Though his eponymous debut album chronicles the angsty time before his college graduation where he felt isolated and uncertain about his future, Mikal Cronin radiates Californa laid-back dudeness. A late departure from Memphis and the epic traffic snarl of an Atlanta Friday failed to phase him. Even when the interview fell through and we started playing an epic game of phone tag, Cronin never lost his cool or made demands. He took his time and let things play out, much like he has with his music career. After years of being an able sideman to high school friend Ty Segall, Cronin stepped in to the spotlight, putting his friend behind the drum kit to offer support.
Why did you decide that now was the time to step out and make a solo record?
I’ve been making music on my own for a long time, with various other band and different projects that I’ve come up with, but it never seemed cohesive enough to release as an album. They were more one-off types of things, with big jumps in styles and genres. Then I started thinking in a different way, that I could make a record that would be cohesive enough to release. I started thinking about what it would sound like, and I was able to put together a support system of friends that helped me work through the process. With their help, I was able to put the record together.
I found an article about seven reasons to love your album. Reason number two is that Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer plays the flute on your album.
I haven’t known Jon for too long, but my friend Ty has known him for a couple of years now. I’ve always been a big fan of his work, and I learned that he played the flute. I was up recording in San Francisco, and I imagined this flute solo on a song. He and I and Ty went out to get some tacos for lunch. I just sort of asked him if he would have some free time and want to play some flute, and he said he would. I was surprised that he agreed. I know him a little more now, but back then I would just see him around a little bit. He seems to be the resident flutist in town right now.
You mentioned Ty, who is of course Ty Segall. How important was it that he was involved in your project, and how much fun was it to work with him?
It was very important. We started playing music together in high school, and he’s one of my best friends. We’ve always bounced ideas off each other about music, and shared our music when we’re still unsure about it. We’re on the same page with a lot of stuff, and I was really appreciative that he would help out. He was there as support and as the idea guy. I even sent him demos to see what he thought about them. He’s great to work with, and we always work together. I’m sure he’ll be there in some way in whatever else I do, and hopefully he’ll include me on his future projects.
There’s also a lot of saxophone on the record. What’s your story with the saxophone?
I started playing the saxophone when I was ten in elementary school band. My mom taught my siblings and I to play piano early on, and it was an unspoken rule in my house that our parents wanted us to take up another instrument. We had the chance at ten years old in fourth grade in school band- I remember picking between the drums and the saxophone. I grew up playing it, and it’s one of the only instruments I ever studied or read music with. I don’t play it as much these days, really mostly when I’m working on music, but it’s a good thing to have in your bag of tricks as a musician. I always loved when people used horns in their songs- maybe it’s just ingrained, after hearing it be appropriate for so many years. I didn’t think about it much; I wanted some woodwind support on some of the songs, and that’s what I know how to play.
You’ve got a flute and a saxophone. Are thinking about finding someone in California that plays clarinet?
Maybe. In my head I’m not sure how it will work out, because it’s really hard to organize these sorts of things, but I would really love to start including orchestral sounds in my music- horns and strings, clarinets and cellos. Growing up with Beatles records and big overproduced pop records, I think you can use it to great effect. That’s definitely on my list. Maybe on the next record, or whenever I can work it out; I’ve got my eye out for orchestral players in the bay area.
Reviews of the record have mentioned the connection to Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees. What’s an influence that may have flown under the radar?
I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, but I was inspired specifically by a lot of Del Shannon’s later work, which are really big pop songs with catchy melodies. I’m not sure how much of his influence actually translated. I think in my head it was a little stronger than what came across on the record, but his work has been a huge influence. Other than that, I’ve been listening to a lot of world music. There’s a crossover between Indian classical and surf music going on in my head right now. There are a lot of subtle influences. I hear the music, and then I can hear echoes of it later in my own music.
What are your feelings about the album? Are you in love or are you one of those people who won’t listen to it?
I’m an extremely self-critical person, so I listen to it now and there are a bunch of things I wish I would have done better or could have changed if I had more time. I think that’s natural, but generally I’m proud of myself for translating what I wanted to translate. I am proud of it. Not to be cocky, but it feels really good to finally have something that I can stand behind. I’m already looking ahead, but there are definitely no regrets with how the album turned out.
One final question: Where does the spelling of your first name come from?
It’s pretty funny, and kind of basic actually. Actually, my legal name has the standard spelling, but when I was a bored freshman in high school, writing my name on paper after paper, it occurred to me that there were just so many Michaels in the world. I had three other Michaels in my class of thirty people, so I decided to do a little experiment with my name. I spelled it more phonetically, which is how I would spell it if I had my chance to choose. I started spelling my name “Mikal,” basically to see how long it would take an authority figure to respond. After a few weeks of me refusing to use the correct spelling of my name, everybody started using it and it stuck. I’ve always identified more with the way I spell my name, and I like it because it sets me apart a little bit. It’s much easier to Google, but I never thought about it that way. It’s just a silly experiment that I’ve went with for the last nine years of my life.