Welcome to the Asylum

Pub date November 30, 2010
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


MUSIC Just one glance at the title of Sic Alps’ forthcoming full-length, Napa Asylum (Drag City), triggers memories of what might have been one of the most infamous (a.k.a. perfect) moments in punk history: the sight of the Cramps’ Lux Interior lurching among the patients at Napa State Hospital in 1978, as captured in The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital, by SF’s Target Video. How does a humble assemblage of SF noisemakers live up to those memories and dare to go there?

“I know, right?” says the affable Mike Donovan by phone, on the brink of this year’s turkey gorge. “We didn’t even think of it, though people-in-the-know think of that.” A sketch of the old institution, ages before the Cramps roared through it, actually gave Donovan, Matt Hartman, and newest member Noel Von Harmonson the idea of attempting a concept album about the lost spirits roaming the ultimate wine country getaway. But once the band got into recording, the notion ultimately died and only the title and a song or two about the institution’s spaces and characters survived, among a whopping 22 tracks.

Before the January release of its fifth long-player, and first since U.S. EZ (Siltbreeze, 2008), Sic Alps are revving into action, playing a Dec. 4 benefit to pay the hospital bills of artist Akassia Mann, who is battling ovarian cancer. Mann is also the mother of Big Eagle’s Robyn Miller — Hartman and Harmonson’s housemate. Count on the downbeat new songs to wash up that night, riddled with pop references yet mangled and unique in a way that, say, Ariel Pink would appreciate.

The darkness on the edges of this batch of numbers was something Donovan considered. “I guess that’s one of the first things one of my friends said, ‘There’s a bunch of bummer tunes on this,'” recalls Donovan, whose good-naturedness seems to run counter to the album’s tone. “It peeked through. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s make things that are really down. Let’s temper these snappy numbers and noise tracks with bummers.’ But with 22 songs, there’s more room for it to do its thing.”

Likewise, when it came down to editing and sequencing the recording, and deciding if it would be a single or double album, Sic Alps went with the flow — namely, Hartman’s sequence. “It was a ‘killer and no filler thing’ and then Matt put together that sequence and sent it out with an e-mail header — ‘A fuck-yes double album,'” offers Donovan. Gone were the fights of old over sequencing: “It was done.”

In went the songs roughly concerning reincarnation (“Nathan Livingston Maddox,” based on Donovan’s dream about the late Gang Gang Dance member) and magic ( which is “meant to brush by you — it’s nothing you can describe or talk about”). Simmering in the free-floating, far-flung Exile on Main Street-meets-crushed-metal-Royal Trux stew, witchy connects are made between the so-called discovery of the Golden State and the mortgage crisis (“The First White Man to Touch California”), as well as mythic rock ‘n’ roll departures and Midwestern innocents leaving home (“Zeppo Epp”).

It all sounds like nothing other than Sic Alps. The group had been taking it easy, with Ty Segall in its ranks, until Harmonson joined late last year. Now the group’s pillar-like P.A.-slash-power station — a product of the need to control its dramatically, drastically dense brand of echo and reverb — has been doubled in the form of a second tower.

Further, the band is currently honing that bristling, dense thicket of echo with simpatico sound maestro Eric Bauer, once Donovan’s bandmate in Big Techno Werewolves. Just in time for a new growth spurt, Sic Alps recently bunked down in Bauer’s basement-based Chinatown analog studio, where Segall recorded his last album, the Oh Sees tracked its next full-length, and the Mantles jotted down a 7-inch. “When the iron was hot, we were like, ‘Fuck it,’ ” says Donovan. After doing the 9-to-5, the band is ready for something more, though Donovan amiably confesses, “I want the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle without getting paid for doing rock ‘n’ roll. I only work two days a week, but I have a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle — without the money.”


With the Mumlers, Big Eagle, Bart Davenport, and the Moore Brothers

Sat/4, 8 p.m., $10–$15 sliding scale

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF