excited to be able to have freedom in whatever happens in the next few months to relax and step away from thinking too hard about music for a while until it's safe to get out and start playing shows we've got booked next year."
Upon its release ‘Zeros’ entered the charts in the UK at No.2, narrowly missing out on the number one spot. McKenna is more interested in how the album will find its place in the world over time, but in the interim, he hopes it provides some joy to people in these strange days with the spectre of a presidential election hanging over the world.
“Hopefully, people take the sense of hope the albums rounds up in. There are little things that can ring true in what is a very scary time given this election, like, will we really be in for another four years of this nonsense? It's never a great set of options but there's a clear winner in terms of being valid."
We note that one of the first images presented in the album is the impending destruction of the world from asteroids and one is due to fly by Earth the day before the US election.
“We're gonna get hit one day,” laughs McKenna. “It'll be an interesting time, for sure, but we'll see how the record rings over time. I think it can flow into many different corners of life and that's the beauty of art, in many ways. I'm excited to see how it travels through that.”
'Zeros' is out now on Sony Records.