The busy Leaf teashop functions with strict normality, unmindful of the presence of the be-spectacled muso sitting attentively in the corner sipping an espresso. Unbeknown to most of the patrons enjoying their early-afternoon luncheon, there sits DAN CROLL, submersed in thought beneath his well-groomed, studious husk.
“Stoke isn’t really renowned for its music scene, apart from Robbie Williams – and I wouldn’t say he was a massive influence of mine. That said, Swing When You’re Winning is a pretty bangin’ album,” says Dan, of the musical inadequacies of his birthplace, Stoke-on-Trent, in a frequent off-kilter instance of wry wit. It’s fair to say that Dan – having relocated to Liverpool at an early age (“I was brought up over in Everton with my Nan and other family”) – takes his myriad of influences and the role of virtuoso singer-songwriter far more seriously than that.
For two years, Dan Croll has been the unblemished poster-boy of LIPA’s burgeoning crop of musical glitterati. And after graduating from Paul McCartney’s equivalent of Hogwarts in 2011, he’s been peppering the peripheries of the mainstream with his globally mindful eclecticism and affable bookworm shtick ever since. But his is a package that’s stylistically independent from his Mersey forebears and one that conveys a message that’s just as dynamic in a wider context: ‘fuck the beat, I march to the afrobeat of my own drum’. That’s not to assume that he doesn’t have the utmost respect for the apostles of pre-Beatles era rock ‘n’ roll often associated with his adopted home. “The city’s obviously got a great history: The Beatles, The Zutons, The Coral; it’s always been musically vibrant.” But Dan doesn’t seem too concerned with leading the beat revival or peaking the charts with formulaic four/snore time signatures, he’s reinventing the wheel in his own wholesome image.
“I want to break the mould, break the stereotype that comes with Radio 1,” he asserts, almost in contempt of the ubiquitous radio play his first two singles From Nowhere (a Wild Beasts/Grizzly Bear-indebted, electronically-inflected earworm) and Compliment Your Soul (a heart-on-sleeve confessional that borrows nearly every African rhythmic coda from Paul Simon’s Graceland) have attained nearly a year after the first one was released. “I’ve always liked bands that do things a little differently, so for me it’s all about keeping people on their toes I think.” The idea of doing things differently has also extended to his label, the iconic Decca Records, who have resurrected their Deram Records imprint (the home of David Bowie’s debut LP, as well as Procol Harum and Cat Stevens) for the release of his new single In/Out. Pretty cool ey?!
For Dan, doing things differently and keeping people on their toes has become somewhat of a fixation in musical terms, distilling the amuse-bouche of sounds, techniques and influences of his formative years into a penchant for exotic instrumentation. But it was debut track From Nowhere that piqued the interest of Radio 1 in particular (kudos, Steve Lamacq) and earned Croll rafts of fanfare that belied even his expectations. “It’s all really kicked off since the [release of the] first single. It’s been everywhere, the UK, America and France; I’m so thrilled with it. We’ve been lucky enough to go over to America and tour just off the back of one single, so it’s all very strange.”
It wasn’t always thus, though. There’s an unsavoury prologue to Croll’s career as a musician that pre-dates his Macca-endorsed, global eminent, award-obtaining edifice of studied coolness. Up until about 17, Dan had aspirations of becoming a professional rugby player before a career-threatening injury to his leg re-aligned the stars irrevocably. “Whilst I was lay there in a cast for a long time, there was a lot of time to reflect on life,” he explains. “I just kind of realised my love for music, and I started to notice my love for rugby had maybe died a bit. It put things into perspective for me and I realised that I wanted to give music a go, and it seems to have gone all right so far.”
I wonder if Croll were exposed to much in the way of music during his childhood, prior to this decision to opt for the guitar over the egg-shaped ball? “Yeah, my mum listened to a lot of jazz and Irish folk records. She’s a great singer; she actually used to sing in lots of big brass and jazz bands,” Dan reveals with enthusiasm. “My dad and my sister also played instruments as well, so I was introduced to music from an early age.”
While it seems evident that Croll inherited most of his multi-instrumental talents from his semi-ridiculous bloodline of musical prodigies, his current musical character is owed in part to the academic institution that nurtured and ultimately channelled his inner-tunesmith. “LIPA was good – and it moulded me, a bit. But the main benefit about LIPA was the people I was there with.” (All We Are, Stealing Sheep, Jethro Fox, Ninetails, and Nadine Carina are alumni of the school.) “In my class we had 28 students, and they were everything that LIPA was really about,” he says, citing fellow classmate, singer-songwriter Jonas Alaska as “a guy I really looked up to, he almost made me very competitive because he’s Norwegian; English isn’t his first language yet he’d write some of the most inspiring lyrics I’ve ever heard.”
Croll found himself immersed in the intrinsically collaborative environment at LIPA, and subsequently co-signed to a fistful of experimental side projects to vent his various inclinations, including Dire Wolfe (math rock, Mars Volta harbingers) and Eye Emma Jedi (Norwegian electro-pop outfit). But despite these various digressions, the well-rounded and palatable maturity he flushes out on early Bon Iver-infused releases such as Home and Marion, along with the RnB-flecked Wanna Know, alludes to the long list of influencers he reels off with gusto. “Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, The Zombies – I mean, those guys really know how to write songs, they really do.”
Like all those songwriting greats mentioned above, he’s also fairly adept at retaliating to the would-be cynics who claim he epitomises the stereotype of privilege and pretence that is often mentioned in the same breath as graduates of LIPA. “Obviously I went to LIPA, obviously it helped me. But yeah, I think sometimes people can look too far into that. As much as I love LIPA, you can’t give it all the credit. It was a part of my career so far, but I wouldn’t say it was the most important part of my career yet.” He’s not wrong.
Now recording his currently untitled debut LP with longstanding friend and collaborator Joe Wills on production and mixing duties, his next career milestone looks to be imminent. Ask him about a release date, though, and the response is of a typically genial and mild-mannered nature, keeping his cards close to his chest. “There’s a few dates lying around, but hopefully it’ll drop around September time. I’d like to get it out before next year but, you never know, it could be a nice way to start off 2014.”
You won’t find this squeaky-clean scholar smoking peyote out of a banana skin whilst spouting vainglorious psychobabble down his diamante-encrusted microphone, but this is a man who needs no debauched gimmicks. His instantly familiar smile and a beautiful, peerless collection of pop songs will do him just nicely.