Sic Alps Frontman Mike Donovan Talks The Band’s Breakup And His Solo Career
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Photo Credit: Christian Faustus

Although not quite the first white man to touch California soil, Mike Donovan is a pioneer. Sic Alps, the band wherein he was the frontman, precipitated an avalanche of like-minded weirdos from their homeland of the Bay Area, including its two most famous exports, Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees. Any contemporary band from Northern California who makes their trade in art-damaged rock ‘n’ roll owes at least partial debt to them — and now they are no more. Donovan has gone solo.

From a stage in Berlin on July 12, the final date of a European tour in support of their quietly beautiful self-titled record, Donovan announced it would be Sic Alps’ final show — putting an end to a band whose 2008 full-length U.S. EZ is to this day one of the high-water marks of modern garage rock.

Although Wot, Donovan’s solo debut, doesn’t stray far from Sic Alps acoustic numbers like “Country Medicine”  – hell, there’s even a song on it titled “Sic Ballad” — it still feels like the beginning of a new era for Donovan, clearly walking down the dirt road of classic troubadours and reinforcing his abilities as a great songwriter instead of just as an idiosyncratic garage rocker.

Speaking on the phone with Hive a few days before his 42nd birthday, Donovan freely discussed the dissolution of Sic Alps (including the acrimonious severance of ties with long-time member Matt Hartman), whether or not he’ll continue down the traditional singer/songwriter path, and why sexual reassignment surgery shouldn’t be such a big deal to people.

I guess we’ll address the elephant in the room first: What happened to Sic Alps?

Well, Sic Alps essentially just came to a point last year where it was like — how do I put it? Like, how long a band is around is part of the whole thing. I’ve never had a band before that’s been like this, that’s lasted this long. And being the de facto leader at that point, I thought we had reached a point where, given the whole history of the band, it was just time to end it.

We had just done the She’s on Top EP, which was essentially a live record of the final lineup — of what the band had become. And I was super happy with that, and super happy with that last version of the band. And I think the end is important, so it seemed like a good time to end it. So it was kind of like, even though ending it is seen as a negative thing, it was in respects to what Sic Alps became, and also with respect to all other versions of the band, and all the other dudes who have been in the band.

When Matt Hartman left the band [in 2011], do you feel like you were kind of winding down with Sic Alps? Or did you feel you could continue on for a while and changed your mind about it?

That’s a good question. I don’t feel like it was winding down, because a lot of things happened after that for us. It was actually kind of a real busy time — there was a bunch of stuff happening, like a bunch of singles, touring the record [2011’s Napa Asylum], the EPs released around that time. I mean, we could have kept going forever — or as long as I can make albums, which apparently I can still do. This record could have been released as a Sic Alps record just as easily.

I appreciate you asking that question, it’s just a tough question. Because of the Matt Hartman thing, you know, he was a big part of the band. And then not having him around was like — it’s hard to separate having him not around and having him be bummed out about not being in the band and talking trash about me.

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I remember reading an interview where you said the circumstances regarding his departure were mysterious. Do you feel, at this point, that they were less mysterious?

No. I don’t think I meant that. If I said that, I was just being obtuse. They weren’t really mysterious.

I could see that — not wanting the fan the flames.

Yeah, because there were fans on the other side of the river. I didn’t want to alienate fans of his contributions to the band.

So, what exactly happened there? Did he quit? Was he kicked out?

I guess you could say he was kicked out. There were a lot of things that, you know, after a long time, I just kind of got fed-up and told him, “I don’t think I can work with you anymore.” But then, it’s a question of what the other person does at that point. I had never said that before, but it was a long time coming, and he could have said, “You know, let’s work this out,” but instead he kind of went into sabotage mode or something.

That’s too bad.

But it’s cool, you know? I wish him the best; I don’t want to say anything bad about him. Which is kind of hard not to do in a way. [laughs]

Because of the things he said.

[laughs] Yeah, exactly! But he’s really talented musician, so I hope he finds the time to do that stuff again. I wish him the best.

You said this solo record of yours could have been a Sic Alps record — I was thinking the same thing. But what made you want to explore the lighter side of Sic Alps more in-depth than you have in the past?

I wasn’t really intentional. To start it out, I was going to keep Sic Alps building, and I was going to make this solo record. I guess it was sort of intentional in a way, but what I did was I wrote to my friend Eric Park who I had been in a band with before called Yikes!, and was like, “Hey dude, let’s start a band.” So, I had this idea of what that band would sound like, and it was like — because all of his bands were like Providence, Rhode Island-type bands, from that school of really far-out music — and I was like, “I’m thinking like this band is going to sound like it’s from another planet and it’s going to be something no one’s ever heard before.” And when we got together, it was like, “Hey, let’s check out these Bob Dylan covers!” [laughs] And he was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Merle Haggard.” And I was kind of like, “What?” So, it turned out to be the opposite; it wasn’t far-out at all, it was super, like, traditional Americana.

But it wasn’t so much an idea to go on the “lighter side,” it was more of, “Let’s do something really immediate and something that we could do live in the studio.” So, all of the guitars we played together, at the same time. There were a couple overdubs, but every song is us playing together on one track. And I had never done that before, so it was really cool because it gave me a chance to really work on something again.

Sic Alps was a band that had become — I was the only person living in San Francisco. So, it was like we were getting together when we could, and when I made this record, there were opportunities to work six days per week for hours. And sometimes, he’d go to work and we’d get back later that day, and we worked really hard on developing songs. So, yeah, it was kind of exploring the lighter side, but more of going back to the trenches, when you really have to work for it. And that’s what was super exciting about it.

I noticed there was a song on the album called “Sic Ballad.” Were there any songs that you held over from the Sic Alps days, or is this more like what you were saying about how this could have been a Sic Alps record, and you just decided to put your name on it?

Well, there’s one song called “Do Do Ya?” and we tried to do that one before. And there was a recording that Matt and I made of the song, but it was really a song we had trouble doing, making it work. So that carried over, but everything else was new, and not brought over from Sic Alps. Maybe the next record will have one of the songs we were doing live [before the band broke up]. We’re actually doing that now. So, there’s a little carryover, yeah.

You’re recording the next album now?

I’m going to wait to record it and take more time before I start recording. I think I could have gotten all that stuff together by now, but I’m just going to wait and take some more time on the songs.

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So you recorded Wot differently, but did you write the songs any differently than you would have for Sic Alps? Was the writing process different?

It was the same way I’ve been writing songs, really, where it just kind of springs out and then I make something of what springs out. I just kind of record something and make sense of it later, make sense of the lyrics later. But ultimately, yeah, it was the same process.

One of my favorite songs on Wot is “Sexual Reassignment Surgery Blues,” and I was wondering what the catalyst was for you writing that particular song?

One of the things I think is cool about that song is because it’s saying, “She’s not a she anymore,” so you think the song’s talking about a man who has become a woman, but it’s actually talking about a woman who has become a man just by using the word “anymore.” I think it was the idea that the last verse goes, “We can never be just what you see anymore,” so it’s about how it doesn’t really matter what’s going on on the outside of your body, it’s about what’s happening on the inside of your body.

Which is a beautiful sentiment, by the way.

Oh, thanks! I remember someone telling me there’s not just two sexes, that there’s like 26 or 27 different possibilities — there’s a variety of things we could be, in terms of gender.

With this album, do you think you wanted to prove to people you were actually cognizant of the idea that you’re a good songwriter instead of just some esoteric garage punk guy?

Maybe deep down and I didn’t realize it, but I was really focused on making the record quickly. We recorded it with Phil Manley from Trans Am just around the corner in his garage, because he lives like two blocks away from me. So, it was like, “We could record this on 8-track really fast and not make a lot of second guesses on it.”

With all the Sic Alps songs, I would put something down on acoustic guitar on one track and maybe sing over it, and it would be like, “Now what are we gonna do?” And then, it would be like, “Ah, I don’t know, we’ll have to figure out.”

And then it would turn into, like, “Trip Train” or something.

Exactly! Or it would get that swaying, multi-layered sandwich effect. Like how going in and out of time gets woozy and stuff. That’s all gone because the only overdubs we did [for this record] fortified the songs. We’d do the acoustics together, and then I’d go back and get a drumstick with a big T-shirt wrapped around it and hit the bass drum turned on its side to get the “baboom, baboom” effect, and then go back and record a tambourine. And then it was done! It was like, “Well, we could do something weird and put noise and more guitars over it,” but we didn’t. We were just trying to make it immediate.

Do you feel like eventually you’re going to get back to that? I remember when the self-titled Sic Alps record came out, you talked about how you still wanted to record “strange music.” Has that desire intensified now that you’ve recorded your acoustic blues album?

Yeah. Even more so. The next record — actually, we recorded a lot of the next record here at my house. Barrett [Avner] from Sic Alps came up in a week and we recorded five or six songs, and three or four of those songs are probably going to end up on the next record. I think it’s going to be a combination of a really raw sound and being sort of minimal. I kind of want to take the essence of an acoustic or stripped-down record, but have that old sound. We recorded it on the same machine we recorded a lot of the Sic Alps stuff on. Hopefully, it’ll be something between a sparse approach, having some grit, and having guys who can really make a song stand up straight, like total shredders.

With the Bay Area’s rock scene being as fruitful as it’s been, do you ever put any thought into being a pioneer of that scene, or having a hand in why it’s been so revered? Because to people who listen to a lot of the stuff that comes out of the Bay Area — like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees — Sic Alps were a very important band. Do you ever think about that?

Oh, totally! I’m really happy to have been involved with all that stuff. I’m happy with the role we actually played, whether or not we got a lot of recognition for it. I think it’s appropriate, I don’t think we’re making music that’s super destined for popularity. Being around those guys, like Ty and Thee Oh Sees, it was a mutual influence. And it’s a very special thing to me. I love hearing the mutual influence we have on each other.

Wot is due October 15th via Drag City.

 

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