The Agit Reader

Mike Donovan

November 11th, 2013  |  by Ron Wadlinger

Mike Donovan

Over the course of their nearly 10-year run, San Francisco’s Sic Alps built a reputation as one of the foremost purveyors of psychedelic garage rock. After the release of the She’s On Top EP earlier this year, the band decided to call it quits, leaving behind a strong (and lengthy) discography. Never one to rest for too long, former Alp Mike Donovan immediately set to work on a solo LP, Wot, which was released by Drag City in October.

On Wot, Donovan dials back the expansive noise and psychedelia that often highlighted Sic Alps’ records and shows and instead delves into the quiet, acoustic areas of the sonic spectrum in which his old group also used to dabble. The album’s sparse instrumentation allows Donovan to showcase his strengths as a songwriter and vocalist, and Wot makes a compelling case that he’s one of the more interesting and dynamic musicians toiling in the rock underground.

I caught up with Donovan over the phone near the end of a quick US tour to discuss Wot and his transition from being in a band to being a solo artist.

So on this tour, are you playing completely solo?

Oh no, Eric Park, who made the record with me, and William Keihn, who made the record cover, are playing with. It’s the three of us. It’s two acoustic guitars, and William’s playing the drums.

Do you have previous experience playing with those guys?

I played with Eric in a band called Yikes, maybe about eight years ago or so.

I have to ask, are there any particular reasons why you’ve moved on from Sic Alps and to the solo thing?

Well, it just kind of seemed like a really good time to do it. We just put out She’s On Top, which is essentially a live record, and so I felt like we had done a good job documenting what the band had evolved into, in terms of the line-up and such. I was planning on doing it in tandem with a solo record. It was just going to be a one-off thing, and then it was like, “I can just let my parents name this band.”

In a sense, the new album sounds like a continuation from your work with Sic Alps.  Do you view this as continuing along that same path or is this something completely different?

It was a different way of doing it because, like I said, I made the record with Eric, and we really practiced it a lot. We played all the guitars at the same time in the studio, so it’s all live takes. All the overdubs were really simple things that just fortified it, so it was a pretty different approach from making a Sic Alps recording, where we would put one track down and then be like, “Okay, what’s next?” We’d do whatever we want. With this, there was lots of preparation, and then we went in and just knocked it out, as opposed to Sic Alps records that would take like six months to record.

I feel like the album has a more relaxed sound.

Yeah, I guess that’s just what happens when you set it up that way, with a couple of acoustic guitars at the same time. It wasn’t a particularly relaxing time in my life. It’s like there’s one thing happening, and then you kind of want to balance it out. So getting released around the same time as pretty heavy band kind of stuff, maybe Wot was just a balance for that.

Did you have these songs sitting around previously or were these written specifically for the album?

It was a combination of stuff. I tried to do a few of the songs with Sic Alps before, but there was a period over Christmas time when I sat down and was like, “I’m going to write all these lyrics down.” That took like a two-week period. So that was a bit more concentrated in terms of the songwriting. Sic Alps had always been more like a scattershot kind of thing, but with this, there was a concentrated period of writing.

There’s more of a cohesive tone to the album, while Sic Alps was more all over the place. Was that intentional?

I guess it kind of was. I was listening to this FJ McMahon record that was reissued last year. It’s from 1969, I think. Every song sounds the same in terms of production. It’s like, there’s guitar in one speaker, there’s guitar in the other speaker, the drums are there, the vocals are there, and there’s this much reverb on that guitar. Basically, they just ran through the record. So that was kind of the idea, to have that kind of consistency.

There’s also this fellow named Georges Brassens, this famous French singer. I have this boxed set of his called 10 Ans De Brassens. It’s six LPs, and every single song is recorded the same way. I was into that and that was kind of the inspiration, but it didn’t really end up being that way. Even though we did all the playing together and did it all the same way, it ended up not really having that vibe, I don’t think. I think a lot of the songs sound similar, but it’s not completely uniform in the sound. We sort of lost the plot on that one, a little bit.

What’s your live approach with this new band?

We’re trying to play the record, and then there are about four new songs that are a little bit more rock & roll, plus one Sic Alps song from the last record, “Thylacine Man,” that’s most like the solo record. It’s the same thing in that Eric and I are playing the same acoustics, but we’re playing them through amplifiers. He does all the back-up vocals that I was doing on the record. He’s really, really fun to sing with. There are a lot of harmonies going on. On the album, we used a bass drum turned over on its side, drum sticks wrapped up with a t-shirt for a real soft kind of thud, and then a tambourine, and that would be it, so we got William and told him to do that stuff. It’s kind of half like that and then half like a rock & roll drummer. There’s only like two songs with a snare drum on the record, but he’s playing a snare drum on every song. So it’s a little bit more like rock & roll than Wot, but it’s also sounding a lot like the record too, in a way.

What’s the difference between playing with this group and with the Sic Alps?

I guess it’s that Sic Alps became a real tight, very rock & roll band. This is more of a relaxed, loose kind of thing, probably just because we’re playing acoustic guitars. We don’t have a bass player. Tim Hellman was playing bass in Sic Alps, and Douglas [Armour] was a real powerful drummer, and Barrett [Avner] was doing amazing leads all the time. All that stuff’s kind of gone.

The Bay Area has produced a lot of titans of underground rock in recent years, bands like Sic Alps, Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall…

That’s John Dwyer’s nickname for Ty, Titan.

How would you appraise the current state of the scene in and around San Francisco?

A lot of the people are dispersed, in a way, because San Francisco’s gotten crazy with money and the technology corridor, or whatever you call it. It’s super-expensive to live there, so most of us are either leaving or have left. So it’s definitely changing. The people who made that stuff are still hard at work, it’s just I’m not sure if you’d be able to call it “San Francisco music” much longer.

What kind of stuff have you been listening to lately?

In the car, we were just listening to the Strapping Fieldhands, but I always come back to the classics, I guess, The Kinks and stuff like that. And that FJ McMahon record, which I found out about last year, I’ve been listening to that a bunch.

What’s next for you after the tour?

I’m going to take some time to finish writing the next record, then I’m going to take a little vacation. And then when I’m back in San Francisco, I’m going to get together with a bunch of different dudes— the guys I’m playing with now, some of the guys from Sic Alps, and some other guys— and put together the next record.

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