Sic Alps' Mike Donovan Takes Us Through the Band's New Album

Posted by Billy Gil, September 8, 2012 11:24am | Post a Comment
Sic Alps have long been an S.F. favorite, fusing the hippie aesthetic of the San Francisco of lore (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane) with the newer noise-garage ethos similarly employed by acts like Ty Segall, who played in Sic Alps for a time, and Thee Oh Sees, with whom they’ll play at the the El Rey Theatre Sept. 9. The band boasts a prolific career in a short time — the band formed in 2004 and has released over a dozen EPs, three regular albums and another, A Long Way to a Shortcut, compiling their singles. Now, they’ve chosen to give their fourth album a self-titled name (out Sept. 18; preorder here), and with that comes a somewhat cleaner sound, complete with strings, courtesy of Ryan Francesconi, who arranged strings for Joanna Newsom. I spoke with frontman Mike Donovan about the new album and the band’s trajectory.
PST: One of the most noticeable new sounds on the record is the strings on songs like “Glyphs” and “Rock Races.” Can you talk about how that came about and working with Ryan Francesconi?

Mike Donovan fronting Sic Alps
Donovan: [It was] Dan [Koretzky] from Drag City’s idea to work with someone who could put together an arrangement on a couple of tunes. He put us in touch Ryan Francesconi, who does stuff for Joanna Newsom, does her string arrangements. That’s like a great thing about Drag City, what makes them a great label. They threw down for the budget. It’s not like there’s gonna be a huge return on that investment (laughs). But we got really nice players to come in an play on it. Cheers to Drag City for that.

We basically sent him a couple of songs and then just started sending him like YouTube videos —  Colin Blunstone’s One Year record … “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles … just to give him kind of touchstones. And then we worked from there, he’d send a MIDI track, a computerized version of what it’s gonna sound like, and I’d be like “Oh yeah that sounds so cool but let’s not go so soaring on verse two and can you do a cello that goes like that.” A couple of the melodies are Sic Alps, melodies, but most of it is his take on the guitar track. And three of the four girls from Real Vocal String Quartet came down to Eric Bauer’s studio in Chinatown called Bauer Mansion, where we recorded the whole album. And they read the music right off the charts in one take and did it. It was pretty amazing.

PST: The progression since the last album is really remarkable. It almost sounds like a new band on the self-titled album. Was that the goal somewhat with giving this album a self-titled name, to rebrand the band or restate its purpose?

Donovan: Exactly. Just like a new start. A clean slate, you know.

PST: Did part of that, too, come from releasing a compilation that sort of put your earlier work into perspective (A Long Way Around to a Shortcut)?

Donovan: Yeah. There might be another one of those coming up, we’re at about 20-something unreleased little doo-dads. Maybe next year we’ll have a No. 2 — A Longer Way Around.

PST: There are a lot of odds and ends to pull from I guess with your catalog.

Donovan: Especially of late because I blasted out those four singles.

PST: I think the recording sounds pretty interesting. Parts of it sound lo-fi while parts like the strings seem to come through clearly. How did you record the album?

Donovan: Everything we recorded up to that point was recorded at home on an 8-track. And then over those four singles that preceded the self-titled record, we kind of did half and half, half down at Eric’s and half at home, kind of getting acclimated to the full studio thing. Everything up until the self-titled, except for a couple of songs, were recorded on a 388-TASCAM. There were a couple of exceptions, we brought a couple of tracks recorded at home into studio and dumped it onto the one-inch tape, but everything [else] was recorded on 16-track one-inch tape with all kinds of nice old gear that Eric has tracked down over the last decade or so.

PST: Do you think that’s something you guys would keep doing in the future — record in the studio rather than at home?

Donovan: Yeah, because I played it for my old buddy Paul and he was like, “it’s kind of fucked up, dude. There’s something wrong about it.” I feel like we haven’t totally crossed over into some other world, you know? But the next thing I think we’re gonna do is after this tour — we’re bringing like four songs out on tour that we just wrote, which is a new thing — and the band is gonna play for six weeks. The plan is at the end of that is we’ll go into a studio and knock those out. Maybe build an album around that or maybe make an EP, I’m not really sure. That’ll be a new thing, and that’ll be a studio thing. If all goes well, we’re gonna do it. Also the Vedley record we did, it’s really lo-fi, it’s like 23 songs spread over two sides of a 7-inch. I kind of want to do like an hour-long version of that instead of a 10 minute version of it. Just more experimenting to see what happens. That aspect of Sic Alps. But I still really want to do stuff like that. So to answer your question in a long, way I guess we’re still in both worlds.

PST: I thought the “Glyphs” video was really cool, sort of this evil hippie vibe with the flowers and destroying this effigy or scarecrow. I sort of get that vibe from the music too, it seems to find some inspiration from the San Francisco of lore but also is interested in expressing the sort of in-betweens or darker sounds. Do you think about that sort of thing when constructing a video, tying it to the sounds? How did that come about?

Donovan: It’s funny, the fellow I made the video with, I think we’ve done like four videos with now, John Harlow, as the video sort of progresses, because there’s always some sort of genesis, this idea just kind of develops as the days are going by — “what do we do now?” type of thing. As he put it, there’s a very strange continuity to this video. It’s like, “what?” There’s a continuity but it’s sort of hard to tell what it is. We kind of made it up on the fly. Initially the video was supposed to be making fun of hippies in the ‘60s, like Haight/Ashbury, Haight and Clayton, or whatever — Amoeba (laughs). Striped shirts, like Grateful Dead, top hats. I was trying to figure out how to costume that and going into costume shops on the Haight to find rentable hippie gear. So that sort of devolved as the day of the shoot approached. It’s just kind of weird what ended up happening. As we were looking for inspiration from old videos, like let’s check out this old Pink Floyd video. It’s just like three guys walking around. They’re not doing anything. There’s a keyboardist in the tree – boom! Let’s do that. We’ll put Noel in the tree. Then it was like, let’s do a scarecrow – OK. Let’s burn the scarecrow because it’s the past, let’s fucking hurl it into the street – with all respect.

PST: The vibe on the album too is a lot warmer than before, seems more laid-back. I’m thinking of a song like “Polka Vat” that could have easily been played for big thrashing chords and is instead pretty delicate. Was that an aim, to play up the softer side of your sound, and was that in reaction to anything in particular?

Donovan: You know I think a lot of the softness of the record is part of the continuity of the record and a lot of it is the mixing of it, which is an aspect that is scary about making a hi-fi record but is also kind of liberating in a way because you have to kind of let things go. Sic Alps has always been the smallest of production by design — small, small, small, like let’s do one bass track today and we’ll come back in three days. With this album there’s much bigger production, so things like the overall sound, you have to make a leap of faith. But I’m really happy with it.

PST: Has that given you cause to revisit and rework earlier material for the tour?

Donovan: Yeah, I mean we always do the old stuff. Actually it’s always been totally different. We’ve never been like, let’s make this sound like the recording. A lot of times the songs won’t really sound like they do on the album anyway. We’ve just accepted the fact that it’s a completely diff thing anyway. So I guess no more than ever really.

PST: In particular I thought “See You on the Slopes” was a nice surprise at the end of the record. Not something you’d expect to hear from a band who’s often lumped in with garage rock. Did you want to make a statement by including that, or you just thought it was one of your better songs?

Donovan: That’s a song that my friend Darius wrote like 20 years ago and never released it. I went to the University of Maryland, and there was this band there called Gluey, just playing shows around college, basement shows. That band was amazing, straight up amazing band. Anyway, I just played that song on guitar for so many years. It used to sound like Dinosaur Jr., and it was like, let’s make it a piano song. Tim Hellman, ex-Amoeba employee, did all the piano on the record, every 12-string guitar you can hear.

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Ty Segall (41), Mike Donovan (2), Sic Alps (7), Thee Oh Sees (31)