Photograph by Mike Koozmin. Background painting designed by Eric Bauer and Kim West, painted by Eric Bauer and the “ultimate party crew.” Original image modified.
The wind on this Thursday night in Austin sags with the din of a dozen hopeful rock bands and the stench of stale beer. In a dark alley behind of a row of clubs on Sixth Street, Mikal Cronin leans into an alcove and tries to light a cigarette. It's tough, both because of the wind and because he's nervous. In about an hour, Cronin will be on the other side of this brick wall, vying for his share of attention from the industry types and journalists at South by Southwest.
But Cronin isn't just another rock purveyor floating hopes on the Texas breeze. Tonight is the official showcase of Merge Records, the storied home of bands like Arcade Fire and Spoon. Tonight, Cronin will have to show why a shy 27-year-old San Franciscan — who only recently came out as a pop songwriter, who never really even sang much before — deserves to land on one of the country's best independent rock labels. He's still a little surprised it happened himself.
"It's unreal," he says of the signing, flicking his cigarette. "I thought they were fucking with me when they approached me."
Until recently, Cronin was just the bass player in the band of Ty Segall, a high school friend and former San Francisco rocker who last year rode gobs of underground enthusiasm to the cover of SPIN and the set of Conan O'Brien. Then, in 2011, Cronin released an album he'd written and recorded while still in music school, and everything changed. Rock tunes as good as "Apathy" — a high-contrast blast of fuzzy pop with an instantly memorable chorus — don't come around that often, especially from a brand-new artist. And most of Cronin's debut was as catchy as its first single. Tagged as another scuzzy San Francisco garage-punk, Cronin soon toured the country with his own live band. The strength of "Apathy" got him a meeting at Columbia Records. His debut album was complimented in Pitchfork. The employees at Merge saw him and raved.
And that is how Cronin found himself here, fumbling with an American Spirit in a dark, reeking Austin alley. Tonight, he'll debut songs from his new album, the first for Merge, which won't come out for two months. How this show is received will partly determine what happens next. Will Cronin follow his friend Segall into the realm of sold-out tours, performances on late-night TV shows, and year-end Top 10 lists — and maybe bring the sound of San Francisco rock to more mainstream listeners? Or will his sophomore album sink, as so many new records do, into the background of today's hyper-saturated music industry? There is only one way to find out. All Cronin can do right now is stomp out his cigarette, head back inside, and leave those questions hanging in the wind.
Down in San Francisco's Mission District, just off 24th Street, a weathered white Victorian peers out at the world through dirty windows. A fake severed arm hangs from the front door like some long-forgotten Halloween prank. A few empty bottles of Miller High Life litter the front yard's half-dead grass, and some old shoes sit on the window frame.
There are two interesting things about this house, besides its appearance: The first is that the people who live, play, and party here make it a sort of epicenter of San Francisco's independent rock scene. The second is that three of those residents went to high school together in Laguna Beach. While their classmates were glamorized in an MTV reality show named after the touristy hamlet, these dudes formed weird rock bands and played for friends at house parties. They loved San Francisco's art-damaged, do-it-yourself rock 'n' roll tradition, so after high school, they all moved here separately. Now, one by one, they're launching out of the incubator of their tight social group and into national notoriety. Segall, who practiced and hung out but didn't live here, was the first: Building on years of buzz, he released three albums in 2012, won national acclaim, and sold out his homecoming show at the Fillmore. Word that he was starting another band with Laguna pals Charlie Mootheart and Roland Cosio generated unusual excitement around that trio, Fuzz. But the next from this group set to break out is Mikal Cronin.
On a warm, sunny weekday a month and a half after the Austin show, the inside of the Mission Victorian is littered with empty boxes of Olympia and Modelo beer. A thin shadow of a man who always seems a few degrees distant from the action surrounding him, Cronin shuffles out of a bathroom, trying to rub the hangover out of his forehead. His long, unruly strands of dark hair are pulled over to one side. He's dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans. Last night, Fuzz played its second-ever club show in San Francisco; afterward, the crew came back here and celebrated until the early morning. And when your old friends' proto-metal outfit packs the Rickshaw Stop on a weeknight, participation in the after-party is a given.
If you asked a knowledgeable outsider about San Francisco's indie music scene, you would expect to hear about bands like Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, and Ty Segall (who recently moved to L.A.) — and also probably the genres "psych-rock," "garage rock," or "garage punk." They're fair, as labels go, since these groups are heavily influenced by primitive, sometimes trippy guitar music from the '60s and '70s: the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, and the MC5, among others. And whether the music leans more psychedelic (like Thee Oh Sees), punk (like some Segall), or folk (like Sic Alps or other Segall), a gritty aesthetic and DIY values have long been popular among guitar bands in the City by the Bay.