“I wanted to write a song that was outright against war, in any form”
Declan McKenna has returned with a new, politically charged single which takes aim at the British arms trade. You can listen to the new single, ‘British Bombs’, below.
After winning Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent award in 2016, McKenna released his critically acclaimed 2017 debut, ‘What Do You Think About The Car?’, when he was just 18.
Now, McKenna has returned with a new single which continues his exploration of politics — this time by taking aim at the government over the arms trade. McKenna is also donating proceeds from the single to charity.
Speaking about the new single, McKenna said: “’British Bombs’ is a tune I wrote about the hypocrisy of the British arms trade and the weapons convention in London. I think too often it’s implied that matters in the world are too complex to not end up with war, or to not possess and sell weapons, and I just think it is pure bullshit.
“Not only do we still engage in wars far away from our homes, which settle nothing and fuel extremism in the aftermath, we sell weapons to other countries full well knowing where they end up.”
He continued: “I wanted to write a song that was outright against war, in any form. Violence breeds violence and I just don’t think the world is too complex to set a peaceful precedent, but it seems the business of war is what keeps happening. To say it’s a shame feels like a huge understatement.” You can listen to the new song here:
McKenna spoke to NME about the ideas, themes and issues around his new single and his upcoming new album, which he is currently recording in Nashville. You can read our exclusive chat below.
Can you tell us a little more about your new song ‘British Bombs’ and the ideas behind it? Why were you compelled to write a song on this subject?
“I mean it kind of started from this conversation I had with a friend about Britain being at war all the time. Him and me have been alive for 20 years and in that whole time, we don’t feel we are are at war even though in reality we are — even though it’s different from what’s gone previously, and it’s happening in different parts of the world in a different way.
“It just kind of got me thinking about the whole industry behind that and I guess I just hadn’t heard a full-on anti-war tune in a while, you know, something that felt modern, something that felt adjusted to now. I think we used to do those kind of songs so well when we presented the idea of peace. But I think we’re so distanced from that now that maybe it’s disappeared from the public sphere. So I just wanted to write a song that made it quite clear that I think war is wrong in almost any aspect of the world, and just trying to point towards attaining responsibility for these sorts of things in the industry. It was also about understanding the bigger picture of that, I guess. And so yeah, that was kind of the inspiration for the tune.”
When you released your debut in 2017, you talked about struggling with the label of being a “political artist” or “protest singer”. Has that become easier to accept over time?
“Yeah, for sure. In the music world, you get written about, talked about, and you do realise that little key words do crop up all the time to describe you, and I’ve definitely grown to have less of a problem with that I think because you just have to become comfortable with people talking about you and people assessing you however they will. I wouldn’t really describe myself directly as, like, a political musician. I think I have an opinion on a lot of things, and I guess I’m someone who wants to share that and wants to make a point about, you know, certain things I think are right and wrong.
“There’s also more to the song than [just politics] and you know, I kind of get a lot of weird conversations with people through it. Some people sort of make out that there’s something superior in writing songs with political ideas, when really I just kind of love pop which is my driving force.”
The music on ‘British Bombs’ is very upbeat and at odds with the subject matter…
“Yeah, I mean I think that’s been kind of one of the core things about the music that I’ve been making when it is that way, it’s like [sonically] ‘It’s not this is bad, this is happening’; it has to have a certain nuance and a certain subtlety alongside [more serious messages]. What makes a lot of music so good is the combination of the bittersweet alongside something that makes you scream your lungs out when you’re at those gigs.
“It’s like the bittersweet feeling that you get from listening to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ where there’s a bit of joy and a bit of sadness to everything. I think it’s important to engage people, not least myself in the project, and I wanted to approach something that’s quite a classic British tradition, the British punk tune, but in a way that felt modern and felt relevant to me.”
And you’ve been influenced by The Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’ too…
“Yes! A big influence on the record was when I was listening to ‘Spanish Bombs’, but also ‘London Calling’ too. I lived in west London for two months last year just purely working on music, and I was listening to them a lot and it just kind of got into my head. It gave me a newfound surge of love for that scene and The Clash were just so good because they combined punk and pop in a unique way. They had really punky elements and really poppy elements too, and it worked. But they’re still badass, still hardcore and there’s something I love about that.”
One of the themes of the song seems to be frustration at how things like Brexit are detracting away from issues at home and abroad. Is that something that has affected your music writing in the last few years?
“Yeah definitely, especially in the last couple of years with the Brexit and Donald Trump thing. Those two things get lumped together all the time and it just seems to be the one issue in the world right now and although I hate both of those things, I’m also kind of bored of hearing about them and I just want to hear about something else now. I don’t like the idea of the biggest political event of our lifetime being this thing that no one can agree on and no one really feels like they understand it fully, because I just don’t think anyone does. And I guess that was kind of part of the thinking behind the song.
“I’m not a massive fan of Brexit and I’m not a fan of Trump by any stretch, but it was just like this whole thing of like, ‘God is there nothing else happening? Is there nothing else to care about?’ The scale of chaos of war at the minute is still huge and I think proportionally we just don’t know what’s happening and we just don’t feel like we’re at war when we are, or we just don’t feel like we’re contributing to the war via the arms trade when every two years we hold a big old conference about selling weapons. It’s like, we don’t see all that and we don’t see that because it feels quite distant and whereas it should be [a priority].”
Does it give you hope to see that so many younger people are engaging more in politics right now?
“Yeah absolutely, and I do see a lot of younger people engaging in politics and trying to understand what’s going on. I think there’s always more going on in the world that needs sorting, needs looking at, needs reassessing and needs responsibility which many young people [can help with]. I think that’s what a lot of politics lacks, it’s just a sense of responsibility for what we do in the world and who we impact on with our actions and not thinking about the bigger picture of things you know.
“I’m a big fan of Greta Thunberg and I’m really into Stella Donnelly’s music. I think it’s really incredible, important music and very relevant; same with Greta Thunberg’s work. It’s like, it’s a young person coming out of something and pushing ideas that are relevant. I think what young people have right now heavily on our side is understanding of the modern world and the way that things work now. Even though we have no idea where the world is heading in even the next 10 years because of how rapidly change is happening, the people who understand that the best are, I think, young people.
“The world is so different from how it was even 15 years ago. You know, we’re worlds away now and technology is evolving and the way that we work and interact with each other and all of that is evolving too, so I think young people need to be an important voice going forward especially with the alarming rate at which change is occurring. I love hearing about young people doing well and I’m really behind, you know, a wave of young people inspiring the world to change things for good.”
What can you tell us about the new album?
“I’m in Nashville at the minute and I’ve got two more weeks of recording and then the album’s done, basically. I’ve had the songs written for ages so I’ve just kind of been waiting to record it now. I’m out here now, finishing off everything. I don’t know if ‘British Bombs’ is even going to be on the album because I’ve got more than enough songs to just have an album separate from ‘British Bombs’ and I’m happy for that to just live a life in its own.
“I guess time will tell whether it has a place on it or not. But I feel like the rest of the album is a little bit more vague and a little bit more story-based than ‘British Bombs’, which does feel sonically in a slightly different world in its groove. I think this album is kind of a slightly different step compared to my last album; just a little bit more considered and a little bit of a step in a direction where I’m giving a bit more purpose to every part of the song as opposed to just kind of writing songs and then being like, ‘Oh okay, going to release an album now!’ Which is a bit like what the first album was for me, as I was still learning.
“I’m super excited to finish now because some of these songs have been waiting around for a long long time, and I don’t really know when everything’s going to come out yet but I hope that it’s soon. But we’ve got ‘British Bombs’ in the meantime so I’m quite glad to have a little bit of something out there now, with something else coming soon!”