For Declan McKenna, it was all to play for when he won Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition aged just 15. Nine years later, third album What Happened To The Beach? – recorded in LA with producer Gianluca Buccellati – finds him in creative cruise control. As McKenna tells Buzz’s Emma Way, he’s now trusting his instincts more than ever.
What was the writing process for What Happened To The Beach? like, relative to the album which preceded it, 2020’s Zeros?
Declan McKenna: It’s quite different. I felt like I stumbled into this album, whereas with Zeros, I built everything up and then went into a studio and recorded it after I’d thought about everything. It’s quite nice to just work slightly more naturally. There are ideas and parts from this album that have come from my earliest demos, from just working on stuff at home. I was just trying out stuff, and that’s all there was to it. I’m being more direct in some ways – saying the first thing that comes to my head, or playing the first thing that comes to my head and building from that.
What made you realise your intention to focus on the enjoyment of writing this album over any end goal?
Declan McKenna: I think thinking about the end goal too much is a red herring. Sometimes, you try and paint the picture before you’ve started it, then you’re not really being creative in the same way. Whereas just allowing yourself to discover ideas and stumble upon ideas, just feels more creative, and you wind up with something that you wouldn’t expect from yourself.
A lot of this stuff started during the pandemic – I was almost working on music as a hobby again. Looking back to when I was a teenager, there was something great about what I was able to do back then. I was just going for it and not really planning it out too much. It’s a different way of working on music, but I couldn’t have come up with these ideas if I’d have had to coax it into being something else before I’d even started it. It was really about the discovery that made it what it is.
How did you land on the album title?
Declan McKenna: I’d been trying to find a name for it – I liked Wobble, which is the first full track on the album. I like the idea that [What Happened To The Beach?] was a question that was a mystery, and that it relates to the beaches of this album as well. I worked on it in Brighton, and in LA. It just suited it and felt right.
When you’re writing, do you listen to other music at the same time, or do you find it distracting?
Declan McKenna: I do listen to various bits, but I try not to always be listening to music. I think those moments where your mind can wander are a good chance to come up with new ideas, but I pick out references, and I’m always tuned into covering new music. You get on some weird tangents when you’re working on music.
We started listening to random stuff, nothing that I would normally listen to. Me and Luca [producer Gianluca Buccellati] were listening to the Drake and 21 Savage album that came out at the time [Her Loss]. We listened to that like 10 times.
On new songs like Nothing Works and It’s An Act, you talk about feeling rehearsed, feeling like you’re putting on an act. Is this referencing how you’re perceived by others, or how you perceive yourself?
Declan McKenna: A bit of both. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself by second-guessing what others think – maybe that was part of this album’s ethos and why that authenticity theme is featured across the album in different ways. You have to trust yourself, know who you are and to be yourself, and I think – again – that’s why we made the album the way we did, and why it’s moved in a slightly different direction.
In the process of making music, onstage – in daily life as well – if you’re constantly worried about the things that you’re doing, and working through that worry, then it’s impossible to be yourself, it’s always going to be a bit of a facade. Whereas if you’re able to push those thoughts to one side as much as you can, then I think you really reap the rewards from it.
What were some inspirations behind this album’s production?
Declan McKenna: Working in a slightly more modern way was a big part of it. It wasn’t like I was recording a band with live drums and guitars with amps – I could do anything, and was just recording bit by bit and adding things, then maybe taking one thing away. The randomness of the process made us able to build these slightly weirder compositions.
Something that maybe influenced that was Gorillaz, who I grew up listening to. They do that well, throwing an accordion on a track and making a sort of weird balance. Psychedelic stuff was a big influence as well: stuff that feels a little bit otherworldly.
When you’re touring, do you try to play older songs in ways that compliment your newer material?
Declan McKenna: To an extent. I don’t want to alienate them and turn them into something that they’re not, but at the same time, there are some songs that, if we played them in the original way, wouldn’t fit in the current context. I’m always tweaking things as we go along, even in the middle of a tour we do that a lot. [2016 single] Paracetamol, which we didn’t play for a while, when we tried playing it in a slightly different way – more in tune with what I do now – we started playing it again. I’d hate to be doing everything the exact same way every time. I find that it makes you perform worse as well.
Have any of the song’s meanings changed since you first wrote them?
I think so. That was the beauty of this album, and working the way we did. In the moment, I was saying one thing and not really thinking too deeply about the meaning and so, now looking back and through doing all these interviews, I’m able to get a different perspective on the themes that I was going for, like the idea of authenticity.
I wouldn’t have intended that to be the theme of the album, but I look at Sympathy, I look at Elevator, Nothing Works and It’s An Act; they’re all looking at being yourself and trusting your own instincts, but in a slightly negative perspective, talking about the times when you find it hard to be yourself. It’s a simpler message than what people are familiar with – but I think sometimes when you’re listening to music, you just want to absorb a feeling and not necessarily be told what to think.
What Happened To The Beach? is released on Fri 9 Feb via Tomplicated.
Declan McKenna plays the Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union, Sat 23 Mar.
Tickets: £32.50 (sold out). Info: here
words EMMA WAY