Originally published for The Skinny July 2017 issue.
The music industry can be a very cut-throat business at times, and Dan Croll has learned that the hard way. Last year he found himself dropped from his label, left with no management and stuck with the task of trying to find a way of releasing his second album Emerging Adulthood. “I had already pulled the trigger on the album,” says Croll. “I had released One of Us and started to release another single then found myself without any support around me, so I had to start again very quickly.”
Luckily, Communion Records came to the rescue. The label had previously included Croll’s single Marion on their New Faces compilation album in 2012, alongside the likes of Michael Kiwanuka, Ben Howard and Gotye, so as fans, they agreed to release his new album. Croll had turned things around for himself very quickly, with it seems barely a minute spent to dwell on the situation. This he says is due to his competitive nature, born out of a childhood spent consumed by sport.
“Up until I was about 17, my life was so dominated by sport and I think naturally playing that much competitive sport made me very competitive, not only with other people but with myself as well,” he says. “Once I had got over the immediate shock of it and I felt quite down, there was a real resurgence to compete with these people who I wanted to prove wrong and with myself to get back on my feet, so the competitive spirit kicked in.”
By the time Emerging Adulthood had been given a release date, however, some of the singles taken from it were now over a year old: One of Us was first released in October 2015, second single Swim in August 2016. But since the album had already been recorded, Croll felt it was appropriate to keep things as they were. “They’ve been around for a bit longer than some of the other tracks but they still belong together in my eyes, on the same body of music,” he says.
Given the success of his debut album Sweet Disarray and, particularly, its lead single From Nowhere, it may seem surprising that Croll found himself in this position. But achieving the same level of commercial success again was not his only concern. “Even when you take a step away from that and think to yourself ‘I want to do this for myself’, for me that’s still not the case because I have to support seven of my closest friends,” he says. “Admittedly, it’s commercial music I want to make, pop music that can be played on the radio, but I want to come at it from more of an alternative angle.”
The album was recorded in Maze Studios in Atlanta with producer Ben H. Allen, who won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album for his contribution to Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 album St. Elsewhere. As well as writing all the tracks, Croll also set himself the challenge of playing every instrument on the album.
“I really wanted a hard contrast from the first album where that was quite DIY in its approach,” he says. “When I approached it this time round, I wanted to do what people would consider the more professional way or the more appropriate way and try that out, where I gave myself a time limit. I wanted to write it in five months, record it in two months and I wanted to play every musical instrument on the album.”
In the heat of Atlanta, however, this wasn’t always easy. The way in which Croll describes his drum recording sessions sounds reminiscent of a scene from Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning film Whiplash. “The room that I recorded drums in didn’t have any air conditioning so it was like recording in a sauna,” he says. But being as competitive as he is, Croll refused to give up and let anyone else step in, instead suffering through the smouldering heat to finish the recordings.
Croll’s music style is not exactly fitting to the music scene in Atlanta, known as the birthplace of trap music, so it seems an odd choice of location to record his album. “It was quite tough to do an album there because there wasn’t a scene that I could engross myself in that was similar to my music,” he says. But what did impress him was the dedication to and passion for live music.
“What I really enjoyed the most out there was the local radio set-up,” he says. “There were hundreds of stations locally but they weren’t in radio stations or offices, they were the clubs themselves, so they would live broadcast the radio from the club. Everything was so live and energetic.”
Croll himself is admittedly bit of a live music snob. In the past, he has voiced his dislike for artists using backing tracks when performing live, something he says stems from going to gigs and noticing the corners being cut by certain artists. “I think it’s a bit of a muso thing,” he says. “But some gigs I went to where I loved the band’s album, you go and watch them and it was almost robotic how similar it was to the album and part of me thought that just felt like listening to the album.”
Vowing to make his live shows a different experience to listening to the album, Croll and his band only use backing tracks when absolutely necessary. “While I use some elements of backing tracks myself, it is the absolute last resort and it’s only if me and my other four members physically can’t play that part but we need to have it there,” he says. “That to me is what makes the difference, that kind of last resort thing.”
Engaging with his fans is very important to Croll and, with a predominantly young fan base, this means spending a lot of time communicating with them on social media. Despite managing and running all his own social media pages himself, he didn’t feel he was achieving the kind of engagement he desired. “There were some very heavy periods where I found myself on it a lot and after spending all of this time on it, I still felt like I was no closer to my fans than I was when I started,” he says.
To combat this Croll launched a ‘Dial Dan‘ hotline, a project where he releases his phone number to his fans over a week-long period and takes as many of their calls as he can. “My one rule is that I can’t hang up,” he says. “A lot of people rang me and I managed to take 258 calls in the first week.”
Part of this engagement also involves him encouraging his younger fans to participate in politics. In the run up to the June General Election, Croll consistently posted on social media urging fans to vote, while not so subtly sharing his own personal voting preference.
“I think everyone should be active in it, especially musicians and anyone who appeals to a younger age range because there is a very clear divide at the moment in our country of young and old,” he says. “Obviously it’s a fine line, you want to push people to vote or register and try and direct them to what you feel is good, also keeping them in mind, but you don’t want to be in people’s faces, so it’s trying to find that balance.”
Croll’s dedicated fan base and his own competitive nature seem to have been the key factors in allowing him to get through a very tumultuous year. It seems apt then, given the circumstances, that his new album be called Emerging Adulthood because over the past 12 months, Dan Croll really has had to do a lot of growing up, and fast.
Emerging Adulthood is released on 21 Jul via Communion Records