ABOVE: MIKAL CRONIN. PHOTO COURTESY OF DENEE PETRACEK
There’s more to the California indie scene than blissful beach-pop about the sea, sun, and surf. On his sophomore album MCII, Laguna Beach native Mikal Cronin focuses on aging and uncertainty. “I’m not ready,” the 27-year-old multi-instrumentalist repeats on “The Weight,” the album’s opening track. “I’m not ready for the tide to change… I’m not ready for the second wave.” “For a lack of a better word,” Cronin tells us over the phone, “I’m a sensitive person.”
MCII is more polished than either Cronin’s 2011 garage-rock solo debut, Mikal Cronin, or his work with his high school friend Ty Segall, but it retains an endearing lo-fi tinge. During his last European tour, his bandmates made a mockumentary, featuring the generally shy musician as the egotistical star. “It’s me playing a villain—a terrible dictator of a bandleader,” he says. Cronin is currently touring throughout the US.
EMMA BROWN: Do you remember the first band that you were in?
MIKAL CRONIN: The first band where we played shows was with Ty Segall in high school. It was a dance-punk kind of band. I played the saxophone, Ty played the drums and sang. [laughs] It was fun.
BROWN: Did you have class with Ty in high school? How did you become friends?
CRONIN: We were a grade apart so we didn’t have classes together. It was a small school, but there was a very small group of kids that were interested in playing music and listening to punk music and skateboarding. We met through that clique and pretty much immediately started playing music together.
BROWN: When you started the band, did you feel that it was just a bit of high school fun? Or did you have long term, “We’re going to make it big,” goals in mind?
CRONIN: Oh, definitely not. We only played shows at house parties, and the most serious thing we ever did was making CDs and pins and buttons for our friends and for us. With any of this stuff, there’s never any kind of, “This is going to be the one to show the world,” or, “This is going to be the one we’ll tour on.” It’s always [about] it being fun for us: this is meaningful to me and this is my victory. I can express myself.
At that point, [Ty and I] were both pretty confident that we were going to play music. We found ourselves becoming more serious about playing music than our friends were—or just more committed and had more meaningful connections. I realized then that I would probably be playing in bands for the rest of my life; that that’s what made me happy. Even though it’s awesome that people are paying attention—buying records or selling shows out—I never have that conscious thought about, “this is going to be the band that will tour the world.”
BROWN: When you write a song and you know that you’re going to put it on an album and people are going to ask you about it, do you stop yourself from making it overly personal?
CRONIN: No. Consciously, with this project where I’m making something with my own name, my main mission statement is honesty. I never want to hold back from what I’m saying for fear of showing it to people. At the same time, I try to take my own personal experiences and problems and wrap them around lyrics that are a little more universal and not naming names. I don’t let it get that personal. That’s not really a fear of over-sharing, it’s just what makes a good song. I want to get people to listen to it and to find a universal aspect of what I’m trying to say. It’s scary and difficult sometimes when I get further along and I realize a song is real and I’m actually going to show it to people.
BROWN: What makes a good pop song?
CRONIN: I think it’s something that really speaks in your head—a very strong melody. But at the same time, if the song doesn’t have some kind of edge to it, if there isn’t something a little off about it or something very intense or loud or abrasive in some way, it just comes off as a stupid pop song.
BROWN: I wanted to talk about the last song on the record, “Piano Mantra.” Could you tell me a little bit about that?
CRONIN: That song is interesting because it’s based off this chord progression on the piano that I’ve had in my head for years. I call it “Piano Mantra” because it was a looping, simple, kind of pretty chord progression—easy to play—that was always the first thing I would do when I would sit down at the piano. I could play it for a long time and run ideas onto it. It helped me calm down; if I was stressed about something that wasn’t going right, I could sit down at the piano and play. It became my own mantra. I never thought it’d be a song, but one day I put a melody on top of it and figured out how to arrange it in a way that was interesting and builds up. I really like that song, personally. It would be my personal favorite song if I could pick one off the record. It’s a song that I probably won’t be able to play live because of the instrumentation and how it just exists as a recorded song, which I’m into. It’s a moment in time. I probably won’t play it live so I don’t get burnt out on it.
BROWN: How many instruments do you play?
CRONIN: Oh man, I play a whole lot of instruments pretty badly, instead of playing one instrument really well. [laughs] I guess all the rock instruments. I got kind of fascinated with buying a really cheap instrument and trying to teach myself how to play it—like an accordion or a mandolin, ukulele, and a trumpet. I went through a phase where I just spent all my money on $50 thrift-store instruments. So I picked up a lot of instruments that way.
BROWN: Is that how you learned to play the saxophone?
CRONIN: No, actually. I’ve played the saxophone since I was 10 years old. I started in the fourth grade in the school band. That’s the one instrument that I have classically studied for a while. So many instruments are interrelated in so many ways. If you can play guitar, you can play the bass or banjo or mandolin. The fingerings on the saxophone are basically the same as on the flute or the clarinet too. If you have a solid handful of instruments, then you can start picking up the other ones pretty quickly.
BROWN: Is there anything you tried to learn and just never could?
CRONIN: [laughs] I haven’t tried too hard, but I’ve always really really wanted to play cello. The cello is my favorite instrument; it’s the most beautiful kind to me. But every time I pick one up it sounds like a dying whale, it just sounds awful. With those string instruments, there’s a certain threshold I can’t get past unless I try really hard to learn classically. It’s kind of a bummer. I hope I can learn that someday, I’m going to keep trying.
BROWN: I was watching your mockumentary of your European tour.
CRONIN: Oh my god, yeah.
BROWN: You can stare for a really long time.
CRONIN: That’s what touring for too long does to you—you just get crazy eyes. You stare off into the distance and lose your mind. That’s my brain shorting out.
BROWN: Can you tell me about the first scene, where everyone is booing?
CRONIN: Yeah. That was one of the best moments of my life. We played this show at a festival in England and it went well. We played our set and they wanted us to play more—an encore. We had just talked about how funny it’d be to film a big audience booing us. So we said, “Alright we’d love to play an encore for you, but we’re filming this thing so could you please, on the count of three, everyone boo us.” And they did it and they threw shit and it was awesome. It was a very powerful experience hearing that many people violently booing you.
BROWN: Have you ever had hecklers at a show?
CRONIN: Yeah, definitely. There are a lot of assholes out there. There are assholes everywhere. Just drunk, asshole bro-dudes trying to talk shit. I’ve had some fights at shows and it’s so ridiculous. You’re always going to get hecklers.
BROWN: What do you do when a fight breaks out in the audience?
CRONIN: It depends on the situation. We had a show in Cleveland, I think, where shit went wrong and basically ended our set with fighting and we had to get in there and stop it and drag people out and the police came. It was a huge bummer. Usually people are cool enough not to be like that—that kind of negativity at shows is completely uncalled for and a complete disaster. Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often. But there’s usually some chunk of heckler people.
BROWN: It seems strange that people would get violent at one of your shows. Your music isn’t….
CRONIN: Yeah, I know!
BROWN: Do you remember the first concert that you attended?
CRONIN: Shoot, I don’t know. I think I was going to classical music concerts with my parents. I remember I went to the Warped Tour, I forget who was playing… something like Bad Religion and fucking Rancid and all those kinds of bands. [laughs] I went when I was 13 or 14. I had a broken arm from skateboarding and remember being terrified of this drunk, fat dude who spilled a whole beer on my cast and I had to go back to school the next day, just reeking of beer. Back in middle school.
BROWN: Did anyone say anything?
CRONIN: No. No one said anything. [laughs]. That was the first rock concert I went to, unfortunately. And it was not a really good one; it was this terrifying experience that I’ll never do again.
BROWN: Did it put you off from going to other rock concerts?
CRONIN: No, it didn’t put me off. I didn’t get out much when I was a kid, I guess.
BROWN: One of my friends wants to listen to all 500 albums on Rolling Stone‘s greatest album list, and four of the top 10 albums are by The Beatles. How do you feel about that?
CRONIN: That makes sense. I’m a huge Beatles fan. They’re amazing. Apparently it’s a funny thing to listen to The Beatles and it’s funny when I tell people this, but I’ve recently gotten into them again.
BROWN: Is there a Beatles’ song that you think is underrated?
CRONIN: A lot of people I know hate Paul McCartney in general. [laughs]. I guess I understand, but I’m a fan. I think he’s a little underrated in my peer group—unlike John Lennon. He’s not my favorite Beatle, but he’s a goddamn good songwriter and he makes a lot of really cheesy, schmaltzy stuff but he’s still underrated.
BROWN: Who’s your favorite Beatle, then?
CRONIN: I’d have to say George Harrison.