Sic Alps
This Ain’t the Summer of Love
by Kevin J. Elliott

Mike Donovan and Matt Hartman have had a long fabled history in the wooly realm of underground music ritual. Playing in outfits as diverse as Cat Power and the Coachwhips, running small-print labels like Dial Recordings and Folding Cassettes, and evolving their own collaboration in the Bay Area (an environment prone to leftfield ideas), they’ve learned a thing or three about how they want things to sound. As the duo Sic Alps that sound has become a deft balance of scruffy inventive production and classically woozy pop songs. Nowhere is that synergy more pronounced than on their latest album for Siltbreeze, U.S. Ez, a record that finds a wholly gratifying middle ground between the band’s raucous unhinged live show and their eternal love for swooning psychedelia spun with old spools of yarn. It’s a record equally inspired by the White Album and white noise, though the latter only appears in spirit, where in the past it was a common companion. Even in veteran status (not in age but experience) the duo embrace the learning curve brought with the changing times, the new kids, a reinvigorated Siltbreeze, and here exhibit the greatest of restraint when needed—and the scant amount of avant-fizz appropriate to shade the edges and prove a point.

As Hartman explained on a recent tour stop in Columbus, sharing an outrageous Thursday night bill with labelmates Psychedelic Horseshit, it took the long way around a shortcut to prepare what is by and large the duo’s first real “banquet” of songs after spending the last few years feeding the hungry with, albeit nutritious and fulfilling, snacks and appetizers.

Over the last year you’ve put out a glut of material; it seems like you always have a well of music to dip from. So how then do you decide what goes on which release or which songs you give to certain labels, for instance, giving the songs for U.S. Ez to Siltbreeze?

Matt Hartman: A lot of it is happenstance. The way it boiled out is we got a lot of recording equipment—or actually borrowed some recording equipment—to do the first 12-inch. We were basically sitting on the Pleasures and Treasures album, which is the only thing I didn’t play on, though I helped finish it. I was trying to shop that around to people that I thought might want to put it out, or might have been able to put it out. One of the first guys I approached was Mark at Omnibus. He told me they weren’t doing Omnibus, but he was doing a label with hyper-limited vinyl. And that really wasn’t what we wanted to do since it was a full-length and we wanted to keep it in press. So we said how about we record a four-song EP? And he was cool with it, so that’s how that started.

Then Gary from Animal Disguise, who knew Mike from the Folding label, asked if he could do a tape for us. So it was like, bam, four more songs. That’s how that began. Basically someone would contact us and say, “I would like to do something.” And we would say, “Sure.” Same thing with Skulltones: they just wrote us, we looked on their website and it was something we were into, so we decided to do two more songs for them. To be honest, we are really like short-order cooks serving up songs for people coming to the restaurant. It’s made to order.

And the Siltbreeze record? Was that made to order or something you had already done?

MH: Well, the original plan was to do a double-album for Animal Disguise, and we had been working on songs with that in mind, trying to just get a group of songs together. This, that and the other happened, and it ended up being a single LP for Siltbreeze. But we knew that by the time we finished it. It was almost a protracted experience because all of the sudden we weren’t just short-order, we were creating more of a banquet of songs. And that put a little more weight on it somehow, at least in our minds it did. So we actually started revisiting some stuff, like we re-did “Gelly Roll Gum Drop.” The song was so old that we knew something was not right with it. It was challenging. And now we are kind of wondering if for a little while we are going to go back to our original modus operandi of being label sluts: a hooker, short-order cook.

You’ve both been in a number of vastly different bands over the years, especially Matt. Can you think of anything specifically from those bands that you’ve learned and filtered into Sic Alps (for better or worse)?

MH: As far as what the old bands brought to us, it is more of a mechanical influence. Playing in the Coachwhips, I realized that it’s a really good idea to be self-contained. And I know John (Dwyer) borrowed that from Providence and Lightning Bolt. I really felt that for this band. When we started playing, I knew we had to figure out a way to control the vocals and make sure we can fuck shit up when we want to, if we want to or not. That idea of being able to present the show the way you want it no matter what, bypass the sound guy who has no idea what you mean when you ask to put some reverb on the vocals. You know, “Can we get some reverb on the vocals?” and you get some fucking Ted Nugent arena reverb. There’s no time to have that dialogue with a complete stranger. You’re sort of always at the mercy of someone interpreting how they think your band should sound, when nine times out of ten they’ve never even heard of you. You can travel with a sound man, but you can’t do that until you’re playing 3,000 seat venues anyways. For me it’s always been important to keep it at a DIY level, and if necessary be able to play at a parking lot as long as you can find an AC outlet—always be able to keep it that packaged and presentable. I need that control. So you know, maybe eventually we’ll get that third member, and it will be a sound engineer.

And sonically? Was it an aesthetic choice to bring in loads of reverb, distortion and feedback to the recording process? That gauze of effect never seems to get in the way, or hide the core of the songs. Do you find yourselves editing through the mixes to achieve that balance or are most of the records a fairly accurate document of what’s going on in the room?

MH: It depends on the project. The “Strawberry Guillotine” 7-inch we did for Woodsist, we did in a day and a half. It was one of those things where you just go with your gut and we were already set on the way it should sound. A lot of times the way it works is that Mike will bring a song in an acoustic form, or sometimes maybe a rough demo. That will trigger some sort of idea in me. To me “Strawberry Guillotine” just sounded like it needed a wall of hissy feedback the whole time.

So everything more or less gets pieced together by the end?

MH: The recording process kind of lends itself to that. We only have one microphone and a really small, crappily built subdivision of my garage to record in. So it’s often like lay the guitar down, maybe an electric guitar, and get the vocal. Then we keep adding, keep putting a dress on it. Sometimes you get it, though, right off the bat.

Then how did you arrive at the mood for U.S. Ez? There’s less obstruction of the melodies and it’s more of a mellow vibe than anything you’ve done in the past.

MH: It’s not my life’s mission to purposefully obscure a good song with a bunch of noise and crappy production. That sounds cool sometimes—and we’ll do that sometimes—but I always try to stay sensitive to what’s appropriate for the song. So a song like “Massive Place,” that opens the record and had to be an ass-kicker. The riff calls for it. But sometimes the way to make it ass-kicking is to leash it in weird ways. Live, it’s much more crushing on the drums. On the record, though, it’s a really loud sounding drum that’s really far away in order to make the bassline totally dominate. Shit just happens. You drink half a bottle of scotch while you’re working on a record and suddenly you’re lucky and it sounds cool. By the end of the day you’re listening back to the tracks and you’re either nodding your head, grooving out and giving yourself a pat on the back or you’re just bummed and you go, “Fuck it, let’s try something different.”

I just thought of this now, but maybe it’s more important to keep the light on the subject really focused and let the subject be fucked up as opposed to playing really normal and then fucking the production up so bad that then it sounds weird. It’s a more interesting challenge to have a crystal clear recording, and I think U.S. Ez is relatively our most hi-fi production given the fact that we record on a 1980 eight-track tape machine. We’re as hi-fi as we can get with that machine. Whether I would get much more hi-fi than that I don’t know. That’s where I really start to get uncomfortable.

You’re in Columbus, so this has to be asked. Lately it’s been easy for journalists to herd you guys under the same umbrella inhabited by Psychedelic Horseshit, Times New Viking, No Age, Eat Skull, simply for your lack of/adherence to alternate fidelities. Do you think this is a fair assessment of what you’re doing?

MH: It’s lazy journalism. I’ve always been a “let it be” kind of guy. My credo has always been that I’m going make the music I want to make and have it sound how I want it to sound and if people don’t like it, it’s out of my hands. Once the record gets released I can’t do anything about it. What is curious to me, though, just having read the review of the record in the Columbus paper, it made it sound like it was a lot more distorted, fucked-up and blown out than it actually is. People who read that and buy the record solely based on that review are going to be disappointed. They’re going to get the record home and it’s going to sound like a Charlie Daniels record. I know all of this is because we are on Siltbreeze, but all those bands have been doing their thing since before they heard us, and we’ve been doing our thing long before we heard of them. It’s funny because I love those bands. I listen to those bands and all the things they do, but it’s so much more lo-fi than what we do. But that’s neither here nor there. I think it’s kind of ironic though that we made our most high fidelity record for Siltbreeze.