Finding a Global Groove
May 31, 2018
Dan Caplen BA ’12 and Ian Hooper BA ’08 create chart-topping hits abroad.
If you Google “tips for breaking into the music business,” you’ll instantly garner millions of hits. For two young alumni, one of the keys has been to take their unique musical sounds abroad ―to the U.K. and Germany, respectively.
At the Top of the Charts in the U.K.
This spring, in the streets of London, the voice of Dan Caplen BA ’12 proved inescapable. The 26-year-old wrote and contributed vocals to “These Days,” a hit for the British drum and bass group Rudimental. As of mid-April, the track had been near the top of the U.K. singles chart for 11 weeks, peaking at No. 1 in March. The video for the song has been viewed more than 130 million times on YouTube. Caplen is, suddenly, a notable presence in British pop. But to hear him tell it, he never expected to find a career in music.
“I thought I was going to be working in a bank or something,” Caplen says. “I never thought anyone could make money out of music. It seemed like an impossible dream.” That Caplen’s dream is becoming reality is no accident—it’s the result of years of hard work, dating back to his college years and before.
Caplen was born in England and grew up in Hong Kong and Kent, studying piano and cello on his own time and vocal music at St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. He applied to Lewis & Clark at the urging of a family friend who attended the school in the 1980s. “I thought, you know what, I’ll just go over there. It will cost less to go there than it will to university here,” Caplen says. “I didn’t actually know where Portland was,” he jokes. “During the flight on the way over, I thought I was going to Maine.”
At Lewis & Clark, Caplen majored in psychology and played in the college orchestra and jazz ensemble. But he also worked on producing his own music under the tutelage of music instructor Jeff Leonard, a bass player and composer who directs the college’s electronic music program.
“The music business is very often not a meritocracy, but Dan’s got the goods,” Leonard says. “He writes great hooks, really memorable melodies, and good lyrics. He’s deserving of all his success.”
Caplen credits Leonard as a major influence on his music and career. “He’s a legend. I love that guy,” he says. “At one point, I was in danger of losing my music scholarship, because I was having trouble getting to orchestra. He told the powers that be, ‘Nah, he’s just in his basement recording and writing songs. He’s worth keeping around.’”
After completing his junior year, Caplen spent the summer interning at a London record company and writing songs. When he returned to Portland for senior year, he was ready to start building his identity as an artist. He started a Twitter account and a YouTube channel. His first post was his final project for Leonard’s electronic music production class: a medley of music by four established artists—SBTRKT, Kid Cudi, Labrinth, and No Doubt—with his own vocals accompanied by rich layers of cello, hand claps, and instrument tapping. It’s an energetic composition, resonant with strings and Caplen’s baritone voice.
“I made this makeshift studio in my house by Market of Choice, and I recorded this thing,” Caplen recalls. “I played it as my end-of-semester project, and my friends were like, ‘Put it up online!’” Three months later, Caplen had a manager. He wasn’t yet working in music full time, but he was on his way.
Caplen spent the next two years recording more mash-ups and working on a self-produced four-song EP, Epiphany, which he released in 2014 under the name D/C. That recording caught the attention of Atlantic Records, who signed him a year later. As a singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, Caplen says he’s hands on in the studio, right down to the string tracks. “I do all of it myself. It’s way cheaper than getting the proper guys in,” he jokes. “I realized everything sounds a little better with a bit of strings on it. Everything sounds a little classier.”
Since signing with Atlantic, Caplen has been on a tear. He performed on an album by the English singer-songwriter George Ezra. In 2016, he released a second EP, Badman, further refining his soul-meets-chamber-music sound. In 2017, he started work on a full-length album and released a handful of polished singles. One of them was “These Days,” a rollicking kiss-off anthem for faithless lovers that shifts mid-song to a lament about the difficulty of finding human connection in the big city.
“I wrote the song for myself, really,” he says. “But then my record label says, ‘It’s not right for your project, maybe you should give it to Rudimental.’ I played it for the guys and they’re like, ‘Yep, we’ll take that.’”
Rudimental is an eclectic quartet of musicians known for a catchy blend of fast-paced dance music and soulful vocals from a rotating cast of guest singers. For “These Days,” in addition to Caplen, the band tapped a pair of seasoned chart-toppers: Jess Glynne, an English pop singer with five No. 1 hits to her name, and Macklemore, the thrift-shop-loving Seattle rapper with a shelf’s worth of Grammys.
It takes a long time to make an album, especially one involving international collaborators. Caplen, Glynne, and Macklemore recorded their parts in early 2017, but the single wasn’t released until January of this year. During the wait, Caplen toured with George Ezra and Rag’n’Bone Man, another soulful English baritone. And then he got an unexpected call from a Seattle number.
“I thought it was one of my friends from college,” Caplen says. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, someone’s in trouble.’ I picked it up, and it was Macklemore.”
The rapper was finishing up work on his fourth studio album, Gemini, and he wanted Caplen to contribute some vocals. Caplen flew out to Seattle and wound up being featured on two of the album’s tracks.
As it turns out, Caplen and Macklemore had encountered each other before, at Lewis & Clark, when Caplen was a first-year student. Before his single “Thrift Shop” catapulted the rapper to international fame, Macklemore played a concert with the then-better-known group Blue Scholars at the Co-Op in Tamarack.
“I spoke to him at that gig, and said, ‘I’m really into music.’ And he was like, ‘Send me some stuff,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t have any stuff. Bollocks.’ So a missed opportunity, but seven years later I was in the studio with him.”
Gemini was released in September 2017 and reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, but Caplen’s tracks didn’t get radio play. Then, on January 19, “These Days” hit the airwaves, and suddenly Caplen’s voice was everywhere.
“It’s been nuts,” Caplen says. “It nearly sold a million copies worldwide in eight weeks, which is unheard of these days. It’s No. 1 in like 8 countries, top 10 everywhere else.” In support of the single, Caplen has been performing the track with Rudimental on television and radio, including live on BBC One and in a video recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Fans have posted hundreds of their own covers to YouTube. Caplen’s days of anonymity are over.
“The weirdest thing is that people have started recognizing me on the street in London,” he says. “Nine million people, and every day someone says, ‘Hey, are you Dan Caplen?’ It’s nice to get a little bit of recognition.”
Caplen is making good use of his recent prominence. In March and April, he opened for Macklemore at sold-out shows across the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Europe. He’s continuing to work on his debut album, which will be released in 2019, and writes with and for other performers.
“I’m trying to do as much as possible while I’ve got a bit of spotlight,” Caplen says. If things keep going as they have been, this “bit of spotlight” won’t be his last.
Ian Hooper BA ’08
Folk-Rock Success in Germany
Ian Hooper BA ’08 went to Germany to teach English. He wound up playing for sell-out crowds with Mighty Oaks, an international folk-rock trio based in Berlin.
Hooper’s connections to Germany go back to his childhood. Though he grew up in Gig Harbor, a small town on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula, his parents met in Munich. His mother, who hailed from Ireland, was working there, and his father, who would go on to become a professor of German at the University of Puget Sound, was pursuing his doctorate.
Though he began studying German because he figured his parents could help him with his homework, Hooper fell in love with Berlin during his junior year of college, when he participated in the Year in Munich overseas study program. He spent his break between semesters working at the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.
“I was pretty blown away,” he recalls. “I told myself I really wanted to come back and spend more time in the city—I just didn’t know how or when.”
After graduating from Lewis & Clark with a double major in international affairs and German studies, Hooper moved to Hamburg to teach English on a Fulbright grant. It was there, after years of playing guitar for himself, that he began performing in public and met his future bandmates: Craig Saunders, a bass player from southwest England, and Claudio Donzelli, an Italian composer and multi-instrumentalist.
“During one of my first gigs, I was opening up for a singer-songwriter from England, and Craig was there helping him out,” Hooper says. “I got along with Craig really well, but he was a solo artist. And I was trying to be a solo artist. It didn’t occur to us that we should join forces.”
The two soloists met Donzelli at an acoustic music festival where he was a featured international performer. Shortly thereafter, Hooper moved to Berlin to work for an NGO, and found Donzelli had moved to the city to study telecommunications engineering. They started writing songs together in their spare time.
“Eventually, it grew into something bigger and more promising than our day jobs,” Hooper says. “I told Claudio, ‘If you’re willing to break off your PhD and start a band, we could make a go of it.’ He agreed, and we got Craig to move over to Berlin with his two young children. It was a big step into the dark, but it’s worked out for us.”
The trio’s first recording together, the acoustic folk EP Driftwood Seat, became a hit on the online music community SoundCloud, and the band was soon playing festivals around Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
“Germany is a wonderful place to be a musician,” Hooper says. “When we were starting out, we applied for any number of grants that got us going. The places people think it’s really great to play, like the United States and parts of the U.K. are generally pretty grim. Here, every time you play you get paid well and you get great catering. The Germans really take care of musicians.”
In 2014, Mighty Oaks released their debut album, Howl, which featured songs inspired by Hooper’s life and the Pacific Northwest of his childhood. (The video for the lead single, “Brother,” showcased views of Mount Rainier.) The recording peaked at No. 10 on the German charts and launched the band on two solid years of touring Europe and the United States. A second album, Dreamers, recorded in a studio near Seattle in 2016, showcased the development of their spare, string-heavy sound with piano and electric guitar. This spring, Mighty Oaks was back in the studio in Berlin, working on a third album to be released next year.
While Mighty Oaks has played two tours in the U.S., the band remains relatively unknown to American listeners. Hooper says that, with his wife and two sons in Berlin (the second, James, was born March 11), being big in Germany suits him fine. “I knew nothing about the German music scene when I came here—in fact, I scoffed at it—but it’s been really great,” he says. “We’re able to make a decent living doing what we love to do.”
Ben Waterhouse BA ’06 is a Portland writer and editor.