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Q&A: Mikal Cronin Opens Up (Emotionally and Instrumentally) on ‘MCIII’

The San Fran songwriter talks about his dynamic third LP, and pulling inspiration from Kate Bush

Connor O'Brien // April 22, 2015

The third record from San Francisco-based songwriter Mikal Cronin, the aptly titled MCIII, is an exercise in pushing limits. Moving beyond the garage-pop of 2011’s Mikal Cronin and 2013’s MCII, he’s split his newest full-length — which is out May 4 on Merge — in half. The first five tracks are some of his finest stand-alone songs, picking up right where he left off on his acclaimed sophomore effort.

Side B, subtitled “Circle,” chronicles Cronin’s formative time at school in the Pacific Northwest, dealing with a slipped disc and feelings of alienation. The radiant, fuzz-filled gems that followers have come to expect from the Ty Segall collaborator take a back seat in favor of a string quartet, acoustic guitar peppered with brass, and even a tzouras, a traditional Greek string instrument that the average listener might find on, say, a Cat Stevens record.

Venturing into uncharted instrumental and emotional textures looks as if it’s paid off, even before release day: Cronin has just been offered to play at famed Los Angeles venue Hollywood Bowl with tUnE-yArDs and Death Cab for Cutie. “It’s like a joke that I would be asked, like a gag,” he told SPIN the same day, laughing. “It was definitely one of those things where I was like, ‘This sounds terrifying,’ but I’m gonna say yes and make it work, schedule-wise, because that’s never going to happen again.”

Below, we speak with Cronin about the new record, writing on tour, and how Kate Bush helped him figure it all out.

Where did you write MCIII? On the road, or were you in one specific place, or did you just do it where you could?
I kind of, by necessity, had to write a lot more of the music on tour than I usually would. I was touring a lot the last half of last year, with the Ty Segall Band. But, like usual, I got the basic stuff when I was living in San Francisco at home, and then on the road I would write. We were just in a tight little van, so I can’t just pull out a guitar and start writing, but I would write a lot of the lyrics and do a lot of the arrangements, like the string arrangements, on my computer and stuff.

Can you talk about the string players you had come in? Did they tweak the arrangements at all, or did they help out with that kind of thing?
Just in a very basic sense of “Oh, that note looks like it’s wrong,” like a typo. They were just so quick and so good that I had them in there for two hours. I knew it would be that short of a window so I spent a really long time meticulously making sure the arrangements were tight and readable and everything, which was a learning experience for me. They pretty much nailed it right out of the gate. I’d worked with a couple of them once before, they’d also played on Ty Segall’s record. I wrote the string parts for Manipulator, the last record he did.

There are a couple of songs where the strings really stand out, and you’ve talked about how there are other instruments on the record that aren’t really used in a lot of rock records. Do those represent a certain feeling for you?
It’s not just as basic as wanting to add them and then randomly trying to add them in. Throughout the years, if you want to look record by record, I’ve always been interested in different instruments, how they sound, and how they can be used. There’s a very specific time and place for a French horn versus a trumpet.

I just started hearing it more and more in my head when I was going through the demos, and now I have a little more confidence in my music to actually just go for it. Some of these songs, the mellower ones especially, would have been a very extreme thing for me to do years ago, when I was still coming out of garage rock, and wanting to be loud and fucked up. It makes the whole thing a lot more interesting, and it feels like to me, it opens up whole other worlds or avenues to potentially keep working down the line. It’s just fun, and it makes the record more interesting in general, tonally, at least.

Since you’re opening up so many more avenues with these instruments, and since the second half of the record is all autobiographical, do you think you’ve been more honest on this record?
It was a different kind of honest. I’ve always been personal with the writing in the sense of pulling back and finding a universal aspect of a feeling I’m having, but something like the B side — which is linear and autobiographical — I had to try and tell a story. I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. I’ve been thinking of doing something like that for a long time and always backed off. I didn’t know if I could pull that off in a way that wasn’t just lame or whiny, or just bad, you know? It was scary to actually tell that kind of story directly, instead of alluding to a non-specific breakup or something. So I just went for it.

Was it tough to put yourself back in that mental state to write those songs? 
Definitely. It was strange because I kind of moved past that place emotionally, so going and revisiting it and trying to put myself back into the situation as much as I can, and even just going on… technology’s crazy nowadays, going on Google Maps. Looking at where I used to live, just trying to remember what it looked like, weird stuff like that. I kind of wish I had kept a journal or something during that time. I never really have, but it would have been helpful. I was kind of starting to see parallels with stuff I’m feeling today, more at the time of writing the record.

Last time you talked to SPIN, it was almost foreshadowing this record in a vague way. You said you wanted to model a record off of Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love, “weird, dark and conceptual.”
That’s exactly what it is, yeah. [Laughs.]

All these different feelings and structures, did you find inspiration from that record?
I’m still saying it today that I modeled it off that Kate Bush record. I forgot that I said that after the last record. That’s really funny, because I was obviously thinking about it for a long time. I just really liked, more and more, thinking about the structure of that and how you can listen to it in multiple ways. You can do just the A side, or just the B side, or both together. I like the idea of trying my own version of that. Plus, I had been toying around with my own version of a concept record for a long time, but this is an easier way to do that without a hundred percent committing to that story.

What kind of mood were you going for with the tzouras?
Well, I have to admit, that was a little less… super powerfully meaningful to me. I bought it in Greece when I was on tour in Athens, and told myself, “If I buy this, I have to throw it on the next record somewhere.” Then I was having a hard time figuring out how to in that song. It was kind of like a happenstance, just a weird cool thing to do. It doesn’t fit the mood in a very direct way, but it kind of continues the mood of the song. Although, maybe it’s kind of like an out of mind experience, getting back into the guitar-ness of it. I’m just bullshitting now. [Laughs.]