Mikal Cronin is doing a better job of adjusting to adulthood than he seems to think. On this year's excellent power-poppy garage-rock LP MCII — his second solo full-length and first for Merge Records — the 27-year-old seems plagued by ambivalence, asking questions like "Is it my fault?" and "Am I wrong?" and "Do I even know what I'm waiting for?" But for someone with so many questions, Cronin has made a singular album brimming with shimmering guitars, excellent pop hooks and consistently full arrangements.
Cronin currently lives in San Francisco, and he's frequently associated with fellow Bay Area garage-psych folks like friend and frequent collaborator Ty Segall, with whom he's toured and released multiple efforts. But here, Cronin very much stands out from the pack, his voice — despite his seeming indecisiveness — sounding like that of a pop songwriter, plain and simple. Not only that, but he also recently earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in music from CalArts, and he plays many of the instruments on MCII himself. Sounds an awful lot like a dude who knows what he's doing, right?
The Scene talked with Cronin via phone. Here's an excerpt of the conversation:
I read you actually switched into studying music later in your college career. Did switching into doing the music thing academically change the way you write or arrange or play your solo music?
I think yes and no. I mean, it's an interesting thing, studying music academically, like theory and composition and stuff. It does — just listening to that much music and approaching it from that angle — I think it definitely changed the way I listen to music and understand it and thought about it. At the same time, I feel like I don't actively use a lot of it in writing this kind of music, like pop music. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how it changed my process, but I definitely have an easier time thinking about arrangements and dynamics and what I interpret as making a song as good and as powerful as I can.
Does it help you in communicating with the other people you play with? The actual terminology and so forth?
A little bit. Most of the people I play music with have no academic, formal training at all. It's helpful having that language, and I think it's helped a little bit, but I can't say "Play an A-diminished-seventh chord." ... I don't translate like that, but I think it helps overall. It's always a struggle for me to vocally translate my musical thoughts to other people.
I also have read that your mom is a musician and kind of encouraged you and your siblings growing up. How did she feel about you playing in punk bands and making the sort of music that you do?
Thankfully, she's a big fan of the music I do now. I think out of all the projects I've done over the years, she understands this one a little more, and she hears the lyrics for the first time. She's always very encouraging. Of course, we didn't connect on the more aggressive punk music projects sometimes [laughs], but she's into this one. She's a big fan. It's awesome.
Lyrically on this record, I do detect themes of uncertainty. Is that something that comes from where you were when you were making the record, or maybe coming to terms with something when you were writing those songs?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm still feeling those themes really strongly now. It's just a place I've been for a while, just based off of a whole lot of changes to my life really quickly. I feel like it's my own personal coming-of-age story. There's a whole lot of uncertainty, a lack of stability, especially in the life I'm in now as a touring musician full time. Traveling so much, not being home. That puts strain on your relationships and your relationship to yourself, at least to me personally. Just trying to figure out who I am and what I'm doing, if I'm making the right choices in this crazy world I find myself in.
Because of your work with Ty Segall and other West Coast guys, you've kind of been lumped in with that whole psych and garage-rock scene. Do you ever feel like you're miscategorized because of your affiliation with those other guys?
Yeah, it's interesting that the San Francisco garage, psych, whatever scene, it's all these bands that are personal friends. We play together a lot, and they're all amazing. It's just, the music between bands is all so different from each other. I understand people clumping it all into one scene for convenience's sake. But between Ty Segall's music and Thee Oh Sees and the Sic Alps, it's all so strikingly different to me. Of course I would never be frustrated being lumped into that group of people, because they're all my friends, and they're all some of my favorite bands in the world. ... I feel like if people see it as one genre of music, they're really missing out.