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Interview: Mikal Cronin

on May 07, 2013, 12:00am

mikalcroninfeature Interview: Mikal Cronin

The sole caption on Mikal Cronin’s Bandcamp reads: “Mikal makes music, now and again, here or there or anywhere.” Cronin’s 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 he’s not riffing with Ty Segall’s touring band or playing in San Francisco’s 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 Cronin’s 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?

It’s funny. I never really watch baseball. Even my music friends here who aren’t 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?

I’m in the Mission district — the weather here is way nicer than most other parts. It’s 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?

“Change”.

Rad! One of MCII’s 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. There’s a main character who feels like he’s there alone, a little isolated with all these party things happening around him. Should be funny. There’s also some movie magic in there.

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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.

It’s a laborious process. My stint as an extra was for LCD Soundsystem’s “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. It’s amazing how long the film process takes, the lighting, all of that. I would love to make a film, but I don’t 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 don’t 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 won’t 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. I’ve found that it doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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. I’m sure it affects some people in that way, like they can’t listen to Black Flag again after studying Bach, but it didn’t have that effect. It made everything better.

Seems like your schedule is pretty hectic, between playing in The Moonhearts, playing bass in Ty Segall’s 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. It’s calmed down a little because Ty’s band is taking a break. Everyone is working on their own projects. It’s good timing because I’m about to tour with my band a lot. As far as booking, it helps that my band and Ty’s band have the same booking agent. It’s definitely exhausting, but I’ve 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 it’s 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 don’t even think about until you don’t have time to do them, like home-cooked meals or just laying around a park.

Speaking of home-cooked meals, what’s the best last thing you ate?

My girlfriend and I tried to make Asian wraps and sushi. It was really good. We weren’t completely successful. They were really sloppy sushi rolls.

Making sushi is tough! The consistency of the rice is the secret, I’ve heard.

Definitely! It’s hard. That’s why the best sushi chefs in the world dedicate themselves to only doing that and perfect it.

mikalcronin sxsw2013 larson Interview: Mikal Cronin

Like Giro from Giro Dreams of Sushi.

I’ve seen that! It’s 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?

They’re 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, it’s 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 it’s 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 isn’t true, but there’s this idea that once you get to your 30s you’re supposed to have all your shit figured out, and I don’t have that. So, it’s like an anxiety feeling like I should be better along than I actually am.

Part of it is realizing that anxiety doesn’t help, either? 

[Laughs] Definitely. It’s about embracing that change and putting it in perspective. I might feel older than I did yesterday, but that’s part of the inner dialogue I’m having. I feel older than I am, and that time is running out, even though it’s not. It’s positive but still trying to be active about my understanding of myself and the transitions.

I think if you feel fulfilled, then you’re doing it right.

Yeah, and that’s something I’m 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 that’s the right path. That’s what I’m trying to keep in mind.

These songs definitely resonate with that uncertainty, and at least within a certain demographic, it’s pretty universal.

For sure. It’s 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. It’s 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?

It’s true. It’s very different. That’s 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 people’s 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. I’ve always been very diverse in my likes, and I always appreciate it when people aren’t 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? 

I’m flattered to be thought of as part of that scene, because it’s a lot of people making music in very powerful ways. It doesn’t really affect me. I know the reality of how different it all is. I guess it gets a little frustrating when people don’t really realize the differences, which confuses me, but people want to put it into context. I don’t know what they’re talking about when they talk about the “San Francisco sound,” but it doesn’t bother me.

Does your or Ty’s 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 hair’s flying around, something’s good. You can read through it. We’ve been playing music together for so long that we have something unspoken between us while we’re playing.

Anything else you’re gearing up to reissue in the near future, after Traditional Fools and Reverse Shark Attack did a few months ago?

There’s talk of reissuing The Moonhearts, some of our garage punk band’s stuff. There’s tons of that. I’m not sure if people want to hear what we did early on, though. It’s really underdeveloped [laughs].

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