Thurston Moore Interviews Sic Alps
DEBUT Stream from the new 7-inch "Breadhead"
Interview Thurston Moore
Photography Ari Marcopolous
The staff here at ’SUP feel like our daddy just gave us a pony. Thurston Moore, he who is persistently curious and curiously persistent, agreed to interview San Francisco’s Sic Alps for us on a sunny day in March.
We all met outside his apartment in SoHo around 2 p.m. Sic Alps’ guitarist, Mike Donovan, and multi-instrumentalist, Noel Von Harmonsen, arrived first, both squinting in the sun. Matthew Hartman, drummer, the third member of the trio, was in a cab on his way. Photographer Ari Marcopoulos and his assistant leaned against a wall not far away. We stood on the street corner together, shooting the shit, as various SoHo denizens shouted “Whatup!” to Thurston as they walked by.
When Matthew arrived, Thurston led everyone slowly through a small alley, to a shop he said was “Julia Cayfritz from Pussy Galore’s ex-husband’s furniture store”, a slick spot full of brightly colored new modern called Artifact 20th Century. Sic Alps are not the kind of band you would expect to find in a modern furniture store. Their sound is a grindingly fast amalgam of psychedelia pushed through the cheese grater of modern garage. They are legitimate veterans of the venerable San Francisco dirt scene, down to the army green jackets they all wore to the interview. I always tell people that their favorite garage band is probably ripping off Sic Alps to a certain extent. Their latest album, Napa Asylum (Drag City, 2011), came out two years after their last recording, a split EP with Magik Markers on Yik Yak.
So there sat Matthew, Noel, Mike, and Thurston, in the furniture store, happily chit-chatting away, and that’s the story of how ’SUP got the best present of all time. — ’SUP
Who came up with the name Sic Alps?
Matt: I did.
You did? And what’s its genesis?
Matt: Well I was with this fella Andreas Bouches, a friend of mine, a German fella. I was in Chicago hanging out, where my parents are, and he was playing me a selection from Killed by Death [Ed note: a European record label], all these bands, like: ‘Check this out check this out check this out check this out!’ All weekend long. And the next morning, I was sitting on his front porch and it just popped into my head.
It just popped into your head?
Matt: But it was influenced by all those things.
Where did the name of the new album come from?
Mike: My friend John has this pencil drawing, an architectural drawing of the Napa Asylum, a big mental institution in Napa that got torn down in 1949. He just found it at a yard sale. It’s this amazing pencil drawing.
Matt: It’s just a pencil drawing that’s been shellacked to a piece of wood.
Mike: It’s totally cool because there’s not very many pictures of it. Because they tore it down in ’49. It’s this beautiful drawing of it, and that actual drawing of it is the poster.
Would you say this LP is your Zen Arcade [Hüsker Dü, 1984]?
Noel: Cool. You came with it.
Are you going to do a double album next? Double albums always have this ambition towards legend status.
Noel: Well my thinking was that we had enough tunes. We certainly shaved a few down, but it was also kind of like a fuck you to that, you know what I mean? It’s like ‘Yeah, a double LP is really bloated and ridiculous but let’s go for it, because all of our songs are two minutes long, at best.’ So it’s kind of fun to play with that.
It has a real seamless quality to it, which I really liked. It never flags.
Mike: Elisa [Ambrogio of the Magik Markers] did a review of it and said, ‘You wanna flip to the next song? Sic Alps just did it for you.’
Noel: That really sums it up in a way.
Is there a lyric sheet with the record?
Matt: The gatefold is all the lyrics.
Matt: You can read the lyrics while you crumple your buds for your next—
Mike: And the lyrics are hard to hear a little bit, but the typing is also hard to read.
Are you touring in your Volkswagen?
Mike: We do locally.
I’ve been privy to it, the Volkswagen.
Mike: We pulled up to the Filmore, to play with Yo La Tengo. The crew was like, ‘Oh no way!’ All these old townie guys who had been working there for 20 years were like, ‘Come on, look at this!’
Matt: It was as if there was a poof of smoke, a time warp and then out we got, you know?
It’s too bad you can’t just drive it on stage and unload it with the audience looking at you. What was the first record you ever bought, starting with Noel. First vinyl record you ever bought. With your own money.
Noel: Uh… PJ Harvey’s Dry (Indigo/Too Pure, 1992).
That was like, six months ago.
Noel: Pretty much.
Noel: I’m not really into music (laughs). I think it was because that was around the time I dug out my parents’ old record player and receiver from the garage, up in the rafters I was like, ‘This plugs into that and I don’t know, I can figure this out.’
Was it influential to you?
Noel: Oh no, I was buying cassettes and CDs before that. But it was at a time I was like, ‘records are cool.’ You know? And I found a box of records in the garage and the same time I was doing that pilfering.
So you’re of a generation where CDs predated vinyl for you as a consumer, obviously.
Noel: Yes. Absolutely.
And how old are you? 43, 44 (laughs)?
Mike: He’s the young one, he’s seven years older than that.
Mike: 32, he’s 32.
19, forever 19. PJ Harvey. Was that a significant listen for you?
Noel: It was, yeah. Well that White Chalk (Island, 2007) record was brilliant, you know?
You really liked that one?
Noel: That’s the only thing I’ve ever really connected with. Vivid memories of being like, ‘I just bought a record. I’m gonna take it home, I’m gonna open the plastic and I’m gonna put it on the turntable. I hope I don’t scratch it!’
Do you still rock the oscillator?
Noel: Nah, I kinda put it to bed a little bit. But I still play around. I’ll be honest. I haven’t played around with the tape delay and the oscillators so much.
Was that your first axe?
Noel: No, my first axe was discovering my dad’s acoustic guitar while snooping around in his bedroom when I was 13. I found it and was like, ‘Well, I’ll check this thing out.’
I immediately figured out a Creedence song.
Noel: I wish. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”. And I thought, ‘I want to do this.’ And from there it was on.
Was your dad in bands?
Noel: No. I think he dabbled in music a little bit. I remember later on unraveling some of the paperwork that was in his guitar case and it was some music written out on a staff and some lyrics. Which was really weird.
What was the first record you bought?
Matt: First record I bought was at Labelle’s department store in Albuquerque, 1977 or maybe ‘78. It was KISS’ Love Gun.
Matt: That was the first rock record I bought. Prior to that I had bought a sound effects record that was called Sounds Of Terror. I was into cartoons and horror. You’re six years old, this kind of stuff tickles your fancy. I was flipping through the record bin and I saw what I thought had to have been another sound effects record, because it was these sort of super heroes in kabuki makeup and leather, with a gaggle of females at their feet, and the wild costumes. And I thought: ‘This is going to be an interesting sound effects record.’ My mom was somehow like, ‘Yeah, you can buy that.’ Moms didn’t know any better. I get home and I put it on and track one is “I Stole Your Love”. I was just kind of like, ‘Wait a minute. what is this? This isn’t— When’s the sound effect going to happen? When’s the guy going to come on to start talking about the giant crab that attacks the thing, and then you just hear the click-click-click-click and AAAAAAAH!’
What was your first record, Mike?
Mike: I don’t remember my first record, but it might have been a Grateful Dead record, like Wake of the Flood (Arista, 1973). I remember buying that record. That was about freshman year so probably ’85 or ’86.
Did you have ambitions towards maybe wanting to be a Deadhead?
Mike: I saw the Grateful Dead. I didn’t want to really travel with them.I remember taking too much acid and walking around at Rosemont Horizon over and over again and at some point there was a woman crying at 12 o’clock. That’s as much touring as I did with them.
What about the first live concert you’ve ever been to? The first live concert that blew your mind and you said to yourself, ‘I gotta do this.’
Noel: Still hasn’t happened. Just kidding, we played with you! Oh! I don’t know. That’s too open ended.
Do you remember the first time you played live?
Noel: Yes. Borrowed drum kit, house in Santa Cruz. I played with this band the Lowdown that I had just joined. I saw them play at a party and it was just the most destructive Casio keyboard and guitar irreverent setup that I’d ever seen. I had just moved there and I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are cool. And they’re super un-cool.’ We kind of met. I was working at the record store in town at the time. I basically tried to mimic the Casio keyboard beats and play on top of them, very robotically. That was kinda how things got started with me. We did that for a few years.
Did your parents come see you?
What was the first live gig you ever saw Matt?
Matt: Well, oddly enough it was KISS. Dynasty tour, ‘79. I think it was December eighth.
Did you bring Love Gun with you to get signed?
Matt: No, I didn’t have that much going on. My mom bribed the babysitter and bought two tickets. One for me, and one for the babysitter.
Matt: It was rad because it was post-Love Gun. It was nothing but KISS. You couldn’t tell me about another band. A kid down the block said ‘You should check out this band Blondie.’ I was like, ‘Fuck Blondie.’ ‘You should check out Led Zeppelin.’ I was like, ‘Fuck Led Zeppelin! I don’t want to know.’ I missed out on a lot of great music simply because I had nothing but KISS on my mind.
Did you join the KISS Army?
Matt: Immediately. There was a TV ad for KISS and I lost my mind. Back then those guys would be in 16 Magazine. Maybe they were in Creem, but it was mostly Tiger Beat and 16. I was so obsessed with them visually but so frustrated with the fact that they’re not on TV. There’s no Internet, there’s no way to see it. I skipped Halloween in ’78 to watch the KISS Meet the Phantom of the Park movie. So this commercial comes on and I’m like, ‘Oh my god! I gotta go to this.’ I went home, eight years old, saying, ‘Mom mom mom mom mom! KISS KISS KISS KISS!’ and she says, ‘You’re not going to any concert.’ And she strung me along. ‘You’re not going, you’re not going.’
Matt: And then maybe two weeks before the gig, just to mitigate my bouncing off the walls, she says, ‘Why don’t you take out the trash, feed the dog, and when you’re done, look in my purse.’ She used to get me little presents every now and then, a little Han Solo figure or something. And I look and it’s two KISS tickets and I just – I shat myself. It was amazing.
It was a good gig?
Matt: It was in a rodeo barn on the New Mexico State Fairgrounds called Tingley Coliseum. Probably the worst acoustics known to man. Nonetheless, they put every metal show there that would seat more than 10,000. My distinct memory of the show was that you couldn’t understand what was happening. It was all visual. But it was garbled. It could have been Throbbing Gristle for all I knew and all you could tell, until you got to the chorus. It would just be like [noises] and blood and explosions and the lights are going and Ace Frehley’s falling over all the time and then it would be like ‘I stole your love’ and then you would know. ‘Oh! They’re playing “I Stole Your Love”! or whatever the song was. That’s my memory of it.
I was really intrigued by KISS when I first heard about them like in the early ’70s,’73 maybe. I remember reading a New York rock report in Creem. And in the letters section of the following issue somebody wrote in saying, ‘That was a pretty good report, but you didn’t write about the only New York band that has any balls, a band called KISS.’ And I thought, ‘Wow! What’s that? What a good name!’ And I started hearing a little something about CBGB and I remember seeing in the daily newspaper in New York ‘KISS Breaks Attendance Record at CBGB’ and I was just like, ‘Wow!’ And then their first album came out. I was kind of aware of it and they were on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert immediately. I remember watching that, and they came out in full KISS action and Paul Stanley just said, ‘Hi, we’re KISS from New York City!’ And they did “Deuce”. I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing!’ One of my friends in high school’s older brother got tickets to see them and we went with them to Springfield, MA. This must have been ’75.
Matt: A good year for KISS. Maybe the best.
Oh my god. We parked the car and saw like six million kids waiting in line to get into this arena. We were walking towards the line and we noticed that they opened up some other doors to the arena, and you saw all these kids booking down this hill towards these open doors, which
were literally 20 feet away from us. So we just walked over and we were the first ones in.
Matt: Oh, nice.
We were right in the front. Smashed against the barricades.
Mike: You sussed out your spot.
During the opening band, whoever they were, we were just getting killed, smashed against this barricade. When KISS came out, it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen, rock band wise – to this day. I mean, it was just huge glitter wheels and fire and smoke and it was just amazing.
Matt: And it was all done on a DIY aesthetic. That’s the one defense I have for KISS. I don’t expect anyone to like KISS, you know? Historically or otherwise. Musically, I think it’s something you have to have gotten into at an early age or you don’t understand the beauty of their sloppy take on The Stones. But the fact that it was all put together from day one with ramshackle budgets – in my mind, in a way, they were the first DIY band.
Gene Simmons came to see us play once in L.A. at the Santa Monica Civic [Auditorium]. And the gig was us, Dinosaur Jr., and Screaming Trees (laughs).
Noel: Big time.
I don’t think we ever played as big a gig in L.A. again. Gene Simmons came because he was very sort-of interested in what was going on with these new kind of alternative rock bands or whatever. We’re hanging out backstage. It’s Dinosaur and us and Mike Watt and his crew were there. We just looked like a bunch of slobs. [Gene] came back and introduced himself and he said, ‘So, uh, what do you guys – do you play like this? I mean, do you change?’ ‘What do you mean change? Into what?’ And he goes, ‘Well, you don’t go out like that do you, on stage? You can’t.’ And I was just like, ‘Well, yeah we do.’ He was very confused by us. Then he said, ‘Well, where’s all the girls? How come there’s no women back here? You know, hanging out?’
And I said,‘There’s women here. My wife’s in the band.’ It was ridiculous. And Mike Watt, who kind of learned how to play bass by playing KISS 8-tracks and Blue Oyster 8-tracks, kind of lost it when we introduced him to Gene Simmons. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t process the reality of meeting Gene Simmons. And it was right around the time Gene Simmons was giving the bass guitar symposium at the Guitar Center or something. We were trying to figure out what that was. ‘Here’s the intro to “Deuce”!’
Matt: It’s not like he’s Jaco Pastorius or anything.
Mike: The first concert I saw was Taste of Chicago or Chicagofest and that was 1982. A blues guy named Eddie Clearwater. I remember call and response. I got my mojo working. I was pretty into it and my whole family was there, my brother and sister and my parents. But I was more interested in disco. They had a disco, which was this big warehouse room. Very Saturday Night Fever.
Did you live in Chicago?
Mike: I grew up outside Chicago, a town called Hinsdale.
Did you see a lot of Big Black gigs?
Mike: Not really. Basically I was 18 when I heard the Fall and Can and I thought it was super cool to be into Elvis Costello and the Clash and the Specials.
What about the Chicago hardcore scene, like the Effigies?
Mike: Not really. I didn’t know about any cool music until the Fall when I was 18.
What gets played most in the… do you have a van?
Mike: Yeah we’ve got a minivan now.
[All in unison]: Kinks.
Mike: We play a lot of Kinks. A lot of Rolling Stones. John Coltrane.
Matt: I like listening to Coltrane’s avant-garde period. Weird mp3 CDs.
Matt: Yeah it’s kind of a variety pack. I made an mp3 disc with six hours of material on it and it just jumps around you know? From Motörhead, to old Scorpions, to some Andrew Segovia to—
But metal still reins.
Matt: It looms large—
Noel: For Matt.
Matt: For me. I don’t know about the other dudes.I mean, everyone’s got their own flavor castle.
Mike: I have the pop. I was thinking that yesterday as I was doing my iPod.
Pop, metal, noise. Is that what we’re looking at here?
Matt: It’s a lot of obscure ’70s psych jams.
You’re kind of a noise guy but you’re not a noise guy.
Noel: I am, but I don’t want to put that on for the driver. You know it’s like, ‘Dude check this out. [Wolf Eyes’] Burned Mind, again.’
Matt: Yeah I’ve been waiting to put The Olatunji Concert (John Coltrane, 2001) on, for fear that it’s going to drive everyone else insane.
Noel: Naw, it won’t man! If you’re driving. But my fascination has just been in international appropriations of rock music in the ’60s and ’70s. Whatever culture appropriates it and how. I don’t know how to say this right, but I like how they kind of get it wrong a little bit. That’s the beauty of it. I like how it’s off.
Mike: And Bill Fay.
Noel: And Bill Fay, of course. I guess I had a depressed day.
Did you really only use two microphones in the basement with an 8-track [to record the songs on the new album]?
Mike: Well, there’s this studio mic called a Behringer C-1 which is this large diaphragm microphone our friend Eric Bower gave us.
Matt: Technically there are three mics on this album. The majority of it is just a wide diaphragm condenser.
Mike: And a lot of the vocals through a ball and biscuit microphone [Ed. Note: “ball and biscuit” is the nickname given to the old school 1935 STC 4021 microphone because of its shape].
It’s amazing sounds on the record. There’s one song that the cymbals just flood the mic. There’s one song that just starts out with this crunching feedback and it goes into this really cool tune.
Mike: “Trip Train”. That’s the oldest recording on the record.
There’s some killer cymbal overload that happens and it just sounds amazing.
Matt: It’s odd. It’s all mic placement. The drums are recorded on their own with nothing else going on, in a small room. You place the mic just so. It’s funny because it comes back to misinterpretation. No matter what it ends up sounding like, I’m basically always trying to get a good Rudy Van Geldern drum sound but I don’t have the gear to do it [Ed Note: Rudy Van Geldern is one of the most important American jazz recording sound engineers]. So it’s the best I can do. Even though it’s a rock record, I want it to sound like The White Album. But I can’t make it sound like The White Album.
Did you read the Keith Richards book, Life?
Matt: I’m in line at the library.
It’s really good because he talks about the progression of recording technology, which he’s lived through, as a musician. He talks about recording in the ’80s, ’90s, and now, as far as mic-ing drums. He says it’s gotten progressively worse sounding for him. But the industry supports ultra sophisticated measures, and it still gets worse. He says this really funny line, ‘Nowadays, they’re putting 15 mics on all these drums and barricading the drums in a room. When we first started, you would throw one mic over on top of the drums, and it would be in the room live with us, and it sounded amazing.’
Noel: And that’s the drum mic.
Yeah. They figured out pretty early how to get a really cool drum sound. And now, with all these mics on the drums, it sounds like an old drunk dropping a turd on a tin roof (laughs).
Matt: Is that what he says? That’s awesome.
Mike: No way.
Noel: I would add falling down the stairs.
Mike: We have that battle when we do it live.
Mike: And it would sound great because his kit’s totally resonant, you know? ‘BOOOM. BOOOM.’
Matt: The key is to tune the drum set. That’s an art. It’s totally lost on a lot of modern musicians ever since the ’70s, when people started taking the bottom skins off of everything. I think the stage volume got increasingly crazy. You weren’t a band unless you had 19 Ampeg stacks on stage. You can’t resonantly microphone a drum set that way. You have to get up close. And you have to limit the amount of ring that the drum will have.
Mike: It’s like a reverse engineer. That’s the sound of a resonant drum kit, so let’s destroy that and then build it back up.
Matt: And then rebuild it in the PA or in the amps.
I love photos of old live stuff from the late ’60s where it’s these really big speaker cabs onstage, and then the PA is dinky, Radio Shack, like two stalks on each side. So to get compensating for that PA – which is probably only vocals going through it – it was all about stage sound.
Noel: That’s what we’re trying to do now, traveling with our own PA is like trying to contain ourselves, but it also limits whatever PA the club has.
Mike: To neutralize their own aesthetic.
Noel: It’s like dude, we got it man. Just put a mic on a speaker and we’re done.
That’s what Black Flag used to do. They had their own PA and would just set it up in front of the house PA.
Matt: We’re just doing it on a small scale. But it’s funny, it’s interesting because we run into a lot of people who are reticent at first. You know? The sound guy will be like: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what? You got your own? Wait a minute. You’ve got a PA? Hold the phone. We’ve got a PA. What do you need a PA for?’
Mike: ‘You can’t do that.’
Matt: There was a guy that came on stage and he was just like, ‘Wow, I thought it was going to be just totally inappropriately loud, and it’s not that loud, and it sounds good. and you know it all coheres with the drums and—”
Noel: And we’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah. High five, goodnight.’
Matt: Right? The image of a small umbrella or a dome comes to mind. And if you’re within this circle, it sounds like a Sic Alps record. And all you gotta do, Mr. Soundguy, is tap into that, and feed our sound into your house, and make it louder so that everyone else can hear what we’re hearing.
Noel: If you choose to. Sometimes we’re louder.
Matt: Invariably it’s like, ‘Well you know, I’m going to make your drums sounds like Lars Ulrich and we’re going to make your vocals sound like Mariah Carey and we’re going to make your guitars sound like Guitar Center.’