Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin wanted to call their first high school band Love. They were both 15 years old, playing house parties around Laguna Beach, with Segall on drums and Cronin blowing sax. After recording a demo album called This, "we went to a local record store," Segall recalls, "and they were like, 'You know there's already a band called Love, right?' And we were like, 'Yeah man, we're ... Love This.' It's a totally silly name, but we kept it because we were so embarrassed. And, of course, now I think Love's Forever Changes is the best record ever. But we were 15. We had no idea."
Love This, despite its name, was the start of a long and very productive friendship between Segall and Cronin, both Laguna Beach natives who are now stalwarts on the San Francisco garage-pop scene. The two have worked together almost constantly ever since high school, on solo projects as well as joint albums, and they both display a deep knowledge of West Coast pop music, from the paranoid psych-pop of Love in Los Angeles to the short, sharp attack of the Minutemen in San Diego to the weirder, harder excursions of Crime (self-billed as "San Francisco's first and only punk band"). And, like most of their Fog City peers, Cronin and Segall have developed distinctive means of updating pop history to the present, looking well beyond their record collections to make music that is urgent and lively and almost defiantly pitched to the present.
Of the two artists, Segall is the better known, with four albums on three labels — including Memphis' Goner — in three years, not to mention a handful of seven-inch singles. He started in the mid-2000s as a one-man garage band, pounding out brashly catchy Nuggets-derived tunes on a battered guitar and duct-taped kickdrum. On Goodbye Bread, his latest and arguably best album, Segall made a conscious decision to get away from that lower-fi sound.
"I really wanted to focus on making it sound as good as it could," he says. "In the past, I've done a lot of shortcuts and rushed stuff and not had the best gear, so the whole idea behind this record was to take as long as possible to make it sound as clean as possible."
While it doesn't sound quite as fried or as frantic as previous albums, Goodbye Bread emphasizes Segall's facility with melody and lyrics, two elements that had previously been obscured by distortion.
"I've always felt lacking in the lyrics department, so I wanted to make them better," he explains, noting that the album has made his live shows much more exciting to play — and hopefully to watch as well. "Our show used to be more straightforward rock-and-roll, but these new songs give it a different dynamic. There's a little more space to go up and down in a set, a little bit more breathing room."
If Segall has developed his style over several releases, Mikal Cronin seems to have arrived fully formed on his eponymous debut, out this month on the Chicago-based label Trouble in Mind. Taking San Francisco's lo-fi garage-pop sound as a jumping-off point, Cronin — who plays bass in Segall's touring band — writes relentlessly hooky songs that have more in common with Brian Wilson or the Beatles than Arthur Lee or Syd Barrett. "What's so cool about Mikal is that he really understands how songs are written," Segall says. "He can say, 'I want to write this kind of song.' And then he does it! That's really insane."
In between short tours with his band the Moonhearts, Cronin began recording the album while a student at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, but while that process may have been academic, his approach to pop history is anything but. "I thought of it as my senior thesis," says Cronin, who graduated earlier this year. "That's how I justified spending so much time traveling up to San Francisco to record it." He made that six-hour drive numerous times while recording Mikal Cronin, which he says was "a pain in the ass" but worth it to enjoy the creativity and camaraderie of the San Francisco scene. "There's a big gap between Los Angeles and San Francisco, both socially and culturally," he says. "But I still felt connected up here."
Segall and Cronin are transplants to San Francisco, yet both feel like a big part of the city's musical community, which includes acts as diverse as Sic Alps, Thee Oh Sees, Grass Widow, and the Fresh & Onlys. "There's a pretty close-knit feel in the city, where everybody's helping each other out, playing on each other's records, bouncing ideas off one another," Segall says. "People aren't hiding their music or acting exclusive in any way."
Cronin agrees: "I've been living in Los Angeles for the last three years, and there's not a sense of community down there. But in San Francisco, you can go to a show and recognize people from 10 different bands in the crowd. Everybody is supportive of whatever anybody else is doing. I've been really influenced by what Thee Oh Sees and Grass Widow and Ty are doing."
Cronin only moved to San Francisco permanently a few weeks ago, leaving his records and equipment back in Los Angeles. The irony is that just a few days after moving in, he and Segall struck out on a joint tour. "I've decided to come back from this tour and just live in this city for a solid month without going anywhere," Cronin says.
Gonerfest 8 runs from Thursday, September 22nd, through Sunday, September 25th, at the Hi-Tone Café and other Midtown locations. See gonerfest.com for a full schedule and the Flyer's pop-culture blog, Sing All Kinds, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/singallkinds for additional coverage.
Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin
Thursday, September 22nd
9 p.m.; $20