By Eli Enis
For many artists, a four-year gap between albums is a brief lapse. Janelle Monáe and Vampire Weekend took five and six, respectively, between their last two albums, and these new Frank Ocean singles almost feel like early birds compared to how long fans waited for Blonde and Endless. But in Mikal Cronin‘s world, four years is an eon. The 33-year-old songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, born and currently based in L.A., was one of many musicians to break out of the San Francisco garage-rock scene of the late 2000s. He emerged from the same circle as Ty Segall, John Dwyer (Oh Sees), Tim Presley (White Fence), and countless other Bay Area songwriters who were largely defined by their insatiable creative appetites.
To give some perspective, Cronin participated in five different bands between 2005 and 2010. In the five years that followed, he released three albums and a handful of EPs under his own name, while also collaborating on a bevy of projects. In the time since his last Mikal Cronin record, 2015’s MCIII, he’s played on at least 11 other albums, six of which were written by the dizzyingly prolific Segall.
Although Cronin’s kept busy with session work and touring in Segall’s backing band (dubbed the Freedom Band), the last few years have been tough for him personally — and in turn, creatively. His long-awaited fourth album, Seeker (out October 25 via Merge), was both informed and delayed by relationship turbulence, depression, getting priced out of San Francisco, and myriad other early thirties lifestyle changes that culminated into a frustrating bout of writer’s block, a condition that’s rare within his ceaselessly productive community.
“Each record is kind of like a purge of a creative idea,” the soft-spoken Cronin said during a phone call with MTV News. “So after that last big idea, things weren’t coming together as well. I was having a hard time writing. Depression kind of makes it hard to write and also makes it hard to be happy with anything you’re creating. And not being creative kind of leads to getting depressed for me, because that’s my main thing.”
After MCIII, the most maximalist of his three-album run of sprightly, psych-y power-pop, Cronin knew that he wanted to switch up his approach. Although he appreciates the Pet Sounds-esque contrast between chipper songs and gloomy lyrics, he felt that it was time for him to explore a darker sound altogether. “There’s been some dark years, [so] it kind of made sense,” he said. “Honestly, the years just flew by. Life keeps on happening and tours kind of speed up time it seems… If you don’t pay attention, all of the sudden, it’s next year, and you feel like you haven’t made too much progress creatively, or in life and stuff.”
That bewilderment with the speed of life, and how difficult it is to make sense of experiences when the present rapidly becomes the past, is a major through-line on Seeker. “I took the long way round the side road / Leaving time to look around / I even got a good impression / And got the hell out of this town,” he sings during the stormy opening track, “Shelter.” The portion of that line about leaving “this town” is both metaphorical and literal. In one sense, Cronin’s transplant to L.A. and his decision to quit drinking yielded a fresh perspective on life. But Cronin also physically confined himself to a cabin in rural California for a creative retreat that spurred most of the record.
“It was definitely an experiment,” he said. “I was very worried about not getting anything done but it turned out well, I got a lot done. Just getting away from distractions.”
With just his cat and a boatload of demo equipment, Cronin spent nearly a month up in the mountains of Idyllwild just peacefully writing and self-recording the bulk of Seeker. The plan was to spend four full weeks working diligently, but a massive wildfire ended up cutting his trip a few days short.
“Three-and-a-half weeks in, I woke up one morning and the sky was orange and filled with smoke,” he said. “And then I saw the flames coming up over the ridge. It had been a really intense fire season for California, there were some pretty devastating fires. This one was an arsonist who started the fire in Idyllwild, which is insane… It was kind of amazing and dramatic when it happened. But I just had to quickly pack up my studio of demo gear and grab my cat and went home.”
“I didn’t have to jump out of the second story window to avoid the flames or anything like that,” he continued. “But it felt pretty fucking close.”
Once Cronin returned to L.A., he became obsessed with the idea of fire, specifically the reconstructive qualities of such a destructive phenomenon. He began to see the tumult, and subsequent reconfiguration, of his own life in the flicker of the proverbial flames.
“Like, [fire’s] natural place in the world as far as a cleansing process, like a forest or shrubbery,” he said. “It naturally catches aflame and drops its seeds and starts over again. The parallel of destructive, hectic turbulent life things — it just seemed like the metaphor was there. I could see the parallels between a forest fire and just living out my late twenties, early thirties.”
In the ashes of his artistic awakening, he decided to bring the most dependable constant of those whirlwind years onto the record: the Freedom Band. Unlike his previous solo records, for which he played nearly every instrument, he had the band he’s been touring with for years (which includes Segall on bass) and a handful of other California musicians join him in the studio to live-track the full record. As a result, Seeker sounds significantly grander, richer, and more instrumentally colorful than any of his previous releases — while also retaining the intended murkiness. And because of the unspoken musical chemistry they developed while playing Segall’s songs, the actual recording process was incredibly smooth.
“We play so well together that it was going to be the easiest transition. It’s pretty different music, style-wise. But they’re very flexible as a band and as musicians in general so I knew it would be a good fit,” he said. “And they killed it, they did a really great job. I’m lucky to have those people around to work with and play with.”
He remarked that just being in the same proximity as someone as prolific as Segall was inspirational in and of itself. “Ty and Dwyer, they write so fast and they work so fast. They just get things out there. And a lot of my other friends are actively recording and releasing records, too.”
“It definitely lights a fire under your ass to have friends like that,” he added, fire evidently still on his mind. After escaping a mighty blaze in the woods and harnessing that power into his latest music, how could it not be?