Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Frontman Mike Donovan discusses the lo-fi DIY recording and music-making process of Sic Alps, set to release their fourth full-length album.
Fronted by San Francisco lo-fi vet Mike Donovan, Sic Alps is one of the leanest, most out-there psych-garage acts working today. Their songwriting demonstrates remarkable balance, marrying hiss, distortion, and sunny washes of reverb with a deep understanding of pop composition. Donovan and company have long favored a barebones, DIY method—recording their songs piecemeal on an eight-track, usually just with one mic—that is rudimentary in its means but complex in its execution. This is no doubt the lo-fi challenge: the track-by-track approach to songwriting is itself somewhat flexible, but also requires a careful compositional ear in assembling “finished” products. It’s hard to pin down the music’s exact genealogy, but it clearly reflects the influence of nineties lo-fi—recalling, at moments, GBV in their early, scuzzed out bedroom glory, psychedelic rock, and ’60s garage, all of which harmonize through the formal constraints of the pop song.
Sic Alps will release their fourth full-length release on Drag City Records in early September. They’ve displayed a remarkable capacity for evolution over the last six years and four LPs, and their upcoming self-titled album represents their most innovative move yet. It’s softer, slower, and highly meditative—on the whole, a much more polished record than the band has previously put forth. Sic Alps was recorded in studio, and the change in operating practice is apparent from the very first cut off the album, “Glyphs,” which features a string section. But moving in the direction of higher fidelity has not compromised the band’s distinctive “no-fi” brand, and the record’s mellower constitution is not so much an abandonment of its familiar working method as a new perspective on it—a retrofitting that has left their sound tighter and more defined than ever before.
The group has seen a slew of personnel since its inception, and on Donovan’s account, Sic Alps evolved as an honest, natural reflection of its current line-up’s priorities and sensibilities. I recently spoke with Donovan over the phone—he’s not the most technologically inclined, and our conversation was a luxury of his having coincidentally purchased a burner—about the band’s musical history, development, and the significance of this latest record in that trajectory.
Ryan Sheldon First of all, talk a bit about the storied history of Sic Alps—where you started off musically, how the band came into being, and how the line up’s changed.
Mike Donovan That’s a big one.
RS It is a big one.
MD So, how the band got started?
MD The band got started in 2004, right in the middle of George Bush’s two terms—which I guess has a lot to do with the band … (laughter) So we’ve been around since 2004. I wanted to start a band, and I gave a tape to Adam Stonehouse of the Hospitals, and he was like, “Cool.” He was trying to do a side project. That was pretty much the beginning; we made a seven-inch and did a little US tour in ’04.
In 2005, we recorded an album, which was hard to make because we didn’t really have all the songs together. We had people parting ways during the mixing of it. Then Matt Hartman stepped in and mixed that record and made it happen—that was the first album. And then we were a duo for two, three records—something like that—five years. And since March of 2011, the line-up’s been in flux but now it’s a four piece that just did a European tour and will do all the [upcoming] US dates: myself, Douglas Armor, Tim Hellman, and Barrett Abner. That pretty much brings us up to date.
RS Just from that, you can gather that there’s a sense of community as far as the music you’re working with is concerned. I wanted to ask you about that scene, which many people have described “no-fi”—a blend of ’60s psychedelic rock and ’90s lo-fi. Do you think that’s accurate in describing where you guys are coming from musically and what your influences have been?
MD Sic Alps, you’re talking about.
MD That’s sounds good, definitely. It’s a pretty apt description, I think.
RS Are there artists that you feel a strong kinship with? Ones that you find are working in a similar vein?
MD Bands that are around now?
RS Sure—or not. What about bands that have broken up since Sic Alps formed?
MD Well, when we first started, I felt like Times New Viking was a band that we identified with. Just because in 2004 and 2005, it was like … I don’t know, it was desolate, in a way. And so when we first started to make Sic Alps music it was like, Oh, shit, there’s a band that’s sort of doing the same thing. Even if we don’t really sound like Times New Viking.
So that was kind of exciting. It was almost like there was nothing between San Francisco and Columbus, you know? There’s been lots of bands, though. I love Thee Oh Sees, Johnny [Dwyer]’s my buddy. I love to go on tour with those guys. Pretty different band, but …
U.S. Girls, they’re from Toronto, but that’s another band I like. They’ve got a record coming out this fall, I think.
RS Could you speak about your recording process? How you actually go about making the music, what your recording process is, what your set-up’s like …
MD Yeah, everything we did—including the first album, all the way up until this new record—was done on eight-track. And it was done track by track, where you put one down, then the vocals, and so on. We did it at home, in the basement, using just one microphone, and one pre-amp, and one reverb unit, one delay pedal … just what’s there. So [the albums] were all recorded that way on the same machine.
Then this new record we recorded at my friend Eric [Bauer]’s studio, so we actually played there and he produced the record. It was really different.
RS OK, so the self-titled album, then, was the first one that was actually recorded in the studio. Initially, was the decision to record on an eight-track an aesthetic choice? Was it, alternatively, a matter of working with limited means? Or did you decide from the outset that you wanted to keep the process pretty stripped-down in terms of how much equipment you were using and how elaborate the production was?
MD I mean, I’ve known Eric for a really long time and watched his studio come together over ten years, so it was kind of a natural choice to record with him. We definitely wanted to record in a different way. We’d been experimenting with that—[the material on] the singles between the two latest records, it was half at home and half at Eric’s; we were getting acclimated to the recording studio. Am I answering the question? I can’t tell …
RS Yeah. But I’m also curious about your origins. When you started out recording in the basement, was it something you had to do?
MD Oh, it was kind of a mix. Basically, there was a machine that we recorded the first album on—the one that Adam [Stonehouse] recorded. So in order to finish the record, we needed to buy that machine, and that just became “the studio.” It was a choice, but you could always get more money together and buy more stuff—in a way, it was definitely a choice. And a lot of that was Matt, his way of being very thrifty with everything, and Noel. It was economy.
RS And is that something you ran with for a while, at least until this latest release—something that came to define your sound?
MD For sure. The idea of recording with one microphone was probably the best, you know? Recording drums with the microphone, then … basically, if you don’t have any gear, the way you change things or make things better is by pushing it. If you only have one microphone, you have to keep moving it around the room to find out where it works best. You can’t just use a better microphone. You really end up knowing what’s happening.
RS What about playing multiple instruments? Did you guys trade instrumental roles at all when you were making these records?
MD Because we made each record one track at a time, we’d just build it. The frame might be an acoustic track and some vocals, and we’d build from there. So whoever was there, or had the best idea … it was a go. Noel played drums and bass and guitar, Tim played piano and guitar, I played drums and guitar.
But there were a couple songs where Douglas and Tim, who are the bass player and the drummer for the band, came in and laid real rhythm section tracks on a couple of the songs. Those songs were really strong, rhythmically. Like “God Bless Her, I Miss Her”—the second song—at first, that was only a bass and drums, so we did a more complete, traditional way of recording, where you get those down first.
RS Historically, how has it been translating your music to a live environment when you play shows?
MD It’s always been really different. We never sounded much like the records, but that was kind of the idea. Now the band probably sounds a little closer to the record. We’re going to take some stuff out on the road that we’re going to record later, too.
RS What changes have there been in your operating procedure as far as this new record is concerned? Sic Alps has a much more polished quality, which makes sense given that it was recorded in a studio, but it’s also slower, and in a way, more meditative. You’ve got those great strings on the opening track, for example. I was wondering what went into the writing of this. You spoke about the natural evolution of coming into the studio, but I was curious whether you also set forth any different musical goals this time, and whether your priorities have shifted.
MD I mean, we definitely wanted to make a record that wasn’t challenging for the listener. If you look at other things we were doing at the time, like the seven-inch that came out while we were making Sic Alps, it’s not really listener-friendly. The songs don’t give their best shot at the charts, or what have you … (laughter) The idea was to make the record not a challenge to the listener, but to challenge ourselves to make it really solid.
RS Do you think it’ll be different to play this one live? Will the tracks be much closer to the album originals?
MD The band’s really evolved, and we’ve got a totally different approach now. The other dynamic doesn’t really apply.
RS Okay. I was wondering what you were listening to during the making of this record or during the writing of it.
MD Kind of the same stuff that I’m always rocking, I guess. I think I was listening to that Velvet Underground Quine Tapes box set—the live stuff. I traded in my CDs for the LPs when it came out, which was around that time. I was reading a Syd Barrett book called A Very Irregular Head. Did you read that book?
RS I haven’t.
MD It’s great. I was reading that in the studio a lot, I remember that.
RS How has it been working with different labels over the years?
MD We really feel at home at Drag City. It’s basically that every label that we’ve worked with has been great. But Drag City is fantastic, especially with things like doing string arrangements on a record—actually having somebody score string parts and then bringing it people to play them. That can be expensive, so if we were on a label like Siltbreeze, for example—which is a fantastic label—I’d almost feel bad asking for the money to do something like that.
Like, “Can I have the money to have a guy write string arrangements for this?” Drag City was like, “Yeah, here’s the guy, and here are the players for it.” They were super cool.
RS Are you still managing your own label, Folding Cassettes?
MD We haven’t really done anything in a long time. Folding Cassettes started in 2001, and I had a record label before that called Dial, which was just for putting out friends’ music, basically. Folding was a way to put music out without putting a bunch of money toward it or marketing it, while still having the fun part of making music with your friends and releasing something. We’d make like fifty copies, or whatever—Folding Cassettes was always handmade stuff, it’s not like we sent them off and had cassettes made. It was a way to have fun making music out.
Everything was made by hand, with paper cutters and stuff, and it was really therapeutic at the time. By about 2006, around when Sic Alps started to take off, I was busy enough doing that. Since then, I’ve only done a few things, and most of them were Sic Alps stuff. I’m going to try to put together an LP, a compilation of all the best stuff that’s come out on the label. I’ve put it together; I’m just trying to find the right label for it. For now, it’s just chillin’.
RS We touched on community earlier, and that’s definitely something you can embrace when you’re working in a DIY mode. Are there artists playing now that you feel particularly close to? Does this kind of music lend itself particularly well to collaboration? How has this process been for you in the past, and who are you looking forward to working with in the future?
MD John from Thee Oh Sees has a solo on the new record, which is really nice. We just did a song for a compilation that Ty [Segall] sings on, a cover of a song by a band called Gong. I’ve played on Thee Oh Sees records; I’ve played on Ty’s records.
RS What about bands that are particularly fun to tour with?
MD Magik Markers. We’ve done tours with them, and they’re really fun. We did a split with them, and then toured it.
RS Alright. What can we expect from this next tour? Where are you especially excited to play?
MD It’s going to be good to play in Montreal. We haven’t played there since 2008, and we only played one and a half songs, so it was a pretty disappointing show.
RS What happened the first time?
MD An argument with the band. Just some classic bullshit. We’re going back to that club, though … four years later, we’re back to finish the set. (laughter)
Other Canada dates will be cool. Sic Alps has never played Toronto. We’ve got two shows in Calgary, it’s my first time going back there. Chicago will be really fun—my family will come out, and Drag City’s there. I’m really looking forward to this tour; the band’s been sounding really good.
RS Do you guys have any weird tour habits?
MD The inside story on the tour—this line-up has done two European tours—is that we’ll talk in the fucking Borat voice the whole time. Like for a month. You find that when you’re living in close quarters with people, you can say something as a joke, and it’s okay. If you’re like, (imitates Borat) “Hey will you please pass me the pillow, please?” That’s okay. So we’ll talk in accents the whole time. It’s really unfortunate, actually.
RS Have you been doing any solo work lately?
MD Nothing really. Occasionally I’ll do a solo show in San Francisco, play some tunes or covers or whatever. But right now, it’s just Sic Alps.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.