Rock giveth and rock taketh away. Hearing loss — give or take a pound of flesh, hunk of hair, chunk of gray matter, or a tooth or two — seems like a fair trade when there’s so much pleasure to be gleaned from the volume and insight, good drunks and bad trips. And Mike Donovan (Ropers, NAM, Big Techno Werewolves, Sounds of the Barbary Coast, Yikes) and Matt Hartman (Henry’s Dress, Total Shutdown, Cat Power, Coachwhips) of SF’s downlow supergroup Sic Alps are here to remind you of the upside of rock’s stubbly downside. They’ve been there, done that, heard it, and are "embracing the damage," as Donovan puts it.
No damage today though: Sic Alps and I are tucked into Hartman’s Spartan, tidy bedroom — small Who photo on the wall, Kit Kat bar on the stereo, pink-cheeked stuffed animal on the pillow. It’s a sane, sober scene. He’s fiddling with his laptop, preparing to play unmastered tracks from the duo’s sorta super, four-song, vinyl-only, home-recorded EP, The Soft Tour in Rough Form, on mt. st. mtn. The April 15 release is just the first roughed-up pebble in what will likely become a Sic avalanche of music. Judging from the tunes jetting out of the speakers, their rumble parallels that of Royal Trux and Ariel Pink, high on the Who and Soft Machine rather than the Stones and AOR, pushed through a crusty filter of Led-en tempos, prickly fields of distortion, and solid walls of respectful disrespect. "Love the Kinks, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and then I run out of names. Those are the three heavies," Hartman says. "The Beatles are pretty good. You heard those guys? They’re not bad."
If we were all scarred by the music we loved at a certain impressionable age, then you can trace Sic Alps’ top 10 scrapes to Donovan’s Hall and Oates cassettes and Hartman’s Kiss records.
"I remember posters on my wall — the Police, the Doors, the Stones — those 11-by-17 posters you got at Sam Goody," Donovan recalls. "At 18, my friend Nick turned me onto Can, the Fall, and that was it …"
"I was not that hip," Hartman drawls. "I had some cousins who for Christmas bought me Bad Company’s first record when I was listening to Sabbath-Ozzy-Scorps–Iron Maiden–Priest-they-all-rule — that kind of thing. I gave it a five-minute courtesy listen, and I was, like, ‘Ffttt, whatever, dude.’ But I think I still have the record, because now I can listen to it. It’s kinda cool. It’s got some riffs."
The late-afternoon sun is stumbling toward the horizon, and the twilight of the rock overlords is falling on Hartman’s Potrero Hill house. We contemplate the record needle and the damage done as his laptop plays the Stooge-y "Speeds" and the Anglo death rattle "Making Plans." Half the yarns Hartman tells are off the record — "I have been around, that’s true. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s worth its weight in feathers!" he says — but no matter. Between low-pressure name-drops, the Sic Alps story emerges, like the pop kernel peeking out from beneath the tissue of noise, sleigh bells, and recorder on the Sic Alps song "Arthur Machen."
"The unofficial story is that you just e-mailed me and you’re like, ‘I’m in your band, dude,’" Donovan says, lounging on Hartman’s bed. Donovan first formed the mostly conceptual group with the Hospitals’ Adam Stonehouse in 2004, inspired by obscurist labels like Hyped to Death. "Adam brought his aesthetic, just kind of destroy rock ‘n’ roll," Donovan remembers. Erase Errata’s Bianca Sparta briefly joined, Sic Alps put out a "Four Virgins" split single with California Lightning, recorded the as-yet-unreleased Pleasures and Treasures album, and then fell apart.
Donovan’s pal for all of a decade, though never a bandmate, Hartman had witnessed one of the two Sic Alps shows in the Bay Area. "It was, like, ‘Oh, I wish I thought of that.’ At its core it was pop music, but it had all these other layers to it, where it was like just a little dark, a little deranged. There was something unhinged about it," he says now. "Whether it was an unusual chord progression or just a really, really inappropriate guitar tone. I always find it more interesting if something sounds kind of broken."
Shortly after they started playing together — with Donovan on guitar and vocals and Hartman on drums and other instruments, sometimes at the same time — the pair decided to perform last November at Ocean Beach, loading the drum kit and their "freestanding tower of sound" into Hartman’s creaky Volkswagen Bug. "Surfers did come up to us when we were setting up, and they were, like, ‘Are you guys going to play out here?’ They were like, ‘Awesome!’" Donovan recalls happily.
Still conceptual but steadily gaining visibility, the band is preparing for its first extensive US tour — with recordings by Tim Green, a track on a comp on Japan’s 777 Was 666, and a cassette on Animal Disguise Recordings on the way. So perhaps it’s time for the Alps to trade the Bug for their "power animal," a Volkswagen bus. After all, they have already selected the cover art for their debut: that of a rotting bus with the band name spray-painted on its spotted rump. "There’s something about this," Hartman says, gazing at the image on the laptop. "It’s made in the ’60s, a little rusty but still kind of beautiful and gets the job done." *
SIC ALPS’ SOFT TOUR RELEASE PARTY WITH OCS AND BULBS
552 Haight, SF
Call for times and price.
A FIR-JU WELL
Acid-drenched Southern boogie rock? The Atlanta combo did well at SXSW. Wed/29, 9 p.m., Thee Parkside, 1600 17th St., SF. Call for price. (415) 503-0393
LORDS OF ALTAMONT
He’p! Farfisa organ and jet-black hearts. LA’s motorpsychos celebrate their latest Gearhead LP, Lords Have Mercy. Fri/31, 9 p.m., Annie’s Social Club, 917 Folsom, SF. $7. (415) 974-1585
The Bay Area avant-rock transplants keep those "T-Bone" joints coming. Le Flange du Mal and Clip’d Beaks also perform. Fri/31, 9 p.m., Hotel Utah Saloon, 500 Fourth St., SF. $6. (415) 546-6300
Frontperson Michael Flynn is said to have won a John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship at his Boston music school. The New Amsterdams also play. Fri/31, 8 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. $12. (415) 474-0365
Ralph Carney whoops it up with Kimo Ball and Scott Johnson, giddily breaking out the swing, Dixieland, jazz, and pop in honor of a self-released EP, Extended Play from 12 Galaxies. Sat/1, 9 p.m., Argus Lounge, 3187 Mission, SF. Call for price. (415) 824-1447. Also Sun/2, 2 p.m., Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight, SF. Free. (415) 831-1200