BYT Interviews: Mikal Cronin
phil runco | Sep 18, 2015 | 9:30AM |

Mikal Cronin‘s hair is beginning to get unruly. It’s falling over forehead and well past his eyes. Sometimes, he says, it’ll land in his mouth.

If you’re familiar with the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, this probably how you picture him. But if you’ve listened to what he’s been singing these past few years, you also know that he’s keenly aware of being a work in progress – and of getting older. And so it might be time for the shaggy mane to go.

“I was thinking about cutting it back short again – a little trim,” he shares with a chuckle. “I kind of like it short these days. Rounding the base to thirty-years old, I should clean up my act a little.”

The latest document of Cronin’s slow embrace of adulthood, MCIII, captures Cronin in full unkempt glory – lengthy locks and face full of scruff. The LP’s cover shot was taken shortly after Cronin had come off tour with Ty Segall – the psych-folk and garage rock guitarist with whom Cronin has been a friend and collaborator since they met back in a Laguna Beach high school. (Cronin still plays bass in Segall’s band.)

“Ty and I were having a competition to see who would grow his beard the longest,” Cronin remembers. “Then I needed to take the photo and I was like, ‘OK!’ Click. And it made the cover.”

A few days later, he would chop most all of it off. This is why the press photos and videos accompanying his third album might cause you to double take. Musically, though, the record delivers what has come to be expected of Cronin: huge power pop hooks, the crunch of a fuzzy electric guitar, and the contrast of lush, beautifully orchestrated arrangements. With so many strings and horns and even a tzouras, it’s just never sounded this big before.

Cronin has always come off as a bit of an ambler – not necessarily afraid of change but also not seeking it out. As he sang on breakthrough single, “Weight”: “I’m not made out for the simple path, I’ll take it day to day.”

When we speak in late August, Cronin is taking it day to day in a hot and humid Los Angeles, the city where he moved after four years in San Francisco. It wasn’t a relocation he sought out – “I miss San Francisco a lot,” he admits – but it’s one that made sense.

“At a certain point, there was a mass migration of a ton of friends and people that I make music with. It got difficult to live in San Francisco financially if you want any space,” he explains. “I stuck up there for a while, but I was coming down to L.A. so often, and my parents are still around and they’re getting older. I figured maybe it would be nice to move closer to home and have some more space.”

One thing that’s not changing is his slightly tweaked stage name. Cronin was born a Michael, and even though the pronunciation of “Mikal” can be a cause of confusion, he’s sticking with it.

“Truth be told, I kind of started spelling my name differently when I was 15 or 16. There were too many Michaels at my school,” he reminisces. “It was a dumb joke that went too far.”

Mikal Cronin plays NYC’s Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday and DC’s U Street Music Hall on Tuesday. Calvin Love and The Cairo Gang open. MCIII is out now on Merge Records.

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You’ve said that the mellower songs on MCIII would have been extreme for you a few years ago. Did you have overcome any insecurities in embracing the softer and more orchestral sounds on this record?

Coming from garage and punk rock music, most of my peers are making loud music. You feel a little more vulnerable recording a softer or more emotional song. You feel a little more vulnerable putting yourself out there. But over three records, I’ve growing slightly more comfortable about what this project is and accepted where my musical mind goes when I sit down and write a song. I’ll just go with the flow of something that’s turning out to be a slow, no-percussion song with strings.

I got to a point with a lot of the risks that I was taking with this record where I thought, “I need to do exactly what I want to do and what I feel is right. I can’t worry about whether somebody who listens to super hard music doesn’t accept it.”

It’s been a slow build of musical confidence about how I want to present my own music. Even when I was in straight-up garage punk bands, I’d always go home and write a song on acoustic guitar. I’d never share it with people, but my musical brain always worked on that wide spectrum.

Even when you were playing in those garage bands, did this sort of grand production speak to you?

I always appreciated it. A really obvious example would a lot of the heavily arranged Beatles stuff, which I always listened to. ELO is another example; maybe some Bowie stuff with interesting arrangements. My ears always gravitated towards more pretty and carefully arranged stuff. At the same time, just straight up a guitar-bass-drums trash band is awesome, too.

Is there a particular song on the record where you’ve thought, “Six years ago, I would have never released a song like this?”

The first song on the b-side [“i) Alone”]. It’s really slow and starts with an acoustic guitar, and it has the French horns and string and all of this shit on it. It doesn’t get heavy, but it gets heavier. It’s interesting because I had a basic skeleton for that song for years and years; I was sitting on it for maybe five or six years. I went back into an old hard drive and found it again. I think I even attempted to put something like it on the last record with different lyrics, and I just abandoned it immediately. That song was a little bit of a jump for me.

The second half of the record hones in on a particular point of your life. What was it like to look back on 19-year old you? What sort of person did you see? I get a little squeamish when I think about myself at that age.

I was very different person. I was very unevolved in ways. The reason I started writing about that time was because, in retrospect, it changed the rest of my life. I looked at the overall picture and tapped into how I was feeling back then, which was kind of hard. It would get emotionally weird.

I also think about other aspects of that time that I didn’t write about – my day to day and my relationships – and, yeah, I get a little squeamish. I was pretty green as a human being. I never kept a diary or anything – I do wish I had more direct writings to tap into my brain. I just had to try to remember. I have these little flashes of memory.

I know what you mean about getting a little squeamish about it. [Laughs] It’s weird. But it’s something that you have to embrace. Everybody has that same arc where ten years later, you look back at being a late teenager and you realize you were kind of an idiot who didn’t know how to deal with things in a proper way.

Whenever I see some teenage celebrity who does something stupid, I just try to imagine what it would have been like to live under a spotlight at that age.

It’s fucking wild to think of Miley Cyrus or something. What kind of weird life is that? She was a teenage celebrity and now she’s a maniac. [Laughs]

The Miley comeback is happening, though. She’s been speaking some truth on sexism in the record industry.

I’m turning around on her a little bit. I kind of thought she was gross, but now she’s doing a lot of activism for gay youth. That’s cool.

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You met Ty Segall before that point in your life – back in high school. Why do you think that relationship has endured?

More than the other people that I grew up with, we just happened to clicked. It became clear that we wanted to do a similar thing. We both wanted make music all of the time. We decided that was what we’d be doing.

It’s kind of cool to walk in with somebody that early and feel like you’re musically evolving with each other. We still show each other what we’re listening to, and we’re on the same page about a lot of things. At this point, we’re very locked in musically. We’re on the same brain wave length. I’m not sure why.

There weren’t a lot of people in high school making music. I didn’t necessarily know at that age that I would be touring around and making records.

What was growing up in Laguna Beach like? People obviously have a certain picture of it based on a particular MTV reality program.

That TV show was a ridiculous exaggeration of Orange County, but there was definitely that side of it. It’s a pretty conservative place; there’s a lot of really wealthy riff-raff nonsense. There’s also still the old remnants of the beachy art town that it used to be, which has been getting sucked out of it.

It’s beautiful town, but it felt a little isolating growing up. There wasn’t a lot culturally going on. It was just a small town. A lot of people – or at least all of my friends – thought, “We gotta get out of here if we’re really going to do anything.” There are still lifers who I went to high school with there; they’re kind of surf bums. And that’s cool. That’s fine.

It’s silly to think about now, because whenever I visit, it’s beautiful and peaceful and pretty great in a lot of ways. But it was a place that you need to get out of. Of course, that’s the typical small town mentality.

Do you think you’ll ever leave the West Coast?

You know, I don’t know. [Laughs] I like the West Coast. I feel like it has a lot of variety. I lived in Portland, which is a whole different vibe than California, in general. I mean, I couldn’t see myself living in New York City. I love visiting there for a couple of days. I’ll probably be a West Coast lifer. I’ll just go with the flow and see what happens.

 

The videos behind the record have been great – particularly the Paul Simon and Natalie Imbruglia reinterpretations. Were there any other videos you considered remaking?

One that I was thinking about Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”, where there are four of her in the car. I was trying to wrap my head around how to do that.

I was looking for videos that were more one shot, simple, and easy to reproduce; something that we could do cheap and put our spin on. “You Can Call Me Al” and “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia were pretty perfect for that idea.

The “Torn” music video was a dumb idea in my head for years. I was like, “I want to remake it. I think it would be really funny to do almost a straight-up shot for shot remake.” It’s such a pouty, ridiculous video. “You Can Call Me Al” was a good one to compliment it.

I was looking at a lot of ‘90s videos – I think there was a Soundgarden video. Those are fun. It was a really stupid idea that came to fruition, which is amazing.

Music videos obviously serve a different purpose today than they did in the 90s – or, at least, they’re consumed differently. At your level, how do you justify putting resources into it? Why still make them?

I love music videos. I love watching other people’s music videos. I love the process of thinking about them. I’ve wrestled in my head with what you’re saying: Why put time and effort and money into something that’s just going to pop up on Youtube? But I want to keep it alive.

I think it’s great and fun. You can do awesome, serious ones that artistically compliment your song through film. You can also do really dumb ones that are just funny and stupid. I’m never going to put a bunch of my own money into it. [Laughs]

I don’t know how much it’s worth it publicity wise, unless you go viral. I never think about that. I’d be happy if a hundred people watched it on YouTube. I feel like I see a lot of them still and people are getting creative with them. There are a couple mega-budget ones here and there. I don’t understand why a label would put half-a-million dollars into a Rihanna video, but making cheap ones is fun.