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Mikal Cronin: “I think there's a fine line between 'oversharing' and being personal”

Mikal Cronin: “I think there's a fine line between 'oversharing' and being personal”

09 July 2013, 15:45

On his bandcamp site, it says that Mikal Cronin “makes music now and again, here or there or anywhere”. And that’s probably a fairly decent way of describing the past few years in the life of this San Francisco Bay Area resident.

He’s been part of bands like Epsilons and Moonhearts for a number of years, and might have been best known – before his debut album Mikal Cronin anyway – as bassist in Ty Segall’s band. He was busy enough with all those projects already before launching his solo career with 2011’s self-titled record; that was a heartfelt mix of psych-pop nuggets and garage rock jams, recorded in a way that ended up just the right side of fuzzy but showing a vulnerable side that’s maybe not seen in some of his Bay Area compadres’ work.

Earlier this year Cronin returned with second album MCII, and what a beauty it is. It’s a brilliantly crafted and realised album, keeping the psych pop and garage sounds, but refining them, cleaning them up and adding layers of strings and piano in order to create a baroque pop masterpiece. That means that alongside the power of ‘Shout It Out’ and ‘Change’, we get the moving, violin-led ‘Peace of Mind’ and the acoustic ‘Don’t Let Me Go’, plus the sad and stately piano/strings closer, ‘Piano Mantra’.

We caught up with Mikal a couple of weeks back, while out on tour supporting the new album: “Yeah we’re in Chicago,” says Cronin. “It’s been really good, we’re touring with another Bay Area band Shannon and the Clams – and they’re amazing. The shows have been really, really good and people have been excited.” I ask if there’s time to relax between shows, take in some of the local sights and sounds. “No, no days off – we played two shows back to back at the same venue last night [the Empty Bottle] in Chicago. So no days off, just blazing through!”

What’s most noticeable about MCII compared to Cronin’s debut album is a cleaner, brighter sound, and tighter production. The songs deserve it, though. These aren’t scuzzy garage jams that Cronin’s making anymore; they’re fully-formed pop nuggets. So I ask Mikal if this was a deliberate move: “Yeah, it was conscious,” he confirms. “It seemed more appropriate with the new songs to kinda clean it up a little bit. We recorded it slightly differently too.” Did Cronin use a different producer? “No, it was with the same guy, Eric Bauer, but we had a bigger 24-track tape machine, so fidelity-wise it just sounds a little cleaner and bigger. So I tried to keep the vocals as clean as possible and upfront. I like how it turned out, the cleaner recording works better for the songs, it’s just more appropriate.”

With added strings and piano this time around, I ask if it was important that this more baroque sound was captured in the right way: “Exactly,” says Mikal. “I was really excited to have that new instrumentation of the strings and piano especially, and I tried to build sounds around that.” I’m led to believe that piano, rather than guitar is Cronin’s primary instrument, but he corrects me just a little: “Um, yeah I mean I started playing piano when I was really young but I didn’t keep up with it until pretty recently when I played it for the record. The guitar is still more comfortable to me when writing songs, but I really like piano and I really like how it changes the song writing process – it opens up more possibilities, it’s a really fun instrument.”

It’s no coincidence that strings appear on MCII just at the point that Cronin received his Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Music; arranging strings was something he learned as part of the course and so he was delighted to finally apply this skill: “I’ve wanted to do it for a long time; it helps going to school and studying that stuff, so I was able to write out the string arrangements myself, take it to a string player and talk about it in those terms.” Was going to school to study music important to Cronin? “It was really helpful to study that in school,” he agrees. “I liked learning how to make a string quartet or a group of strings sound good together.”

I move on to ask about records that might have influenced the more baroque pop sound (that’s not to say there’s not still some garage rockers on MCII, it’s just a little more studied in its approach, it does after all begin and end with the sound of piano), and Cronin reveals some big-hitters were his touchstones: “Oh, there was a lot! I wouldn’t say anything very specifically or directly influenced the record,” he says, “but I was listening to a lot of David Bowie, the Spiders from Mars record, I got really into that. Then Bill Fay, and then I got on a Beatles kick again – I was listening to a lot of stuff and how it was arranged, paying close attention to the strings.” Was there any record that helped in that respect? “Yeah, I also got into Scott Walker again; that stuff is massively arranged and orchestrated. I was trying to see how things were going to fly, string arrangements and horns; piano….I got focused in on the classic people!” Bill Fay is one name that interested me, as he was completely unknown to me until I heard the stunning Life Is People last year, his first album in over forty years. It turns out that Cronin was in the same boat: “Exactly, yeah. I was the same,” he reveals. “Actually, the record label [Dead Oceans] that put out his last record, before it came out said ‘have you heard of this guy?’ and sent me some old records. I love the new records, but the old stuff, the self-titled one, is incredible. There are so many of those lost gems, y’know?”



While the music on MCII is without a doubt life-affirming and upbeat, the sort of music that can’t not put a smile on your face, it’s clear from a look at some of the song titles and lyrics that Cronin is trying to work a lot of stuff out. There are a lot of questions in the lyrics: “Do I shout it out? / Do I let it go?” on ‘Shout It Out’, “And am I wrong? / I don’t think so” on ‘Am I Wrong’ and “So I tried / I’m in a hole / Am I a different man?” on ‘See It My Way’. Then there’s the worries about change or getting older on ‘Weight’ and ‘Change’, so I ask Mikal if it was intentional that he was addressing this issues and questioning himself and where he’s heading: “Yeah exactly!” he confirms. “That’s been a theme in my personal life for the last couple of years and when I was writing this record I was just trying to figure some stuff out, asking big questions and then how it applies to me.” And it’s not just Mikal that all this applies to: “I saw it in a lot of my friends too, and people I care about, asking themselves the same questions… it’s really relevant, definitely the main theme of the record. It’s like I’m growing up, what am I doing, am I doing things right?”

So was there ever a worry, though, that being overly personal or deep would make MCII a little too heavy or depressing to enjoy? “I think there’s a fine line between ‘oversharing’ and being personal,” agrees Mikal. “I made a conscious effort to try and look at my situation and then find some universal aspects to them and approach it from that angle.” I say that taking that approach makes it more engaging for the listener, and avoids them being isolated while this guy sings about his problems: “I dunno, there’s a lot of heavy themes and big questions on this record,” says Mikal, “but I’ve been trying to stay positive about that; trying to have that come through in the music, kind of a hopeful sound… things aren’t perfect right now for me and I don’t know what’s going on, but trying to stay positive and trying not to over share.”

I move the conversation back a few years and ask Mikal about what prompted him to finally start a solo career after so much time spent as part of the Ty Segall Band and as part of The Moonhearts: “I had always made a lot of music on my own, in different styles and genres, and I got to a point a couple of years ago where I decided I wanted to release a record under my own name,” he says. “I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of music it would be – so it was kind of a long time thinking, experimenting with sounds and music, and trying to take all my influences and jam it into something that I could stamp my name on.”

Was there always someone there to help him along and encourage? “I had a lot of support from Trouble in Mind who put out the first record,” admits Cronin. “I told them I was thinking of recording a solo record and they were really excited. I told them I didn’t know what it was going to be like but they were still really supportive. We’d been good friends for a couple of years at that point, and they said ‘if you record something we’ll probably put it out’. At that point I thought ‘okay, I have the support so I’m just gonna go for it’. That got the whole ball rolling on the solo project.” I say that I assume that all the Bay Area guys – Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, The Fresh and Onlys – were extremely supportive, as the whole SF scene seems a positive one: “It’s really positive, there’s a lot of extremely talented people,” agrees Mikal. “It’s not competitive in any way. I’ve been in plenty of cities where everyone is trying to one-up each other. It’s a very small place geographically, so I run into other musicians a lot – everyone’s down to help each other out. So there’s Ty on my record, Dylan who plays the strings, she just came down… I’m really happy to be around it.“

We end the conversation by discussing the Bay Area and how Cronin balances his time between various projects: “Timing-wise, right now I’m just supporting my record but yeah, I kinda switch between different bands depending on what’s going on. Last year I was mostly touring with Ty Segall’s band… and now his band is taking a little break it means we can work on other projects and go out and tour.” How does he keep track of where he’s meant to be at any given point? “We can switch modes and bands, it gets confusing with all the overlaps, but it works out in the end!”

MCII is available now through Merge Records.

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