Mikal Cronin Tells Us All About His Ambitious Sophomore Record.
Mikal Cronin's 2011 self-titled debut was all about endings. At the time of that release, Cronin, who also acts as the bassist in his longtime friend Ty Segall's backing band, had just graduated from college, moved away from his hometown and ended a longtime relationship. Subsequently, he found himself in San Francisco and earning high praise for his very first LP, while still fully ingraining himself into the fuzz-riddled garage rock hotbed that is the Bay Area.
But, for Cronin, acceptance into that scene was more a jumping-off point than a final destination. In his newer songs, the guitarist has begun to incorporate some of the musical education he received in college into his writing and arranging process. To that end, some of Cronin's first forays into writing string and horn arrangements can be found on his recently-released sophomore effort, MCII, which stands as an ambitious collection of fuzzed out, mid-fi power pop.
It's also, Cronin tells us, his most gratifying to date.
The new album serves, too, in helping separate Cronin from the more-established Bay Area acts with whom he's now so closely associated. Or, as Cronin himself put it in a recent San Francisco Weekly interview, “I don't see Thee Oh Sees writing a piano ballad.” And yet Cronin, as that quote would imply, does just that with MCII's closing number, the aptly-titled “Piano Mantra.”
So ahead of Cronin's headlining slot at Dada this Wednesday, we asked him about his newfound propensity for grander arrangements, as well as his thoughts on adapting to the San Francisco music scene and his longtime history with Ty Segall.
How are you enjoying San Francisco?
For years, I've wanted to move up here. A lot of my friends seem to have migrated up here from Southern California. So yeah, it's great. It's beautiful. It's a really interesting city. I love the weather and how small it is. It's nice to be able to walk around. There's a lot of good shows and a lot of good people in the music scene.
How does the music scene differ there from where you grew up?
When I grew up playing shows in Orange County, it was a lot more spread out. I grew up in Laguna Beach, which is an especially isolated part of Southern California, both geographically and culturally. Definitely, musically, there's nothing to do in that town. There's nowhere to play. Most of our shows were in DIY places in Orange County that popped up and quickly got shut down, or in L.A. That's a three-hour drive, depending on traffic. Here, there's a lot of good venues. There's a ton of good bands like Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and Grass Widow. Most of those bands are out of town a lot of the time. There's not a ton of local shows with those bands, but a lot of our friends' touring bands will come through, too, because everyone loves to play in San Francisco.
It seems like everybody plays on everybody's stuff up there, too. Do you find the music scene out there is maybe a little more unified and/or less competitive than somewhere like Los Angeles?
There's definitely less competition and more collaboration. For sure. I barely ever hear about bands being jealous or bitter of another band's touring success — or success in general. Everyone is very friendly, very encouraging and down to play on each other's songs. I was out in L.A. for three years, out there going to school and playing in punk bands. And, the thing is, there is more rivalry going on and more bitterness and weirder drama. It was also spread out there geographically, and a little harder to get together and feel unified.
You and Ty Segall frequently play on each other's projects. How did you guys meet initially?
We met in high school. We went to high school together. We were friends for a bit and we were in a band together in high school. It was kind of a dance-punk band. Ty played drums and sang, I played saxophone, and there was a keyboard/bass player. You wouldn't find any of that music, though. We just played local house parties. Like I said, there was nowhere to play, really, so we just played high school parties at our friends' houses and stuff. But that's kind of how we started playing music together. And then we've just kept it up through many, many different bands. Him and a handful of other friends who I'm still playing music with met a long time ago — more than 10 years ago now. It's crazy to think about.
Do you see yourself ever making music at some point down the line that doesn't involve these guys in some way?
Maybe. I don't know. We're all heading in different directions, but we're still encouraging. My music is heading in a different direction than Ty's music, but it doesn't mean we still don't love each other's music. I don't see why we would stop trying to play music together. I don't know. Shit happens. But I don't see any of this group of people growing apart any time soon. Musically, we may go off on different tangents, but I'm sure we'll come back together eventually if that's the case.
You studied music in college. How did you start to incorporate the things you learned there into your current record?
I studied a lot of things going through school, but I ended up studying music for the last three years. Being a musical person wasn't a big change in lifestyle, but it was a very different environment in the academic music world than playing in rock 'n' roll clubs. I think the influence of studying music academically is more subtle. If nothing else, it helped me think about music more critically. If you study music, you can hear certain things in music that you've listened to before and enjoy it in different ways. You learn ways to organize your thoughts a little better to keep in mind your ideas. Or to write string and horn arrangements on [manuscript] paper. So it was really helpful in subtle ways, I think.
Like maybe it helped convey your ideas to other musicians, or helped you better capture on tape the sounds in your head?
Yeah, absolutely. It's always a struggle, but I can kind of see things a little more clearly. It's just getting a little more easy to realize what's going on. That doesn't make it easier to make the music. I'm trying to think of more complex things to do with my music. It's a constant struggle, but it's getting a little more fulfilling in a 'Yeah, I followed through with my idea' kind of way.
The last couple of songs on the record are bigger and more complex with the string arrangements and pianos and whatnot. Do you see your future output continuing in that direction and getting a little more complex?
Yeah, maybe. The songs with more of the complex arrangements are my favorite ones I worked on on this record. It was really fun for me. I have no idea what direction, musically, it will go, but I definitely want to keep pushing it into that realm, adding more complex instrumentation and better thought-out arrangements. I'm really into the idea of big arrangements right now and finding ways to incorporate it into my pop-rock framework. I don't know if there'll be any more piano ballads on the next record, but I'd love to keep working with string arrangements and horns and stuff. I have some bigger ideas than I used to, I guess, that I'd love to work on.
As things become more complex, do you think that lends itself to a little higher-fidelity recording? Do you see yourself ever doing a really big, shiny pop-sounding record?
Maybe. I think this record is the highest fidelity that I've ever worked on. I'm more a fan of the sound of tape machines and all that gear, rather than 100 tracks on a Pro Tools session. I lean more that way, aesthetically. I was able to expand the arrangements on this record a little bit more because the studio I work in got a 24-track, two-inch tape machine as opposed to a 16-track, one-inch tape machine. So that opened it up to bigger arrangements. With this music, I think it sounds good with the higher fidelity. But there's a certain point to me where it sounds like shit — like the super-overproduced pop records that are the norm. It just doesn't appeal to me, aesthetically, and I don't see it appealing to me anytime soon. There's a middle ground. I'll have the sound as good as possible with the aesthetic that I find appealing. We'll see how far we can push that.
Do the bigger arrangements mean you'll have a bigger touring band this time around?
Yeah, we do. It had been a four-piece for a while [two guitars, bass and drums], but we added my friend Dylan [Edrich], who actually recorded the string parts on the record. She joined the band and she's playing keyboard, guitar, and violin. It's already expanded a little bit, and it's sounding really good.
It seems like most bands from San Francisco these days are really heavy on fuzz pedals. What is it about moving there that makes folks think they've got to have a fuzz pedals in the band?
I've been a champion of the fuzz pedal even before I moved here. It is encouraging to see other people blasting giant, distorted guitar parts. There's just something I like about having a jangly pop song and having a wall of guitars come in very distorted. It's very powerful to me. That's probably just from growing up listening to Nirvana and shit like that. It just makes sense to me. I don't understand why more people don't fuck up the guitars a little more.
Mikal Cronin performs Wednesday, June 26, at Club Dada. Cover photo by Denee Petracek.