Tue 8 Mar 2011
Springs Breaking In The Clockwork
Describing his band as “label polygamists”, Sic Alps’ drummer Matt Hartman talks about label hopping, album sequencing and reading reviews of Sic Alps’ latest album Napa Asylum.
A character of acute sensibility, Matt Hartman’s personality instantly takes shape. He’s totally in control of every aspect of his band’s output. For seven years the band he fronts with guitar/vocalist Mike Donovan has refused to be tied down, releasing music in all formats on eleven different record labels without ever feeling a sense of obligation to continue working with any of them. Their latest offering, a functionally deranged double album titled Napa Asylum was released by Chicago indie label Drag City, one of few remaining twenty-plus year old independents who have passed through the revolving door off big label takeovers and held their ground in a now vastly different musical climate.
Hartman cites Drag City’s staying power as a major motivation for wanting to work with them, along with their desire to remain focused on releasing a quality product without being overrun by profit margins and distribution packages. He describes Drag City as “a good place to land”, musing that “I guess they’re the label that got us to stop messing around,” referring to the last six years of their career when no label was able to land an ongoing deal. He remembers when they decided to do their second full-length album U.S EZ with Siltbreeze that their previous label Animal Disguise “were bent out of shape a little bit.”
But what Hartman describes as the band’s ‘label polygamy’ hasn’t bothered him or Donovan. “I have a bit of an idealistic view of the world I think, and it is my hope that folks will discover music as long as it is good enough. I’ve always hoped that the music could speak for itself and that you didn’t need these brokers that sort of come in and dictate to some extent that you ought to be writing about this band.”
“it’s not a lo-fi record, he termed it something like ‘old-fi’”
Remembering a time when an email appeared in the band’s inbox asking to speak with their manager or press agent, it puzzled him to find a journalist so unaccustomed to dealing directly with the people they in fact wanted information from. “A year or two ago we got these weird emails from someone at Interview magazine… they were trying to get in touch with our manager or our press agent. We had to write back and go well we don’t have one but you’ve actually got the band here, you can actually talk to us and we’ll be more than happy to supply you with information… we never heard back from them.” He quickly picked up on the fact that many writers lazily want a quick fix; a press release or biography to bulk out a poorly researched article.
Reading reviews, he says, “I can tell if a journalist has done their homework or not because you can look at a review and if they’re basically spitting back the one-sheet that they get then you realise.” It’s that failure by many music critics to critically assess the music that has led fans to follow and champion certain magazines or websites. A recent review of Napa Asylum published on the music website Pitchfork helped Hartman discover things about his music that he himself had been unable to describe. “I wasn’t convinced they would get it but what’s funny is that they really got it, there’s so much of that review where I’m like, woah, no shit. The one thing that the guy picked up on that I particularly liked was that it’s not a lo-fi record, he termed it something like ‘old-fi’. That was the catch phrase that I couldn’t really come up with in my own head but he just kind of took the words out of my mouth.”
Pitchfork’s influence on alternative music has become such that the band, along with staff at Drag City, ran a poll to guess the rating out of ten that would be assigned to Napa Asylum. Someone, Hartman can’t remember who, guessed right with an 8.0/10. But when it comes to influencing the public’s opinion, a review can only go so far. “At the end of the day you can have the best review of a record, but if the public doesn’t agree then everything kind of falls accordingly. Whether you get a really good review or a really shit review, you have to keep in mind that that’s just one guy’s opinion.”
So far, the 8.0 hasn’t quite spiralled into critical acclaim for Sic Alps, being less accessible than many other highly rated Pitchfork bands. Napa Asylum has moments of complete rawness that only fans of a certain ilk will appreciate, while its radio friendly hits have a scuzzy, rustic quality that don’t tie in easily with many alternative top 10 playlists.
Reflecting on the ‘old-fi’ sound, much of which comes from the band’s home recording studio set-up in Hartman’s basement, he describes their writing process akin to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. “Typically, coming into Napa Asylum Mike had a backlog of songs that basically in my mind are like starting points. There’s kind of two different versions of the song being written; there’s the first step which is Mike’s genesis for the song, there’s a riff or a fully formed structure and some lyrics and melody, and then the second version of that is when we get to the studio and get the main idea down.”
“I remember reading an interview with Greg from Deerhoof about how he sequenced Reveille using Queen’s News of the Word.”
After recording and mastering was complete the hardest part was arranging a tracklist, which Hartman took full responsibility of doing, although like the most challenging jobs he left it to the last minute. “I was trying to do something silly and really kind of Zen where I was ignoring the responsibility… One of the drawbacks about recording at home, particularly here because it’s at my house, is that I can tend towards a very laissez-faire attitude about getting the work done, because you know, I’m at home. You’re not paying for studio time and you’ve not got someone looking over you making you work.”
“I just basically sat down with a virtual pile of songs sitting there and went well ‘Jolly’ is first, then I’d hear the song end and go well what do I want to hear next… We were basically on the verge of cutting a lot of material to make it a single album but I didn’t want to let the dream die and once I got that sequence I emailed it to the other guys in the band. The subject was like, ‘A fucking good A (grade) double-album’ or something like that. I basically gave it a giant vote of confidence and everyone else agreed.”
The Zen-like approach thankfully didn’t flow over into sequencing the album. Hartman laughs about reading different methodologies used to justify album sequencing. “I remember reading an interview with Greg from Deerhoof about how he sequenced Reveille using Queen’s News of the Word. He was basically like, ‘What’s the Deerhoof song that equals each track on the Queen record?'” Not surprisingly Hartman found a much easier way, “You kind of have to just do the mixtape thing and try and just get them to interlace together.”