The sole caption on Mikal Cronins Bandcamp reads: Mikal makes music, now and again, here or there or anywhere. Cronins wayward spirit appropriately roams, sonically and otherwise, somewhere in between the beach and desert of his home state of California, where Americana and psychedelia lurk under the guise of twitchy pop songs.
When hes not riffing with Ty Segalls touring band or playing in San Franciscos The Moonhearts, the 27-year-old Cronin is busy writing music for his own solo records. His debut on Merge, the CoS Top Star-earning MCII, is the product of ever-shifting landscapes in Cronins personal and professional life. Uncertainty, relationship woes, and questioning passions all thread their way into the album, which features string arrangements from collaborator K. Dylan Edrich and the slide guitar stylings of Thee Oh Sees Petey Dammit on Peace of Mind.
The shaggy-haired SF native chatted with us about headbanging with Ty Segall, bathtubs full of beer, finding fulfillment, and making sushi during the quiet moments.
Hi! Thanks for talking with us! What have you been up to today?
Thank you! And nothing, really. I woke up pretty late, made some coffee, did some interviews. I went to a baseball game last night that ran pretty late. I saw the San Francisco Giants.
Are you a big baseball fan?
Its funny. I never really watch baseball. Even my music friends here who arent into organized sports love the Giants. Surprisingly, I found myself having a lot of fun sitting in front of the TV, drinking beers, yelling at the players. Tickets are really cheap, too. We were at the top of the stadium, but we could still see everything.
Where in SF are you located?
Im in the Mission district — the weather here is way nicer than most other parts. Its especially nice in LA.
Do you go to LA frequently for shows, or do you record mostly in SF?
Sort of. I was in LA this past weekend. I was down there making a music video. I lived in LA for three years before I moved to San Francisco, too.
What was the music video for?
Rad! One of MCIIs best, I think. Can we hear a bit about what it involves without giving it away?
Thanks! And sure. We basically set up a house party. It takes place as the band is playing a house party. It should be really interesting. Theres a main character who feels like hes there alone, a little isolated with all these party things happening around him. Should be funny. Theres also some movie magic in there.
Did you recruit randoms as extras for it, or was it with your friends?
Oh, we had a big enough group of friends to make it look like a party. It was an all-day thing, but we had a bathtub full of beer to keep people interested [laughs]. It was exhausting, though. It was a 16-hour day.
Its a laborious process. My stint as an extra was for LCD Soundsystems Home, randomly in Houston. My friends and I had to dance around an LED-light-encrusted robot. It was weird.
You know Beirut? I went to one of his video shoots one time in LA, with my girlfriend at the time. We really liked him. It was interesting. Its amazing how long the film process takes, the lighting, all of that. I would love to make a film, but I dont have the patience to sit through that.
I read that you recently received your BFA in music and learned to compose various string instruments. Which ones in particular did you work with, and how did this new knowledge both distort and apply to recording your solo album?
Specifically, you could trace [that] back to writing the string parts and arranging the piano. I think the influence snakes its way [through], in general. With this kind of music, I dont write out all the guitar chord changes and stuff like that. I think going into that academic music environment opened my mind to thinking about music really critically. It would be learning about why a certain chord change can affect you emotionally more than another one. Stuff like that. Hearing a bunch of music, writing music for instruments in group. I probably wont write another baroque piece on the harpsichord, or something on the oboe. I feel like it sneaks its way in with experience and three years of studying theory and performance.
Does that critical knowledge now make you overthink when it comes to vibing out in jam sessions with other people?
A lot of peoples’ criticisms about people that go to music school or study music is that you lose that immediacy or joy of just playing guitar. Ive found that it doesnt apply, though. 95% of people I play music with have no idea how to write, or have no formal training to read music on paper. It really doesnt matter.
While I was in school, I was in a hardcore punk band, and I was doing that with the art school kids. Then we would go to class the next day and study theory. I was pleasantly surprised it didnt affect me that way. It just opened up another line of thinking, and criticizing my own music, and finding effective ways to translate what I wanted to translate. Im sure it affects some people in that way, like they cant listen to Black Flag again after studying Bach, but it didnt have that effect. It made everything better.
Seems like your schedule is pretty hectic, between playing in The Moonhearts, playing bass in Ty Segalls band, and touring for your own solo work. How do you strike a balance and not get overwhelmed?
It was a crazy last couple of years doing that all at once, especially recording the record. We were touring a lot. We would get back, then I would immediately go to the recording studio for a few days, record as much as I could before I left for the next tour. It was hectic. Its calmed down a little because Tys band is taking a break. Everyone is working on their own projects. Its good timing because Im about to tour with my band a lot. As far as booking, it helps that my band and Tys band have the same booking agent. Its definitely exhausting, but Ive gotten a lot of good work done and had good experiences, I think.
Are you one of those people that thrives on a bit of stress?
It helps motivate me. I was always the type to write a paper the day before its due. It helps to have deadlines and a fixed period of time where you have to accomplish something. I can get really lazy and unfocused pretty easily. At the same time, I wish I had more time to relax and do something other than working on these projects. It definitely keeps you in the mindset, living in that lifestyle all the time. It keeps you on your toes and focused.
What do you wish you had more time to do?
Sadly, I have no idea. Little things, like making dinner with my girlfriend. Or going to a bar and playing pool. Music has taken over my life and free time, but you start to miss normal things you dont even think about until you dont have time to do them, like home-cooked meals or just laying around a park.
Speaking of home-cooked meals, whats the best last thing you ate?
My girlfriend and I tried to make Asian wraps and sushi. It was really good. We werent completely successful. They were really sloppy sushi rolls.
Making sushi is tough! The consistency of the rice is the secret, Ive heard.
Definitely! Its hard. Thats why the best sushi chefs in the world dedicate themselves to only doing that and perfect it.
Like Giro from Giro Dreams of Sushi.
I’ve seen that! Its amazing.
Shifting gears a bit, it sounds like lyrically many of the songs from MCII sound like conversations you needed to get off your chest. What was going through your mind as you were writing these songs?
Theyre all about transition, and change, and what it means to be a happier, better person. It was a constant expression of my inner dialogue, the contrast between thoughts and actions. I have an idea of how I should change to make myself a more fulfilled person, but struggling to actualize that. So, its really about that contrast in myself, and people around me I see trying to do the same thing, and struggling the same way I am, trying to stay positive about things that are hard to deal with, and realizing that its all part of being a twentysomething person, and figuring it all out.
That seems to be the prevailing struggle. There are a lot of uncertainties that come with this age.
Yeah. A lot of this is me approaching this sort of deadline. I know this isnt true, but theres this idea that once you get to your 30s youre supposed to have all your shit figured out, and I dont have that. So, its like an anxiety feeling like I should be better along than I actually am.
Part of it is realizing that anxiety doesnt help, either?
[Laughs] Definitely. Its about embracing that change and putting it in perspective. I might feel older than I did yesterday, but thats part of the inner dialogue Im having. I feel older than I am, and that time is running out, even though its not. Its positive but still trying to be active about my understanding of myself and the transitions.
I think if you feel fulfilled, then youre doing it right.
Yeah, and thats something Im finding out, too. I find myself in the strange situation of medicating my life to make music, and touring, and making records. The one thing I do know is that I feel more fulfilled finishing a project or a record than I do with anything. So, maybe thats the right path. Thats what Im trying to keep in mind.
These songs definitely resonate with that uncertainty, and at least within a certain demographic, its pretty universal.
For sure. Its amazing when people tell me they find a personal connection with the songs I write. And my main mission statement is to keep it honest but also find the universal aspect. Maybe the best thing in the world is finding a way to connect people with music in the same way I connected with music. Its a good feeling.
Your songwriting style is pretty different with the people you collaborate with regularly, especially Ty Segall. How do you go about bouncing ideas off each other when you collaborate?
Its true. Its very different. Thats something interesting I found about how people see the San Francisco music scene. I feel like almost every band sounds dramatically different than another band here. I can see why people want to group things together geographically based on a specific sound that comes across in peoples music up here.
What I find reassuring and really cool is that a lot of people here are supportive and connect with many forms of music. A lot of my roommates play in hardcore bands, so they listen to a lot of that, but they still enjoy listening to my pop records. Ive always been very diverse in my likes, and I always appreciate it when people arent closed off to different forms of enjoying music.
Do you frequently get lumped into categories with other SF bands like Thee Oh Sees and Fresh & Onlys, even though each of your songwriting styles are so varied?
Im flattered to be thought of as part of that scene, because its a lot of people making music in very powerful ways. It doesnt really affect me. I know the reality of how different it all is. I guess it gets a little frustrating when people dont really realize the differences, which confuses me, but people want to put it into context. I dont know what theyre talking about when they talk about the San Francisco sound, but it doesnt bother me.
Does your or Tys gnarly, long hair ever impede reading each others facial expressions/cues?
[Laughs] I think it actually helps, if I see my buddy headbanging and his hairs flying around, somethings good. You can read through it. Weve been playing music together for so long that we have something unspoken between us while were playing.
Anything else youre gearing up to reissue in the near future, after Traditional Fools and Reverse Shark Attack did a few months ago?
Theres talk of reissuing The Moonhearts, some of our garage punk bands stuff. Theres tons of that. Im not sure if people want to hear what we did early on, though. Its really underdeveloped [laughs].