One thing San Francisco's music scene will never be short on is ego, especially during a time when artists here are trend-setting at a breathless pace.
One set of dudes you'll never catch going on about what cult label's dropping their latest disc is the Sic Alps, whose damaged noise rock has been hissing through amps since 2004, and will continue to bring the reverb on Napa Asylum (Drag City), which drops on January 25th. Matt Hartman, Mike Donovan and Noel Von Harmonson are veterans of underground rock, having separately inhabited acts such as Henry's Dress, Comets on Fire, the Coachwhips and Cat Power before convening in the Sic Alps. Maybe name-dropping is a newbie thing? We caught up with them about opening for Sonic Youth and Pavement, what inspired Napa Asylum's mellow mood, and what SF bands are on their radar.
You guys have been the supporting act for bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo. How does it feel to receive adulation from bands like these? Do you ever get starstruck? Who have been your favorite to work with?
MIKE: All these bands were super fun to play with, I'll say at the risk of sounding like a kiss-ass. It makes you feel great to have these giants asking you, as it should, I reckon. Personally I have the biggest connection to Pavement, from a fan standpoint. It was interesting to see Malkmus and Hartman get along super-famously. Those dudes got a lot in common.
NOEL: Yeah, that was a surprising string of events. It felt great for our services to be requested by a handful of the royalties, repeatedly. I had run into a few of those folks in the past but these campaigns really made the ball roll full circle. Great times.
MATT: It's pretty amazing to get kudos from all these groups. Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" hit my radar via an old battered and broken public access MTV clone called Teletrax in Albuquerque, New Mexico circa '88. Black Flag, Minutemen, Dinosaur, St. Vitus, Descendents, et al. one of the best happy accidents ever for me. I saw Pavement in 1992 when Gary was still drumming with them at a little po-dunk bar called the Golden West Saloon. Starstruck? I don't know. But it was a bit surreal having a discussion with Thurston [Moore, of Sonic Youth] about why or why not the Grateful Dead had a complicit role in all the bad tidings at Altamont, and having his daughter Coco say, "Dad, what the heck is Altamont?"
The three of you are veterans of numerous underground music scenes, and have been in a pretty large number of bands collectively. Matt and Mike, I know you started the band while you, Noel, joined kind of recently. What keeps you all creating such great stuff as the Sic Alps?
MIKE: The desire to make something new again.
NOEL: We've made a collective laundry list of past projects, for sure: NAM, Mesh, Henry's Dress, Comets on Fire, Big Techno Werewolves, Coachwhips, etc. As for what keeps us going? I don't know, to speak for myself, I guess I'm just still inspired to try new things with good friends.
MATT: I always find myself saying "If I was in this for the money, I would have quit a long time ago". What can I say? Music is the best thing there is. If I can keep creating something that I wanna hear then I'll keep at it. Barring that I'll go be an old cowboy somewhere.
Napa Asylum is a pretty mellow album on the whole compared to a lot of your other releases. What state of mind were you guys in when you were making the album?
MIKE: Personally I was in two primary moods: relationship death and relationship birth.
NOEL: I was in a state of mind of I'm-the-new-guy crossed with what's-going-on-here? I seem to remember some other states of mind as well. It was really fun. We took our time and I think that allowed for a lot of different moods to creep in and visit whether they were invited at the time or not. Is it really "mellow?"
MATT: Good question. As always, I'm thinking about each song and what parts are trying to claw their way into my conscience. Just focusing on what sounds "right", and messing with this and that until it starts to click. I guess how everything turns out as a whole is, in a way, happenstance. There's an element of apophenia and happy accidents and such. The piano in "Saint Peter Writes His Book" being slightly out of tune for example, but we left it because it seemed befitting to the whole of the song. Or the song order - a lot of letting things be what they want to be. I wasn't too conscious of a particular mood or that the album sounds mellower than previous work. But I suppose it does....
Is "Napa Asylum" in reference to the one-time Cramps' jam space Napa State Mental Hospital?
MIKE: Not exactly. The Napa Asylum in question is the building that pre-dated Napa State, were the Cramps played the Target Video show. Napa Asylum was a gigantic Victorian building designed by a fellow named Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a giant of 19th century mental healthcare. My friend had a pencil drawing of this place on hanging his wall that he found at a yardsale. That picture was the genesis of the record, but concept records are like "everybody getting up on stage and jamming together at the end of the gig"- sounds like a good idea but just really something you shouldn't do.
NOEL: Unless you're in Pioneer Town, CA, cue youtube.com
MATT: Cramps at Napa State is definitely an influence on my world music view however.
A lot of your songs are so short, they always leave me wanting more. Would you guys ever switch it up and do an album or EP of suites or long jams?
MIKE: We have been trying to make the songs longer. I think the short thing represents a kind of shyness on my part, that I'm getting over slowly. Our next release that we've been working on is heading more toward typical lengths. Hopefully this won't be a bore for everyone.
NOEL: When I joined the band I had to learn about 45 minutes of material in a few weeks. That shouldn't be too difficult sans the fact that it comprised like 22 songs! My mind is still exhausted and playing catch up. Plus, it seems like there are new tunes rolling in every week. I do what I can and it seems to be working out... just.
MATT: Part ADHD? I don't know. I'll go back to the idea that the songs do what they want to do. I wouldn't want to drag a song out merely to spite our history thus far. I guess with dance music on the popular-music table folks in general get used to this concept of a groove which repeats ad-nauseum. Perhaps we conciously or unconciously come from a background more rooted in early rock 'n roll. See Pete Townsend's comments regarding "A Quick One" and how the pop song was "Two minutes fifty by tradition! anything more than that and they'll have you before the board!" or to quote Black Flag's Chuck Dukowski, "They're short because that's how long the inspiration lasts".
What local bands have been on your radar recently?
MIKE: White Fence is a LA/SF band and they are ruling, now in the live department as well.
MATT: 2010 introduced me to The Splinters and Wax Idols who I both adore. I think I was borderline stalking The Splinters for a second there. I'm a big fan of Wiggwaum, a glorious avant jazz mess of a trio.
What’s on your plate in 2011, besides your US tour?
MIKE: A Euro tour, an Oz trip and some more new music, too.
NOEL: A total sneak attack.
MATT: Is this where I affect the Monster-Truck-commercial-announcer-voice and say "TOTAL DOMINATION!"? In truth, I wouldn't be getting a massage in at some point.
The Sic Alps' next shows are Feb. 9th and Feb. 21st, both at Great American Music Hall, and Feb. 24th at the Eagle Tavern.