Third Time’s the Charm

“I’ve been starting over for a long time / I’m not ready for another day I fail at feeling new,” Mikal Cronin’s 2013 sophomore record, MCII, begins. Although it might be a curious lyric to start one of this decade’s more gratifying rock records, it’s also one that combines heavy guitar reverb from Cronin’s frequent collaborator Ty Segall with soaring, string-drenched choruses that rival Noel Gallagher.

Today, Cronin releases his third album, MCIII, which sonically and lyrically surpasses the wide scope of MCII, perhaps altering the way we define garage rock. This time around, Cronin’s lyrics are both more profound and introspective, yet he uses the first person sparingly, in an extremely calculated manner. Throughout the album, Cronin experiments with story arcs and unusual instruments, but never loses sight of his catchy, riff-driven rock-‘n’-roll.

While he rose to prominence in the now-displaced San Francisco garage rock scene, Cronin began a new chapter of life when he moved to Los Angeles last summer. We caught up with Cronin over the phone, just before tomorrow’s highly anticipated album release show at Bowery Ballroom.

STEVEN EDELSTONE: You’ve recently moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles along with most of the musicians from the Bay Area, like John Dwyer, Ty Segall, King Tuff, and Jessica Pratt. Was it initially hard to leave San Francisco?

MIKAL CRONIN: Yeah, I still miss it a lot. It’s hard because I really like San Francisco, but it got a point where it made sense to head down to Los Angeles. Most of my friends and most of the people I make music with were heading down there and I was going down to L.A. a few times a month. [Highway 5] gets a little grueling after a while. [laughs] I grew up down in Orange County, so my family’s out here and I liked the idea of having a little more space than a cramped apartment would allow me. I was down in L.A. when I wrote my first record and started to play shows. My band was always split up between San Francisco and L.A., which was frustrating for practice. So I moved either last July or August.

EDELSTONE: Even though you’ve been on the road, how have you seen San Francisco change the last couple years?

CRONIN: There’s the obvious shift in the tech industry. I’m not really politicized about the whole thing, but it’s definitely clear that rent is harder and it’s harder for musicians or artists or someone not making a ton of money to live comfortably. It seems like a cultural shift—you see less and less bands coming up and more people leaving. I had some pretty lucky and good living situations; thankfully I never got forced out of an apartment. A lot of my friends got evicted or pushed out and couldn’t afford a new place. For me, I wanted more space to set up a home studio, but there was no way to afford that.

EDELSTONE: How does your life in L.A. compare to your life in San Francisco?

CRONIN: In my experience, people seem a little more open to accepting people into certain groups and it’s interesting having the structured film world around you. I’ve made a few music videos for this new record and there’s a lot of support in that area. There are cool and exciting opportunities, not just in music, but collaborating with filmmakers and artists.

EDELSTONE: A lot has been made of Side Two and how it tells a story, whereas Side One doesn’t have a story arc. How do you think Side One and Side Two interact on this record?

CRONIN: Aside from the linear story aspect of the second side, the overarching themes and ideas all go together. They’re basically written from two different times in my life with slightly different perspectives, but a lot of thoughts and ideas I was pulling from on the B-side still apply to my life now.

EDELSTONE: One of my favorite lyrics from MCII, which I felt kind of represented the whole album, was on “Weight”—”No, be bolder / Golden light for miles.” That lyric seems at odds with most of the new album, which is a little darker lyrically and looks to the past more. How has your experience writing lyrics changed?

CRONIN: It’s hard to say. I’m always writing from where I’m at and there’s a two-year gap from the second and third records. I try not to be overly pessimistic about things; I try to stay positive about some things, so it’s not all complaining.

EDELSTONE: When I analyze lyrics and albums as a whole, I always look at how someone starts and ends an album, and I think it’s interesting to look at MCIII through that lens. The first lyric on the new album is “Who could have known the type of turns in places that we go / Who would say, it’s easier just further down the road?” and you end with “Circle back around / It is endlessly exploring ground, uneasy is the trail it takes you down.” Is it a conscious decision to start and end an album in similar ways?

CRONIN: Yeah, it’s definitely important. When putting together tracklisting and lyrical content of the record, I try to have a start point and end point. The last song on the record is hopeful, at least to me, in a kind of “everything is going to be all right” way. I like the idea of ending a record on a statement. If a lot of the record is confusion and trying to figure out the ups and downs and lefts and rights of experience, I like the idea of ending on a note that’s open and hopeful.

EDELSTONE: MCII seems to be slightly more straightforward lyrically and the new album seems much more guarded. There’s still a lot of first person in it, but it’s shrouded in metaphor. Was that on purpose? Did you feel like you were letting too much of yourself out there on MCII?

CRONIN: I kind of struggle with “I am” statements or using “I” in the first person in general. Creatively, I was looking for ways to not avoid that, but lessen it. I tried to keep it more open, not necessarily stopping saying things about myself and my own experiences and what I think, but just using the phrase, “I blah blah blah,” a little less. 

EDELSTONE: There’s a ton going on throughout MCIII, with so many different instruments being played by a totally new band behind you. When you write songs, do the lyrics or the music come first?

CRONIN: The music comes first, like, 99 percent of the time. I come up with the basic chord structure and the melody first and then I get really obsessed with arranging, adding, and subtracting parts. The last step of the process, for me, is finding words that fit into that structure and figuring out exactly what I want to talk about.

EDELSTONE: So thus far, how has the new record translated live?

CRONIN: The band is pretty different than the last time and we have a keyboard player to fill in more parts. It’s always an adaptation and a compromise between the live show and the record because there’s no way to straight up duplicate it. I wrote and recorded the songs months and months ago, so at this point it’s the second chapter of the music. I like finding people to play with that are comfortable adding their own twist and styles. Some of the songs that we figured out live—with the additions and interpretations of the musicians I’m playing with—make me feel like, “Oh man, I wish this band was here when I recorded the record!” The live versions sound so much better. [laughs]

EDELSTONE: A lot of your music uses driving metaphors in it, so does that mean you want your music listened to in the car? Do you ever intend for the listener to hear these albums in a specific way or setting? Do you even think about that when you record?

CRONIN: The only thing I think of, which is kind of unrealistic at this stage of how people listen to music, is that I hope and wish people would sit down and listen to the entire record once through and read to the lyric sheet. I sit down on the couch and listen to the first half, flip it over and listen to the second half, giving it one solid listen that way. I realize that people won’t even download the entire album and might just download a song or two and put it in a playlist for a workout or in the background while people do dishes. That’s fine and I can’t dictate how people listen to my music, but I structure records the way I listen to records. I think driving, at least for me, is a good way to listen to music. Sitting in traffic gives you time to listen to an entire record straight through and give it almost [your] full attention. I think it’s more satisfying to listen to an album in order and get the arc [the artist intended you to hear].

EDELSTONE: One thing that I’ve always loved about your music and found so interesting is that you use strings on a rock record. What made you want to add these different instruments in a garage rock record?

CRONIN: We’re all listening to the rock/pop of the ’60s, like The Beatles. They’re a staple in so many people’s lives, like mine when I was growing up, and I love the idea of adding those elements. I was listening to a lot of Big Star and they would do that on their record. Once I figured out that I could make that happen, I [started to] hear stuff like that in my head when arranging and demoing. There’s no reason that it’s impossible to find string players and French horn players and figure it all out. I love that aspect of arranging and I feel like it makes the music more interesting to listen to, at least more striking. There’s just more sounds to play around with. Those can be very expressive instruments in ways that a guitar or piano can’t be.