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The Making of Mikal Cronin: How a Shy Kid from Laguna Beach Became the Best Pop Songwriter in San Francisco 

Wednesday, May 22 2013

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.

Cronin's connection with this scene is clear: He shares not only a home city with Thee Oh Sees, but also musical collaborators and a SOMA practice space. He has even more in common with Segall: drummer Emily Rose Epstein, a similar taste in guitar amplifiers and distortion pedals, and recording locales, not to mention the fact that they've played in bands together since high school. When his first album came out, all anyone knew about Cronin was that he was Segall's bass player and old pal from Southern California: The poppier, more introspective yin to Segall's blond-haired, fire-breathing yang.

But later that afternoon, sitting in the grass of Bernal Heights' Precita Park, Cronin explains why he doesn't think he fits the stereotype of the S.F sound. "I don't see the connection," he says of scene leaders Thee Oh Sees. "I love the music, they're one of my favorite bands... but I don't see Thee Oh Sees writing a piano ballad."

Until recently, it wasn't clear how different Cronin was. But his new album for Merge, MCII, is not a garage-rock record, or a punk record. It's a gorgeous, deeply personal pop record — jangly, hooky, and unafraid to stick a piece of slow-burning melancholy called "Piano Mantra" at the end. Along with molten guitars, there are saxophones, strings, acoustic guitars, and, yes, piano, all rendered in high-fidelity. "I let myself put the vocals on top this time, pretty clean, which is really terrifying," Cronin explained that night in Texas.

Unlike his friends, Cronin also gets confessional. In songs with titles like "Shout It Out," "Am I Wrong," "See It My Way," and "Don't Let Me Go," Cronin is airing his own struggles, not writing fiction or filler. Easygoing but not always upbeat, he isn't the sort of person to waste time posturing. "I told myself with this project the main mission statement would be to just be honest — honest musically and lyrically," he explains in the park, pulling out another American Spirit. "I'm sick of bands with gimmicks, and sick of music [that's] trying to lean on a genre too hard."

So a lot of MCII is about a mid-twentysomething transitioning into proper adulthood — the "struggle of knowing what you have to do to make yourself a happier person, but not doing it," he says. "Like, I know I should be going to sleep at 11 o'clock and getting a good night's rest, but I was up last night 'til 4 o'clock." Yet there's clearly more to his new songs than worrying about getting enough sleep. "I've been starting over for a long time," he sings on album opener "Weight." "I'm not ready for another day I fail at feeling new ... I'm not ready for the moment/ I'm not ready for the weight again."

Asked what he's so conflicted about, Cronin pauses. "I'm an extremely self-critical person," he says quietly. "I know what would make me happy. But I'm negative about my choices sometimes, and how I'm deciding to lead my life, and how I'm dealing with people I love."

Which is how we all feel sometimes, right? The emotional core of Cronin's songs aren't unique conflicts — they're everyday, universal rubs, like balancing relationships with work. But, like the best songwriters — and precious few S.F. garage rock bands — he's canny enough to sing about his problems while staying vague about exactly what they are. So when you listen to Cronin sing about not being ready for another day, it's easy to feel like he's speaking for you.

There's a certain mystery to the craft of pop songwriting, some rare qualities that make a tune feel fresh and exciting over countless listens. Whatever they are, Cronin seems to preside over a bottomless well of them.

His songs propel forward over an ever-shifting bed of instruments: A soft section abruptly explodes into fuzzy chords, a climactic guitar solo unexpectedly comes on an acoustic guitar, a saxophone blares out of nowhere to cast things in a new light. A song will begin like some carefree surf-pop anthem, then become dark and angsty. Cronin's mastery of loud-quiet changes strongly recalls Kurt Cobain, so it's no surprise that Nirvana was his first musical obsession. And like Nirvana's best work, Cronin's dynamic shifts work in service of that pop grail: a sticky melody.

"If you're just listening to the new record, it sounds like a singles collection, because every song is so catchy and so memorable," says Mac McCaughan, the co-founder of Merge Records and the indie rock band Superchunk. "Even [his] demos sounded like that."

Leaning back on the park grass with his shoes off, Cronin mentions another influence on his music: college. He studied music in an untraditional program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he played electrified saxophone in a death metal orchestra, performed in a Balinese gamelan ensemble, and started a hardcore punk rock band. He begins to count the number of instruments he can play, and it takes two hands to keep track. "I've never wanted to focus on one instrument and get really good at it," he explains. "I just wanted to fuck around on everything."

Cronin says he doesn't use his formal education much in playing pop-rock — though it did let him write out his own string parts — but the knowledge clearly makes a difference. Cronin's music feels exceedingly aware and in control of all of its elements, the work of a consummate tunesmith. If his friends in Fuzz are the city's Black Sabbath, his band is its Beach Boys.

But until a few years ago, not even Cronin's friends knew what he could do. He screamed or shouted in their high school punk bands, and played squirrelly saxophone lines, too. But he didn't sing things that were pretty. "He has literally a perfect voice and pitch and ability, which is kind of incredible," says Segall, over the phone from a family trip to Chicago. "And he never showed anybody until recently."

Shortly after his debut album was released in 2011, Cronin was asked to a meeting at Columbia records. He made it past a security guard and a lobby with a huge, expensive-looking painting on the wall, and into the office of some limey A&R guy. "They were saying, 'Yeah, we had a conference call. We were listening to your song 'Apathy' with 25 people in the room and trying to think up marketing ideas,'" he recalls now, laughing. "It was just fucking surreal and weird."

Cronin says he never considered signing with Columbia. But the meeting confirmed that his first single got a lot more attention than anyone expected. One of several indie labels interested in Cronin, Merge e-mailed him at South by Southwest in 2012, went to a show, and eventually asked him to come aboard.

Cronin made his debut album during the spring break of his last year of music school at a funky, underground studio in Chinatown known as Bauer Mansion. It went well, but not perfectly: "I had a bigger version for the music than I was able to realize," he says. He went back there for the second record, and again played nearly all of the instruments himself. But this time, following the process Segall took with his last album, Cronin had the new recordings mixed in the posh, ultra-professional environs of Berkeley's Fantasy Studios. The difference is immediately clear.

Sitting in Precita Park this afternoon, looking out over the Mission District, the question arises what he wants to happen when this new album finally comes out a little over a week from now. And Cronin doesn't seem to have an answer — partly because he's living a dream he never thought would come true. At one point, before music school, he was a studious would-be psychology major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, more concerned with getting a good job after graduation than playing music. But when a back injury and heavy depression forced him to return home halfway through sophomore year, he went back to playing in bands with his friends. After a couple years at community college, he got accepted to the music program at Cal Arts (his mother, a doctor who plays harp and piano in her spare time, accompanied him for the audition). But aside from moving to San Francisco, Cronin says he never thought much about what he'd do after finishing. As it happened, he lucked into a spot in Segall's live band, and has been a full-time musician ever since.

"I never had big expectations about being a pop star," he says. "I don't have any big goals or aspirations. I just want to keep myself inspired to write good songs."

But a few days before the release of MCII, signs begin to appear that Cronin might have some more things to consider.

The first big review to appear is Pitchfork's: The king-making independent music site has given Cronin's new album an 8.4 score and the coveted "Best New Music" tag. His booking agent texts from vacation in Puerto Rico to congratulate him. Then, on May 7, the album's official release date, The Onion's influential (and finicky) A.V. Club site gives MCII an enthusiastic A-minus. SPIN weighs in a few days later, with a 9 out of 10 score and a special "Spin Essentials" ranking. All in all, the new album gets some of the most positive reviews any San Francisco rocker has seen in years.

Most importantly, with the reception of MCII, Mikal Cronin becomes best known for being Mikal Cronin. He's no longer just Ty Segall's bass player. He's not some new kid on the roster of a famous indie label with something to prove. He is now the best pop songwriter in the San Francisco rock scene — and the latest torchbearer for the city's long tradition of independently made, aggressive guitar music. If anyone has a chance of getting that sound out to the mainstream world at large, it's him.

So naturally, on the day of the album's release, and one day before he and the band leave for a brief European stint, Cronin is hungover. Again. There was another little party at the white Victorian last night celebrating the new album, and its after-effects aren't helping anyone concentrate inside the band's cramped, sweaty practice studio. There's no P.A. here today, so Cronin's vocals are inaudible over the bright jangle and monstrous fuzz of his songs. But as the band roars through numbers old and new, sounding tight and crisp and endlessly melodic, Mikal Cronin closes his eyes and sings hard anyway.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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