RNRG talks to the L.A. power pop tunesmith about his new album
The freakishly catchy, fuzz-dripping power-pop wizardry that punk outsider Mike Krol has been shredding out since 2011 is next-level greatness. The L.A.-based Krol’s epically gnarly trifecta of I Hate Jazz (’11), Trust Fund (’13) and Turkey (’15) sits atop “the best records you’ve probably never heard” lists: treasure troves of the tastiest of hooks and earworm’y melodies on par with Guided by Voices, Superchunk, Buzzcocks and that ilk.
Krol calls those three records his trilogy that had all this in common: short, one-minute-and-change rippers long on hooks and snotty, heart-on-tattered-sleeve speak-shrieks buried in noise and recorded in glorious lo-fi.
After going full-on with shits ‘n’ giggles-type shtick for Turkey and its subsequent tour (donning cop costumes on stage wasn’t the best idea, he admits) that only he and his friends were in on the inside jokes, Krol performed to near-empty venues and, as a result, he thought about quitting music and returning to his graphic design career full-time.
Thankfully, Krol soldiered on. He wound up reassessing his approach and it’s paying off big time. On Power Chords (Merge), released this past February and, arguably, his best record to date, Krol is older and wiser and “playing the game,” as he says. The songs are longer, the production a bit more polished, he’s making less goofy videos, and his unapologetic love for Weezer and the Strokes is front and center. He still hasn’t latched on to any “scene” plus Power Chords is no sell-out: his trademark fuzz-coated anthemry remains as earth-scorching as ever. It’s also resonating with audiences as Krol just played to sold out and enthusiastic crowds on his recently wrapped up U.S. and European tours.
The Globe caught up with Krol before his gig at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade to talk tons of stuff including, his missteps, reinventing his approach for Power Chords and how his girlfriend, Allison Crutchfield of Swearin,’ has inspired him. Krol and Crutchfield’s musical partnership is continuing this summer, too. It was just announced that Swearin’ will be heading out on a summer tour with Krol supporting as the opening act on a host of dates. Check them out here in a town near you in July and August.
Let’s start with Power Chords. Did you put more into the production process on this one as opposed to previous records like Turkey?
This record [Power Chords] was totally different. Turkey was recorded and mixed in four days and we did everything to tape and really fast and (I) wanted to have it sound that way. This one, I wanted it to sound more full and fancy or expensive, if you will.
It still sounds pretty lo-fi.
Totally. I think the idea was to have it still sound lo-fi in vibe and execution but the way in which it’s recorded and mixed might be a little bit more hi-fi.
Did you play everything yourself on Power Chords? Allison Crutchfield guests on it, right?
I played everything but bass. Allison sang some backing vocals and then she played some piano on one part on one song and then my friend Sean (Lango), who plays guitar when we play live, played bass on everything. I play everything and I demo everything myself and when we go into the studio, I just want to have, at least, the bass and the drums playing together so that there’s some locked cohesion. So, I get someone else to play the bass but everything else I play.
What actually changed aesthetically from Turkey to Power Chords?
I took the feedback that people gave me on Turkey and my other records and I tried to write longer songs, I tried to write a longer album and make a product that seemed more like I’m “going for it.” This is a real production. After Turkey, I felt like I was at a place where I was starting over a little bit. In many ways I think that was great, it was helpful. I had done three records with the same crew of people around me and I felt like I explored that sound as much as I could and those sorts of techniques of home recording or doing stuff a little bit more lo-fi. I wanted to challenge myself and do something different. So I worked with this producer, Mike McCarthy, who’s most known for Spoon and he did some stuff for Trail of Dead and some other popular bands. He’s known as being a stickler and a guy who’s got a really strong gut—he tells it like is. I knew I wanted to work with someone like that because the past three records I had drove the ship. While I like how they sound, I wanted to see how something would sound if someone else took the wheel a little bit.
It seems like it’s more of a concerted effort on your part to streamline things a bit and put more thought into the process.
Totally, and I think these (live) shows are proof that it’s paying off. It’s funny because we’ll play these shows and we’re bookending the set where we start with side A of the new record then in the middle we do a “greatest hits” medley of the other records and then end it with side B of the new record. In my mind I was thinking like, “There won’t be a lot of people maybe at the beginning and then by the middle of the set there will be a good amount of people and that’s when we’ll play the ‘hits.’” It’s weird because these shows that were playing, people are getting really excited for the new album’s songs and then I’ll come in with like the old albums songs and they’ll not known them. I think that this album, whether it’s an introduction or that people dismissed my other records or this (new) record just got more press, it’s proof at least that I think changing up what I’ve been doing helped.
VIDEO: Mike Krol – Live at The Bootleg Theater 2/16/2019
You seem to be playing it straight now. Before you did hilarious but goofy videos and dressed up in cop garb when you toured for Turkey.
I was really trying hard on Turkey to do things unconventional and to purposely be like, “This is my chance to show people you can have a music video where you don’t have to be in it.” I’d seen this happen with so many other bands where they try really hard to play the game and it just looks lame and especially when it fails, it looks really lame. So, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to play the game. I’m gonna do something smarter.” Then in the process, maybe, I think it just got lost. People didn’t get it, you know (laughing)? So, with this one I was like “I’m going to play the game. I’m gonna make a music video where I’m in it, I wanna to do a proper press cycle and I’m gonna release singles gradually over time.” Basically, I took all the feedback and all that I knew about rock and roll knowledge and band stuff and said, “This is my album that I’m gonna try on.”
So, your shtick of you and your band dressing like cops on the Turkey tour, you’re done with that?
That was a misstep. It was just poor timing. In my mind, I thought, “No one’s going to think about that stuff.” People who know me know this is just me being funny or not trying to take myself so seriously and to try to be smart about it. But, I think for people who don’t know me, which is most of the world, it’s a barrier where they’re like “Why are these guys dressed up cops? I don’t get it. It’s too clever.” Sometimes you just need something that’s really accessible to the public.
You actually getting signed to Merge is a great story. You got your music in the hands of Tom Scharpling at WFMU and he hooked you up.
He basically said to me, “I know Mac at Merge” and he also said either Gerard or Chris at Matador. But Tom said they are gonna wanna hear something new so next time I record something get it to Tom and he’ll get it to them.” That was the catalyst, the impetus for me wanting to do Turkey. When Tom told me that, I literally (snaps his fingers) said “I’m gonna get you something new!” So, we went in and I wrote songs and recorded songs as fast as I could.
So, you didn’t have one thing written for Turkey at that point yet?
I had some starts, but no one wanted to put out my record, no one wanted to see me play. There was no rush until Tom was like “If you get me something, I’ll get it to these people.” Then there was a rush and I recorded really fast and I gave it to Tom immediately and he sent it to them. He was a man of his word—he sent it to Mac and he sent it to Matador.
How much of what ultimately came out on Turkey did you send Tom?
I sent him the whole record, yeah, all of Turkey. That was it, that’s the record which came out.
Did you go back and kind of clean it up eventually for its official release?
Nope. That was it. I knew I wanted to do a record like that and I went into it thinking, “Well, if no one releases it then at least I wanted to do a record like this and I’d have my next record finished. So I’m just gonna do it and see if something works and if something doesn’t then I’ll just put it out myself.” The whole time I thought there’s a very good chance I’ll put this out myself. I didn’t think it would actually work [that Merge would put it out].
Then sometime after Turkey, Merge reissued your first two records, Trust Fund and I Hate Jazz, in one package.
I wanted to do that the whole time. My goal, always, was to self-release those records and at some point get a record label logo on them somewhere and do what Merge did: do some sort of set. I was thinking about those records, even with Turkey, as a trilogy because they’re all kind of short and maybe trying to document a good period of my life. I felt like those three together made one record—in length (laughs). I wanted them to come out as a set.
On tour, you’re playing a song by The Strokes and you’ve been compared to them, as well as Weezer.
Those are stranded desert island records for me. Weezer Blue Album and The Strokes’ first album—I think those albums are fantastic.
And there’s a Strokes-like vibe on Power Chords.
Oh, yeah, for sure. Part of the process with this new album was, like I said, going back and reexamining what got me excited about music in the first place. I grew up listening to punk and stuff but the CD that really impacted me was the Blue Album by Weezer. That was the first time where I saw a band that looked like normal people and that had such an effect on me. Nirvana was the other band. I love Nirvana but to me Kurt Cobain, that’s not me, I’m not that type of person. I’m not going to grow my hair long, I’m not going to sing songs about scary stuff or have like weird music videos.” Weezer, to me, represented like, “Oh, I can do this, too. I can be a normal person who likes Star Wars or something.” So, Weezer was that and then I got into punk stuff but it wasn’t until the Strokes kind of hit. They hit when I was a senior in in high school. That’s what made me go to school in New York City was hearing the Strokes and getting turned on to this music scene that was happening in New York at the time and thinking, “Oh, there’s like something happening here.” That record, in the same way that Weezer was like visually, I was like, “Oh, I can be a normal person.” The way that the Strokes record sounded to me was an example that you can have a record that sounds not like the punk music that I was maybe listening to, like Rancid or kind of like mall punk because (you) want everything to sound good, like the goal in recording was always like you got to sound good. And not to say that the Strokes goal was to sound bad but that just having a record that sounded accessible and sounded like a little bit like it was more lo- fi, recorded not in a million-dollar studio, to me, was another big important moment for me. Instantly, it was like, “I like this better. This sounds better to me.” It just sounds more real, you know? Then I shifted in that direction and found more indie music or just more punk music that was less mainstream.
When did you move to L.A.?
2011, right before I Hate Jazz came out. I’d recorded I Hate Jazz while I was living in Connecticut but it wasn’t back from the record pressing plant until I was in Los Angeles. But I finished it while I was still living out here (on the east coast).
Do you feel like you’re still not part of a scene in SoCal?
Yeah, I definitely feel like I’m not part of a scene in California. But I do think having Alison on my team, she’s introduced me to all her scene and now that seems kind of become my scene a little bit by default, so it’s helped a bunch. I feel like I’m finding the right people.
I follow you on Instagram and it seems like your outlook is super-positive on this cycle and you are grateful for people showing up to your shows. Also Allison Crutchfield, your girlfriend, is in your band and both of you seem really happy. Allison is in Swearin’ so I imagine you take notes from her experiences being in her own successful band.
She definitely helps. She’s like my invisible manager, for sure. She’s just helped everything so much. I’m very thankful for having her in my life, for my career and for my personal life. I’m very happy. So, yeah, I’m in a good spot.
VIDEO: Mike Krol – What’s the Rhythm