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.