It’s an age old saying- never go into business with your friends. Bands, so oft naively started with the belief that a shared love for music will transcend common business quibbles. But in rock’n’roll, if it’s not courtroom legalities you’re battling, it’s surely that of the egos. With notorious rivalries forged, impassioned biographies capturing the infamous rifts amongst the biggest bands on earth, from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles to the Pixies to Kiss– unfortunately, in the underground or punk scene, no one’s exempt either.
The Bay Area’s been brimming in media the last few years with explosive, experimental noise acts like Ty Seagall and Thee Oh Sees. One other band that’s been consistently named in everybody from Wire Magazine to Brooklyn’s SoundFix’s end of year Best of Lists– is Sic Alps.
Oslo-ites might remember the somewhat deconstructive and warped out performance in the sweaty floor of Revolver basement years ago– while few eons may have been granted passage through inebriated brains, one would surely recall, that they were incredibly fucking loud. The band at the time consisted of Mike Donovan and Matthew Hartman. Hartman, a former member of Coachwhips, would suddenly disappear from the band some years later. Sic Alps thus continued without Matthew. Nobody asked any questions.
That is, until Bad Sounds caught up with Matthew a few weeks ago. What happened? Does anybody care? We surely did. And the result was a reminder of scene politics.
A: I think this is the first time for either of us using FaceTime to do an interview.
M: Yea, I can see you now. Alright, we’re in the future!
A: Indeed we are. Last time I recall you went a bit nomadic and banned Facebook. Why did you get back on?
M: Yea, well… I had an exodus from Facebook. Mainly rebelling against this idea of, as I was seeing it, relationships increasingly being corralled into the online realm, and it was becoming a poor substitute for real world, real time relationships. It’s kinda like an alcoholic realizing he’s an alcoholic. I guess I’ve always had that somewhat reticent relationship with technology. I remember having a dinner party at my house around ’98, didn’t even have a computer yet – my roommate had just been grandfathered an old Windows 2000 BC whatever it was, so email was brand new, and I’m old enough to remember writing letters. At the time I was engaged in a long distance romance. I remember having an argument with someone about email, like, FUCK email. You’re going to tell me you can express the same emotions in an e-mail. I guess that’s why emoticons were invented.
But still, a tactile thing like a paper letter written in someone’s handwriting?, …there’s even a scent you can detect. Much better in my opinion as far as an experience is concerned. Now all we do is text pictures of penises.
I’m old-fashioned that way. There’s a whole lot about the internet I have struggled with, but duh, its here to stay. It’s happening, the new paradigm. Game Over. I still romanticize about a time when it was about vinyl records.
A: I was thinking about the same thing the other day, a kind of golden era before the internet. Do you remember how tours would happen with pay phones?
M: Most of the tours I’ve done were around the time internet started and afterward. But the first tour I did was totally booked by phone and mail, No Google Maps. Our label head booked the tour for us, this is 1996, we had Xeroxed directions and off we went. We didn’t really know, we had a vague idea, like how much money we’re gonna get. It amazes me in this age of Kickstarter, I’ve seen bands have to pre-sell a tour, please help us fund our tour. I’m kinda like, whoa where are your balls? The cart is coming before the horse. Or doing pre-sale before they press it. It’s an inversion, in the download age.
A: Today indie companies have to be safe.
M: Once upon a time selling three thousand records was like Indie Label gold. Like, I got rid of three thousand records, let’s go on tour, woo hoo! Nowadays it seems like that’s nearly impossible in terms of actual physical sales.
A: How long have you been living in San Francisco?
M: Since ’93. When I first moved here with Henry’s Dress, you had the earliest earliest version of Brian Jonestown Massacre for example, and probably a lot of stuff I wasn’t aware of. It was my small group of friends from Albuquerque. It was many, many beers ago, heh. And the music scene was kinda Austin-like, very inconsistent but brimming. I want to say it was different then, but not really.
There’s always been a really disparate motley of stuff happening. The San Francisco Bay Area is the birthplace of Jefferson Airplane to Journey to The Grateful Dead to Huey Lewis to Metallica to Autopsy to Faith No More. Not really a unifying style. We made the exodus from Albuquerque– this feeling that if we didn’t leave now, we’d never leave. But we lived near Haight Street & ’93 was the year crystal meth really hit San Fran. Just going to the grocery store to buy some cereal was a gauntlet of gutter punks, drug dealers, and tourists. It was an unpleasant place to live, alienating. On a social level [SF] has this strange thing where you know a ton of people, but your daily interactions are limited.
A: Well what caused Henry’s Dress to break-up?
M: I’ve always felt that bands are kind of like a chemical reaction, with a finite amount of fuel. It’s like when you’re in grade school and you make a paper mache volcano, depending on how much baking powder or vinegar you put it, you get this big explosion, but then it’s over. It can’t go on forever. The fuel gets used up. I think a lot of bands really beat their music and their chemistry into the ground after awhile. Look at Hall & Oates. They HATE each other but have an army of people who’s ONLY job is to keep them having to deal with one another offstage, just so they can crash their hits into the ground for soccer moms all over the world. Pathetic if you ask me.
A: What did you do in those drifting years?
M: I basically became a roadie for the Fucking Champs, I became the fourth wheel in the van.
A: I lovvved the Champs! Whatever happened to them?
M: Kind of same thing, fuel ran out of the reaction. Josh quit and, as far as I could tell, kind of felt it’d run it’s course in the context of the group.
A: Did they ever have something past V?
M: They did a VI with Phil Manley of TransAm. So yea, that was a kind of fun period for me. III, IV, V are all great records & seeing them live 400 times or whatever it was….it never sucked. I’ve always been a metal-kid at heart.
A: Something you realized more recently?
M: I think it’s coming back to me in a cyclical fashion.
A: I’m going to play you a track now, wonder if you recognize it. (Plays track)
M: OH yeah, I know what that is…
A: One of our writers has a record label in Norway, and released it, Thomas. Did you play on it, or was it before you left Sic Alps?
M: Oh, it was largely me on the noise jams but I think this was actually just three tracks – one of me, one of Mike, and one of Noel. I remember now. Stuffs LP. There was a peak period of Sic Alps… the approach to doing projects was almost like being a short order chef. Once we got the ball rolling, took a little while, but people would come up to us and say we like the 4 song EP with so-and-so, do you want to do —–? So we would knock out a few songs or noise jams or whatever was called for. It wasn’t strictly a singer-songwriter thing, which is what it was eventually becoming (from my point of view) and why I was unhappy and largely became the reasons why it didn’t work out at the end.
A: I recall you saying your departure from Sic Alps was quite sudden?
M: Well, the readers digest version is this. As the band got more of a profile, Mike started to see it more as his solo project and less our band. And I realize with hindsight it doesn’t really matter, but no one talks about what really happened, because the truth is, the band was never *that* big to begin with… Like, “Oh Matthew Hartman ousted in Sic Alps because of taste”, etc. But I did felt a little slighted that Drag City never put out a clarifying press release. Business as usual, but I guess that’s that hat they have to wear, I don’t know. I wouldn’t put words in their mouth.
Increasingly, from my point of view, it was steering away from being a band as the profile got bigger, when we had people like Sonic Youth or Pavement knocking on the tour, hey let’s do a couple shows, let’s do ATP– I’ve always tried to keep a level-head about that stuff. It’s kind of my perspective that it was starting to affect Mike in a way that was unbecoming. And I kept getting this feeling he started to rethink it as a solo project.
A: Did you think he had a right to think like that?
M: Not really. Well, not really. The history of the group, mid-2004, The Hospitals and Big Techno Werewolf (who Mike played drums for and had the recording engineer Eric Bauer and Petey Dammit from Thee Oh Sees) did a tour that summer. Somewhere in there Adam from the Hospitals and Mike got this side project going called Sic Alps. I remember seeing them at Bottom at the Hill and it really resonating with me, even thinking, gee I wish I was in that band. But it didn’t really go anywhere. Not many live shows. A pretty effed up attempt at a short tour (as Mike told it). I think they had a cassette single, a split with an Erase Errata side project called California Lightning…. And that’s where the story could have ended.
A: How did you start with the band?
M: Well, when I was discovering them, all that time I was playing with Coachwhips. Coachwhips had just ended, summer of 2005. We called it a day. John wanted to focus on the band now known as Thee Oh Sees. I was also playing guitar for Cat Power at the time, and my brief association with Cat Power also came to an end. Those years, 2003-2005, I was kinda living a bipolar life – super raging fast drums garage punk one day, then super moody music on guitar another day…anyway… Mike had been dating a roommate of mine at the time, and she’d mentioned to me one day that Mike had kicked Adam out of Sic Alps. So it kinda was like a light went off in my head and I basically wrote Mike an email saying I’m in your band and we went from there. At first it was a lot of working with what had already been recorded for what became Pleasures & Treasures, finishing some tracking, mixing, getting a sequence. Meantime we worked on the live set and I came up with the amp stack/PA combo mess that became known as the Monolith – the third member of the band.
We tried a session with Tim Green at Louder early on that didn’t quite hit the mark so we went back to recording in my garage and that was the point at which I sort of became the defacto recording engineer for the band. We did the first 4-song EP for Mt. St. Mtn after contacting Mark about maybe putting out P&T on Omnibus, but he’d already shut that label down. So we did the limited EP instead and it went from there.
As for how it ended? To me it felt like a great disrespect for Mike to basically say “I am Sic Alps”, as if I was a bit player in the process. I don’t mean to nickel and dime the situation, but even being on Drag City was largely due to me being friends with Dan K from the Champs days. Even though I wasn’t on the first album, I mixed most of it, I sequenced it, did the cover art…. which isn’t to say that I’m the reason the band was good – WE were the reason the band was good. For half of the history it was just the two of us.
It’s where I had the most frustration, if you go back and just remove me from the equation, would the people still be where they are today? Again it wasn’t about the band happening or not happening. I could tell Mike wanted to do something more pop/singer-songwriter, or have more control over the music, like how John owns the Thee Oh Sees, or like with Ty Seagall, that it’s always Ty Seagall and whoever comes along for the ride. It occurred to me that he wanted this kind of power. Which is fine. I just thought let this band die and do a solo project then. I could tell he was frustrated but I wasn’t interested in being a bit player in a solo project, so I rebelled accordingly (though not directly) and we butted heads frequently and it snowballed….
A: Did one particular event trigger the split?
M: It culminated at a house gig, when Mike just basically pointed at Noel and said, “You’re fired”, and then at me, “and you’re fired too”. I was dumbstruck. I thought, okay, band’s over but I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m fired. That’s insane. Plus we still had 9 shows to go on the tour. We got through 3 more I think and I finally said, fuck this charade, time to go home.
I couldn’t help but notice he’d had his nose buried in the Mark E. Smith biography that entire tour. Maybe that’s what got him in that frame of mind?
A: If there’s anyone notorious for firing members…I recall when you guys played in Revolver basement some years ago. I didn’t know til later that you had been doing all the touring managing, driving, and playing with just you two. As painful as that experience must have been, there must have been some positives?
M: Absolutely, some of my best memories are from that tour. many were not so pleasant, but I appreciate the experience regardless. I remember I almost had a nervous breakdown on a day off in Prague, and we were staying with the promoter in this far off suburb. There was no easy way to do the normal tourist shit, and we were so exhausted. Probably in the first two weeks of the five week leg of the European portion of the tour. But instead of resting I had a total nervous breakdown and I couldn’t even leave the apartment for fear of getting locked out.
Yea, at the end of the day, during that tour there was a lot of awesome stuff but it was the beginning of the end really.
A: So it wasn’t so much that you were upset about breaking up, as much as that he continued without you.
M: It’s kinda like post-Royal Trux, when Jennifer called her new project RTX. I was like, really? Can’t you have come up with something other than staying with Sic Alps – why not call it SA? or who knows? Keep yourself tethered to the history, but don’t steal it for yourself. Again, my whole thing is that it was an “us”, not a “him”. To me it would’ve been just as offensive if I continued and called it Sic Alps.
A: You now feel comfortable making it public, or? That you think Mike stole this band for himself?
M: Well, maybe stealing isn’t the best word, but it’s hard to quantify it. It’s hard to be diplomatic about it. For me it’s more about perception & the sort of revision of history and the way that my contributions to the band are sort of erased or swept under the rug.
A: Sounds like it still upsets you.
M: No, well, I’m not going to be a bitter old man everyday. I’ve let it go, but it was an unstylish way to go out.
A: What do you to keep yourself busy? You’ve had so much experience playing different kinds of bands, instruments– you must foresee some kind of musical future?
M: The lead in question…! Hehe, I’m reticent to say what’s going to happen. Sic Alps left me in an existential soup, I thought maybe I’d never do anything again. It’s pretty rare people who do this forever. And people tell me, no, no, you’re a lifer.
A: Can I jump in, just an observation, that when you feel burned by something, when something loses meaning as with Facebook — you get the urge to quit it altogether, but six months later you eventually come back to it again.
M: It’s a good analogy. Well I never totally left music. This entire time I’ve been fairly regularly going to my basement screwing around with this that or the other, but still haven’t had any real motivation to make it public. I remember talking to Dwyer and him saying I have to do something myself, like, rightaway – strike when the iron’s hot. I guess I haven’t had much regard for that– like I’m afraid I’m going to lose Twitter followers or anything. I’ll play some improvised gigs on drums or saxophone here and there, & I have a shit ton of song & riff ideas recorded on voice memo on my phone. I know if I put my nose to the grindstone…. but I haven’t really been motivated until recently…. The other day, for whatever reason I played… you’re going to laugh…
A: Wait, let me guess: you put on Metallica’s Kill Em All!
M: I played Kill ‘Em All ten times. I was like damn, I love thrash. Thirty years after I started playing guitar, I think I’m finally playing the music I wanted to. And it’s been fun. But who do you find in the Bay Area to play thrash metal? We’ll see what happens. I’m totally prepared to flunk. Make an F. (chuckles) We’ll see.