ROCK ‘N’ BAND AND THE SAN FRAN BRAND Sic Alps

With a
new album in stores and a North American tour underway, the Bay Area garage
monsters are aiming to up their game in more ways than one.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Sic Alps has long
buried catchy songs under a blanket of fuzz, the SF band’s lo-fi approach sometimes
obscuring melody and songcraft. “When we started in 2004 or so, it was just a
line-up of Matt Hartmann and me,” says co-founder Mike Donovan. “He’s a
seriously frugal personality, and that carries over to music. So that’s why we
were recording with no microphones and with the same equipment that we had for
20 years. We stuck with that for a long time. For both aesthetic and financial reasons.”

 

 But not this time,
says Donovan, when asked about the band’s fifth and most accessible
full-length, an album titled Sic Alps (Drag City).

 

 


sic alps – sic alps (album preview) by experimedia

 

 

“This time the credo was: Let’s challenge ourselves, not the
listener,” says Donovan. “The idea was to make it easy. There are ways to make
songs enjoyable that we have never pandered to. But at some point, you want to
try it that way, too. “

 

That meant cleaner production, with the band for the first
time going to a studio. “Everything before this record that we did was
recording on an eight track in the basement and recording ourselves with a bare
set up, just one microphone,” says Donovan. “For this record we went to my
friend Eric Bauer’s studio, Bauer
Mansion.”

 

Sic Alps had been
testing the waters all year with a series of singles recorded partly at home
and partly with Bauer. Breadhead was
split half and half between the two facilities, Battery Townsley with Bauer, Pangea and Vedley again in the Sic Alps basement. For the full-length, Donovan
says, the band hunkered down exclusively in Bauer’s studio and even asked Chris
Woodhouse (of Karate Party, the FM Knives and many other bands) to mix it.  “That’s why it has that pop ambience,” says
Donovan.

 

 

 

 

 

The self-titled release is the second to feature Noel
Harmonson (who used to be in Comets on Fire) and, this time, not just as a
drummer. The single, “Glyphs,” was recorded by Harmonson and Donovan, with
Harmonson singing and drumming, and Donovan on guitar. And, heads up lo-fi
garage fans: it features a string section.

 

 “I always wanted to
have a string section, but I never had the budget,” says Donovan. For this
record, he asked Dan Koretsky from Drag City
to recommend an arranger, and ended up working with Joanna Newsom string maven
Ryan Francesconi. “I told him I was thinking about a kind of Colin Blunstone sound,
the Beatles’ ‘Day in the Life’ and the Pretty Things,” says Donovan. “He did
the rest.”  

 

That’s a fairly lush and mellow set of influences,
especially compared to the Tronics covers that Donovan has been working
earlier. Donovan says he found the Messthetics DIY punk band relatively late,
as he and his new girlfriend Sheila started trading music recommendations.
Tronics songs (like, er, “Shark Fucks”) became a sort of soundtrack to his new
relationship, and he began playing them for fun at home on his guitar. Sic Alps bassist Tim Hellman joined in and helped him
record the songs on four-track. Donovan, already involved in releasing a
torrent of singles, hesitated at first to put the covers EP out, but Rian Murphy from Drag
City convinced him
to let them see the light of day. Soon after, Tronics frontman Zarjaz got in
touch by email, and the two struck up a friendship. “Call me,” wrote Donovan, early
one morning checking his email, and moments later the phone rang. “Hello, it’s
Tony.” Later this fall, Sic Alps and Zarjaz’ Freakapuss will be releasing a
split single.

 

Meanwhile, Mike Donovan remains close to the SF garage
scene. When I talk to him, he is getting ready for a show in LA with Thee Oh Sees.
“Johnny Dwyer and Ty Segall are like my brothers,” he says. “As people they
influence me every day, and their music influences me, too.”

 

Lots of bands have joined into this scene lately, but for
Donovan, the whole vibe originates from a 2008 tour. “We did a tour with Thee
Oh Sees and Ty Segall. It was Ty’s first tour. He was finishing his last bit of
homework for the semester and piling into the van,” says Donovan. “For all that
happened, for all the success of the San Francisco
scene, that’s it for me… 2008, doing shows with those guys.”

 

Sic Alps kicked off a North American tour Sept. 29 – check tour dates here: www.sicalps.com/live.html

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