The Fidelity of DIY

Sic Alps homemade rock records need no qualifiers

Sic Alps and their decidedly homemade records are not so much lo-fi anthems as they are musical snapshots of the three-piece San Francisco band. That holds true for Sic Alps’ latest, Napa Asylum, which touches on psych-folk, garage rock and ’60s psych-pop in bite-sized musical pieces. The 22-song record is a double-album in the classic sense, clocking in at under 50 minutes. Multi-instrumentalist Noel Von Harmonson says the record was recorded in San Francisco, at a house that he shares with drummer Matt Hartman. It was all tracked to an 8-track reel-to-reel machine. “Done on our time, when we felt we could do it,” Von Harmonson says. That's why the band doesn’t really embrace the lo-fi moniker for its D-I-Y recordings. “We kind of joke around about that,” Von Harmonson says. “Lo-fi is going to be the new term for pitchfork and those guys to go with. We're just doing our own thing.” That means stripping the artifice of recording by using one microphone and one preamp. Nobody is paid to come in and engineer the sessions. Von Harmonson says the approach is inspired by several of their favorite obscure ’60s bands. Good enough for bands that didn’t get selected for the Nuggets compilation, then it’s good enough for now. “It’s not like carelessness at all. It’s an aesthetic,” Von Harmonson says. The project has been brewing for several years, as singer/songwriter Mike Donovan worked to figure out how to bring some of his song ideas to life, Von Harmonson says. “He gave birth to that a long time ago,” Von Harmonson says of Donovan. Von Harmonson joined the band about a year-and-a-half ago, after Ty Segall dropped out of the band’s touring lineup to pursue a solo career. “The fact of the matter is that I was pretty good buddies with Matt and Mike before they asked me to help them out,” Von Harmonson says. “If they were strangers, I wouldn’t have done it.” The band is part of a San Francisco music scene that is being thought of as a hotbed of garage rock bands, though Von Harmonson says the affiliations between most of the bands is pretty loose, at best. Still, Hartman at one time played in the Coachwhips with John Dwyer, who now fronts Thee Oh Sees, and Ty Segall has played with Sic Alps. Eight years ago, Harmonson says San Francisco was on a no-wave kick. Now, everybody is supposedly in a garage band. “It’s weird thing that everybody is on about right now in San Francisco,” he says. At the start of making Napa Asylum, the band toyed with making it a concept album built around a pencil drawing of the Napa Asylum, which used to sit in the heart of Napa Valley’s wine country. The image was purchased at an estate sale by John Harlow, a video artist who has shot several low-budget videos for Sic Alps. “The image stuck more than the concept,” Von Harmonson says. That drawing now sits inside the album art for the band’s new record. The songs start with Donovan, who will come in with a guitar demo or a part and they’ll track that. Then they’ll work on putting drums and other pieces on top of that. Rarely will the band work on a song together, then record it after weeks of working on making it into a final version. “It’s a really ass-backwards way of doing things but it’s how Sic Alps came to be,” Von Harmonson says. He says the process accounts for looser moments on the band’s releases, so much so that it’s becoming a stylistic thing, he says. Very often, Donovan will come in with a song, play it to the other two members for the first time and then, an hour later, the song will be fully recorded. However, Von Harmonson says there have been songs that have come in and not been figured out for months. “It’s not efficient, but we’ve never been efficient,” Von Harmonson says. Sic Alps w/ the Wayward Little Satan Daughters play the Slowdown, 729 North 14th St., Saturday, March 19 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8. For more information, visit theslowdown.com.

posted at 09:20 pm
on Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

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