On the eve of San Franciscan garage rockers Sic Alps’ fifth but first self-titled record, we minced words with Mike Donovan – band founder, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. We talked about the band’s friendlier album and new line-up, Ty Segall’s incestuous relationship with the city of San Fran, Obama’s effect on the spirit of protest, Pete Townsend’s narrative chops, and the perks of being a mumbler.
So I’m always curious when a band releases a self-titled album after years of being together. What made you decide to go self-titled – did you run out of names, or does this feel more like the real band?
No name was really jumping out at me, but also it was a chance to start fresh. Dan from Drag City was joking that we should call it Velvet Underground’s Third Record, which is pretty funny, after I name-checked it at least twice. But he also told me the story of Royal Trux – they did it twice on Drag City! The first and the third record – technically the first one’s self-titled and the third one’s untitled. So there’s kind of a difference. But yeah, it’s kind of a chance to do something different, start fresh.
What’s fresh about the new self-titled, compared to your other records?
Well, it’s the first one we’ve done in a studio, which wasn’t a huge jump because it’s my friend Eric’s studio, and we’re old friends so I spend a lot of time there anyway.
Where did you record before?
At home, with an 8-track in the basement. Sic Alps was always, like, a home project…sometimes recorded in Eric’s home too.
Guess that was a smooth transition at least. What made you decide to go to the studio? Were you looking for something more clean or commercial – easier to translate, easier to hear?
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely less challenging. We constantly say that we’re trying to challenge ourselves and not challenge our listeners as much. Sometimes I think we put things out there that make people maybe wonder why we did it. So all of the experimental energy went into a 7” called Vedley that came out, and that’s kind of the appendix of the self-titled record, more of a noise production.
So who’s a part of your line-up now and how did you guys get together? I know a lot of it’s new…
Well, there’s Douglas [Armour] on drums, and Tim Hellman on bass. Tim’s in a band called Wet Illustrated. And Barrett Abner, he’s playing guitar. Tim and Douglas would have been on the last two tours, and Barrett was on the last one, so it’s a pretty new band. Noel [von Harmonson] has been with the band since 2009. He’s still in the band, but he’s not touring with us at the moment.
I met Douglas in Washington D.C. in 1995. We were playing in bands together in the D.C. area, so we’ve been friends forever. And then Noel was in the same music scene in San Francisco – the scene from 2001-2003, which was a real vibrant scene back then. So we knew each other then, we were roommates in 2004. And then Tim, we were both playing in Ty Segall’s band for a minute, and then we had a really short-lived Big Star cover band. Barrett, the newest member, was playing in Sun Araw, and we played a few shows with them, so that’s how I met him.
Barrett was kind of a leap of faith, in a way. He’s a really good, super-amazing guitarist…a lot younger than us. Tim’s 29, Barrett’s 25, Douglas is 36, and I’m 40. So he’s the young fellow of the band, and it was kind of a stretch, but man, he’s super good.
Why did your line-up change up?
Well, the only people that were in the band that aren’t in the band now are Ty Segall, and he was only in the band for like a year. He’s now busy, so…
[Laughs] Yeah, a little bit.
Yeah, just a little bit, so he’s got a schedule to attend to, and Matt Hartmond was in the band until March 2011…and then he left.
Amidst a veil of mystery?
[Laughs] Yeah, totally. It was very mysterious, the circumstances surrounding his departure.
We’ll leave that legend alone. You know, every artist I talk to is related in some way to Ty Segall. It’s like some weird incestuous family where Ty is everyone’s cousin…
What was the name of the cousin from Brady Bunch? Oliver? Ty’s like the Oliver – everyone knows him. He definitely does a lot of collaborations.
Gets around like a virus, in a good way.
True, [laughs], a virus you want.
So, you’ve been going at this band for a long time – eight years now. How do you maintain your stamina and your creativity? How do you keep yourself inspired?
Yeah, that’s the thing, cause as you keep going, your inspiration is the hard part. Like Terry Gilliam says, it’s so fucking hard to be a 70 year-old kid. Cause he’s suck a freak, just using his imagination constantly, and then you get to be 70, and though I’m not 70 yet, it’s hard to keep fresh.
But you know, I’m a novice. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I still haven’t figured it out. I really don’t know how to copy and make something out of what exists already, I kind of have to do it in this broken way. So I’m still figuring it out, and the results are pretty decent.
Do you think there’s a danger of you actually figuring it all out one day?
Yeah, then I’ll just start writing books.
So you put out a cassette before everyone was putting out cassettes, and you’ve been playing garage rock long before that became the huge thing it is now…do you feel like you’ve been ahead of the game on this nostalgia train?
Well, I mean, definitely when we started, it was 2004, there weren’t a lot of bands or music I saw that were akin to what we were doing, whether that was garage music or lo-fi music or indie music or something.
In a way, I feel like we’re different than bands that started in the last few years because our perspective is different, you know? We started in the Bush era, and things were fucked…in a different way. Things are pretty fucked now, but coming out of the early 2000s, rock and roll kind of ate it. And back then there wasn’t much of a community here.
Do you feel like the atmosphere in our country has really changed that much since the early 2000s, and what do you think has changed specifically?
Yeah, it definitely has. No one wants to say it, but Barack Obama being president totally took the steam out of any sort of protest movement that was happening in America. He’s a big change for the environment of, at least, protest in America.
For better or for worse?
For worse, well, just in terms of people who might want to say, ‘I don’t want to do this fucking American dream bullshit, I want to stand up and make something happen.’ Not that I’m going to do that or you’re going to do that, but the feeling to do that is, like, ebbing. That’s just what I see, cause I’m really not involved in anything like that.
Now that we’re talking politics, is the music you make an effort to relating something to your audience? How much do you consider your audience, and how much of a message do you try to build into your lyrics?
If people are listening to the lyrics, that’s great, and I definitely put a lot of thought and energy into them and work them out over time, but it’s definitely one of those things where, you know…some things are best left unsaid. So a lot of the lyrics are alluding to something that’s not actually there or implicitly written down. A lot of the relationship I have with potential Sic Alps fans isn’t on a lyrical basis, it’s kind of invisible, unspoken. I think that’s the good thing about making the kind of lyrics that aren’t easy to figure out, maybe, because there’s lots of room for interpretation.
And it would definitely be harder for me to write a song that has a narrative arch or something like that. In terms of goals, I would love to be able to write a song like that. I’ve tried to do it before, but…some people just have a knack for it, putting things in order. My music is definitely a bit more…what’s the word…sketchy in terms of subject matter. It’s never quite clear what’s going.
What are some of your favorite narrative songs?
All of Pete Townsend’s songs. Of course, he tried to push himself harder to make whole albums, like the story of Tommy, but even the early stuff right out the gate, like “Happy Jack” and “I’m a Boy”.
Do you think you could ever make a concept album like Tommy?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Maybe I could…I might have the subject matter. I’ll see about it next time. I don’t want to give it away.
So if it’s not about telling a story right now, how does your songwriting process work? Did you do anything new for this album?
It’s pretty much the same, which is at home I’ll just pick up the guitar and then just mumble something into a tape recorder. I figured out when I wrote “Semi-streets,” one of the first Sic Alps songs, that a good way to write songs is to do that and then pay really close attention to what happened on the tape, keep going back to the tape and going back to the tape and paying attention to the unique things that happened in the moment.
It’s all about listening to the way your mouth pronounces a word, and the lyrics will come later. And a lot of times they’ll fit phonetically exactly the same. So the first line in “The First White Man to Touch California Soil,” on the last record, is: “Me and all the mates are sailing on,” and on the tape it sounds just like that, but I wasn’t saying that at all. I was like, “Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah,” but if you listen you can hear I’m kind of saying that, but I’m not saying those words.
So the lyrics are the last step for you?
It’s true. A lot of people do it that way, and I used to do it the opposite way, which is write a poem or what have you. But I just found that, you know, the first ten years I was writing songs, I would get the song and then just suck the life out of it by playing it over and over again in my apartment, until the time, a couple years later, when I would think, ‘God, you know, that song’s just kind of bland.’
It’s sort of frantically listening to what you did when you were inspired, and that one moment keeps you inspired for the week, the month, you know? There’s a lot going on on the tape.
As you listen to the tape and continue to work on the songs, are you trying to keep that sense of improvisation or are you sort of polishing them out as you go?
You’re polishing them out, but ultimately a lot more idiosyncratic stuff is going to happen when you try to make a song out of it with some other dudes. Cause you know, someone’s going to play the drums – it might be me, but probably not. Someone’s going to put a lot of what’s going on with them into it.
Where does your band come into the process? For the last leg?
Yeah, I mean usually we’ll get into the studio and I’ll put down an acoustic and then maybe a vocal, and then basically I’m like, ‘I think you’ve got the idea now, what do you want to do?’ And someone hears something, and we try it out…it’s kind of democratic. Or like a Quaker meeting [laughs]. Someone says something really informative and then sits down.
Are any of the songs off the new record just you, or do they all have band involvement?
Actually, not one of them is completely me, I don’t think…In the song “Drink Up,” I’m playing both drum kits, so it’s sort of like two versions of the song combined. If you turn the speakers to the left, everything I did at home, as a home recording, is to the left, and then if you turn up the right, everything we did in the studio is there. But Douglas the drummer came in there and put in some of the cool things, like that tap-tap- tap at the end, which just makes the song for me – it’s so amazing!
Sic Alps' self-titled album is out now on Drag City.