Sic Alps, with Mike Donovan at far right.
Mike Donovan, figurehead of San Francisco rock band Sic Alps, is grinning in the kitchen of his ground-floor apartment, explaining what he likes about driving a cab for a living. Along with the fact that Donovan usually works only a couple 12-hour days per week — and can go on tour when and for however long he wants — there’s the informality of the job.
“I’m not remotely as cool as Ron Swanson — I don’t want to put myself in the same breath,” he continues. “But I love the handshake-deal life, the good life that doesn’t cost money. Cab-driving fits with that really well.”
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Another thing that fits with that really well: Recording your band’s woozy psych-rock on analog tape machines in your own garage or your friends’ pads or old mental hospitals, getting the best result you could on the cheap, and then putting it out. And so that’s what Donovan and Sic Alps have done — until now.
For its new self-titled album, the band traded their trademark informality for what could almost be called polish. Donovan and Co. were given a real budget by their label, Drag City. They went into a proper studio (Bauer Mansion in S.F.’s Chinatown), hired a pro to mix the songs, and even got a string quartet to flesh out a few parts.
The result is something of a revelation. The band’s fourth proper album still shares a lot with its predecessors — that delirious reverb, Donovan’s scratchy, distant vocals, and distorted guitars that sound more like an implosion-in-progress than any kind of desired effect. There’s still that listless, meandering quality to Sic Alps’ music.
But now, the listlessness sounds a lot prettier — and it’s paired with the closest thing to straight-up guitar pop this band has ever done. Songs like “God Bless Her, I Miss Her,” and “Moviehead” can genuinely be described as catchy: the former rides an uptempo shuffle, building an approachable groove out of understated guitars and twinkling piano. The later is a Kinks-y rave-up, a gorgeous slab of folk-pop as seen through the haze of an acid-addled afternoon.
The quieter songs are even more surprising. Opener “Glyphs” features lush contributions from members of the Real Vocal String Quartet. Somber closer “See You on the Slopes” finds Donovan singing alone, accompanied only by a piano. Sic Alps have approached this kind of intimacy in the past, but it was always tempered with chaos, by sonics that alienated the listener while luring them in.
That was on purpose. “There’s something about disorientation that’s always been appealing to me,” Donovan explains. He’s “not trying to fuck with people’s minds,” but has always felt the urge to spoil any easygoing moments with white noise and ear-shredding feedback.
Which may be partly why Donovan’s peers in the San Francisco rock scene — pals and collaborators like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees — seem to be growing ever more popular, while Sic Alps, with its eerie, unvarnished sound, doesn’t. The band has opened for Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Pavement — and Stephen Malkmus reportedly once quipped that it would be the most important band of the next decade. Yet Sic Alps has remained more of an underground secret, sharing fans with their local colleagues and touring all over the world without quite bubbling up into the larger consciousness.
This new, surprisingly accessible album, which is seeing some of the best reviews of the band’s career, may change that. But then, Donovan doesn’t seem to be itching to make it huge. At 41, he’s skinny and energetic, self-possessed and seemingly upbeat. He’s found a way to make a living and play in a functional touring band, and he’s already plotting the next Sic Alps project. (Hint: Expect less cleanliness.) And anyway, getting bigger would only require more paperwork. We all know what Ron Swanson would say to that.