Mike Donovan of Sic Alps on how touring is all about the hour you're on stage every day
Sic Alps is the long-running project of Mike Donovan and whatever group of people become part of the band at any given time. It would be a bit of a reduction to call his songwriting "garage rock." This is more than just people with a lot of energy playing stripped down rock and roll. There's an introspective element that haunts Donovan's melodies. Think Donovan in a dark mode or Mason Proffit with a decadent flavor with a touch of a broody John Lennon. Live, the group has a presentation like you're seeing the last of a line cult bands from California in the 1970s. There is an ineffably compelling quality to the songs and the vibe of the group that sets it apart from many of its peers. We recently spoke Donovan about his tenure in the Ropers, being part of Neil Hagerty's backing band and how he is able to almost trick himself into continuing with a career in music.
Westword: What got you into the world of underground music beyond listening to it?
Mike Donovan: I went to school at a community college called College of DuPage in Illinois. This fellow named Nick, who worked at Rose Records, which is a record chain there, before I was eighteen, he turned me on to so many bands with mixtapes and stuff. He turned me on to the Fall, Can and Flaming Lips, a litany of bands I'd never heard before. Prior to that, I was into normal weird stuff, but that opened the doors for me.
Is it true you were in the Ropers?
Yeah, I played drums on the last thing they did. It was really fun. I was living in D.C. at the time. I went to the University of Maryland for a couple of years. I was living in the city after going there. They needed a drummer, and I said I would do it. I was in the band for like six months -- which is a long time when you're 21. The first party or show I went to out there, they were playing in the basement. One of the other bands playing I cover on the new record -- Gluey. They never put anything out, but that last song on the record, "See You On the Slopes," is theirs.
Did you start out playing drums, or did you begin with another instrument?
I started playing guitar at eighteen but always in a band with friends from school. We had a band called Noise. It existed for twelve years or something. I was always the singer but there was always a drum kit around, too, so I was probably better at drums than I was on guitar when I started playing guitar.
When and why did you move to San Francisco?
I moved their sixteen years ago because it seemed like a great thing to do. I didn't know anybody here at all. The Ropers had come back from playing there and said, "Yeah, there were two-hundred fifty people at the show! It was crazy." What, really? The Ropers broke up before I moved out there but a lot of those people moved out there around the same time.
What did you find the reality of San Francisco to be?
Nothing like that at all. I was super into Henry's Dress, and I just saw their last show. When I got there the first band I was in was called Delevelum. We released two 7-inches. One of them was with Douglas, who is now in the band.
What was the impetus in forming Sic Alps in particular in 2004?
I just kind of wanted to do this band. I was in this thing called Mesh for a while with a friend, and he took off, so it was the same idea. I was friends with Adam [Stonehouse] from the Hospitals and he'd just moved from Portland. I asked him if he wanted to start a band, and he said, "Yeah!" So I gave him a tape with four songs, and he's really good at recording on the Tascam 388 machine he had. So we recorded stuff that turned out good, and then we recorded an album.
What was the idea behind Mesh?
It was me and Luke who ended up being in Child Abuse. He played keyboards. We stole all the songs -- they all became Sic Alps songs. "Strawberry Guillotine" was one and "The Drake," maybe. It was primitive rock and roll with keyboards and a bunch of noise. We would pre-record collages of noise and stuff and bring it in on the mixer, so people would be like, "What?!" We never really got it right. It was like Wolf Eyes meets psych Sic Alps or something.
What prompted you to start up your own labels?
I was doing a label called Dial, which was really fun, but I stopped doing that to do Folding Cassettes, because it was a lot easier to do a short run and have it work out, as opposed to spending $1,500 bucks on a CD that no one's going to buy, you know?
What made you want to release an album on Siltbreeze, and how did you get hooked up with them?
Tom Lax actually wrote to Sic Alps and said he wanted to buy this Sic Alps stuff. We ended up talking about all this music, and I said, "Oh, you're in Philadelphia where you have The Record Exchange. I bought the Strapping Fieldhands' Discus record there in 1994." At first I wasn't sure who I was talking to, and then I realized it was Tom Lax from Siltbreeze. He said we should put an album out, so we did.
Your last couple of releases came out on Drag City. How did working with them come about?
We played a show in Evanston and Dan [Koretzky] came to the show. He picked up a copy of U.S. EZ and said, "I would love to have put this out." It took us a long time to make another record but they're a cool label and great to work with.
You seem to tour often. What do you feel is important about it, and what do you enjoy about it?
The playing, that's what it's always about. Everything else I can take it or leave it. Traveling is cool. But then it becomes all about the hour you're on stage every day. It's fun, but it comes with a lot of boredom.
You and I are close to the same age, which is probably older than your average touring underground musician. Most people, when they reach a certain age, give up on the whole thing you're doing.
Yeah, I'm about to.
Well, what has kept you connected to that underground world of which you're very much a part?
I don't know. We just keep doing it. I have never had really that much of a connection with other bands. Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall are the names that I always say in interviews that are super cool. I don't know, man. I just don't have good ideas, relatively speaking, as far as I'm concerned. So I'm going to keep doing it until it gets boring. Hopefully it didn't already get boring and I don't know what I'm talking about.
It just keeps going, and I'm surprised. I'm always like, "Oh, it's fun. Give me two more years. Then I'll stop doing it." Then, two years later, you say the same thing. The years go by fast. Also, I made my first album when I was 34. I'm a late bloomer, you know. Hey, you live in Denver, yeah? Have you seen Neil Hagerty play there yet?
No, but it's interesting that you know he lives here now. I did a lengthy interview with him, but it's not out yet. He's a down-to-earth guy who happened to be in more than one legendary musical project.
We played in his band one time. He came to SF for one show, and he asked us to be the band. With one other guy we played a two-and-a-half-hour set. And we played two Sic Alps songs. He sweetened the deal by saying he'd play on two of our songs. That was in 2007. He got our email from the website, I think, and contacted us.
You had a split with Magik Markers?
We'd already done a bunch of shows with them and we'd been friends for a year or so, and we did it so we could do a West Coast tour around Christmas that year.
You've also done a Throbbing Gristle cover?
It was their attempt to do a hit: "United." I figured we could make it sound like a Henry's Dress song. We played it completely wrong, and it wasn't a faithful cover.
In the past, your records have had intriguing titles. Why did you want to go with self-titled record this time?
Just to give it a fresh start kind of thing.
On the new album you have a song called "Thylacine Man." Is there any special significance to that?
No but the animal is an extinct marsupial wolf. Those things are fucking cool.
You've played different styles of music across your career. What do you feel the music you do with this band allows you to express or evoke especially well?
That's a tough call. It's been a great platform for saying a bunch of bullshit for sure.
What makes playing a DIY space sometimes preferable to playing a bar or a larger venue?
I just like the vibe. The black box gets kind of old when the soundmen are uptight. Places like that are always really great.
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