BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT: Mikal Cronin
The general public, that is, seeing the light about the San Fran musician (and Ty Segall collaborator) who is turning heads with his primal-yet-sophisticated brand of garage-rock and dream-pop. “I’m one of the most self-critical people I know,” he says. But we’re glad he follows his instincts.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Mikal Cronin isn’t a confident guy. This is as apparent in his phone etiquette — he rambles and charms, making insightful points only to scratch them in search of something better — as it is in his appearance — a wash of shoulder-length brown hair hangs haphazardly across his face, allowing him distance from whoever’s in his personal space. The up-and-coming San Francisco garage rocker was recently signed by Merge Records, one of indie music’s resident label titans, but he still has trouble with the fact that people — a lot of them — are starting to pay attention.
Reconciling this insecurity with his growing fame helped inspire the livewire emotions of the recently released MCII, a sophomore outing that elevates perfectly jangling pop-rock with columns of densely distorted guitar, allowing his breezy hooks to grip with incredible force. It’s an attack that’s been met with immediate praise; MCII was met with Pitchfork.com’s coveted grade of “Best New Music” and earned a 4-out-of-5-stars review from ye olde BLURT magazine, amid many other plaudits. If indie rock fans haven’t been charmed by him yet, it’s likely just a matter of time before they will. Indeed, it seems Cronin’s time in the spotlight is only just beginning.
“I’m one of the most self-critical people I know,” Cronin confesses. “If you had told me like five years ago that I’d be singing in a band to a big group of people in Spain or something, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m very self-conscious. It’s weird that I’ve found myself in these situations, and it’s strange to me that people listen to and respond to music that I put out. It’s still weird to me that a label like Merge Records, that I’ve loved and respected, even heard my music, let alone wanted to put it out on a record. That blows my mind. Everything’s just mindblowing.”
His own rising star is in the same orbit as that of Ty Segall, a similarly affable San Francisco dude making similarly feisty and fetching rock songs. Last year, Segall released three LPs, all of which received near universal acclaim, vaulting him to the fore of today’s crowded garage rock landscape.
Cronin plays bass in Segall’s live band, but their connection runs much deeper than that. They’ve been friends and collaborators since they attended to high school together back in Cronin’s native Orange County. Segall had a punk duo back then for which he recruited Mikal to play saxophone. They’ve been working together ever since. They released the collaborative LP Reverse Shark Attack — a mess of relentlessly twisting fuzz and unpolished ambition — back in 2009, and they have both played in each other’s bands. Segall received a producer’s credit on Cronin’s self-titled solo debut, released in 2011. Mikal is thankful for his friend’s help and the attention his association has brought, but he’s also quick to point out the stylistic differences between them.
“It’s very different music,” he says. “It shares some elements. I mean, we listen to the same music. But it’s very different. I understand that a lot of people are being introduced to my music through his, and that’s cool. But it’s completely different. It’s like a different path that we’re going on. I love Ty’s music, but I feel like it would be cheap to just try to ride his wave of success by just making similar music. I definitely don’t want to do that.”
Indeed, while both singers know their way around a hook, the differences between them are many. Segall’s music is most often predicated on aggressive fuzz and flashes of instrumental virtuosity, namely his own proficiency at contorting tones on his electric guitar — a gift he shares on MCII with a pair of searing guest solos. Cronin’s certainly not afraid of raunchier sounds, but his own music always favors tunefulness over wallop, utilizing distortion as a way to emphasize his well-schooled melodies.
Cronin’s also more eclectic. One of his signatures is the inclusion of unexpected instruments. “Is It Alright,” the opener from his debut, starts as a powerfully pounding rocker but incorporates a flute solo in its outro, descending into a whirlwind of triumphant chaos that could be adequately termed “post-Ron Burgundy.” On MCII, “Change” starts as one of the album’s most straight-ahead numbers, crisp 12-string guitar fused to beefy scuzz in a relentlessly chugging stunner. But there’s a lull near the end that’s filled by a beautiful string section. Before you know it, the distortion has returned, and fuzzy guitar is dueling with viola, tangling and twisting at break-neck speed.
“I find a lot of satisfaction in taking a sound or a style or a structure that’s familiar to people through like a legacy of amazing music and trying to tweak it in a direction that’s hopefully new or exciting or just gratifying to me personally,” Cronin explains. “I like the idea of writing kind of a straightforward garage rock song and just tweaking it to make it a little more personal. That’s just what I tend towards.”
It’s somewhat odd that such a self-conscious fellow would revel in these brash juxtapositions, but in Cronin’s case, it makes perfect sense. He wears his creativity on one sleeve and his emotions on the other, exciting ideas exploding alongside equally energetic insecurities. Cronin has become a master at splitting this difference.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, he played with a litany of bands, most famously slinging bass lines and shrieks in the lavishly lo-fi Moonhearts. After high school, he bounced around various colleges before landing at the California Institute of the Arts where he spent three years earning a degree in music. During this time, he pursued various personal projects, ranging from film soundtracks to acoustic guitar songs. He brought this experience to bear on his debut, indulging in a diverse array of sounds that transformed concussive guitars and Beatles-approximate melody into something uniquely his own.
The emotions on that first record were inspired by change — a break-up, the end of his schooling, his impending move to San Francisco — resulting in restless songs that begged passionate questions and offered few answers. Cronin’s more settled these days, but MCII is even more emotive. On songs like the irresistibly earnest “Weight,” he offers tender revelations — “I’ve been starting over for a long time/ I’m not ready for another day” — over soft acoustic strums and striding rhythms. But, as it often does, the fuzz ramps up in the chorus, nervous tension unleashed in an intense catharsis that can’t quite quell the concerns within. “I’m not ready for the moment,” he cries near the end of “Weight.” “I’m not ready for the tide to change/ I’m not ready for the silence/ I’m not ready for the fear and shame/ I’m not ready for the weight again.”
“I’m still trying to be a better person in a new environment,” he says over the phone, speaking to the album’s mood. “[I’m] trying to be the happiest person I can be in what’s essentially a very strange part of my life right now. This is all very surreal to me, making records, playing music, having people pay attention, touring Europe. It’s a fucking trip to me, and I’m still not used to it. I don’t know what it means. It’s a strange time that I was not experiencing sitting in my room and going to class a couple years ago when I was writing songs for the first record. It’s just a whole new set of problems; not just problems, but very positive experiences. It’s different, but it’s similar because I’m still working out things I was working out a couple years ago, which are basically just being a 20-something person. It’s just constant transition and instability and craziness.”
In the end, it’s Cronin’s insecurities that make his music work so well. His timeless melodies become the sounding board for crises of identity that are an essential part of youth. Cronin’s sure of his abilities but wary of what place they might have in this world. The result is a nervy potency that additional swagger would quickly overshadow.
No, Mikal Cronin’s not a confident guy. Let’s hope he stays that way.
[Photo Credit: Denee Petracek]