Mikal Cronin finds classical training and punk can mix

Mikal Cronin will be playing at Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago.

Mikal Cronin will be playing at Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago. (Juliana Wisdom / August 25, 2013)

Like his old high school bandmate Ty Segall and the ubiquitous John Dwyer, Mikal Cronin is one of those San Francisco guys who plays in a bunch of garage-rock bands, tours constantly and is often involved in several records a year. But Cronin also has a fine-arts degree in music, which makes him a rarity on the punk circuit.

"Most of the people I make music with have no musical training, and that's fine," Cronin says. "But the approach to my music education was basically learn all the rules you can, and then break them. I can listen to Black Flag, and I learned why certain chord changes were more effective than others. I could look deeper into music and love it more. Some people say it kills the magic for them, that it's better to have creative ignorance. But I got a solid understanding of what I want to bring into my own music."

The evidence is on "MCII" (Merge), Cronin's second solo album. He plays most of the instruments and arranges string parts, which gives the music a chamber-pop dimension. Even in a track such as "Weight," the buzzing and chiming guitars are balanced by a counterpoint piano melody. "Piano Mantra" builds from a few sparse chords into a roar.

Cronin grew up in Laguna Beach, Calif. He played saxophone in a high school dance-punk trio with Segall, who drummed and sang. Then he moved to Portland to attend college, half-heartedly declaring a major in psychology before dropping out. "I put music aside to focus on academics, because I thought that's what I was supposed to do," he says. "I come from a family of smart people with graduate degrees. It took a year of not playing music to make me realize I was miserable without it. I didn't realize how important music was in my life until I left it."

He enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and spent three illuminating years expanding his chops and following his musical curiosity into classical, jazz and the avant-garde.

"I was the black sheep in music school," he says. "Everybody was classically trained and wanted to be a composer or producer or play in orchestras. I studied everything. I started punk bands with art-school kids, and we'd played gallery openings on Thursday nights. I did weird soundtracks for films I was making. I lived inside music for three years, and I was thinking about all of it constantly. It all informed what I wanted to do, which is to write pop songs."

His first solo record, recorded during a week-long break in college, came out in 2011. After graduating, Cronin jumped in a van and spent the next few months touring with various bands, including Segall's. He arrived in San Francisco with a duffel bag of possessions and a bass guitar, and has been there ever since.

"What's funny is that there is a great San Francisco scene with a lot of talented bands, but everybody is on the road all time," he says. "It's not like you can go to a club and go see Thee Oh Sees every week. I'm the same way since I moved there. We play and record all the time. It's a tight scene, but we see each other more often on the road."

All that work in front of audiences has sharpened Cronin's feel for how he wants to shape his own music.

"I want to write from the gut, instinctually, but if I find myself stuck and resorting to typical chords, I can apply some of my knowledge in music school to change it and make it work emotionally," he says. "I'm in a mind set now where I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable. Some music makes you feel stupid because you don't get it. But I listen to classic pop records, I like hooks, choruses, music you can get on first listen, and yet go back and find something interesting when you go deeper. I want to make music that sounds familiar. I've spent a lot of time figuring out what is in those classic records that makes them classic and I try to exploit that and interpret it in my own way."

It leads to an obsessive one-man-band approach to recording. "I pretty extensively demo stuff by myself," he says. "I love that process. I want fully formed ideas for all the parts, and it will change only slightly in the studio. A lot of the parts on my records are first takes, because it's like I get to the point where I've got this idea stuck in my head for eight months and I've got to get it out. I'm obsessed. And when it's out, that's my best feeling in the world, the highest high."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).


Twitter @gregkot

When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 12

Where: Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Ave.

Tickets: $12; emptybottle.com