MIKAL CRONIN: YOU’RE A PRETTY COOL CAT
photography by ward robinson
Mikal Cronin has moved back to L.A. with a sequel to 2013’s MCII, conveniently titled MCIII—just two more til his inevitable rocker MC5, right? This time he’s in that state where the usual has been replaced with the unpredictable, so the songs have started getting deeper and the sounds have started getting clearer. There’s something like Rain Parade and the Feelies happening in Cronin’s songs, where fuzz guitar gets balanced with beauty in softer pop-psych moments, and there’s a side-length suite on MCIII that’s probably the most ambitious thing Cronin’s signed off on yet—particularly the electric centerpiece “Control.” Here his everyman-autobiography resolved into a story both up close and personal, illuminating his own history in new ways and shining a light into the future. If he’s writing a book with all these numbered albums, this is the chapter where we really find out who our hero might be. Cronin speaks now about his new hair, his new tattoo courtesy that last Ty Segall tour, and the scariest new song he’s written. Oh, and he also pet some kangaroos! He plays the Center For The Arts Eagle Rock on Friday. This interview by Kristina Benson and Chris Ziegler.
Did you cut your hair for the same reason I cut my hair—too many people on the street asking you about drugs?
That definitely happens! I don’t mind that. I just like that refresh once in a while.
Where do people ask you for drugs? In my experience, it’s at the squarest places. Like Applebee’s at the mall.
I don’t spend a lot of time in Applebee’s. It’s walking around the streets of San Francisco—constantly. I did get a lot more insults than drug propositions. Random assholes in pick-up trucks.
I had no idea idiots were still concerned with hair length. I thought we were like five social issues past that.
Try touring some places in the U.S. with long hair—you get some looks.
So you did the album MCII and now you’ve got MCIII. What political songs are you saving up for the inevitable album MC5?
That’s gonna be a bombastic one. That’ll just be a straight-up cover record.
You’re in the unique position of being able to use these albums as a kind of documentary on your own life—like ‘Oh, that’s what was on my mind that year.’ Like chapters in a book. Do you ever use them to figure things out about yourself later?
Funny—that’s the same analogy I use to explain it. Chapters in a book. How this record developed … I wasn’t convinced it was going to be number three of three. But it seemed like it’s gonna be an interesting document of my twenties. Even the second half of the third one is kind of going back. It’s almost a prequel. Hopefully things are stabilizing in my life. Each record had a move involved, changing relationships—everything about it.
You’ve never made a record when your life is stable?
No. I feel like that’s another relatable concept. Everyone’s just growing up. Things typically settle down and mellow out for people, but right now they’re in flux.
Would you freeze up if things mellow out? Like that Leftovers song: ‘I only panic when there’s nothing to do.’
That seems to make sense! I don’t think things ever fully settle for anybody. I’m never gonna be a zen master, nor am I trying to be.
You’re trying a lot of new sounds on this album. At what point does fuzz guitar finally fail to communicate emotionally?
I try to stay away from musical clichés as much as possible. And fuzz guitar or a loud wall of guitar is always gonna be effective. But once I heard a wall of fuzz guitar and then really loud strings and piano and everything else, the way that hit immediately resonated super hard for me—that wall of sound. Years ago when I started making music and listening to the Beatles, their orchestration always connected to me. But it was so foreign. I had no idea how to accomplish something like that. I can’t pinpoint the first time I ever heard it.
You didn’t have a cool babysitter who put on side 2 of Sgt. Pepper? ‘I’m gonna blow your child mind!’
That exact thing happened to me but with Nirvana—I had a cool babysitter when I was ten. That was my introduction to rock, really. It would be like 94? Right before Kurt Cobain died, and that babysitter dude was blasting it constantly. That was definitely my first favorite band. Nirvana and then he also liked Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day—
Summer of ’94 in four albums.
Yeah—it exploded my mind! I’ve been constantly listening to that throughout the years. It’s not even conscious. I hear people refer to my music as 90s throwback. I’m fine with that. If you think about 90s grunge or pop at that time, it seems like they were throwing back to the bands of the 60s in a way. Like Kurt Cobain always wanted to be the Beatles but louder. That’s definitely an era I like a lot. I don’t mind. I’m guilty of the quiet-loud-quiet-loud chorus thing. I’m instinctually drawn toward it. There are times, especially on the new record, where I consciously try to get away from it to expand my songwriting. It can get really frustrating. Emotionally jarring! I’m the kind of guy who gets a very strong writer’s block. If I wanna do something new and I write something that sounds like something I did before, that shuts me down. Seems like a common thing. People say keep working through, work a little every day even if 95% of the stuff is shit. You can still find the 5%.
If you ever run out of actual instruments, have you thought about finding a trained animal to vocalize for you on your albums? It seems like the next logical step.
Maybe a pack of coyotes. I hear those a lot in Southern California. They’re always going together. It’s beautiful. My parents’ house is right on the hill. Most of our cats went to coyotes. I saw one today as I was taking a walk behind my house. He came pretty close. Twenty yards? And then he sorta slithered away.
What’s the wildest animal you’ve ever touched?
I got to pet some kangaroos last time I was in Australia. I’ve been to Australia twice and we made a point both times to go to the animal reserve.
I’m glad you prioritize petting animals on your tours.
It’s completely necessary.
What works better for you when you write? Thinking of something you don’t want, and working away from it? Or thinking of something you love, and working toward it? You did an interview where you said you were tired of music that leans on its genre too hard.
That statement is more about trying to stay completely open-minded about what your music can be—that you can combine genres or combine what seem like disparate musical ideas. Like not feeling tied down or feeling forced by a fan base to stick with a certain direction. There are times when I find myself fighting against a song that sounds too cliché. I’m trying to stay open-minded about any idea I have and trying to follow through—not necessarily worrying about how it’ll work or not work, or if people react to it in a certain way. It’s a difficult thing because everyone’s at least a little self-conscious about that, and I do want people to like my music … but at the same time, [it’s] fighting against the urge to appease the people and doing exactly what I want to do. I’m lucky that I don’t get a lot of pressure from anybody I work with—record labels or anything. They don’t push me in any direction. I can set it up where I have complete free rein.
Is that scary?
It is a little scary! It’s nice to feel some restrictions sometimes. It’s so open that you can do anything, so what are you going to do? I’m not having the most crazy, unique experiences in my life—I’m just another guy.
You don’t think your life is unique? You go on tour all over the world, make music with your friends, make a living at what you love…?
In that way, sure. But the stuff I’m mostly writing about—mostly emotional experiences or hardships or my experiences in my relationships with my friends and romance—in that way, I’m just kind of an everyman. My life and the way I make my living and tour and make music is definitely not normal, but within all that there’s a very normal guy dealing with normal situations and trying to do what everyone is doing—which as a young person approaching 30 is finding your way.
Are you an everyman like the Beach Boys, where the songs are almost so generically themed that they could apply to anybody’s life? Or like Alex Chilton, where they’re so idiosyncratic and personal you relate to the human in the act of being human?
You gotta start at the most personal place you know—your direct thing. But I try and hold back as much as I can to find the universal aspect. That helps in everyday life, too. Not just songwriting. Step back and gain perspective and realize that this seems very specific to you, but if you talked to loved ones and friends, you realize that other people have been where you are. People get through it. And in the long run, the biggest problem in my life when I was 20 is so distant. Something can seem like it’s gonna shut down your entire growth and existence, but get ten years of perspective on it and it’s just another point in the story.
This is the other side of the cliché—the comfort. Realizing that you had your heart broken … like every other person ever.
As one could probably guess from what I write about, I still struggle with anxiety and depression—everybody does! It’s a growing pain. Sometimes, like you said, it’s hard to step outside of that and realize that. Especially if you’re having a really low day and you can’t sleep. It’s helpful to get outside that and view it from somebody else’s perspective.
What happens when teach yourself to recognize the universal?
You get a little less self-loathing. I find a good thing to do when you’re feeling low is take a walk and look around. See a coyote! See how big that tree is, and how it’s been around for hundreds of years. Get a wider picture. Trying to be the best person you can in whatever relationships you have with other people. I’m not saying I’m totally there, but that kind of perspective improves everything.
Where did the suite that takes up side two of MCIII come from? The songs go, ‘Alone,’ ‘Gold,’ ‘Control,’ ‘Ready,’ ‘Different’ and end with ‘Circle.’ Is it the story of you learning to make music—starting alone and figuring things out along the way? And then it goes full circle?
I made it as a mini-concept record. I’d been interested in making a long piece of music with a through-line for a long time. But I didn’t want it to be based in … a lot of concept records are based in fantasy or fantastical themes. I was looking at my own experiences for what could be a longer piece of music, and it brought me back to when I first moved away from home. When I was 18, I went up to Portland to go to school and was kind of thrown out of my bubble for the very first time. That side of the record is a true story mini concept of what I see now as a big part of my coming-of-age story—coming to a difficult circumstance. Which was figuring out the outside world and living by myself for the first time, and also having emotional and physical problems. I developed a big back injury and I had to move home, leave school, get surgery, recover … I slipped a disc. It developed from when I was a teenager and I was mountain boarding. That was my thing in high school. I’d compete and jump off things really high. I basically destroyed my body. I was trying to get through this tough liberal arts school, dealing with the first time I had anxiety and sleeping problems and depression problems and being on pain killers and being foggy and not knowing what to do with my life … and everything. The songs on the B-side go linearly through a chunk of time where I was dealing with that and trying to find myself. All leading up to the first chapter in where I am today. Through that first experience of being so confused and having to leave and being a college drop-out—that was when I finally started playing, started to pursue writing songs and playing in bands and playing out for the first time, which is something I’d pushed aside and thought of as not as important as getting a legitimate job. It was a hard moment in my life that in retrospect was learning what I wanted to do.
But you majored in music at the time?
No—not at the time. I didn’t go to music school until I reapplied to years later. I was doing general education and by the tail end of it I had declared a psychology major. I wasn’t playing music at all, except a little guitar in my spare time but—like most people—I didn’t feel like pursuing music was a viable thing to do. It wasn’t pressure from anything else but the rest of my family are very academic, very smart people. It was my understanding that that’s what you should do with your life—get a high-paying job, and it’s impossible to make music for a living. That was not even a remote possibility in my mind. I had no idea how to do that. It was a confusing time.
What song of yours felt riskiest to you lately? Something that didn’t seem safe—the lyrics, the sound, whatever. And what made you go through and put it out anyway?
There’s a song in the middle of the B-side suite called ‘Control.’ Lyrically, that was a little hard. I was fully lost. There’s a line in it where I find a dying animal in the road. I found a cat. I was driving around. And then picking it up, taking it to a vet, putting it down right there in front of me … that was a final snap. Or the straw that broke my back. Right after that, I got uplifted—dropped outta school, had surgery, all that. I’d never tried to write a song with a line about finding a dying animal in the road. It instinctually seems like you shouldn’t? But … that was the hardest to sculpt, and finally sing and convince myself that it’s an important enough part of the story to include on the record.
It’s actually in the center of that whole side.
Basically, yes—a turning point. So it’s right in the middle. It was interesting to go back and forth and find the wording for it. I never tried anything like that. Assembling that whole story was pretty challenging. I kept going back and forth on whether I should even do it.
Is ‘Control’ more about getting control or giving it up?
It was a time of feeling completely out of control. And trying to grasp at little fingers of control. And feeling like things were spiraling in a weird direction that I couldn’t even wrap my head around. I see it as giving up control as well. There was a hopelessness at that point of my life, and I was trying so hard to find something but not finding any of it.
Did it ever resolve? Or does it never resolve, and you make your peace?
I’ve had enough distance to contextualize it. And insert it as a point in my life where things turned around, and ultimately led to positive things—sent me on a path I didn’t know I should be heading down.
Does it help you to frame these things in songs? In a way, you’re taking back some of the power when you define them and control them. They’re no longer a blur of sensation, memory and reaction.
It goes back to where we were talking about these being documents for me when I’m older. When I’m actually doing it, it feels very instinctual. But it’s necessary to delve deeper—beyond the surface levels you’re feeling. You think about it and frame it in language, which is a difficult thing to do. Putting your emotions into words. What’s recorded is only what I decided to write about. It is shaping my experiences—it’s definitely my perspective. Say a break-up song … I tried to not have it be completely one-sided, but a break-up song is usually one-sided.
The chorus on ‘Made My Mind Up’ is ‘Tell me when it hurts.’ Is that where you set your limits? When the pain starts, you know it’s time to stop?
In general? It’s hard. There’s certain pain you gotta push through, especially if you’re struggling emotionally.
Does that happen to you as a listener as well? Are there albums that demanded you experience certain things before you could really get into them?
Tons. But the first that comes to mind … the first CD I ever bought was Nirvana In Utero. Of course when I was ten years old, I knew I liked the music and something connected. But there’s no way I could personally connect or have any idea what he was talking about in a larger sense. That was a slow burner that unraveled as I got older. Even Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys—you hear that here and there as a kid and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s like California car music!’ Then you realize that’s one of the darkest albums ever recorded. The whole record is completely heartbreaking. And I love it. How I listen to records, I instinctually hear the music and the melody first, and maybe catch a couple lyrics here and there. But when you get into and read and understand the lyrics, everything unfolds for me. For everything that’s not one-dimensional. There’s plenty of shitty one-dimensional music. But anything that really sticks with me is a slow burner.
Ever get in over your head? Like discover a certain record is actually a little too much?
That can happen with Big Star and Alex Chilton for sure. Once you read into the story and get the context for how and when the records were made and maybe read a book about it, it gets a lot heavier. To the point where I can’t listen to it sometimes—it’s one of my favorite records, but if you’re in a certain mood … oof. It’s rough!
Is it true you have perfect pitch?
I have pretty good pitch. I used to do kind of a parlor trick with my mom where she’d tell me to sing a note, and then she’d sit at the piano, and I’d be pretty close to that note. If I have one thing going for me … I’m not the greatest musician, I’m not a great anything player, but I feel like I have a pretty good natural sense of that stuff. It probably comes from my mom—she’s a musician as well. She plays piano and harp. I kind of kick myself from not taking harp lessons from my mom from a very early age, but unless you’re Joanna Newsom, it’s not easy to incorporate harp into pop rock music.
Tell me about the day you got your Manipulator tattoo—the logo of the character from Ty’s last album.
Oh man! We were on tour in Europe with our friend’s band, JC Satan. And one of the JC Satan guys had brought a tattoo machine with him—he’s a really good artist. We’d been talking about it for a long time throughout the tour, and the very last night, before we were about to split up with them, we all hung out in a hotel room together and stayed up really late and everyone got their own version of the Manipulator tattoo.
How much convincing did it take?
I was down right away! I like the idea of tour tattoos—I’m not totally blase about whatever I get tattooed on me, but I like the idea of having that reminder of a certain period of time. And the Manipulator tour—that’s probably my favorite record of Ty’s. It made sense and I liked the title.
Does that mean Ty owes you a tattoo?
It’s only fair! I’ll hold him to that for sure.
Where do you think you’d be without Ty and vice versa?
It’s been really important. I’ve been really lucky to have someone that I’ve been playing music with since basically the beginning—since our first high school band. And it seems amazing that we still both have been doing it and supporting each other for quite a long time now—with no inkling of slowing down—and making music together. To have that support, to have that trust in each other, to always ask each other for help with whatever projects we’re working on, or advice … working so long that we have a shorthand. We don’t need to explain everything we’re trying to do to each other. We kind of get it, even if we’re heading in different musical directions sometimes. It’s just nice. Comfortable. He dove into the full-time 100% music and making records thing before I did. Seeing that he could pull something like that off—have a run of it and gain a fanbase and be lucky enough to tour as much as he did and kind of support himself through it definitely inspired me that I could make a run at the same thing. And the idea of recording a record that sounded decent by yourself, and getting that together and finding a studio—for both of us when we were starting out, that sounded like such a far-fetched idea. But having somebody do that a few times before I made my own legit go at it inspired me a lot.
What was the first time you and Ty sat next to each other in class?
We were a grade apart, so we didn’t have classes together. I’d seen him around since it’s a small school and I knew he was like the music kid and had a band. I saw his band at parties. Then word got out he kinda wanted a saxophone player and I was thinking about it … I remember not the first time we met, but one of the first times was in the high school parking lot, coming up to me after school like, ‘Hey, man, I know you play sax and I was wondering if you wanted to play with me and Coleman?’ I remember that clearly. I was kind of expecting it—‘Yeah, yeah! That’d be fucking cool!’
That story was right out of California 1961 except you said ‘fucking.’ Wanna re-tell it?
‘Hey man, I hear you’re a pretty cool cat … who can really blow!’
FYF FEST, PERMANENT RECORDS AND CENTER FOR THE ARTS EAGLE ROCK PRESENT MIKAL CRONIN WITH WAND, MILD HIGH CLUB AND GOLDEN DAZE ON FRI., MAY 1, AT THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS EAGLE ROCK, 2225 COLORADO BLVD., EAGLE ROCK. 8 PM / $15 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! MIKAL CRONIN’S MCIII IS AVAILABLE TUE., MAY 5, FROM MERGE. VISIT MIKAL CRONIN AT MIKALCRONIN.COM.