I remember the first time I saw Mike Donovan in the flesh. I was living in Chicago and road my bike to a shitty loft to see Sic Alps play. I walked in and there he was setting up the tower of power, a huge stack of amps. I felt nervous in my belly—a good sign. Some months later, I actually met Mike in Montreal, where my band, US Girls, shared a bill with Sic Alps. We sat at the bar and dove right in. I told him we shared a mutual acquaintance who I thought was a complete asshole. He laughed and wasn't offended. He emitted such a tender and wise glow, but just a few hours later I witnessed him throw his guitar like a rag doll, grab the mic stand and beat a bowling-ball-sized hole into the stage, and fuck up his foot in the process. I was shocked and excited. He was an openly conflicted, multi-dimension man who sometimes sang in a falsetto! I knew I had found a friend for life.
Mike dissolved the Sic Alps a few years ago and released a puzzling acoustic album, Wot, under his given name in 2013. Just this summer he released his umpteenth record, but his first with a new band—Peacers. The record is self-titled, and it's great. I called Mike from the mountains of Colorado, mid-family picnic. For the very first time, I was on the conducting side of an interview.
Meg Remy How do you choose the people you want to play with? I've seen you fight with bandmates on stage—there was that tension. Obviously some shit was going on. And you obviously work through personal differences with someone for the music, but does it get even bigger than that? When you play music does all that shit goes away, then it's fine, and you can turn the other cheek?
Mike Donovan Oh gosh! I don't know. That happens more once you're already in the mini-van. It's not like that person is just anybody. For example, the night you and I met—in Toronto?
MD That was epic that night. It's so hard when you get that tour-brain going. It's super hard to see anything good about the other person, but at the same time you say, "We're going to go and play later." You can even put it into the music. I remember when Matt Hartman and I we were playing as a duo there were all these shows when I literally couldn't keep my guitar on. I was so mad I had to take it off and walk offstage.
MR Do you think you've chilled out since then? Or was it just a perfect storm of personalities?
MD It was everything. We were living in the same city for ten years before I had the guts to work with him. I liked his musical trip so much. It was so formative for me—that’s the foundation. Even when we started playing together, I was building on that foundation of total admiration, even though I didn't agree with the way he went about doing things, and vice versa probably.
He had a band called Henry's Dress—a really fantastic, pretty short-lived band—and I was playing drums in a band called the Ropers, and we met when our bands both played at a Chickfactor Magazine party in NYC. We played at the bottom of this big fishing boat called the Frying Pan, this huge deep-bottomed boat that had sunk to the bottom of the Chelsea Harbor. They had raised it back up, this huge rusted thing. I saw Henry's Dress play that night, and it blew me away. My girlfriend and I were on this metal catwalk looking down about three stories into the bottom of this hole, on a few hits of acid. It was this huge foundational moment for me. I was like: this is the coolest guy I've ever seen in my life.
But then you start to make sacrifices to try to work with people, pushing and pulling, and it becomes something else. I was like "We have to make this happen. We have to realize this thing. We have to see this through." And he was like "Do we? Do we really?"
But that interpersonal stuff—he wasn’t doing anything that blew my mind, it was just—
MR —a difference of opinion?
MD Yeah, just a difference of opinion.
MR Are you the only musician in your family?
MD My uncle was in a cover band when he was a teenager. They did Who covers. He sang and played the tambourine, and he said he always had a big bruise on his thigh from the tambo. When I was growing up my brother was really musical and could pick out any tune on the piano, something I can't do. I wish my brother and I could have done music together! He is such a world-beater at getting shit done.
MR When you play where your family lives, do they come to see you?
MD They always do, and they always make sure that my uncle's acoustic guitar makes its way over. My brother's daughter turns sixteen in a couple weeks, and I'm going to buy her an electric guitar and a tiny amplifier.
MR That leads us to another question I had. We are both from Illinois, and I was wondering what you think of this place. How did it shape you? Did you go to shows in Chicago? Were there shows in your suburb? Because where I was growing up, there were tons of shows.
MD We grew up in pretty different towns. I was in Hinsdale, Illinois, and there was never anything going on. It was very small and affluent and super boring. I started going to shows in the city when I finally got out of high school. I would see things like the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Aragon Ballroom, or Pearl Jam and Butthole Surfers at Northern Illinois University.
MR Right, big shows.
MD Yeah, in high school I was pretty much into bands that already happened. And I turned to alternative music when I was about eighteen. Tell me about shows in Joliet.
MR There were tons of hardcore shows. That was the thing, hardcore or hardcore punk. I wasn't straight-edge, but my high school boyfriend was straight-edge and vegan. So I went to those shows, until I saw Arab on Radar. I think I was sixteen when I first saw them, then I saw Wolf Eyes, and then all these shows at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago. It just changed me. I started learning about art and performance.
MD When you saw a band like Wolf Eyes did you basically think, Okay, I want to make records now?
MR (laughter) I was like, I can do that.
MD But you weren't thinking that when you were seeing punk shows?
MR No, when I would see those bands chugging along, I thought: I can't do that. I had a bass and stuff, and I had a guitar, but I only played weird stuff. It was just so appealing, though as I learned more about music, I understood that just anyone can't do Wolf Eyes. There is so much going on there, but that music made me feel like I could just do it, and that was a really good feeling.
MD The cool thing about seeing a band like Wolf Eyes is that you think, Wow, I could do that. But then you realize how much foundation is there. They are putting so much into it: huge cassette releases, taking machines apart, and the history of all that stuff.
MR I feel like those guys probably know everything about music. (laughter)
MD Totally. It influenced me, too, in Sic Alps, when I was starting out. I remember a friend saying, "Dude, remember that your songs are dope. Don't burry them in fucking distortion.” I liked that sound, but I was also hiding.
MR I know, burying stuff is something that I had to work on, too. Going through all your albums, I realize you've done that, but your vocals are always audible. Even though there are all these textures, I can pick up your lyrics, and I’m always able to understand what you're saying. I can see a progression, with you recognizing yourself more as a writer and taking your self more seriously. Because your vocals become more and more audible and come to the forefront of the music, even though I have always been able to hear them. Are the lyrics as important as the music to you, or are they not on the same level?
MD They are. Early on, I would think that my lyrics were expressing hugly complicated things between two different people, then I would maybe read them to somebody, and they would not make any sense at all. (laughter) The sign posts are so personalized, so they weren’t really clear to anyone but me. As time went on, the lyrics became clearer and the meaning aligned itself more with the words. The words represent the actual things more clearly now.
MR (laughter) I came across something else you mentioned in an interview, that you were writing something inspired by Roald Dahl? There is something about your lyrics and the names you give people that feels reminiscent of that. It feels like a lot of the time they are childlike and playful, and then there is this very adult thing underneath it.
MD Yeah, I was talking about the books that he wrote for adults. You should read them; he is fantastic. He has a great book called Kiss Kiss, and a lot of almost O. Henry-ish short stories where there is a twist at the end. I was trying to write stuff like that. That was more when I was in Germany last year, when I was trying to write some fiction. No one has read that stuff yet.
MR Because you are scared to show it?
MD I just wasn't that impressed with it. I will show it eventually, and I will continue doing it.
MR But you wrote the songs for this album there, and you thought those were good enough to show people?
MD For sure. There was a moment when I thought, Okay, I am going to write every morning from eight to twelve and write a whole book while I am here. And a couple months into the trip I was like, I'm not really getting anywhere and not making any music either. Maybe I am not so good at writing fiction, but I still can really do a good job writing songs. So I just put the fiction down and wrote music, and as soon as I did that, I was super happy about it.
MR You were in Hamburg?
MD No, I was in Hannover, which is two hours south. Germans in Berlin or Cologne would say, "Why would you go to Hannover? It's so boring there." There is an economics university and an engineering university. There are probably two dozen hipsters and a half a million people. It’s kind of provincial, and some English kings used to live there, so there are nice big parks, but it’s definitely not a cultural or tourist destination. But I was fine with that.
MR Was the boredom inspiring to you?
MD It was a boring town, in that there were no shows or anything. Every four months you would be like, "Wow, Jon Spencer is coming. Crazy!" But I was on a sabbatical, so I was not working or anything, and that created boredom for me. I don't know, maybe I was trying to create an alternate universe because things were boring. (laughter) I also have a good friend there, which is the reason I was there at all. He has a project called Run Dust, which is electronic music. We recorded stuff together and released a tape on a Manchester label as Run Dust and Barry Brush. That was sweet.
MR Are you going to stay in San Francisco? Are you going to stick it out?
MD I’m definitely going to stick it out. I want to see the economy crash again. I was there for the first one, when everyone was being a dickhead during the first dot-com boom. They all left, and it was so glorious.
I feel like San Francisco is ahead of the curve in incorporating technology into every moment of life. I have a flip phone, since I'm an old timer. There's this vibe in San Francisco where you have the device in your hands, which is soothing and has all the information in the world in it—a kind of "I got this" vibe that results in everyone being super smoothed-out. No one is jagged anymore.
MR What do you think about the Internet in regards to music? I used to use Myspace, and I would book tours on Myspace. It was so awesome. You'd find bands, and then email, and it was set up. That seems to have gone away. Now, even the underground is attempting to mimic the mainstream. It's all video premieres and PR up to the fucking gills. If you don't like that, then good luck getting anywhere. You're always going to have to work a job then.
MD I had the same reaction when Myspace came out. I though the playing field was leveled, and the record companies could eat it. I booked tours over email, and it was indeed awesome. You could do it from your desk. I think you're right though—that whole opening up has been co-opted by the big picture, whatever that is. You can’t sneak in.
MR I also think a website like Pitchfork is actually anti-music. I think they do artists and audiences a huge disservice through the way they operate, allowing themselves to get so much power in a realm that is subjective.
MR I know someone who always refers to them as “the gatekeeper." I think it's fucked up. I don't know how that happened.
MD I've always thought of Pitchfork as having a real student government association vibe. They weren't really part of the scene, but they definitely controlled it and passed judgment on it. They really didn't know what the fuck was going on, did they? And they still don't. Of course, there are some writers who can kind of sum it up.
MR You're on Drag City, great label, but with that comes things like doing interviews, taking press photos, and all of that junk. Do you just accept it, or do you hate it, or are you actively excited about it because you like controlling all those aspects of your image? How important do you think a press photo is?
MD Working with Drag City, even though they're a company, they put the good stuff first. When you're working with them you have to cooperate, you know? It’s like "Sure! You guys have been doing it forever, and you know what's going on." But doing that is not even close to as cool as when you're starting up. I remember when we started Sic Alps; we didn't have press photos for a few years, and when we did we obscured our faces. I had radishes tied to my face. I miss that stuff.
I think I like to let it be mysterious, instead of me just looking in the camera and cocking my head slightly. You're on 4AD right?
MR Yeah. I'm a huge product.
MD And they want to take what you are and project it on a big wall. You have to deal with all that.
MR I think 4AD is similar to Drag City in that it's a business, and they care about the bottom line—first and foremost, they care about the work. But I'm just doing what I always do within that, which is being as controlling as I can be of whatever image of me is out there. I think I may be coming at it from a different point than you are, because I'm a woman, and I'm a different product than you. I'm sold in a different way. There's this whole other fucking library of techniques to sell women, and I'm interested in fucking with that and working within that. I'm going to sell myself, but I'm going to sell these other ideas, too—these feminist ideas. That's a lot to ask of a viewer, but I think some people get it. I'm banking on people wanting to do the work, to dig a little bit deeper.
MD I think maybe it's harder in the world of music to get people to think about heavy stuff—not even things that are like President Obama and the war, which is of course super important, but just that indescribable thing that we were saying Wolf Eyes has. That's not dessert. That's fucking vegetables, bro. That's some high calorie shit. There's a lot going on there. It's the emotion of resistance or revolution.
MR I feel like the Internet has made things more categorized. Everyone's got to be able to file something in a box, "Okay, this is psych-rock and this is pop." When you can't fit nicely into one of those boxes I think people don't want you, and the music industry doesn't want you because the music journalists will actually have to do work to write about you. I've seen that with my work. I'm only compared to female artists who are current but whose music sounds nothing like mine.
MD Everything shakes out eventually. People get used to it. I was talking to my niece this morning, and she was telling me how she wasn't on Facebook anymore, because Facebook is only for people over forty. She's onto something else. It's funny.
MR I feel like we should talk a little more about your record. My favorite song on it is "Drama Ensues." I think it's like a little play. It feels super real. To me, it sounds like a domestic dispute. The production is pretty far out at times, and obviously you don't sound like Arcade Fire or something, but if you took that song off, I think there would be something missing from the album because it's very direct and emotional.
MD I had a very brief thing happen with a woman that was very dramatic, and I was being like, “I’m over drama.” It was kind of a sarcastic delivery. But it feels so good to put a song like that on a record again, after the straightforward sound of the solo record. To put that song on Peacers, and have it be just the gnarliest, most lo-fi thing felt natural.
MR Yeah. That's maybe what I felt was missing on your solo record, which I think is a good record. But there was some real Mike missing. "This sounds like Mike, but where is he? I know it's him, but he's changed his hair or something.” (laughter) It seems like now you're back, which is great. I think you have to do something different to know what you want to do next sometimes.
MD Totally. Superficially, you say, "Yeah, I made an acoustic folk record," but I already did acoustic folk stuff on Sic Alps records. What I found this time wasn’t as idiosyncratic. During that time I was definitely bummed out.
MR Well, it doesn't feel like you're bummed out on this record. You seem ready for the next part of your life.
MD Just a few days ago we did a show in Golden Gate Park, and it was just so nice—a generator show in a little hollow in Golden Gate Park. About thirty people came out, a perfect little scene, and it was like, "Man, this is what I'm talking about." To do that stuff and appreciate it, and to still be doing it at forty-three, that feels awesome, you know?
MR It's great. You're living your life in an ageless way, which is what everyone should be doing.
MD Sounds good to me.
Peacers is out now on Drag City. Visit their website for tour dates and more information.