Having the name Sic Alps leaves a band open to a lot of easy puns, but unlike that child with the name “Deuteronomy,” who throws a fit every time someone takes a jab, Mike Donovan seems like the kind of guy who can roll with the punches. His music has been described in as many “garage,” “lo-fi,” or “-gaze” monikers as possible, but these labels are distractions: Donovan is a songwriter who works to better his own craft without worrying about names, puns, or classifications.
Here is a part of a conversation I had with him back in September about Sic Alps’ new self-titled record, cassette tapes, and vitamins. The interview was conducted in a high-altitude hovercraft (or by telephone, whatever “truth” you want to believe).
First question: two or three albums you’ve been listening to recently.
I’ve been listening to the U.S. Girls record that’s coming out in October. Megan (Remy) and I are friends and she sent it to me a couple months ago. It’s really good, have you heard that thing yet?
I’ve only heard a couple tracks, haven’t listened to the whole thing.
It’s really good, there’s that “Jack” song that’s really good, but yeah I’m really psyched on that record. Um, Paul McCartney’s record with the cherries on the front, self-titled record. Love that thing, just listened to that this morning. What else… Georges Brassens, he’s got a box set called, 10 Ans de Brassens (10 Years of Brassens). It’s a six-LP box set, (from the) opposite decade. The LPs are organized according to theme, so one is “The Eternal Feminine,” or one might be “The Poet”; they’re all themed. It’s super-good, has a lot of continuity.
You have any influences that played into your new self-titled effort?
Let’s see, well the one that’s an obvious one is this noise song, “Lieber Honig,” from the first (Neu!) record. It’s the one where he’s like “ahhh,” he has cross-singers sing it really slow. So that kind of influenced the last song, [which is] really slow-singing, super-slow-paced.
That’s a beautiful track. It really threw me off, in a good way though. Following the jangle and ambiance of the last tracks, that one really sits well, even though it’s kind of a departure.
That’s a song my friend Darius wrote. I went to school out in Maryland, so that was like 20 years ago. We would play for his band Gluey and like basement shows, and he never recorded that song, so it sounded like ‘dinosaur’ back then, y’ know? And now it’s completely different; playing it around the house on my guitar, [it] sort of evolved into that.
How did those string sections come about?
Basically, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but obviously it was way out of the budget. I’ve done a little bit with strings in the past, y’ know, play with one cello player or try to record some stuff outside of the band and all that. But just knowing that Drag City might be able to pull it off I asked Dan what he thought about arranging a couple songs and all that, and he recommended Ryan Francesconi. He’s worked with Joanna Newsom, so that’s the connection, and actually Drag City’s released one of his records. He’s a guitarist as well.
I just went down and couch surfed in Los Angeles for like three weeks practicing, and I’m like, washed ashore in San Francisco, the shell of a man with a head cold.
Drag City is releasing the album on cassette. You also run a cassette label. How do you feel about the new small wave of cassettes making their appearance?
The way I did it was different from what’s happening now, because basically I used to have a record label-proper called Dial Records, and we were releasing music for friends, but you had to come up with 1500 bucks to put something out (…), you dump all your money into this release but nobody knew what it was, and we didn’t have any PR or anything, so transferring over to tapes was the way to make it successful, and you’d do a run of 50 and sell them all. And they cost 20 cents a piece to make or 5 cents a piece because I was cutting all the labels and I was sticking all the labels by hand. So it was kind of like, in one way it was a way to escape the world of one-sheets and all that bullshit with record labels and just bring it down to the basics, like, “People want this and they’re gonna get it.” But it’s also therapy for me, like paper cutters; that’s why it’s called Folding, folding paper. It’s really therapeutic for me.
I remember having that with CD-Rs, being able to sit down and make all those things, and we would sit down and sew covers and shit, just everything down to the handmade, minuscule line.
Yeah, National Recording Supply in Brooklyn would send everything, they would send a box of shells and stuff. So now amazing stuff’s happening with Drag [City] Records doing cassettes, Burger Records is doing their double shop, y’know. It’s a different kind of thing because it’s all professionally produced and all that stuff, but I think it’s because cassettes are such a good format, they sound really good, they’re totally portable, they’re analog. It’s still kind of makes sense, like it’s kind of almost the best format really, even though it’s obviously a niche thing.
Hoping it extends outside of this niche thing, ‘cause things that get dragged into a niche format kind of get dismissed as such. But with more people I know buying tapes or saying they’re gonna throw on a cassette, at first I’m like, “Oh no, cassette tape,” and we’re sitting down listening to it and I’m really surprised by how beautiful and great it sounds.
Yeah you get that full sound, you get a big low end, and I think people don’t realize that because music is so fast now that you get mp3s that maybe don’t sound that good, but you never notice. It’s like the slow-food movement for the music industry (laughs).
This tour you’re doing, are you using your own PA?
Y’ know, we’re not using our own PA. We tried to do it, but the PA that we had, basically wasn’t loud enough to make it with a four-piece. We’ve been messing around with pre-mixing our vocals on stage, so there might be some of that happening, but this one won’t be on our own PA, but maybe a sort of a compromise within that.
Do you think it’s important for bands to take control of their own sound? I’ve been to a lot of shows recently where it’s the band fighting the sound guy.
We do that from Day One, and that’s an influence we got from The Coachwhips. And Matt (Hartman) was in The Coachwhips, and Thee Oh Sees do it, and it’s important. Like, you’ll definitely come into soundmen who won’t appreciate it and sometimes it gets a little… nasty. We had a record-release party where the soundman was such a jerk (laughs). But yeah, I mean, it’s important to work with your soundman, but if you want to take control of it I think it’s the musician’s call. A lot more people are doing it and I think it’s a good thing.
Your music borders a place between silliness and sincerity, haphazardness and very structured places. Do you feel yourself leaning toward one more than the other?
I’m always kind of pulled both ways, like the new album is definitely more structured and stuff, but then the four singles that preceded it were all made during the recording of the record, as well. And then there’s that Vedley 7”, which is a real noisy collage of 25 songs or something. So that’s kind of the appendix of the record, that’s where all the craziness went. So now that that record’s done I want to do more high fidelity recording and stuff like that, but I want to do that Vedley idea and expand it; definitely still interested in doing stuff that’s strange, strange to me.
Is that same mentality kind of what went into the fidelity change between Napa Asylum and that album?
(Napa Asylum) kind of got unfair, or what I saw was unfair, labels as “shitgaze,” I mean any genre label is going to be silly —
—That’s all Matt Whitehurst’s (Psychedelic Horseshit) fault, right? (laughs)
Do you think people are going to view this much more — it’s not super on the other end high fidelity — but a leap into a greater fidelity, are they gonna see that as you trying to get away from that aesthetic?
No, I don’t wanna get away — I definitely wanna have a fresh start and stuff like that — but I feel so connected to our past, y’ know? It’s kind of like, when Lou Reed made Transformer, which maybe [was] his big jump, he immediately made Metal Machine Music after it (laughs). Not to put myself in the same breath with him, but if you’ve been making records and you make a clean one, there’s that feeling of, “Ah let’s make something dirty now.” So there might be more in the future.
So maybe we should expect a Metal Machine Music?
Maybe? (Laughs) Maybe, could be in the cards for sure.
How do you keep up the energy to tour so much? You’ve already done a tour of Europe this year, you’re about to go on another tour, and you toured almost all of 2011—
We did two European tours this year!
We might even squeeze one more in believe or not, a short one in December; we’ll see. But yeah, I’m getting older, it’s getting tiring. I just went down and couch surfed in Los Angeles for like three weeks practicing, and I’m like, washed ashore in San Francisco, the shell of a man with a head cold. So yeah, I gotta eat more vitamins or something, this is a young man’s game.
If you’ve been making records and you make a clean one, there’s that feeling of, “Ah let’s make something dirty now.
I dunno, I don’t think you’re really making the case for it being a young man’s game, I know a lot of younger bands that will tour for like, a month, and just be like, “I’m dead, I can’t do that anymore.”
Well I love traveling and I love driving and all that stuff.
I think there might be like, a specific drive in there. I find that a lot of the bands I like have been on tour pretty much this whole year or all of last year.
Yeah, and then my close friends from San Francisco shame me in that department, like Ty (Segall) and Thee Oh Sees, y’ know, they’re always on the road. But I don’t really feel like I’m doing something that amazing, ‘cause the guys I go get tacos with are always touring. (laughs)
It’s just part of the work, too.
Yeah! It’s a big world, and now that there’s the Internet, it’s like so many people know who we are. That doesn’t mean that we’re famous or that we’re rich or anything like that, but there’s so many people that are willing to host a show now that the places you can play are endless.
For all the pessimism regarding new-age digital marketing, I’d say that’s one of the more positives, being able to reach places you’d never think you could reach.
Oh absolutely! Yeah, if you’re willing to go, some people are going to show up. That’s definitely one of the most positive things about this.
That whole crew of you, you’re all really prolific. Are you all feeding off each other? Are you all eating the same vitamins?
I think so, it’s like, when I talk about the Bay Area and people ask that question in interviews I always talk about Johnny (Dwyer) and Ty, ‘cause to me that’s where it’s at. But between the three of us there’s definitely a feedback loop of influence and inspiration going on for sure, love those guys.
All right, I got two more questions here. The cover of the album; what is that?
It’s a plumber’s truck from San Francisco. It’s a guy named Bill Bragg, and he has a plumbing company. My friend Sheila took the picture, and we just kinda stuck the American flag on there, that’s actually our addition to it.
I’d expect there to be an American flag on a plumbing vehicle.
Yeah, but it’s a side-panel shot, kind of a throwback to our first record.
You said you were gonna do a Europe tour, after this next tour —
Possibly, hope it might work out.
Is that the extent of your plans?
Definitely, because the U.S. tour leads up to Nov. 10, so we might just go over to Europe for a week or two in December. I’m really looking forward to touring America though more than anything, it’s been since March of 2011 since we did it.
[Photo: Vanni Bassetti]