"I wanted something less robotic, a little more human and delicate" - Dan Croll talks his new life in Los Angeles and new LP Grand Plan
Expat Brits finding a home in the sunny climbs of Los Angeles is a well-trodden path. For some, it's a new start and can revitalise your career, for others, it swallows you up. That goes for arena fillers and those who are struggling to fill the top room of a pub, back when you were allowed to fill the top rooms of pubs.
Dan Croll, whose made his name with two albums of wonky pop and folky electronica, is the latest Brit to seek a new start in LA.
Feeling stuck in a rut in his adopted home of Liverpool, he uprooted and headed out there, a journey he has documented in new album, his third, Grand Plan.
The album is released today and we spoke to Croll about why he decided to uproot his life and head to Los Angeles, working with bluesy producer Matthew E. White and the making of Grand Plan...
It’s a very strange time to be releasing a record, have you managed to enjoy the process at all?
"An incredibly strange time to be releasing a record! I just consider myself very lucky to have a finished album ready to release, I’m sure there are artists out there mid-recording or just struggling to feel creative in the current climate."
"Aside from the whole world pandemic chaos, things have been going pretty well, and I’ve definitely been able to enjoy the process along the way. I’ve had a lot of time in lockdown to think back over the past two years, living in a new country, the stories that started these songs, and the incredible journey of recording them with such a talented team, it’s all been a blast."
Did you have a goal of how you wanted the album to move on from what you did on Emerging Adulthood?
"Absolutely, I wanted to take things back to basics. As much as I enjoyed Emerging Adulthood, I realised I was just chasing a pop dream, and trying to better first album tracks like ‘From Nowhere’ that had brought me some success. I ended up getting pretty burnt out from it all and so I decided to pretty much start fresh."
"I knew I needed to change my approach to song-writing, previous tracks had been built by layering sounds and loops, focussing more on the production than the song. With each of these new tracks, I made the conscious effort to sit down and writing the song from start to finish on one instrument before I even thought about production. Even when I finished writing the song I still limited myself in the demoing of them, choosing a four-track tape recorder instead of the endless tracks of pro tools and logic."
"Starting fresh also meant changing the environment around me. I love Liverpool, and my friends and family there, but I knew I needed to get out and have an adventure. Emerging Adulthood was a bit of an adventure, I went to Atlanta to record it, but it was still written at home in Liverpool. This time I wanted a real change, to really put myself in a new environment for the whole process."
You wrote and recorded this album after moving to Los Angeles, what effect has the move had on your songwriting?
"The move to Los Angeles had a huge impact on my songwriting, it basically gave me that creative drive to write, something I had not felt much of back home. When I landed here, I wanted to take a year off writing and to not even do anything music-related. Just to try and give myself a break from it all. However, after only a week I felt compelled to document all of the experiences, it just felt natural to do so. It got me excited again, that’s what writing a song should feel like, rather than sitting at home, trying to force creativity to tick a box."
"Everything was new and exciting to me, from the climate to the scenery, to the food and culture. All of these put me in the right frame of mind to create, and it didn’t take long for me to realise that I wanted this album to document that first year, and to present it in chronological order so listeners could follow along on that journey too."
You worked with Matthew E. White on the album, how did that collaboration come about?
"I’m a bit of a reference nut, when I approach going into the studio I want to be as prepared as possible, I make a bunch of playlists that try to summarise the sound I want from each track or instrument so that when I’m in the room it’s easy to reference back to the moment. One of Matt’s tracks made it into most of those lists, his track 'Eyes Like The Rest'."
"I didn’t want to go for the big polished pop production of the previous record, I wanted something less robotic, a little more human and delicate. I thought the best person for this would be another artist/songwriter, so I went through the reference lists I made and thought Matt could be the one! He’d already been producing a whole bunch of other artists and had co-founded Spacebomb records, and so honoured that they had me record there."
What did he give you as a producer?
"Matthew was similar to me in regard to referencing, first thing he made me do was to give him 10 tracks that summarised what I wanted the album to sound like. From there he brought an incredibly talented bunch of guys to the studio to capture those sounds."
"That was something I’d never had, my first album had me and a few mates playing on it, not that they weren’t talented, but we were young and stumbling through it all. Then the second album was me on every instrument, something now looking back no one should really do."
"This was the first time that I got to sit in the studio and watch others play my songs far better than I ever could, plus observe the way Matt was able to conduct and direct in a way that only a very close group of friends having played for many years could."
"I’m a stresser. I tend to get anxious, especially in studio surroundings due to being overwhelmed by the endless directions you can take a track, and the endless tweaking and obsessing over sounds. Matt brought a calmness to the process, and I think with that came more clarity musically."
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is there a theme to it?
"Each track is about a direct experience from my first year living in Los Angeles, which was all of 2018. I wanted to document the whole experience, having never made such a big life change, and present it all chronologically for the listen to experience with me."
"The lyrics cover a lot of different scenarios I found myself in, such as meeting egomaniac actors at parties, being kicked out of my apartment, meeting my girlfriend, adjusting to the complete change of climate, and having no idea what the hell I was doing in Los Angeles."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
"The track that took the longest to get right never actually ended up on the album, which I find is always the way. I feel like there’s a threshold with any song in the studio, it’s where you go from feeling like you are ‘fine-tuning’ to simply just forcing it, and no song should be forced."
"Of the songs that got on the album though, we ended up spending a fair bit of time on 'Hit Your Limit', but that was because we wanted quite a slack and deep sounding kit, so Matthew had the idea to record the drums faster to tape, slow it down, then lay the other instruments over. Recording to tape can be a bit of a rabbit hole at the best of times but getting them to sit right on this song took a chunk of time."
And which came together most quickly?
"I’d say the first track on the album, 'Yesterday'. It’s my favourite track on the album, and I’d managed to get quite far with the initial demo, or at least get it into the ballpark of how it could sound."
"I think that demo mixed with the excitement of starting to record the album, a fun studio atmosphere, and the band having their first play of the tracks put it into a really good place. We flew through it in a handful of takes and it set the way for the rest of the album."
When did you settle on Grand Plan for the title? Were there any other titles in contention?
"Usually at some point through the writing process I get a clear idea of the album title, I don’t think I’ve ever had an alternative or another for contention. It’s a strange feeling when you just know that’s what you want the album to be called, something that summarises exactly what it means to you."
"I knew as soon as I started writing Grand Plan that it was a special song to me. I had suddenly decided to uproot my life and buy a one-way ticket to California, and once the initial few months of excitement and adrenaline wore off, I realised that I was completely alone, without any kind of plan, and started to doubt what I’d done."
"Writing that song, overcoming that uncertainty and getting the drive to carry on was what I wanted the album show. I wanted it to give others some confidence and resilience and so from that moment the album was called Grand Plan."
Are you able to make any live plans at the moment? Or are you looking towards 2021?
"Sadly, we’ve not got any live plans, there’s just too much uncertainty at the moment, and first and foremost comes everyone’s safety. Hopefully in 2021 we’ll have more understanding of what’s possible and we can get back out on the road, or maybe find an alternative! Either way, I’m really excited to get the hell out of 2020."
How have you spent lockdown? Have you kept writing?
"For those first few months I really struggled, I’d never been more uninspired and unmotivated with everything that was going on. I’d taken on a bunch of other jobs to keep money ticking over and when I wasn’t doing those, I was just eating and drinking myself into a vegetative state."
"Thankfully I’ve managed to pick myself up a bit, things have balanced out more and I’ve been feeling a bit more creative (and started to learn Spanish). With the lack of touring on the horizon I’ve started to get excited about releasing more music instead, so watch this space!"
Dan Croll's new album Grand Plan is out now.