Sic Alps are more palatable than The Hospitals, more unpredictable than Thee Oh Sees and Fresh and Onlys, and more varied than Ty Segall (though he’s getting there, maybe via time spent in Sic Alps). However, they share a definite something with those artists, a bond that can be traced between many of the current bands from that part of the San Francisco music world.
They seem to have the knack of doing whatever they like and the results being thorough listenable, even when new members drift in and out. I checked the recent interview in excellent fanzine ‘Niche Homo’ to make sure I wasn’t repeating anything asked before commencing this Q&A.
To begin with, please state:
Your names and roles in Sic Alps.
NVH: Noel V. Harmonson, newest member as of just over a year ago - guitar, bass, drums.
Mike: Mike Donovan, singer, strummer, penner of tunes.
Matt: Matt Hartman, all instruments, knob twiddling, and mixing desk octopus plus the occasional ‘ooh’ or ‘ahh’.
Past bands and musical biographies?
NVH: Before Sic Alps I played echo-electronics in Comets On Fire. I play solo feedback electronics gigs from time to time. I recorded and toured with Six Organs of Admittance. Other previous projects include Manslaughter, Murder Murder (oftentimes with Matt), the Lowdown, and St. Joseph and The Abandoned Food.
Mike: Most important was Mesh, the band that came right before Sic Alps. It was me and Luke from Child Abuse and we only recorded one cassette that no one has, and a Shagrat cover on some compilation. It was pretty much the germ of Sic Alps but bent with failure. We stole maybe four songs for Sic Alps.
How come Mesh didn’t work out? I take it Luke from Child Abuse wasn’t involved in starting Sic Alps?
Mike: Luke left to pursue a modeling career in Paris and beyond, finding plenty of success before becoming disillusioned with that biz. I’m sure he was “the most intelligent male model of all time”.
Matt: Henry’s Dress, Total Shutdown, Murder Murder, Cat Power, Coachwhips, various improv noise jams, The Husbands, Wax Idols. Have chops/will travel.
Is that The Husbands (great San Francisco band) featuring Sadie Shaw?
Matt: Yes it was. Been good friends with Sadie ever since Henry’s Dress recorded our last 7” with Tim Green. Can’t remember how much of it was on purpose and how much of it was a result of circumstance, but early on The Husbands had this idea that it would be just Sadie and Sarah and a giant mass of rotating drummers. The first show was with John Dwyer (of Oh Sees/Coachwhips). I believe I did the second show ever. Then I was replaced for a while and then later on I “joined” the band for a four or five date tour through Southern California with The Cherry Valence. For the life of me I can’t remember if it was before, during, or after my stint in Coachwhips. Pre-Sic Alps I was a bit of a session whore.
How much of your time is spent Sic-Alping?
NVH: About the right amount.
Mike: 24/7 of course.
Matt: There’s room for improvement.
What is a Sic Alp?
Mike: Tough question.
What other stuff do you do when not Sic-Alping?
NVH: Trying to make money through more traditional (and steady) avenues.
What are your more traditional/steady avenues?
Mike: Working on my new instructional book: “How to write Sic Alps lyrics while driving a taxi”
Matt: Turn my couch into a space lab. Bed-ins for peace without Yoko, etc.
How many songs do you write when the recording process has begun, and how many are sorted beforehand?
NVH: Mike is always coming up with loads of material for us to work on. Many songs that we work on get shelved for various reasons. Many we come back to later when the timing is right.
Matt: Some come to the table rather fully formed. Others go on longer adventures to finding themselves but the songs often take shape the most during the recording process.
There’s a real loose atmosphere to your records, but focused (i.e. anything might make the cut, but there’s nothing there just for the sake of it). How does the band function? Riff-writer, lyricist, arrangements, production?
NVH: Mike writes the tunes and the lyrics. Matt is more responsible for arranging and production. I hang back and add spice to the stew every once in a while.
Mike: Ah, yes but Noel has just contributed his first riff and its been fleshed into a full song, one of our best so far.
Matt: Yes, there is an increase lately of jamming a song into shape rather than our previous methods of layering parts as we record.
I’ve just been watching the footage of you in Sardinia (YouTube ‘Sic Alps DunaJam’), you seem the perfect amalgamation of the kind of music those guys put on - garage punk and slower jams. They used to do a poppier garage punk fest and a heavier, more psychedelic one - now the two are one, which category do you think they booked you for?
NVH: That was one of the coolest gigs I’ve ever played. It’s fascinating how that festival is shrouded in such mystery... I think you have to be invited to even attend! I really didn’t know what to expect and I’m still not sure in what way we were accepted that night. As you’ve seen in the videos of that gig, people were getting real “loose”. I had done a little bit of research into past DunaJam Festivals and I was expecting it to be a total sludgy stoner rock gig. There was some of that, but it was pretty varied as I remember. We played with this killer French band called O’sphaeratu (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf5jJCkBegY) that sounded a lot like Hawkwind. I’ll never forget that trip, it's funny to think that I can cross Sardinia off the list of places to try to play.
Matt: I hope they booked us under the category “all of the above”. Also hoping they make us one of the house bands for all future fests. I think it was more or less “stoner” themed, though a lot of the bands on the night we played could pass for other genres. I think they do the garage fest separately now, called PricklyPeaBowls. When we played with Crash Normal in Paris later on that same tour they said they were playing said festival with The Gories! I nearly shit myself. I’d already begun thinking how in the hell I could stow away in a guitar case or something. Never made it, but Sardinia is magic and I can’t wait to go back. Not sure if The Gories ever did play that thing (I managed to see them in SF and they KILLED!)
Following what I read in ‘Niche Homo’, from the way the records sound I can’t believe Matt hadn’t had much experience of recording bands before Sic Alps - is it all trial and error, ad hoc? It sounds like you are in complete control. The L Mansion single you put out on Slumberland seemed like a poppier progression from US EZ, and the new LP is he best of both worlds, was this conscious or did it just turn out that way?
NVH: There is an element of trial and error but Matt has always had a keen ear and a smooth finesse. We try to keep in simple and keep the dirty takes.
Mike: Matt's father is 92. That puts him directly into a classic rock gene pool with the all time greats, i.e. ‘60s giants. So yeah, he has ancient ears, for a start.
Matt: Ha! Well, yes. Sic Alps is my first attempt at recording music, but I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with a mixing console going in. But it helps to have ears too.
What is an L mansion?
Mike: A large house made of L smoke.
Which other bands would you align yourself with (contemporaries, geographically linked bands, historical lineage - anything really)?
NVH: Hmmmm, I dunno, I think that what Sic Alps has been up to is pretty unique, though the band gets lumped in with a lot of stuff that I think we have nothing to do with. I mean, I think that our influences are coming from different places than a lot of the younger bands that we’re compared to. Specifically, I don’t think we’re taking cues from ‘80s bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Feelies. We’re more into getting inspired by The Kinks, The Stones, and The Pretty Things and trying to filter those colors through an overly-casual and loose keep-the-first-take vibe.
I don’t really hear the ‘80s when I listen to you. I do get the Kinks, didn’t you even pinch one of their riffs for a song? I think it’s on the ‘Long Way Around...’ LP.
Matt: Yes it’s true. But the 13th Floor Elevators beat us to it. It wasn’t too conscious. I just remember Mike playing me the rhythm when we first started working on it and my brain immediately went to that (see: “Come On Now” & “Try To Hide’ respectively). It was too perfect a fit to pass on the grab. I mean even The Beatles grabbed a bit of that for "I Feel Fine" didn’t they?
Mike: Yeah, I agree... we don’t really have much in common with a lot of the stuff we get lumped in with. It was funny as we made our first tours with Noel he kept saying how he couldn’t believe that all the bands sound like Echo and the Bunnymen these days! Obviously this could be a problem for the future of good tunes - Duke McCool himself once sang: “Where’s the sense in stealing without the grace to be it?”
The artwork to your records perfectly suits the sound within, who does the art?
NVH: Thanks! I’ve never done any artwork for the band though. I know that our good friend Kim West (from the SF band Death Sentence Panda) has lent support and advice in the past.
Mike: Yes Kim did the layout for most of the records, always helping in details. She made the rainbow “Sic Alps” on the cover of ‘US EZ’ after the credits for a Fassbinder movie “Lola”. But yeah, outside of Kim’s help the art is about half me and half Matt.