SAN FRANCISCO has every right to claim itself as the current rock 'n' roll hub of California, and perhaps even the country—if for no other reason than the sheer volume of output by three bands over the past few years. Thee Oh Sees released two LPs in 2011 and another this year. Ty Segall is about to release his third of 2012. And Sic Alps recorded two 7-inches and a full-length last year; in 2012 they've already added two more 7-inches to the shelf and just released a new LP this month.
This kind of saturation would normally kill a band. It should kill a band. Instead, the incestuous Bay Area rock underbelly seems to be getting better, as bands continue to twist Moby Grape-inspired garage rock into wonderfully skewed new forms. "The songwriting is the conduit for the fun in the studio," explains Sic Alps vocalist/guitarist/last man standing Mike Donovan. "There's still stuff I want to do."
Last year's Napa Asylum proved just that, resulting in a sprawling and moody double record whose pop sensibilities were occasionally obscured by rickety home production and jarring firebombs of guitar squalor. The new Sic Alps has the band cleaning up its act, choosing to record for the first time in an actual studio. That's not to say the record has been shellacked beyond recognition. There's still a ramshackle feel to "Thylacine Man" and "Wake Up, It's Over II," which manage to juggle the heroin chic of Velvet Underground and the grand pop of Big Star.
"Overall, we put a little more thought into it, and tried different approaches," Donovan says. "Like I've said before, we were trying to challenge ourselves instead of the listener."
Most notable is the addition of some new-old sounds to the mix. You'll hear them immediately in opener "Glyphs," a scrappy number tamed slightly by string arrangements from Portland by way of local multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi, known for his work with Joanna Newsom. However, it's the album's final minutes that might be the most jarring—not for any noisy freakouts, but for how serene they are. "Rock Races" is sad and melty, with guitars barely audible over piano and strings, while "See You on the Slopes"—which Donovan says originates from a 21-year-old melody—might be the quietest Sic Alps song ever put to tape.
The inclusion of strings was also part of the impetus for recording the songs in a studio. The decision also kept the band on task. "When you record at home you can wait until inspiration strikes and it only costs you the price of tape," Donovan says. He continues with a laugh. "At some point we had to get the record done. It was more like, 'That was a $250 song.'"
Sic Alps saw another change recently when longtime drummer Matt Hartman left the band last year, which shook things up, if only briefly, as they subsequently released four 7-inches in the following nine months. Donovan—along with drummer Douglas Armour, guitarist Barrett Avner, and Tim Hellman on bass—already have a new batch of songs in the bag.
Not surprisingly, Donovan credits the band's prolific ways to a culture inspired by hyperactive Thee Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer. Sic Alps are no slouches themselves, having earned the respect of Thurston Moore and the members of Pavement. Donovan admits it's a nice perk to doing what he does. "Making a living from music is difficult," he says. "But making a life of it is pretty easy."