Dan Astles looks right at home leafing through the record stacks in Jacaranda Records, giving off the air of a seasoned musician despite being in the early stages of his career. We’ve met to discuss the first fruits of his journey as ASTLES, an EP of bristling, reverb-laden pop recorded at the Scandinavian Church, which marks the first chapter of what already looks to be a promising career. We head downstairs in search of a more forgiving acoustic environment, and as we hunch over a battered and antiquated table in the historic Jacaranda basement, Dan attempts to tally the countless times he’s played within these walls. While only 18, Dan has been writing since the age of 13, his teenage years spent refining his sound at open mic nights in places such as The Jac. He’s even been attempting to create his own music community near his home in Southport, and the open mic events he’s put on so far have already taught him the importance of hard work and not settling for a feeling of comfort.
That reassuring comfort comes with familiarity and repetition, something that is abundant in his sleepy, predictable, seaside hometown. His experiences in places like The Jacaranda have inspired Dan to catalyse a scene within Southport, starting with his regular open mic nights in The Hideout bar. “[It’s] a place where people can go to play, and feel like they’re a part of something, and be around like-minded people,” he explains about the ethos of his Hideout Acoustic Sessions nights. “That wasn’t there when I was 15, I always needed to go to Liverpool because there was nothing going on in Southport.”
The lack of activity in the area drove Dan to run the tracks into the city in a pursuit of new experiences, people and sounds. “For me, Liverpool was the centre of the world, I couldn’t get enough of it. The amount of times I’ve caught the last train home to spend as much time here as possible, it’s so many.” Liverpool has been a key inspiration for Astles as an artist too, expanding his mind both musically and socially. Every other sentence he utters is infused with a boundless enthusiasm for the city and its recent knack for harbouring young talent; he lists Silent Cities, Thom Morecroft, LUMEN and Eleanor Nelly as key influences who have left their mark on him. After becoming acquainted with many of the acts currently on the scene, Dan has not only learned a lot from them, he is now using them as a bar to measure himself against. “Having these people around you, who you think are amazing, encourages you to improve.” He also praises the support available to young artists in the form of LIMF Academy, Merseyrail Sound Station and the nurturing creative local environment. He credits these as a stimulant for the recent wave of acts being recognised by the music industry, such as MiC Lowry, Clean Cut Kid and XamVolo.
Having been involved in the LIMF Academy last year and having impressed the judges enough at the Merseyrail Sound Station Festival to be crowned its 2016 winner, Astles is starting to turn heads of his own. Off the back of this achievement, he’s set to release his first recorded EP in March – Live At The Nordic – which comes with a launch show at Liverpool’s Small Cinema. Featuring only Dan and his guitar, the EP’s five tracks were recorded in the Gustav Adolf Church on Park Lane with Michael Johnson of Tankfield Studios, a producer and engineer who’s worked with the likes of New Order and Joy Division. The Nordic church proved to be the perfect location for Dan’s pained vocals, and the oceans of reverb it created have expanded into thick, atmospheric sonic depths. There are touches of Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon in Castles’ evocative introspection, and even something of Damien Rice’s pained troubadour on Time Forgot.
The ethereal sound that has become Astles’ trademark is something Dan has refined over his years of gigging solo. Playing soft, reverb-honeyed songs, in an attempt to stand out amongst most acoustic guitar open mic acts, he aims to harbour a fragility and a pureness. “It just makes everything sound bigger – and I wanted to play something different and more intriguing,” he explains. “Jeff Buckley was able to capture that mood of him and his guitar. It’s so powerful, but people can miss that, because it’s so simple.”
Creating a strong, colourful and vivid picture is something that also seems fundamental to Dan’s fascination with music. That storyteller’s craft of acquainting the listener with the character and setting is a skill that shows up time and again in Astles’ songs. A defining memory for Dan is listening to his parents’ records as a child. “I remember being really little, and being sat in the back of my dad’s car and hearing Piano Man. The way he describes the characters, you can feel and see them in your head. I remember thinking that’s an amazing thing to do within a three or five-minute song.” As he grew older he started to search for his own influences, in the form of Bob Dylan, John Martyn and Elliot Smith, further feeding his hunger for storytelling in music. He explored literature as another medium by which to exercise his obsession for imagery and narrative. Classic novels such as The Catcher In The Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird inspired him to recreate the impact of those stories in a shorter, simplified song format. The ability of encapsulating an array of characters, messages and emotions, and portraying them in such a simple format, is something he found overwhelming when listening to artists like Bob Dylan. “The fact that people can write songs that takes a film three hours, or a book 400 pages, that’s something that’s really inspiring to me, being able to say something that quickly and that strongly.”
The music making process is as important to Astles as the presentation of it, whether it be live or recorded. After enrolling in a Music Technology course in Liverpool, he’s now cultivating the art of production, tailoring different sounds, and exercising a new form of experimentation. “Now I’ve got better at production, some of my ideas come from hours spent at my computer. Fiddling around with sounds, I can build upon the ideas I have with just me and my guitar.”
While only just starting to make his mark upon Liverpool, pages are being turned towards the next Astles chapter. Already eyeing up his future, he’d like his next batch of EPs to adopt individual concepts, more like cinematic entities and short stories. He also expresses his will to not be restricted by orthodox band set-ups, with a desire to incorporate grand string sections and layered percussion high on his agenda. A reference point he draws on is the latest Bon Iver release, 22, A Million: “It’s stripped back, but still has all these ideas coming from all over the place. That sound that is so raw, but still so considered.” In taking notes from the great novelists and songwriters of the last century and this, Astles has set his heights high, but his ambition is clear.
The Live At The Nordic EP comes out on 14th March, with an EP launch show at The Small Cinema on 30th March.