Interview: Dan Croll

The alt. pop singer chats about his forthcoming second LP Emerging Adulthood and upcoming live dates

Interview: Dan Croll A meeting convened at the Leaf Café, Liverpool to discuss his eagerly anticipated new LP Emerging Adulthood Dan Croll looks fresh from the rehearsal room judging by the guitar case sat next to him. Today is dedicated to press however and the case, containing a just-purchased bass guitar (a Fender Squier, no skimping on quality) is for his backing band’s new four stringer.

Three years after well received debut LP Sweet Disarray, the alt. pop singer’s second LP is slated for release in late July through Communion Records (more of whom later). Recorded in Atlanta, Georgia Emerging Adulthood saw Croll effectively set himself a mission statement, to write and play everything on the album himself. Celebrated Atlanta based producer Ben H. Allen, helmer for an incredibly eclectic range of acts including Animal Collective, Cee Lo and Deerhunter pushed the faders for the project.

A prosaic enquiry to start with then, what inspired the album title? ‘It’s an age I’m going through’ Dan replies. ‘It’s a book about this new phase of life for these kinds of generation now (by US author Jeffrey Arnett, 2001) Instead of coming out of university or college straight into a job there’s now an infinite amount of things you can do. The world is at your disposal, the internet, social media, everything is possible and for some people I guess that’s quite overwhelming, I think myself included. It’s trying to find where you belong in life, what you wanna do, where you wanna do it, something that I’m figuring out. A lot of these songs were written during that period of emerging adulthood where I don’t feel like I’ve settled, I don’t feel like I’ve become an adult yet. And I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m somehow managing to make music for living and for me that’s just bonkers’.

‘It’s been quite mad, it’s been a rough couple of years because of all of that so I’ve been writing songs about those kind of things from the job I have to relationships, to travelling, to all of that, just quite an overwhelming couple of years’. On the subject of which, did you imagine the gap between albums would have been three years? ‘No, not at all’ Dan states shaking his head. ‘It’s quite scary, I don’t want it to be an anti-climax after taking so many years. It’s not like I’ve been working on it for that whole time, I’ve been sat on it for quite a long time, unable to get it out through the music industry being what it is. So it’s been a rough one, but it’s finally coming which I’m really glad about. I can’t wait to get started on the next one to be honest!’ he smiles.

‘I didn’t really think about how the heat would affect tracking a record, it’s so tough' Dan recalls of the Atlanta recording sessions. 'I didn’t take breaks, I’m a one-man band. My goal was for a second album I wanted to write everything and play everything. That was my thing, the entire record from the ground up. Obviously, Ben produced, which was great. I’d started the production myself a little bit in Liverpool and he’s the kind of guy you wanna get on board to finish things, finishing touches, that kind of gloss that makes it all fit together. I was quite sporadic song by song. Even though I liked elements of the production it wasn’t cohesive and he’s that kind of experienced figure that can really make something consistent, so it was really good’.

‘I had five days off in the middle, apart from that it was just intense, especially when you’re recording drums as well. It was hot, very, very hot the singer recalls. ‘Fatigue set in a lot so I really needed someone like Ben to push me past that. He was great at that, he realised that I was very competitive, so as soon as fatigue started to set in he would start to threaten me with the notion he would get someone else in to do it in a subtle way, ‘Well, I’ve got this great friend who could do it…’ And I’m like ‘No! I’m gonna do it!’ He definitely got the best out of me’.

‘Atlanta’s fun, it’s Trap city’ Dan says of the conurbation’s music scene. ‘It’s a really strange place to be, there wasn’t really any music that I was making there and that was kinda cool. It was quite different to any place I’d ever been to before, so it was quite intense. I’m into hip-hop, but not so much Trap which is the way that Atlanta’s gone now, I much prefer the classic jazz influenced kind of hip-hop, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla all that mind of stuff. That’s the crème de la crème for me those two and The Pharcyde I love. There’s still quite a lot of classic hip-hop there. It’s amazing to see, the culture of live radio broadcasting from clubs, I loved. Every club in Atlanta whilst having a club night was live broadcasting, there was so much radio to choose from, so when I was at home it was really fun to listen to, cos it was just chaos. Massive music, DJs talking, everything was live, there was this energy through the city cos everything was live. I’d never seen it before. It was like 24/7 pirate radio in a way, it was just so energetic’.

Prior to jetting over to the Empire State of the South, Dan spent five months preparing the LP in a windowless Liverpool city centre studio. ‘It was horrible’ he says, visibly shuddering at the memory. ‘That was the only place I could do it, I was trying to do it from home, but then kind of made myself a bit ill working from the bottom of my bed cos shitting where you’re eating is not a healthy process!’ he laughs.

‘To have this other room, to walk there gave you this other mentality of ‘I’m gonna have a productive day, I’m gonna go to the studio, I’m gonna do this’ so I hired a rehearsal room for about five months and with all the instruments in there and that’s where I wrote everything really. I hadn’t written stuff before on tour, none of it existed outside of that five months’.

‘On the first album it was two to four years on some songs before I’d even got into the studio. As cool as that was it was a bit of a mixtape of how I’d developed, but this was my effort at doing a quite a disciplined album. It was ‘I’ve got five months to write, two months to record, I’m gonna play all the instruments, that’s it. I felt like I had to go to a different country, do something completely new, the overwhelming thought process was that it had to be outside my comfort zone. Get out, play everything, with people I don’t know, who aren’t my best mates, people who need to make money from it, a bit of healthy pressure’.

‘I’d written maybe 22 to 24 demos and of them I probably picked about 15’ Dan explains. ‘Of those I’d worked as hard as I could on them, until the point where I need outside help, they weren’t just me and an acoustic guitar, I’d worked really hard on tracking them myself, trying to get ahead production-wise. I sat down with Ben on the first day, listened to them all, chatted about what we liked, what we disliked’

‘The album’s 10 tracks and I’m really chuffed with them. Some of my original elements are on there, guitars and percussion. That means a lot to me that I did it in Liverpool on my own, they managed to stand the test of producer and time. My weakness with it was recording drums. I needed a lot of help with that, so the first port of call was to pick the songs, chuck my drums in the trash and record new ones. It was straight in at the deep end, straight on the drums in the heat’.

Given that you were already playing all the other instruments wasn’t there a temptation to get a sticksman in? ‘No, I love playing drums’ Dan says. ‘I’m just competitive really, I always want to better myself. I love playing the instruments, I know other people could play them better, but that drives me to do more. I just wanted to say I did everything on an album. It doesn’t have to be that for future albums, but I wanted that one to be. Especially after a rough few years and being dropped, team members being renewed, it was that thing of being a little bit scarred and I didn’t wanna rely on people too much’.

‘It was a bit of a mission for me to be self-sufficient, even though I’ve still obviously signed to a big label, still in the machine. I just wanted to feel like I’d created it without it being diluted or influenced by others’. The experience sounds quite cathartic in a way. ‘Yeah, it was’ Dan nods. ‘It was a weird kind of healing process I guess, it was healthy’.

Initial signs from the set are highly promising, with superb, first single One Of Us, and his finest 45 to date, slinky R n’ B inspired cut Swim, assisted by fellow Liverpool resident, Rebecca Hawley of Stealing Sheep. ‘I wondered how it would sound with female vocals and thought ‘I’ll ask Becky’. She just completely took it to another level, before it was just my vocals and it blew it out the water instantly, I was like ‘Shit, that sounds amazing’’. The kinky alternately ennui laden video meanwhile was inspired by Ben Wheatley’s sumptuous if baffling adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1974 novel High Rise. That was definitely an influence, as much as I don’t get that film, it was visually stunning’ Dan states.

The creation of Swim in particular gives an insight into Dan’s current working methods, inspired by the M.O. of many hip-hop acts. ‘We didn’t have a drumkit in the studio at that point, it was a beat from a Tribe Called Quest track that they’d sampled. I found that sample, turned it into Swim then replaced the drums afterwards. I will write songs without any idea what it’s about or any lyric or any melody, for me it’s always got to be the rhythm section, the foundation of drums and percussion. Without that I don’t commit to a song. There’s probably been one, maybe two exceptions to that. The whole rhythm element of this album is the most important thing to me, making sure each song is strong rhythmically. It’s a heavier album because of that I think’.

‘ is just my Bible now’ the singer explains. ‘Without that I wouldn’t have Away From Today as well. That was a weird one, the sample I found on Whosampled was a percussion break in the song, so I found the original Chiquitto track Aquarius (a cover of the theme from hippie musical Hair) and found the percussion break it sampled and thought ‘Ah, it sounds cool’ and then thought ‘I wonder what the intro’s like?’ I went back to 0:00 and went ‘Oh my God, those horns sound amazing’, and chopped them up. I realised only recently because of people on Twitter that Bonobo used it as well (on Flutter), I didn’t see that he’d used it. It really was cool to find out inadvertently that someone has had the same thought process as you’.

As the approach yielded three of the LPs’ standouts, the method is clearly successful. ‘I love it, that comes purely from a hip-hop background, watching mini documentaries of people sampling breakbeats and how they did it’ the singer says. ‘I love that hands-on method of doing it, nothing for me is digital. I know I use a Mac to record it, but none of the synths are plug-ins, it’s all real things. Even when it comes to sampling I want it to be a vinyl process when I was ripping it. It’s nice to do things like that in the current climate when people are so digital with things, especially as I’m not a fan of Trap and that’s such a big thing at the moment, that’s all you can hear on the radio. All these typical sub-drops and 808 hi-hats, Vocoders, pitch-shifting... Arrggh I hate all that!’ Dan laughs.

With a raft of live dates approaching, Croll’s band are currently being put through their paces with the new material. ‘Even though we are best mates, it’s quite weird being the boss in way’ the singer ruminates. ‘They’re session musicians, paid session rates per gig, so it’s a fine balance of being best mates and also being a band to perform the songs live, but they’re more than that, it’s a really weird balance to find. You also want them to bring a little something extra to it, that’s what I like. I’ve just created a record that I’ve done everything on and that’s how is how I have done it’.

‘Now I’ve shown the band the album and told them to learn it and if they wanna mess about with anything, to mess about with it. We’ll have a couple of rehearsals and I’ll see what they do to it. That’s the fun side of it for me, a fan can listen to a recording then come and see it live and it still be the same song but have that special element to it. I hate seeing bands that sound exactly like the record, like a clone. Usually cos they’ve got a laced-in backing track, especially pop acts who I feel that I’m up against. I wanna avoid that and keep it very organic and allow them to add stuff to it’.

While Sweet Disarray dented the Album Chart Top 30, the bulk of Dan’s income from the record came via ‘syncs’, where tracks were licensed to a score of different companies. Ranging from FIFA 14, Grand Theft Auto V, primetime TV ads and Cold Feet, the exposure the tracks received was reminiscent on a smaller scale of the massive success Moby encountered with Play in 1999-2000. Are the tracks from Emerging Adulthood going to be licensed in the same way? ‘I hope so, that’s the only way I make money!’ Dan laughs. ‘With the first album and the game, TV and film syncs I was so grateful for that, that’s the only reason I’ve been able to exist and self-fund this album. That’s all been because of that two years I had of getting them’.

Now signed to indie outfit Communion Records after releasing Sweet Disarray through major label Decca/Universal, the situation is particularly apt as the singer’s first appearance on disc was on Communion’s New Faces compilation. Does being on independent set up feel more comfortable? ‘It’s a really weird one’ Dan ponders. ‘It feels like a great fit, there’s something quite lovely about how this has all come full circle. It was 2009, where I was on the compilation, they gave me my first opportunity to put out a song and I was alongside people like Michael Kiwanuka, Mumford and Sons, Ben Howard, Laura Marling. They also gave me the opportunity to play live for money. No-one would do that, I struggled to get a gig in Liverpool where I lived that would pay me. These guys at the time who were just a live company they would pay me and the band to come on the train and give us a couple of quid to buy beers, that was a mind-blowing experience for me’.

In keeping with that, switching outlets has meant far more opportunities to play live. ‘Unfortunately, the problem with Decca and previous management was all they really cared about was London and East Coast America, for some reason that was there fascination. It seemed to be this thing of New York and London’ Dan explains. ‘Management-wise I was there with these pop stars like Ellie Goulding and Rita Ora and that’s what they did with them and that’s what they thought would work with me. And it doesn’t really work like that. Even if you were showing them figures saying ‘Look at the people who are listening in Paris, Eindhoven or Amsterdam, why are we not doing shows here when we’re A-listed on the radio?’ And it was like ‘Hmm, well…’ I don’t know whether they wanted to create this kind of false impression of mystery and want that kind of ‘You can’t have it’ attitude and go and play there when you can play even bigger shows, it’s not how it should be. It’s so nice to be part of a label that realises the importance of touring, even hitting towns if only eight to ten people turn up that’s a great thing, that’s making their day and they’ll fund that and help you do that’.

While recent listening choices include J Dilla, Ryan Adams, Dawes and London MC Loyle Carner, Croll recently Tweeted the tracklisting to a Kerrang compilation album that was effectively his entry manual into music aged 13. ‘God, I absolutely loved that CD!’ Dan enthuses. ‘That was Kerrang’s first Pure Volume compilation, I’d just got my sister’s Walkman as a hand-me-down, so it was like this first CD in a way, it was just magical. Finch, Hellacopters, The Donnas, Turbonegro all of this punk and power pop, that was my absolute love’.

The notably spiky One Of Us was a possible echo of these influences, issued in October 2015 ‘It was a bit of heavier song for me and it probably came out of frustration at that time let out’ the singer nods. The track’s lyrics meanwhile were borne out of more documentary viewing. ‘It was inspired by The Source Family (2012) which was about America’s first health food restaurant, which are now everywhere in LA’ Dan explains. ‘The guy who owned it and ran it was called Father Yod (James Edward Baker to the tax authorities), this very spiritual cult leader who started this giant family and it became one of the first hippy communes really. Amazing film. I was overwhelmed by the fact that someone could convince people to do that. That whole thing about One Of Us is peer pressure, even though I was feeling it from a different angle, in different parts of life, that was the most drastic form of peer pressure you could experience, that what’s a cult is really’.

Switching subjects, while genre categorisations have dissolved significantly, the term ‘pop’ is still something many musicians cavail at, refreshingly the present subject isn’t one of them. ‘At the end of the day I wanna appeal to as many people as possible and to do that you need the biggest platform possible’ Dan shrugs. While the music industry has changed almost beyond all recognition in the past 20 years, some things still hold sway, namely the power of ‘The Nation’s Favourite’, BBC Radio One. ‘I just want as many people as possible to hear my music and that automatically means you’re up against a lot people to get and get those slots’ Dan explains. ‘I think it’s a shame that people don’t do that organically and that’s my kind of mission. So it comes down to things like not using backing tracks and things like that, I think fans hear that and see that as well, or at least the fans that you want’.

‘It’s pop music but from slightly left field’ Croll states. ‘I’m not trying to hide the fact I’m a pop artist and I wanna be commercial. I enjoy pop music, but I wanna come at it from a slightly different angle. In the States they’ve got radio stations for that, here not so much. College Radio in the States is amazing, over there it’s huge’.

Part of the campaign for the debut album saw vinyl copies being sent out to college radio stations with the view of inviting students in to have listening parties. ‘That was about giving them one free vinyl where they can sit round together and discuss it, have a laugh’ Dan states. ‘If they hate it they can slate it together, at least they’re doing it socially. If they hated it at least they had a great time hating it, that’s cool. Brought together by a natural hatred of Dan Croll!’ the singer laughs uproariously.

And with our hour up proceedings must draw to a close. With a phone interview following immediately after this one and rehearsals to plan, the singer departs into the afternoon sunshine, guitar case in hand.

Emerging Adulthood is released through Communion Records on July 21st

Dan Croll tour dates:

Tuesday 16th May – Heaven, London
Wednesday 17th May – Mama Roux’s
Thursday 18 May 2017, Thekla, Bristol, UK
Thursday 19th May, The Great Escape, Brighton
Thursday 8th – Saturday 10th June – PULS Open Air, Kaltenberg, Germany
Sunday 16th July – Citadel, Victoria Park, London, UK
Weds 2nd August – Sat 5th August – A Summer's Tale, Luhmühlen, Germany