Going to a horse race with Sic Alps

Sjimon Gompers

Betting on games is hard business. Photos in 35mm shot by Jenz

Sic Alps joined me for an afternoon at
Golden Gate Fields to bet on some horses, talk about the lo-fi conundrum, and consider San Francisco's past, present and future music scenes, while I struggled to find an overarching
theme for our outing at the tracks.

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Anyone care to weigh in on any equestrian metaphors for
horse-racing or betting?

MATT: There are none… that I can think of.

MIKE: Um, good question. I don’t know. There’s a lyric on
one of our records about a horse but it’s really not about our band.

How has the progression from Pleasure Treasures been, from
noise outings to turning towards a more song-oriented craft on Napa Asylum?

MIKE: Well, the first one we were putting together a record.
Matt helped put together the record that Adam and I had made with the
Hospitals. It was a lot of songs that weren’t quite making it, but we made them
work through the production, and let the production come through. That was how
we started, and it was something that worked. So we tried to stick with it
somewhat.

MATT: I think it’s still a part of the band’s sound, for
sure. I don’t think that’s gonna go away. I think there are cuts from the new
album that could easily be on Pleasures and Treasures. There’s not as many, but
I guess you can’t help but want to develop in some direction instead of
repeating yourself, and we have been leaning in a song craft direction, I
suppose. But I’m pretty keen to keep a number of damaged, dirty, unhinged kind
of vibes as well. I don’t have any intentions of being in any kind of
straight-laced pop group any time soon.

As you shouldn’t.

MATT: Yeah, I mean, as long as I’m in the group some element
of that will stay in the mix.

What other sounds are you delving into now?

MIKE: Well, we’ve been doing some stuff now with keyboard.

MATT: It’s not terribly conscious though… I mean, it’s the
same as ever, it’s like, here’s an idea for a song, what do we do now? It’s a
process that happens kind of naturally. Mike was talking about a track on the
new record with pungent keyboard, which came to me in the process of recording
the song, where we’re building…we’re building…it’s like, this is some good
brown sugar cookie dough. Chocolate chip tastes pretty good on that. Maybe a
walnut. Naw, I don’t want walnuts, what about a praline? Fuck it, let’s leave it
like it is…

MIKE: Can you use a horse metaphor?

MATT: Or put some horsemeat on it. Hmmm, who knew? Who knew
that a brown sugar chocolate cookie would taste good with horsemeat? But it
does. Does that mean we’re going to put horsemeat on every cookie we make? Not
necessarily. We might put it on a couple more. I don’t know if that would spell
a trend.

Where does one go to get horsemeat in the states these days?

MIKE: Divisadero and Hayes.

MATT: Chinatown. You have to go into Chinatown. Go to a
butcher, then back through the back exit to another butcher…

NOEL: I go to YouTube.

Noel, you seem to have a background with keyboards and effects.
How does that carry over with your role in Sic Alps?

NOEL: I don’t do any of that stuff in Sic Alps.

MATT: Some of that stuff for that Norwegian comp where you
were tracking drums. It was live I think. I was in the studio twiddling, Mike
was playing guitar. No, wait, Noel was playing guitar.

MIKE: That first sound on “First White Man to Touch
California Soil” was Noel’s guitar all dubbed out.

NOEL: But to answer your question, no, I’m not bringing a
lot of stuff that I’ve done previously to Sic Alps…yet. But like Matt said, our
cookies have not called for horsemeat or foie gras yet. Naw, I wouldn’t call it
foie gras or rotten brie, but maybe that time will come and I can dose it. But
I’m kinda trying to play the utilitarian rule of… what can I add to this? Drums
and bass guitar. I think how we roll is who is best set to contribute what
portion to the song.

MIKE: In that moment.

NOEL: Yeah, in that moment.

How has it been expanding? Because for two years you guys
were playing as a two-piece set, right?

MIKE: Yeah, most of the time it was a two-piece, yeah.

MATT: Sort of with this idea in the back of our minds that
it would probably work better as a three-piece. Particularly live, because in the
studio you can wear a lot of hats and no one can be the wiser. But then you go
to the live scenario…

MIKE: Tell him what you read about “Helter Skelter.”

MATT: Oh yeah, a quick tangent. I just learned that there’s
this book Recording the Beatles. 582 pages, deluxe, every nerdy, trivial, what
the hell, what kind of limiters they used, the five types of homemade recording
desks that they had…two thirds of the book is just the listing of equipment.

Provided by George Martin or what?

MATT: It’s, like, ten years of research went into this book
or something. Lots of pictures, a lot about their homemade equipment, EQs and
stuff and all these weird little stories. Like the Beatles were pretty pissed
that EMI only had a four track studio and the Stones and loads of other people
at Olympic and Trident were able to use eight tracks long before the Beatles
were, so the Beatles felt stymied. So around the White Album they did some
recordings at Trident. But anyway, I’m going way off. but they got little
things that you never thought were true, like John Lennon plays bass guitar on
“Helter Skelter” and it’s George Harrison and McCartney on guitars. You would
think Paul McCartney, ‘cause he’s the bassist and it’s a wicked bass line,
but no, it’s John Lennon. [Ed: Although he usually played guitar, Harrison frequently contributed bass parts for McCartney's songs] Paul McCartney plays the guitar solo on “Taxman.” Who
knew? It’s that kind of thing. So at any given moment, Matt’s playing the
drums, I’m playing the drums, or Noel’s playing the drums. It all depends on
who has the idea or the inspiration at the time that we’re working on a song.

I had always thought George Harrison played the guitar on
“Taxman” for the longest time.

MATT AND THE BAND: Until now!

MATT: And you know, apparently I’m not a Gemini. I’m a
Taurus. [Ed: Last month, Ophiuchus was introduced as the thirteenth sign of the zodiac, changing the dates by which astrological signs are determined and altering many people's horoscopes.]

I’m a Sagittarius and hell, I was a Capricorn for years.

NOEL: Wait, if I thought I was a Taurus, what am I now?

MATT: You’re an Aries.

NOEL: Fuck…really?

MATT: …and you’re a Virgo.

MIKE: Fuck that.

MATT: You see, I don’t think any of that stuff works.

NOEL: At least I’m not a Scorpio.

MATT: I always thought that astrology was just based on a
personality study anyway, it had little to do with constellations and the stars.
It’s like, when were you born. So you are a Gemini, so you are like this. But
it’s all observation, it’s not a top-down thing. That’s my theory on astrology.

Yeah, a total pseudoscience.

MATT: It’s more a catalogue of personality disorders,
really, that are observed but not, what is it, divination? Coming from up
there, down, I’m not sure of the word. Anyhow, it’s coincidence.

MIKE: I can’t remember what question we were answering there.

We were talking about being a two-piece expanding to a
three-piece.

MIKE: Oh yeah! When we sit down in the studio, anybody can
do anything. It’s very democratic. It’s all who has the best idea in that
moment.

NOEL: And listening back for me, it’s confusing to be, like,
I don’t know if I played drums on this track. I don’t know if I played anything
on this song, you know? But that’s kinda cool. That’s how it is. The song made
it through the grinders.

MIKE: You did have that great gong kick on “Meter Man.”

NOEL: Thanks for reminding me. And I hit a snare once on the
“First White Man on California Soil,” that’s it! That’s it. But I’m cut in
one-third.

MATT: He gets t-shirt money, so… [Laughter]

NOEL: Wanna buy a shirt?

MATT: Richie Ramone never got any t-shirt money. That’s why
he quit. The short-lived replacement for Marky. Marky quit then they got Richie
Ramone, but they wouldn’t give him any t-shirt money. He said, “I get no
t-shirt money? Fuck that, I’m out of here.” Let‘s see, what other bands can we
talk about?

I read a bizarre interview with you guys from
Spoonfed.co.uk…

MATT: I’ve never seen this.

MIKE: Did they mention “hot dogging” or something like that?

Yes!

MIKE: That’s funny because they said something about us
enlightening them to what “hot dogging” was, ‘cause I was talking about guitar
solo-ing and they were talking about putting your penis in someone’s butt
cheeks. Wondering what’s on their mind, quite frankly. [Ed: Nice pun.]

MATT: That makes a little more sense, pictographically. Now
I can understand what they’re talking about.

MIKE: But they used some sort of online urban dictionary. I
think it’s very telling what those guys are thinking about.

MATT: I don’t think they listen to us actually.

MIKE: I think they spend too much time “hot-dogging” it.

NOEL: So you wanted to know the sexual process of recording?

Ah, no, not at all.

NOEL: Okay, well, let’s move on!

So back to the music. You’ve been doing the lo-fi… [a horse
jockey begins to play the Star Wars theme on a trumpet before the race]

NOEL: Sorry, he’s playing the Star Wars theme.

MATT: We got to pause for the Star Wars theme. All rise for
the Star Wars theme.

MIKE: Ah, this part is so good.

MATT: You know Vader is coming now man. Watch out dude,
there’s gonna be an epic battle.

MIKE: Death Star is rising…

MATT: [Referring to the colors represented by the race horses] So are we gonna go with the red light saber, white
light saber, blue, green light saber… oooh, I like the black light saber!

MIKE: I think the lo-fi thing was, like, when we were first
getting this band happening, not too many bands were doing that kind of thing.
But then Times New Viking was in Columbus and I had heard about them through a
friend’s connection through Ron Enbom from Eat Skull and it seemed like those
were the other people who were doing something similar at the time. And I think
that those guys are similar to the way that we are now, but I think that there
is a love and reason why they do it and that’s why they continue to do it in
that way. Even if Times New Viking went into the studio and they recorded very
clean they would probably…

MATT: …wouldn’t make it sound so high fidelity.

MIKE: Make it brash and abrasive somehow. But initially it
was out of necessity and then it just kind of became the way we wanted to sound
I guess, you know?

MATT: For me it’s a comparative question. It’s lo-fi
compared to what? Yeah, we’re lo-fi compared to the latest Kanye West record,
but is that a good thing? I mean, I listen to Sgt. Pepper's and that strikes me
as a low fidelity record compared to what you get today. Everything auto-tuned
and super crispy, digital clean. It’s like listening to a fucking floor that
was just waxed. I mean, it’s not terribly interesting to my ears.

MIKE: And then there’s a different fidelity that people
listen to things on….like, if you’re listening to Kanye West on your computer
speakers it’s WAY different than…

NOEL: …listening to it on your iPod speakers.

MIKE: Or on really nice ‘70s speakers turned up really loud.
Take a lo-fi record and it sounds amazing in your apartment if your turn it up
on old speakers.

NOEL: And it boils down to the spirit of rock 'n’ roll, you
know? It’s kind of trashy, it’s not too polished, there are imperfections and
you key in on imperfections and you fuckin’ turn that imperfection all the way
up, as loud as it goes in the right sized speaker. It’s disrespectful to the
audiophile community but it’s deliberate as well.

I would think that it is also very liberating for the artist
as well.

NOEL: Absolutely, and that’s the fun of it too. Why not?

MATT: We wanna do what we wanna do, we wanna play what we
wanna play, we wanna get loaded. We wanna have good time, we’re gonna have a
party.

MATT: Yeah, it’s curious to me, the continuing concept of
lo-fi as this musical movement. And maybe it is, I don’t know.

But lo-fi in itself is such a catch-all term.

MATT: Yeah, I think it’s contextual.

It’s a nebulous cloud that has beneath it these other buzz
trend attachments like chillwavers, and now we have rape gaze and then it gets
more insidious…

MATT: Which is always someone just saying something
flippant. It’s almost the same thing with “shitgaze.” It’s someone that says
something flippant and for whatever reason someone latches onto it and runs
with it.

Thoughts on the San Francisco scene? What’s the state of our
union? It seems like we have a title to defend. We are recognized
internationally on various platforms. In what way has the city influenced your
sound?

MATT: Golly, yeah, that’s hard to say in the context
of other bands and being influenced and the whole competitive thing. I don’t
really feel that with any other bands. It’s a bit different. Having lived here
in the city since the mid ‘90s, I’ve seen a lot of different types of music
scenes come and go, and the most cohesive one was probably from the early
2000s. And there’re a lot of us from that. Dywer, Noel was in the Lowdown
around that time and I was in Total Shutdown at the time. Mike was doing Mesh
at that time. Deerhoof was coming into its own in the early 2000s. That felt
like a real cohesive scene where you were on each other’s shows and everything
moved like a big blob. I think the talent field is even bigger now and more
varied stuff is going on now and is getting recognized in its own right and
everyone has a lot less to do with each other. I don’t know if there’s a lot I
can say that we do that necessarily influences what Thee Oh Sees do that
influences what the Fresh & Onlys do. And then Ty is doing his own thing,
for sure, more and more…

It seems like the Fresh & Onlys have their hands in a
lot of projects going on around the city. What’s your relationship to them?

MIKE: I play basketball with Shayde.

MATT: Yeah, I think before playing basketball with Shayde I
didn’t know any of them personally. I mean that’s just kind of it, maybe
there’s less of a one to one relationship. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself,
hanging out outside of business hours or whatever…

MIKE: Maybe ‘cause we’re geezers now too, so now we don’t go
out.

MATT: A lot of us are.

NOEL: Um, there’re only three of us! [Laughs] A lot of us…

MATT: Well, getting back to the question, it sounds
negative, but I don’t want to be negative. I think all these current bands just
happen to live in San Francisco. It’s almost, I don’t know if there’s a
correlation you can draw, I don’t know if there’s a thread you can draw and it
sounds like a bad thing because you want it to be a scene. But that’s cool,
that’s more of a youth arena. I mean, I’m sure there’s a scene of 18-24 year
olds having parties at their house and I don’t even know about it.

Is the beauty about SF this happenstance type, where
anywhere, any neighborhood, anything can happen?

MATT: Kind of, yeah. The musical history of San Francisco
can speak to that. I mean, in the Bay Area you get musical acts as diverse as
Journey, Metallica, Huey Lewis, and the News and the Grateful Dead.

MIKE: And I think that in a city like San Francisco what’s
really interesting…whoa, the race is about to close here. What happens after the scene is almost what is more
interesting than what happens during the scene or before the scene.

MATT: [Yelling as the horses cross the finish line] It’s
about time for us to go on… let’s fucking do this!

MIKE: Like, you know the ‘60s thing that happened here in
San Francisco? I think it happened because things got so conservative here
after the beats and the ‘50s that everything bottomed out and there was room
for something new to grow and rise after that. When there is an after the
scene, like, if I was looking for an interesting record, I would love from 1969
to 1972 to find something that happened after the fact.

MATT: Maybe a strength of the music scene here is that it’s
kind of diverse and bands are doing what they want to do without it being a
reaction to what someone else is doing in the music scene as well. Basically,
you don’t have these homogeneous SF sounds.

Which there is not.

MATT: No.

NOEL: I know what you were talking about earlier. We kind of
had that in the early 2000s or whatever, where we always played together, we
were always in each other’s shit, we didn’t sound the same but we were pretty
tight. It’s not like that anymore.

MATT: As far as we know. Like I said, there could be a whole
lot that I don’t know about going on. There could be a whole scene bubbling
under the surface that we’ll hear about in 6 months time that we’re like,
“What? Where did these guys come from?”

NOEL: Yeah, right, chillwave? I’ve heard about that, thanks,
cool.

Ha, ha.

MATT: Boogerphonic? I wanna get in on some boogerphonic
myself.

Is that a thing?

MATT: It will be now! You heard it here first, kids!

Can I print that?

BAND: Yes.

MATT: It’s not our title. We’re not boogerphonic. That’s
what’s happening next.

NOEL: What does that sound like?

MATT: It just sounds like a cold. [Sneezes and wheezes]

How did you guys land on Drag City?

MATT: By helicopter…I used to know a guy who used to fly
helicopters in Gulf War I. Um, I knew Dan K from a time when I roadied for the
Fucking Champs, and he’s a cool guy, and he came up to see us play and that’s
what the genesis was. [Drag City] is very coy about courting a band and I
teased it out a little bit. And I think some show that we played, I was eating
across the street from the venue and Dan K shows up and sits down. We
chit-chat, chit-chat and he says, “Oh man, I really wish we put out the U.S. Ez record,” and I think that was his way of saying the ball is in your court. I
think I just proposed that, “Hey, we got this CD that Gary at Animal Disguise
put out, and I would really like to see come out on vinyl.” And they were all,
“Hell yeah.” I don’t even recall shaking hands. It was a sub-handshake deal. We
just agreed to work together and that’s how it started. I don’t know kids. It’s
part who you know, it’s part what you do.

I’m enjoying Napa Asylum. I like that you’re not appeasing
some scene, and having a good time while you’re at it.

NOEL: That’s one of the things I’m stoked about and I’m the
new guy. I always felt that the Sic Alps style is that we’re not trying to make
a record to get a good review or pander to anybody, you know? That can be
dangerous. I mean, we’re making music because we want to. Trends come and go
and this is just what we do when we’re not at work or doin’ whatever else we
do. This is the priority for us. Let’s make tunes, let’s make them cool for us,
you know?

MIKE: I concur.

MATT: Make the record that you want to hear and everyone
else will come to their own conclusions.

NOEL: Yeah, that’s something Ben Chasny and I would talk
about a lot, which was, let’s make the record we want to hear and everyone
else—I don’t want sound negative, but everyone else can fuck off to a certain
degree. You can make music to impress people. We could open the newest issue of
Spin and peruse and be, “Oh cool, I can make Spin a great record that they will
eat up and then trash three months later.” We can do that, it’s within our
abilities, but we’re just doing what we want to hear and exploring areas we
want to explore. And it’s cool that the people at Drag City can pick it up and
be stoked on it.

Would it be obnoxious to ask for a quick
artist or band Top 5 list from each of you?

MATT: John Coltrane, Royal Trux, Syd Barrett, Black Sabbath,
uhh…

MIKE: What about your Beatles?

MATT: You know what’s funny is that the Beatles don’t make
the Top 5 but I’ll give them the “White Album” at number 5.

MIKE: I don’t know, Top 5?

Don’t think too much about it.

MATT: Hot Dogs!

MIKE: I want to name a band Hot Dogs. Hot Coffee, Coffee,
Chocolate and Sunsets.

NOEL: The Fall, the Dead Sea, Golden Gate Fields, Christmas Ship, and
Sundays…not the band.

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