Reliving the Past 6 Years With Declan McKenna on His Big Return Tour

We caught up with English star Declan McKenna ahead of his returning American tour, and his highly anticipated stop in Philadelphia.

Music Features Declan McKenna
Reliving the Past 6 Years With Declan McKenna on His Big Return Tour

English singer/songwriter Declan McKenna acquired a dedicated following of jagged alt-rock listeners after the release of his debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?, in 2017. Weaving together youthful proclamations and infectious melodies, the album is politically charged and entrancing; engaging upon a relatable experience of self-identity. Surprised at the time it’s been, and in awe about the immense excitement for his truly “Big Return,” Declan McKenna had no idea what was in store for him in the Philadelphia crowd on June 2nd, 2023. Accredited to the build-up—most fans of the area hadn’t gotten a chance to see McKenna in concert since 2016, most of them haven’t seen him live yet at all.

“People maybe, in certain cities, are used to just getting every show coming through, be it London or New York or whatever, and there are other places in between where they don’t get that. People are just so grateful, and maybe experience the whole thing slightly differently in it. It’s cool. I’m ready to feel that in Philly. I don’t know, I had no concept of this, but that’s one of the special things about this tour really, is that it is a return to a ton of places that I haven’t been for a long time,” McKenna says.

Six years later, having grown into his own musical style and self too, McKenna would finally return to Philadelphia’s Union Transfer with much to share. Fans were more than psyched. “The Big Return Tour” is a successor to the U.S. tour for the 2020 album Zeros, where McKenna traveled across the country and played the full tracklist while revisiting some singles from farther back in his catalog. His itinerary now is set to be a non-stop summit of wakefulness, as the tireless audience had drawn the performer back to the states once more, and finally with a Philadelphia date, which was left out on the previous American voyage. Skipping the musically affluent city, Philly fans anxiously awaited in rapturous excitement for the European Artist to finally pay a visit.

Listening to his first single back when I was 17, and then the album that followed—my youth feels encapsulated by the early indie-pop songs of my generation. I’d blare “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home” and “Brazil” on the two-lane highway in my hometown and pray for an escape—the music serving as a bond between myself and my peers. When I hear the songs, I’m reminded of a time that is so distant yet still abiding, in a different sense. McKenna’s music makes me miss my mom’s shitty car radio and going to the same suburban park everyday—an excuse to borrow her car and cry out the windows with my friends. It feels almost unreal to be a 22-year-old-adult now, embarking on a new phase of life and still holding that attachment close to me. I’ve grown up with the coming-of-age tunes and discovered myself along the way—and I couldn’t be more restless to see the show that I’d been dying to mosh to years ago.

For McKenna, the feeling is mutual and he knows it all too well—having gone to small gigs throughout his adolescence. “I still go to a lot of gigs, but I definitely had a phase of going to all sorts of indie gigs in London and things like that, and always wanting to just jump around and get loose,” he admits, reflecting on his own enchantment with live music. There’s a certain lure, he explains, in how loose an artist can become on-stage:”I think the more loose I can get on stage, the more people in the crowd kind of can feel like it doesn’t matter how they look or how weirdly they’re moving to the music.”

The setlist for the current tour is fluid, wistful and an immersive treat for those who have been longtime listeners. McKenna and his band are playing through songs that they haven’t performed in a long time. For the sold-out night in Philadelphia, McKenna awakens us with “Beautiful Faces,” pulling the audience out of our anticipation and into full motion. The song, like many in his discography, is politically charged and assertive. We feel it as he performs, conjuring a “freak-out” response from the crowd that causes a pool of people to shake themselves radically. To the tune of doomed youth and feeling lost and full of anger, the crowd screams out one of McKenna’s lines of guidance together: “Beautiful people won’t remember you, honey.” It is dismembering, but so united; the crowd commiserates over the space inside them that is suddenly freed, as they shout, together. The crowd turns electric. McKenna admits that this track is his recent favorite to play live.

Declan McKenna

Credit: Brittany Deitch

He continues to get into the groove of the show, playing three songs off of What Do You Think About The Car? McKenna establishes the performance with a rumble of nostalgia, activating something deep within the dedicated audience. Though we’ve evolved since these melodies were first born, they do not fail to reintroduce themselves willfully.

He executes a fresh take on “Paracetamol” and “Why Do You Feel So Down” by flawlessly walking the balanced line between simplicity and novelty—putting a new spin on these tracks six years later. We are taken back to the moment when we first heard them, sometime, somewhere in the past six years. Back in 2017, his fan base consisted mostly of teenagers not much younger than himself. We’ve all spent time with McKenna, growing up into young adults alongside one another. There’s a certain magic born out of that shared experience. “[Some] people haven’t seen me playing since I was a teenager, even younger than a teenager, like 17. And then playing in Montreal for the first time since I was 17, no one in that crowd was at that [first] show. It was like 20-25 people in the crowd, or whatever, when I first played there. Just feeling that energy and anticipation and excitement when you haven’t been somewhere for a while and people have been sort of counting on it, waiting on it. There’s nothing quite like it,” McKenna explains. Well, they have been counting on it. The fans erupt with bewilderment, catching on quickly to the adjustment that McKenna has applied which gleams with energy and pulls us all into the present with him.

As McKenna slows it down on guitar, the crowd falls silent, gasping for breath and stabilizing itself as a whole. We all feel like one piece, bonded by the nostalgic bliss enthralled into the air—a silent buzz hanging over Union Transfer. He plays us into a metaphorical sleep, consoling the crowd with “My House.” It feels a bit like aging, and McKenna acknowledges this moment as a truly necessary one to pull the crowd into: “It’s really beautiful when we’re playing [“My House”] because, yeah, something about playing an instrument, just the softest you can—you almost, sometimes, get more out of it. You get the whole dynamic.”

Once the opening chords of “Brazil” hit, we feel the goodness protruding off the stage. McKenna happily strums along to the crowd pleaser, and people bounce around in the center of the pit—the collective euphoric and full of relief at finally hearing the indie-pop classic. McKenna’s genuine energy echoes throughout the venue, as he revives the old tracks and delivers them with entirely new meanings than when they were first listened to. Fans feel like they have finally caught up to the songs. “I think the more authentic you are as a performer each night, the more the audience can really connect with you. So I tend to try and also just go with how I’m feeling that day and run with it because I think people recognize when you’re just sort of being true to yourself,” McKenna shares.

Presently, the sincere indie-rock artist is working on fresh sounds, evocative of where he started. Excited to sprinkle something completely new throughout the tour’s set as it progresses, he is keen on beginning to play more of it— taking a more DIY approach to this one. “Working with the sounds in a weird way and recording intimately in my bedroom and trying to make that work on the record rather than re-recording stuff in a big, sort of studio environment,” he notes “it leans towards something quite simple and quite organic. I think I’ve had the opportunity quite young to work on music in different ways, and find new ground, and find what works for me. So, I think that’s what this next record will hopefully show—a little bit of my own production flavor and something a little bit weirder [that] has come out of that.”

“Look out for stuff,” McKenna laughs, possibly hinting that new work is on the way. Nothing is set in stone, but he is back to making music in his bedroom. Coincidentally, that creative process mirrors what we get to witness live. It all bleeds together into one, encompassing noises and feelings from the emergence of his musical career. McKenna progresses onward, and we are so excited to grow up, revisit and repeat all together with him.

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