Originally published on May 2, 2013
“It’s good to start with a bang, and then lead them somewhere weird,” says Mikal Cronin, summing up the philosophy behind his second solo LP and first for Merge Records, MCII. The “bang” in his case is a pair of clear-cut singles that lead off the collection, “Weight” and “Shout It Out.”
Speaking over coffee in downtown Santa Ana, California—Orange County’s answer to the gentrified, artistic neighborhoods that spawn the kind of coffee shops you would tell a musician to meet you—Cronin confirms a vast taste and mentions dozens of acts during our conversation. His current favorites range from the classic rock of The Beatles and David Bowie to up-and-comers like Pangea and The Mallards, to some surprises like Sharon Van Etten and Death From Above 1979. But his biggest reaction comes at the mention of the 1996 Tom Hanks directorial debut, That Thing You Do! Those opening songs have pop simplicity and infectiousness of the early-60’s one-hit-wonders portrayed in the movie, but getting an audience to listen is only part of the battle.
“You’ve got to grab them to get them to where you want the to go,” Cronin adds, suggesting one of his destinations, “like, a piano ballad.”
The piano ballad is not hypothetical. “Piano Mantra,” concludes MCII with something weird indeed, something as far away from his musical roots as he has yet to venture. Growing up in Laguna Beach, Cronin began in garage and punk bands while in high school, performing at house parties, short-run DIY spaces and the first real venue he ever played, The Smell in Los Angeles.
“My parents were supportive, increasingly more and more,” Cronin recalls of his Orange County days, having slowly made his way north for school and then the Bay where he currently lives and makes music. On this weekend he’s home, visiting his encouraging folks and watching plenty of TV on their couch, while also checking out Burgerama where numerous friends and associates perform for the label he has been loosely associated with. Cronin now is emerging from a scene that is generally loud and rough around the edges, so it doesn’t surprise that he adds that his mom likes the music “especially now.”
“My mom is like my biggest fan,” he admits proudly. “She listens to my record while she’s driving to work. It’s not too noisy. She likes it better than all my other bands, for sure. She’s just coming around on Ty. She’s like ‘I’m finally gettin’ it!’ She still likes my music better, but she’s a little biased.”
The “Ty” referred to is Ty Segall, Cronin’s friend and collaborator since his Orange County days. Cronin still plays bass in the Ty Segall Band, whose popularity means that success as a solo artist might force him to choose. A quick look at the songwriter—his long wavy hair, jean jacket and black t-shirt sporting a skull and an apparent band logo that is well outside anything a general indie background would inform—indicates that the garage scene is where he is most comfortable. But the music that he can, and does, create has a ceiling much higher than that of the garage.
“It was a thought in my head for a while,” Cronin recalls of making his debut album. “I don’t know what spawned it other than getting into early classic songwriting. I brought it up to Bill of Trouble in Mind while we were on tour and we had been friends for a while, and he was like ‘Just do it, go for it, we want to hear it and we’ll probably put it out if its not terrible.’ And that was it. I started shaping it in my head, something to bring together everything, because I’ve jumped around so much in my interests. I’m schizophrenic like that, and I wanted to put it in one cohesive thing.”
Still, Cronin is careful with his words when discussing his beloved garage music. “I hesitate to say it, but I got really sick of stupid, straight-ahead garage punk. I still love it. But, it started just becoming annoying.”
“It’s more of a reaction in that I wanted to focus more on songwriting,” he continues. “To write a good song and then fuck it up if that’s what I want to do. It’s tricky with this kind of pop music, you don’t want to make something that’s wimpy or dull.”
Cronin notes that members of Ty Segall Band, his “best friends,” have been supportive throughout his solo ventures, but he gets the impression that not everyone in the community is as keen on his softer sound. Still, no one has the nerve to say anything to his face.
“At this point if some shithead punk doesn’t like my music, I don’t give a shit,” he says, revealing an edge that comes from his past and won’t likely be shaken no matter how many piano ballads he writes. “I still like shithead punk music. And, I have friends who don’t listen to pop music that have legitimately come around.”
Cronin’s songwriting has quickly captured the attention of listeners and industry players outside of the garage and punk web, too. Merge Records approached Cronin after a set at South by Southwest, with Cronin admitting to being “blown away” at the time. Since signing to the label and crafting his follow-up under their banner, Cronin has discovered that his new label home is not that different than the “mom and pop operations” he was used to, besides more people in the offices and a publicity team.
“I don’t have a big master plan about getting the music to the masses,” he says. “But I feel comfortable enough to try to have a lot of people hear the music. And, Merge has a different demographic than all of the labels I’ve worked with before, which has been more garage music-specific stuff. So, it feels like they are kind of taking a chance on me, which is great.“
Also taking notice have been critics, and on the day of our meeting, Cronin has received a Best New Track distinction by Pitchfork, to which he is honest about its significance.
“I admit that I do read reviews,” Cronin says. “I don’t get it a lot of times and don’t think that they get the music. How could they when it is so internal? So I don’t put a lot of stock in it. It’s flattering, but I take way more stock in what my friends think. But I can’t say that [Pitchfork’s BNT awarding] doesn’t make me a little happy.
“But at the end of the day I really don’t care,” he continues. “This is more for me than anyone else. I know it’s a cliché, but I strongly feel that way. And, I don’t feel tied down in any way. I know if I wanted to I could make the next record a punk album or a rap album. That’s never going to happen, but you understand.”
“Piano Mantra” speaks to this, a gentle, palate cleansing finisher that Cronin calls a “bold decision” and “risky.” In hearing it, though, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith at all. Cronin is as confident and controlled of a young songwriter as you will find. From the measured strings to the whine of the feedback that ushers in the songs expansive finish, it’s an ending far from that of a guy whose primary aim is to be in someone else’s band. It is not the crafting of a nameless player for someone else’s songs.
For now, though, with the Ty Segall Band on a break and the support of MCII beginning, no tough choices are being forced, and Cronin repeatedly mentions that not burning himself out and “respecting yourself and your mental health” are top priorities. When leaving the coffee shop, Cronin decides to not drive straight to San Francisco as his plans were, but to stay with his folks for one more day of relaxation. It is hardly the most punk decision from a guy in a skull tee, but, like his music, the contradictions are worn proudly, perhaps aware that Mikal Cronin is all the more interesting because of them.