Interview with Dan Croll
‘I think we all just see music differently’ – we chat to Dan Croll.
The question, ‘what’s the point of going to university?’ is one asked with increasing frequency nowadays. I am asked it by many; I ask it of myself, and of others. It’s quite refreshing, then, to sit down and talk to Dan Croll, a man whose achievements and projects have grown determinedly and organically out of his time at university, and are now penetrating spheres far beyond the microcosm of higher education.
Croll’s venture in to the ‘real world’ of music is not born of a furious obsession since childhood, nor nurturing from parents whose band was once the best thing the eighties ever heard. A severe rugby injury aged seventeen found him hauled up in bed for weeks, with intentions of a sporting career fading fast. “In bed with a broken leg, I was forced (not in a negative way) to listen to the music more in depth, and after a while started weirdly seeing and hearing songs differently, almost as a career or lifestyle”.
His announcement that his inertia had compelled him to apply to study university was met with ambivalence by his parents, but proved more than bed-ridden delirium when he was accepted in to Paul McCartney’s prestigious Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. From there, things escalated fast – he won the Songwriter of the Year award from the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, played in several bands around Liverpool, and has now carved out his position as a solo musician, with a highly anticipated album, ‘Sweet Disarray’, due out next month.
Such an introduction might portray Croll as some sort of BRIT School dancer upon tables or X-Factor competition winner of vapidity, but it’s clear that an inquisitive creativity oozes from his music and his conversation. It’s especially clear when I ask about his recent trip to South Africa to record with the legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir. “It will always be a tough experience to try and tell people about, as it was one of those ‘you had to be there to see my face’ moments. Hearing those guys in person, I liken it to hearing a lion roar for the first time in the Berlin Zoo – it’s an animal that I’ve heard a million times on the TV but hearing it just a metre away from me really took my breath away and made my spine tingle. I was incredibly grateful for them having me at what was a tough time for South Africa, mourning the death of Nelson Mandela”.
A lot of Croll’s music already takes patent influence from African time signatures and percussion, of which he’s built up quite a mastery and collection. It’s most overt in the taxidermy-themed video for “Compliment Your Soul”, which sees him serenade a bear under the watchful eye of an ostrich in an abandoned primary school.
It’s these sorts of influences that make Croll’s music seem playful and colourful. He says he finds it important “to take into mind the season in which a song is released”; so far his singles have been tropical and summery, so what can we expect from an album released in early Spring?
“There’s a few close, intimate songs in there that will suit early spring well. Some of them start off quite slow and empty (rather similar I’m sure to how a lot of people are feeling after Christmas and in January), but they have the uplifting turn around which I’m sure will get people excited for summer and the rest of the year to come”.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but mention that some of Dan’s songs so far could possibly be described as twee. Perhaps it’s just the contrast of an ex- rugby player and doorman singing ‘if you ever come round to my house, take your shoes off at the door, cause it’s impolite not to, you’ll be damaging my floor’, as he does in “Home”. Yet there is something of Darwin Deez, or Sweet Baboo in there, and I’m curious whether ‘twee’ will illicit a knowing nod or an insulted glare. “I suppose it’s down to lyrical content – often songs are classed as ‘twee’ when the artist is talking about relationships, which I do… a lot. I think we all just see music differently, and it’s whatever you make it out to be”.
“I agree that my music can be ‘twee’; “Home”, for example, just bounces along whilst I talk about my family”.
As a result of this, Croll’s grandmother, who features in the video, has been watched over a quarter of a million times on YouTube. “She loves it, she’s always at the centre of attention in my family. She’s also a very religious woman, and I’m sure she’s the centre of attention in church after telling this story to the whole of the congregation”.
In fact, Croll’s family, and a pervading appreciation of home and its comforts, recur in his music. As someone who talks about his time at university a lot, and has recently been touring extensively in Europe and America, has this appreciation come from spending a lot of time away? There are probably a lot of young adults who have left home and come to a sharp realisation that their family is worth writing a nice song about. “We’ve always been close; I had a great upbringing with only the minor sibling squabble, so they’ve always been worth writing about. I do think though that university and tour life has enhanced those feelings and the importance of having them all”.
It’s a nice contrast to some new artists that like to start their careers with an air of mystery, revealing little, appearing at the front of the pop world perfectly moulded; a PR campaign of non-existence waged until the critics give them the nod of approval. Croll plays no such games – he talks candidly about his previous bands (including math-rockers Dire Wolfe), his personal life in general, and more difficult aspects of his job. “Occasionally through opening up I’ve had fans give me advice and help me through things, there were a lot of people sending lovely messages when I was giving a talk on my dealings with anxiety, and I was incredibly grateful for that”.
He continues, “there’s an amazing feeling that comes with fans feeling like they’ve gone through the same experience or are feeling a similar way to you, and I think this can happen not only through the music, but through day-to-day life and on social media”. There are certainly clues to Croll’s personal life in his music though; he admits “I don’t really ever think about it, like most of my songs they’ve just happened because of a recent event or experience. Every song is a bit of a ‘let out’ for me, I just sing and write about what’s happening there and then”.
I recently caught Croll on the radio lamenting never quite feeling educated enough in songwriting; a nod to the elusive nature of its virtuosity, rather than a complaint about Paul McCartney’s establishment, I think. Still, he must have picked up a few tricks in his time there. “I just record ideas on my phone all the time. While a song’s in its early stage I usually (and embarrassingly) just mumble stuff in to the microphone, and I often find after a few takes something just pops up that I like the sound of”.
Having been schooled in such a variety of music, and with such a vibrant, musical mind, I suspect a lot of the ideas he records must not quite fit the Dan Croll solo path that he’s currently treading. Would he consider writing songs for other artists too? “I would love to! I often write songs that I feel are just too far away from myself, genre-wise, but I’ll always keep them because I quite often have an artist in mind who could fit it better. I’m sure once I’ve got my own stuff out of the way, or when things have calmed down, I’ll come back around to them and perhaps try and get these artists to hear them”.
Of Croll’s songs for himself, although he concedes “lyrics are often the last thing I’ll do on a song“, I’m particularly fond of “Compliment Your Soul” for the word play in this phrase. Though it’s not confirmed that it’s intentional, I suspect it is when he tells me about Racquet Records, his own imprint that he devised in order to release first single “From Nowhere”. I had assumed this to be a political stance, but “it was really because I had no other labels offering to put it out. I was also broke and recording everything ‘DIY’ in a disused primary school gym, and I suppose it made me want to release the first single in a very similar way”. Croll says that if you listen closely, you can hear recordings of their lunchtime badminton games in the school’s courts; shuttlecock hitting racquet amongst the racket.
One can’t help but compare Croll’s busy life now – recording, touring, playing badminton – with the bed-ridden period that led him here. He must surely seek that clarity again after such a busy couple of years. “I still try to find the time to go back to that zone and give songs my full attention, often to remind myself what I’m doing“. Did he imagine he’d be writing soundtracks to hijacking helicopters and winning world cups? A couple of his tracks have featured on the FIFA 14 and GTA V playlists. His album wouldn’t be the first I reach for when I’m planning a heist with my cartel. He admits, “me neither, so that’s why I ran out straight away to buy both the games. Turns out, it works quite well…”