At first glance, Dan Croll appears to be your average mid-20s, handsomely bespectacled English guy. But recent collaborations with South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a stamp of approval from Paul McCartney and opening slots for acts like Bastille, Imagine Dragons and CHVRCHES make him anything but average.
Talking with this British multi-instrumentalist and songwriter is almost like chatting with an old friend. When sharing the story behind his journey into musicianship, he’s equal parts charming and sincere, both laid-back and honest.
His latest album, Sweet Disarray was released April 1 in America. Mixing electronica with African beats and soothing pop sounds, he creates something warm, inviting and often dance-inducing.
Paste caught up Croll about his recent South African adventure, his dream collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, how his family inspires his music and his newly acquired accordions.
: Your new album is out April 1 in America, and it’s titled Sweet Disarray. What’s the story behind the album title?
Dan Croll: My grandmum is dealing with dementia, and you know the disarray—it’s absolute chaos. It’s something that’s so hard to deal with emotionally and financially, but at the same time, it’s kind of sweet in the way that it kind of brings together a family and relatives you haven’t seen for a long time. It brings everyone together. I kind of thought it might transfer well as the album title because every track is from and plays about with different genres, so it kind of gets a little chaotic. But hopefully at the same time it’s kind of sweet.
: You have an interesting backstory and journey into music. I read that you had a sports injury and then kind of decided to make music your career at 17. How did that big revelation come about?
Croll: It was definitely a big shock, but I had a broken leg. I had to move because I couldn’t get up the stairs or anything like that. I had to move my bedroom down from the attic, down to the dining room on the ground floor, and in that dining room was my sister’s piano, some musical instruments, a kind of record player. I think during that period of trying to fix my broken leg, I was playing a lot of music. Listening to a lot of music. Trying to write my own stuff. And I suddenly thought, “maybe if these people can have a career in music, maybe I stand a chance in having a career in music as well.” I made the decision to quickly apply for music universities and institutes, just have a go at it.
: Okay, I know that everyone asks you the McCartney story, but I have to ask as well. Because you were one of eight students chosen to have a one-on-one session with him at the Liverpool Institute—and you played the song “Home” for him, yes?
Croll: Oh yeah. That was obviously a great moment for me. Getting to do that with such a world-wide legend. He’s such a well-known person and an inspiration to me, and yeah, it was really great.
: And the Beatles will always be the Beatles, but there’s really this massive new wave of British music right now that is so deserving of attention. A lot of electronic, indie music like London Grammar and CHVRCHES which you’ve toured with. So it must feel really great to be a part of that whole scene at the moment.
Croll: Yeah, there’s definitely a really fantastic scene at the moment. I don’t know, it’s like, I personally feel in Liverpool that there’s a fantastic scene. You know, and it’s hard to kind of get out of that shadow casted by The Beatles. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it kind of makes you more driven. There’s definitely a kind of healthy competition in a way in the Liverpool music scene. Everyone is really driven to succeed. It just means there is a lot of great music, and I think I’d say generally in the UK. And I don’t know if it’s just now—maybe i’m just biased, but there seems to be a stream of really great artists. It seems there are a lot of people coming around at the moment. To be one of them, I feel like there are a lot of people I’m in a way competing against at the moment. There’s quite a big wave, and it kind of goes in and out of trends.
: Absolutely. And you’re still based in Liverpool, which must be a little less chaotic and a little different lifestyle than living in London. Do you find it to be a better creative place for you?
Croll: Yeah, I’m still based in Liverpool. Yeah, I definitely feel a lot more creative in Liverpool. And I think it’s kind of—it shouldn’t be, and it’s weird how it plays such a big part of it—but at the end of the day it’s kind of to do with money and finances really. In Liverpool, I spend half of the rent I’d spend in London, which means I’m able to put that money back into music and buy equipment and gear that can help with the creating of music. And it means that I can make my life a little bit easier, have a little more free time to be able to hangout and socialize and then also money to spare for travel as well. And if I was living in London, that wouldn’t be the case. I think I’d be very claustrophobic. I do go down to London quite often, and it’s great because I can pop down for weekends and stuff, but as soon as I’m there for more than four days or so, I find myself really missing Liverpool.
: I read that your mom played lots of jazz records growing up, and other things like Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. So it seems that you grew up around good musical inspiration. Do you find these early influences to still be part of your music today?
Croll: I’m definitely inspired by artists my family introduced me to. My family is very inspirational for me. I’d still say I listen to the older music more than modern music, and I have to kind of force myself to try and keep up to date with what’s going on in music. But I do love what I was brought up on—James Taylor, Paul Simon, The Beach Boys, The Beatles—I love listening to all of that. I feel very kind of objective when I’m listening to them. And I kind of go back if there’s something I like—usually, I love the harmonies of the The Beach Boys, so whilst I’m recording a track with harmonies, I’ll keep listening back to The Beach Boys just to make sure I’m on the right track of trying to compose vocal sounds like they have.
: The song “Home” is based around your family and even features your grandmother and parents in the video, which is really fun. How do they all feel about being music video stars and your rising fame as a musician?
Croll: Oh they’re incredibly supportive. They miss me quite a lot with being on tour so much, but it’s just one of those things I’ve got to do. I’ve got to be on the road. I think because I broke my leg and sort of suddenly found myself in music, they also weirdly found themselves in it as well. They’re very emotionally involved in my music, so it’s been quite a shock for them. We’re all trying to kind of keep up with what’s going on at the moment. It’s been an incredibly fast few years for me, so we’re always just trying to keep up with the family, which is good.
: You’ve mentioned before that you’re a collector of instruments and kind of mess around with everything from an accordion to the ukelele to tambourine. Any favorite instruments that you like to play?
Croll: I definitely have a couple of favorite instruments. I feel like, for me playing the drums is probably one of the greatest things. I just really love the drums. It’s something I spend a lot of time on when recording. I really try and build a strong foundation. With, you know, the melodies, it’s all very important to me to have a solid foundation. And then also the bass as well. All the kind of synthular instruments are the ones I try and collect. I’ve been inspired by a lot of hip hop and R&B. Some of the best bass lines I’ve ever heard come from hip hop and R&B, old records like A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders is a really big album reference for me that I love to try and get their their bass sounds. Yeah, I think the drums and bass are definitely my favorites. I’ve definitely got a few that I’m trying to learn at the moment. I’ve recently acquired an accordion that’s pretty tricky to play.
: You recently had a massive trip to South Africa for a recording session with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who are really magical. That must have been incredible to work with some of your personal heroes. And they have an influence on your music, as well?
Croll: I think my songs are influenced really easily. It’s quite strange; when I sit down to write a song, it’s fully dependent on who’s around me and who I’m listening to at that time. Things can easily change and with technology. How it is at the moment, it’s so easy to make a change in whatever program you’re using. It takes six seconds to swap an instrument over, or anything like that. So when I’m working on demos and recording sessions, they’re always changing. I keep track of it sometimes, like who I’m listening to or who I’m around so I can remember what it was like at that time.
: You’ve mentioned having a love affair with hip hop and that you’d even love to collaborate with someone like Kendrick Lamar, which would be pretty awesome. Any future collaborations planned with any artists, or have anybody in mind you’d like to try to work with?
Croll: Yeah, I’d stick with that dream collaboration. I think Kendrick Lamar, his album was incredible. I think his way of telling stories within his riffs and his lyrics are incredible. So yeah, I’d love to work with him. I don’t have any collaborations planned just yet. They tend to pop up last minute, like just the recent travels to South Africa to collaborate with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. That was a kind of last-minute thing, you know, spur of the moment. I kind of like how they’re like that. It makes you more creative. So I think I’ll just wait and see what happens. The album is released, so hopefully it will spread as far as it can. And if it happens to land in the hands of some cool artists, I’d definitely love to work with them.