Hot on the heels of the release of their double LP Napa Asylum, Sic Alps‘ Matt Hartman and newest member Noel von Harmonson were gracious enough to chat with us about the band’s new kick-ass record, tour hobbies, and some of their musical leanings. Be sure to catch them on February 9, as part of the all star lineup (also including Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, The Sandwitches) at the Coalition on Homelessness Benefit at the Great American Music Hall, before they embark on a US tour in just a few weeks.
The Bay Bridged: Looks like you guys are getting ready for some major touring in the next year and are going to be riding some well-deserved buzz from this new record. Your label, Drag City, is a great match for you. How did that all come about?
MH: Two-part answer: I’d met Dan K (and Dan O and Rian) when I used to roadie for The Champs and we’d kept in haphazard touch over the years. Plus I think they really liked U.S. EZ. So when I heard that it was pretty easy to suggest that we work together. We’re quite happy they agreed.
TBB: I noticed on many of Napa Asylum’s cuts, the vocals ride surprisingly high in the mix and have a strong presence. Of course it would be easy to tuck them behind layers of fuzz or whatever else and have it still work, so was that a conscious decision in recording this record? How are your lyrics generated? Or do they, as Bob Dylan once intimated, write themselves along the way?
MH: Well, to answer the question of vocal production…I don’t remember doing much too differently except that Mike discovered the Ball and Bisquit, which actually is a rather primitive microphone that they used at Abbey Road for talkback in the control room. Oddly enough, though, you can get a pretty good, crispy, detailed vocal sound but still have some mid-range dirt. We were lucky to be able to borrow one from King Riff so it appeared on quite a few tracks. Only Mike could tell you about the lyrics…
TBB: “Low Kid” from the new record genuinely called to ear my love of The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies record. I’ve always felt like The Kinks’ discography has been relatively overlooked by the general populace, and, in a sense, they are my Stones/Beatles. Are any of you Kinkophiles? Out of the tons of obscure artists from the 50s-90s you can stump us with, were there any few in particular you discovered or maybe re-discovered around the time you were making this record?
MH: Oh absolutely!! The Kinks are so in the same echelon as The Beatles when it comes to being total masters. I pendulum swing sometimes and think they’re better actually. Yes. We like the Kinks (see “Message From The Law”). Rediscoveries? Obscure? Hmmm. What’s obscure anymore while we’re on the subject? We actually finished the album many months ago and I can’t remember except the usual study of The Beatles’ White Album, The Kinks’ Village Green…, just about any John Coltrane recording, but none of that is remotely obscure. Guess I haven’t run into anything “new” that’s really blown me away with its production. After the record was finished I had some nice reconnections with The Gories and Sleep thanks to some reunion shows — in the same week no less. That was stellar.
TBB: When did your third and newest member, Noel von Harmonson, join the band? Did he contribute to the recording of Napa Asylum? Has the live presentation changed dramatically with three of you now?
MH: I asked Noel if he’d be interested in joining us at the last minute to do a tour of the UK. It was partly an “oh, shit what are we gonna do?” moment (Ty Segall just quit), but also partly staring us right in the face the whole time like, “duh.” And yes, Noel is all over that album. Way too much actually. We’re thinking of scaling him back a notch. The live show is better than ever in my opinion, as a three piece can pull off numbers that we could never do as a duo.
TBB: No doubt there can be a lot of downtime in touring — long van rides, other bands’ sound checks, sleepless moments in weird environs — do you arm yourselves with books, strange hobbies, or other projects along the way?
MH: I once taught myself how to read and write the two Japanese phonetic alphabets (one for Japanese and one for foreign words). We also often engage in an antiquated footbag game called “hackeysack.”
NVH: As silly as it sounds, the hack attack is real. When you’re half delirious, a little hung over, starving, and running on what fuel you can muster from gas station potato chips, a simple and embarrassing game like that is a godsend. Plus, you get a little exercise and laugh the whole time. It is against the rules to serve to yourself so it’s definitely a teamwork builder as well. Mike draws and sleeps.
TBB: I’ve been in the Bay Area for about eight years now, and it seems that more than ever the scene is churning out crazy awesome bands who are getting almost immediate buzz on the national level. But, sometimes the fallout can be quick and ugly. Matt, I read that after your ever-increasingly influential band Henry’s Dress (Slumberland Records) dissolved, you checked out for awhile and were a roadie for the Champs (who became the Fucking Champs), moonlighted as a touring guitarist for Cat Power, then drummed in The Coachwhips. Collectively, and individually in your previous musical endeavors, do you guys have any wise words of advice for young musicians in town on how to weather buzz, touring, and all that rock n’ roll?
MH: For me, I stay with it because it’s what I want to do. I think the rest tends to fall in place after that. The second I get bored with it I’ll put it down (my post-HD period, for example), and someday that may be a permanent vacation. Any minute now in fact.
NVH: After Comets fizzled out, I thought I was going to go on a bit of a musical hiatus (at least as far as a touring band goes). I couldn’t imagine playing music with people I hadn’t played with for years straight because that chemistry gets so magical. I think the three of us have developed a nice and quick chemistry that we’re always honing. I think the fact that I’ve known Mike and Matt in various capacities over the years made it easier for me to feel comfortable jumping into the mix.
TBB: How do you feel about the dominance of the vocoder in today’s pop music?
NVH: I dunno, if it HAS to be on every pop song can somebody at least try using it on a guitar or a horn or something? If not, let’s move on. I feel the same way about it as when Schwarzenegger was elected (and Bush) thinking to myself, “How in the world did this become acceptable as normal?” Whatever, it’ll be all over our next record I’m sure.
MH: Vocoder? I wish it was a vocoder, that might take some skill. What you hear in today’s pop music is the abuse of a Pro-Tools plug-in called AutoTune. Regardless, it’s a total waste of time making robot music for robot people.
TBB: What would it take for you guys to do an unplugged show? Or is that not even a consideration?
MH: Some money?
TBB: And finally…worse day job(s) to date?
NVH: I worked at an Indian food restaurant in Olympia, WA for a short while. I was hired as a dishwasher but quickly became responsible for EVERYTHING. At the end of a busy night, they would toss me a $5 bill from the tip pool. It was ridiculous. I also cashiered their farmer’s market food trailer on the weekends. I had to load up all of the leftover curries from the restaurant and drive them to the market in the trunk of my car and sell them as “fresh.” I got to eat for free but the trunk of my car was coated in chickpeas and spicy tomato sauce more than once.
MH: Easily the first one I had in high school, as a dishwasher in a BBQ restaurant. Even if you’re a carnivore, the waste material that goes through a BBQ joint sucks to deal with. I figured I’d better think of something better to do.