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Q&A: Declan McKenna discusses confidence, ’70s influence in sophomore album ‘Zeros’

British musician Declan McKenna said his sophomore album, “Zeros,” marks a new level of musical confidence that he did not have in previous tracks. (Courtesy of Jeff Hahn)

By Vivian Xu

Oct. 26, 2020 2:24 p.m.

The countdown for Declan McKenna’s new album has finally hit zero.

After a four-month delay, “Zeros” dropped in early September and marks the British indie rocker’s sophomore effort. McKenna said the release pulls from influences like David Bowie and the Beatles, while sprinkling in modern digital production elements. Since he broke into the industry in 2015, the artist said the album signals a newfound level of confidence in his music.

Declan McKenna spoke with the Daily Bruin’s Vivian Xu about putting his own spin on classic British rock, blending politics with his discography and using his music to reflect what he sees in the world around him.

(Courtesy of Columbia Records)
McKenna said “Zeros” was influenced by British rock musicians like David Bowie and the Beatles. By incorporating technical production elements, McKenna said he put a modern spin on these classic rock sounds. (Courtesy of Columbia Records)

[Related: Q&A: Guitarist Zack Feinberg talks about The Revivalists’ place in modern rock]

Daily Bruin: Your new album seems to take inspiration from ’70s rock music. How did you modernize this sound for a new generation of listeners?

Declan McKenna: I was trying to take influences from all over the place, and I really wanted to have the energy of a live band in a room. I was looking for that, but I’m also very inspired by artists who are digitally playing with their sounds. I was trying to use the tools at my disposal (to create) a sort of ’70s sound (with) some more modern synths and drums and just messing with everything digitally after. I think there’s an element (in the record) that’s very drenched in the ’70s, and bringing it up-to-date or in line with my other influences was fun – it was a big part of this record, really.

DB: Several songs on “Zeros” revolve around a recurring character, Daniel, whose identity remains unclear. Why did you choose this motif and what does Daniel represent?

DM: I think Daniel helps tie things together (as) a focus point – a character who you could tie the emotions in the song (to and build) a world. When you realize it’s around this one person, you understand why things are happening a little bit, even if it is kind of fake.

Daniel represents someone who’s lost, and that’s something I’ve observed a lot – a world that pushes people away, a world that scares people into submission. Daniel represents the character who just disappears from all that, who’s had enough and is blamed for being who he is. I (want) everyone to take their own ideas from (the album), but for me, it definitely was trying to build a world that felt similar to our own – that felt destructive, that felt like it was imploding on itself.

(Courtesy of Jeff Hahn)
While he does not purposefully try to be a political artist, McKenna said he often gets labeled as one because of the content of his songs. As he continues to release music, he hopes more people will see various dimensions of his personality. (Courtesy of Jeff Hahn)

[Related: Q&A: Holly Humberstone describes breaking into music industry, creating her first EP]

DB: Your breakout song “Brazil” earned you the reputation as a political artist because it criticized FIFA as a corrupt organization. Do you see yourself as a political artist?

DM: I don’t see all of my music and all the things I say as political, but I think we live in a very political world and sometimes just sharing a story is an act of politics or can be taken as an act of politics. That’s the kind of world we live in and that’s why it’s always been important to me to be as vocal as I can be (even) before anyone was listening to (my music).

I don’t mind being called political because I am political at times, but I think as I release more and more music, people (will) realize where different aspects of me lie. I’ve realized over the years that people are going to say their opinion about you and it may feel very vague and very reductive, but that’s literally what happens to every artist. So yeah, political – fine, I am kind of political.

DB: You signed to a major record label when you were only 16. Since then, how has your personal growth over the years affected your music?

DM: I think there’s just a sense of confidence to the way I work in music. Really, all you need to make good music is confidence in your ideas and confidence that you can execute. Just feeling like you have the ammunition to do all that and execute all that, it’s been a big step for me. Feeling like you know what you want and can achieve it is something that I didn’t quite have when I was first messing around (with music).

DB: After putting out your second studio album, what do you see next in your career?

DM: I’d just like to keep doing things differently and keep finding new places to get inspired and finding new ways to make music. I think the most important thing for me has just become really enjoying what I’m doing. I feel like I’m at a point where if I’m just not enjoying it, then there really is something wrong. I don’t really know what the next few months are going to look like, but I can just sit here and write and work on things that excite me.

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Vivian Xu | Daily Bruin senior staff
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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