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Daniel McClelland - Interview with Daniel McClelland

22 Nov 2019 // An interview by Steve Shyu

The ever-ambitious multi-instrumentalist Daniel McClelland is continuing his musical mission of making pop music that rocks. His debut album Anxious Heart earned a nomination for Auckland Live Best Independent Debut Award at 2018's Taite Music Awards, and now Daniel is back with a brand new EP. Entitled Swallow Fear, the seventeen-minute record is due out 24 November 2019.

Daniel offered up a bit of his time to have a sit-down with Steve from Muzic.net.nz to talk about his music background, explore how fatherhood influences his songwriting and discuss the timelessness of The Beach Boys' music.

First round’s on me - What’ll you be having?

Assuming I've already had a morning coffee and several bottles of water... I'll go for something a little stronger thanks. My wife and I lived in New York City for a few years, and one of my favourite beers there was a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale by Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. They'd age their beer for 6 weeks in actual bourbon barrels. Stupidly high in alcohol, but the perfect way to get ready for a midnight screening of a retro cult film in Manhattan.

If you were to name three of your biggest personal musical influences, who would they be?

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, and Nirvana. They're the big three! My music sounds like what would happen if you smash them together. Beach Boys harmonies with New Jack Swing-era drums, against wobbly chorus-laden guitar solos.

What song on your debut album Anxious Heart is your personal favourite?

I Guess You Had To Go is about a schoolmate who became a celebrated musician but died tragically young. My song has a line, "songs don't seem the same," and I really meant it when I wrote it. For months after his death, I couldn't listen to his music, or anything that sounded like it. No Bob Dylan, no Leonard Cohen, no Nick Cave, etc. I started to wonder what he would have said about that. Or what a song by him about that might have sounded like. So, I went and wrote that song, in his style of writing and performing. To do that, I had to drop my voice down a register, strip back my usual production tricks, re-learn how to finger-pick a guitar, and apply more of a sardonic wit than I'm usually capable of. It came out bloody good. I think he'd have liked it.

What attracted you to create a solo project as opposed to creating a band in which you’d lead?

In 2016, I decided I'd try to bring back Beach Boys-style music from the brink of extinction. The catch, of course, is that to do so would probably require a band the size of Arcade Fire or The Polyphonic Spree. That in turn would require a gigantic rehearsal space, and a bird's nest of leads and microphones whenever we played together. Also, the fact I wasn't exactly rock-solid I could pull that level of ambition off, I decided to go solo for at least my first record. But y'know how in Jurassic Park, there's a line "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should"? In 2016, I was pretty much like those scientists. And things don't end well for a lot of them in that movie! What would take The Beach Boys 3 minutes to sing through a song takes me more like 20 minutes; I have to sing each vocal part through, and then I have to sing the next, followed by the next, and so on! If I want to then double-track the song, it takes double that length again. Doing it this way is stupid, but - on the plus side - just like Jurassic Park, I get to resurrect stuff that maybe would otherwise have stayed extinct.

You appear to be quite a fan of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. In your view, in what ways have their recordings impacted modern music?

Probably the most impactful would be the friendly rivalry and one-upmanship between The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Trying to outdo one another resulted in this run of records that changed the rock genre forever; Rubber Soul begot Pet Sounds, which in turn influenced Sgt Pepper, which then inspired The Beach Boys' Smile. Take away any one of those albums, and I'm not sure we'd be listening to music in the same way as we do today.

trip away all the new production techniques, crazy time-signatures, poets as lyricists, drug-induced cellos and walls of sound, I think it just comes back to the quality of the songs. The Beach Boys had album after album throughout the 60's with some of the best songs ever written. That's a huge challenge to any songwriter to live up to; be half as good as they were and you'll go far.

Care to run us through how a Daniel McClelland song is constructed? How do you determine how many layers of vocals is too much, and how many instruments to employ?

If I find out about a new band, one of the first things I do is pull up Spotify or Soundcloud and skip around their songs. If 00:15 sounds pretty much the same as 1:15 and that also sounds like 2:15, then I'm probably going to move on to another new record. The truth is that people have to work much harder now to capture their listener's attention, and that kind of copy-and-paste mentality just doesn't cut it for me anymore. I tried to keep that in mind while making my new EP Swallow Fear.

In Joined and Entwined I changed the lyrics in each chorus; in the first, a couple are in love; in the second, they're nostalgic; in the third, they're considering rekindling; and in the final chorus they've revived their romance. Leaning in to narratives like that hopefully keeps things interesting, and sort of forces you to change up the instrumentation or baroque-ness of the harmonies. I think the best thing for my music is to think about the emotional truth of where the song's at and lean into it.

What are some musical (or non-musical!) influences that people wouldn’t expect of an alternative pop-rock artist like yourself?

I've got a 2-year old son, and we listen to a lot of music together. As much as he tries to keep up with my tastes, he ultimately gravitates towards "kid's music". I've found that most musicians playing on records aimed at children are usually super talented. They try to make their own lives more interesting, and work overtime to keep kids' attention. There's a real science to it, and it requires a lot more creativity than you'd think. Anika Moa's Songs For Bubbas series is outstanding, and my son's obsessed with it. We bought both records; but have probably clocked up several thousand streams on Spotify for her too. I know every harmony, every instrument, and every lyric. I'm sure her approach to those albums has rubbed off on me somehow!

Your lyrics tend to have quite a personal tone to them. What are some recurring themes and how has that influenced your songwriting for the new Swallow Fear EP?

My first record was recorded while my wife was pregnant with our first kid. The world was going through some seismic shifts at the time, and we were busy moving home to NZ after living overseas for years. The anxiety of that period came through loud and clear in Anxious Heart. But now I have a kid, he's real, and he's growing up fast. Bob Dylan's lyrics are great and all, but you're not really allowed to just be afraid of things when you're a parent. You have to find a way to throw your chin up and push forwards. I've got involved in local politics now, quietly volunteering time for people I respect, making sure I help out good folk and making sure my kid can grow up in a good environment. Most parents go through this sort of thing, I'm just the sort of person that'll also take that anxiety and funnel it into my music.

How did you come up with the idea for your massively creative video to Blotted Out the Background? How was it filmed and how long did it take?

It came out of a long gestating collaboration with director Rajeev Mishra. With Blotted Out The Background, we wanted to hammer home two points: I play all the instruments, and my music doesn't conform to any one genre. So, we smashed together a bunch of cinematic genres; Sci-Fi, Horror, Western and Noir. And then we had me play all the parts (with the help of some talented doubles!), all interacting with one another as if I were a real 'band' of 5 Daniel's. It got a little split-personality filming it and took months of planning. We filmed over several weekends, all around Wellington. The effects look awesome and belie the $0.00 budget we had for it. We had a small but very passionate crew that gave it their all, and that really helped sell the illusion of me being cloned multiple times over. I'm stoked with how it turned out, and eternally grateful for the skill and patience of Rajeev and the crew!

What Kiwi bands or artists have you been listening to lots of recently?

Earth Tongue's new album is rad. Hans Pucket are my rivals for best harmonies in NZ. Estère is going to go on to big things. Matthew Young is family, and has a new single coming this week! Lips made NZ's best track this year in Guilty Talk. Grayson Gilmour is a perpetual inspiration and a legit nice dude to boot. Uru Whetu and Aroha Crown's Hinemoa is an ace track, and in te reo Maoritoo. Kendall Elise and I were both nominated for the same award last year, and I was genuinely rooting for her to win. Kane Strang was up for a different prize that night, and he was my pick for his category. Then there's Disasteradio / Eyeliner one-man-party Luke Rowell, who is someone I've always looked up to, and been inspired by.

It's safe to say NZ music is making some great tracks at the moment; we're so lucky to have such great people churning out interesting and innovative music here.

What’s next on your musical horizon? Any live shows in support of the EP? Any more new music videos besides Blotted Out the Background?

I'm looking forward to catching up on sleep after a big push to get a music video, single, and EP out just before Christmas! Once I'm a bit better rested, I'm keen to move 'Lyric Videos' forward with another release from Swallow Fear. Then from there, I'm eyeing up a few things: a side-project, producing some other folks' work, and a couple of new Daniel McClelland singles. Watch this space!

About Daniel McClelland

Daniel McClelland’s goal is singular: make pop music that rocks. To do this, he merges the harmonies of The Beach Boys, with the guitars of Nirvana and the drums of New Jack Swing innovator Teddy Riley. The results speak for themselves. His debut opened at #2 on the NZ Heatseeker Album Charts. Nominated for Best Independent Debut award at NZ’s Taite Music prizes. Muzic.net.nz said his music is "a delightful reminder of how music should be made." Daniel’s new EP Swallow Fear is out now, on all major streaming services worldwide. His music video for lead single Blotted Out The Background is on YouTube

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Daniel McClelland


Swallow Fear
Year: 2019
Type: EP
Anxious Heart
Year: 2017
Type: Album

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