SOUNDTRACKING: Five Minutes With Mike Donovan Of Sic Alps As He Waits For Lunch

by Daniel Colussi | Sic Alps are a band whose LPs are never far from my home hi-fi. Theirs is a kind of lethargic, burnt-out rock music that sounds good in the AM or late at night, in the warm summer months or deep in winter. Alps’ main man Mike Donovan has guided the group from its humble beginnings as a barely-held-together two man garage rock combo into its current incarnation as a full blown, string-laden psych-pop affair. Yes, their newest self-titled album is a gorgeous-sounding paean to the golden age of pop music, when hooks were aplenty and no tune lasted longer than three minutes. No one could’ve predicted this trajectory for Sic Alps based on the early days of the band, so I had to talk to Donovan about he got this far, which he did while waiting for his order of shrimp mac-and-cheese to be come up. For insight into what makes a perfect pop record, indulge…

Tell me about making the new album. Well, Drag City hooked the whole thing up. They paid to have Ryan Francesconi put strings on the two tracks and have really good musicians come in and lay down the strings. It was a thing that was always out of reach in terms of a budget. You know, like working with an arranger. It was arranged by Ryan Francesconi, who did all the arrangements for Joanna Newsom.

So I take it that you didn’t record the new album in the way that all past Sic Alps records were recorded — with one mic, one instrument at a time, et cetera?Exactly. Yeah, we always did it on the eight-track down in the basement. One mic, one little pre-amp, one reverb tank, a memory man pedal for delay. Super easy. We did the album with my really good old friend of mine, Eric Bauer, at his studio called Bauer Mansion. We sort of eased our way of doing our whole record down there. It took a while, maybe about a year and half. It wasn’t a typical studio experience where you get in there and it’s like $250 a day, it wasn’t like that at all. In the end we paid pennies on the dollar for what we did. A big bro deal. But at the same time it was also the first time where we had to take a big leap of faith and just let it go.

Did you write the album specifically with this kind of approach in mind? I’m thinking particularly about the last two tracks, the two really beautiful piano ballads. Yeah, I mean we definitely wanted to take advantage of that studio to do those kind of songs, and having the piano on it sounded really nice. It was, uh, liberating. Tim Hellman, the bass player, he played lots of 12-string on the record, and he did all the piano. He did a lot of good bass parts, too. Like the song God Bless Her has some really nice bass parts, and we recorded just the rhythm section live, which is something we never would’ve done in the past.  We were always building the track by track, swaying triple-decker sandwich or whatever. I just made that up, that sounds ridiculous! But Glyhps, for instance, that was the way we’d always done it, where I laid down the acoustic track and then a scratch vocal, but then that’ll probably end up being the vocal, you know? And then from there it’s like, well ok, who’s got the best idea? It’s kind of like a democracy. So who’s here, what do you think, what do you hear? If someone hears something then they go in there and lay it down.  < strong>You’ve been pretty industrious for the last six months or so, you’ve put out 4 7″s and an LP. The Vedley 7″ was pretty rad. Ha, thanks! That was kind of like the appendix for this record, all the dirt that went into it. I did it at home by myself pretty much. I was plundering the archives. I think that was the release from doing all the hi-fi stuff. I’d kind of like to do a whole album that way. Hopefully it’s kind of disorienting. Listen, I’ve got this food coming up, it’s shrimp macaroni and cheese so I don’t want to let it sit…

Sic Alps and The Oh Sees play The Rickshaw on Saturday October 6th.

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Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine and a contributing writer to Ion Magazine. A veteran employee of Zulu Records and tuneage aficionado, he DJs on an infrequent basis (about four times a year) and is a musician around town who plays in several ensembles.

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