Mike Donovan discusses analog nostalgia, living in the garage, and Wot, his first post-Sic Alps solo album.
Mike Donovan is a musician from San Francisco. His band Sic Alps recently called it quits after roughly a decade, though their legacy can’t help but live on. That legacy consists of five albums and almost three times as many 7” EPs of sometimes-scorching, sometimes-sweet garage rock released on such labels as Woodsist, Siltbreeze, and Drag City. Indeed, the lo-fi movement that rode its own wave through alternative music shoals of 2000 and beyond was forged by the likes of Donovan, along with Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Kelley Stoltz, Tim Presley of White Fence, and the Fresh & Onlys.
But now Donovan is set to release a solo album. Wot sees release on October 15 via Drag City. The sound field has been cleared, the overdubs and instrumentation have been paired down, and what’s left is a man, his acoustic guitar, and his songs. Not too much else. Donovan talks here about transitioning to solo mode, living in a garage, and why the Internet makes you seem more interesting than you actually might be.
Andrew Aylward Let’s talk about Wot. How do you say it when you talk about it?
Mike Donovan “What.” I guess it’s like an English way of writing it.
AA That’s what I was wondering, if it was a British spelling.
MD Yeah, there’s a Captain Sensible song called “Wot,” spelled the same way.
AA Did the album feel like your first solo endeavor, Mike Donovan’s first “joint?”
MD Not too much. I made it with my friend Eric Park. I played in a band with him before called Yikes. Although I knew it was going to be a solo record under my name or whatever, we definitely made the record together. So it has the feeling of a project.
AA How was it different from making a Sic Alps record?
MD We recorded the guitars at the same time, two acoustic guitars playing at the same time and then overdubbed. We kind of knew what they would be. It was just going to be a bass drum and a tambourine so we just rolled it back and did ‘em real fast. Different from Sic Alps where it was more “let’s do a guide track with the acoustic and then sing it, and we can do anything we want now.” The idea was to do it real fast, and we did it real fast.
AA How long did you spend recording it?
MD We probably did it in five or six days.
AA Was it at home or did you go to a studio?
MD It was right around the corner from where I live, with Phil Manley, from Trans Am and The Fucking Champs. We did it in his garage on an 8 track and he had his own little home studio. I think he recorded maybe one other project there.
AA So it’s a garage rock record?
AA I read somewhere that Kelly Stoltz recently recorded something that was actually in a garage and people were taking about how it was a literal garage rock record. So all the garage rock people are starting to actually go back to the garage.
MD I live in a garage, I swear to god, actually. (laughter) It’s true. I’m standing in a garage right now. Can’t escape it.
AA Do you expect a relatively easy transition to hitting the road, in that you won’t need a big band or anything?
MD That was kind of the idea, that we would be able to play it just the two of us, but then we picked up William Keihn. You might know his record covers. He did a lot of covers for Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall and stuff. He did the Melted record.
AA Those are really cool.
MD Yeah they’re amazing, he’s a great artist. He did the cover for Wot too. We got him playing drums. He’s using mallets and a stripped down kit. He’s got a wood box and a set of bongos and a bass drum. We did a few shows and we said, Let’s try it with a snare. And as soon as you give a drummer a snare drum, it’s a rock and roll band.
AA At least he doesn’t have any cymbals. That’s when you really get into trouble.
MD (laughter) Totally. There’s one now. We just did a week with my friend Chris Hanson’s band, and then a week with Ty Segall. It was cool to get out there with those guys. Now we’re about a week away from doing a US tour.
AA Are you a San Francisco lifer? Are there other places you’ve lived?
MD I moved here 18 years ago. I grew up in Chicago and came out here on Halloween, ’96. That went by really fast—it doesn’t seem like it should be 18 years. San Francisco has changed a lot. Even though it was dot-com when I got here, now it’s like dot-com with legs. For real, it’s so horrible right now. (laughter)
I love San Francisco and it’s a beautiful place, but…
AA Do you have an iPhone?
MD I don’t even have a cell phone.
AA I noticed your landline number when I tried to text you earlier and I was pretty impressed right off the bat, so I was wondering how deep it went.
MD I do have a cell phone that I use when I am on tour. I bought if for my ex-girlfriend basically because I was totally incommunicado. It’s the worst. I go to other places or other countries and people seem to have some control. Just like a year ago it became OK to walk in the crosswalk looking down at your iPhone. Like, no problem. I don’t know if it’s like that in Brooklyn.
AA Oh yeah, it is. I’m not going to say I’ve never done that but I do realize sometimes when I’m doing it—I am about to get killed.
MD But now everyone is aware you’re going to be doing that.
AA The other thing is that all music delivery now is digital. I think cassettes are cool and that there are people who are into them, but so much of the way people listen to music now is little compressed mp3 files. iTunes and Apple and Silicon Valley is a part of that.
MD Oh, absolutely. I was talking to my friend about it. The technology is so pervasive now that people don’t want to admit, or reject any of it, like “Oh, well I’m on Pandora, so I can’t really say it.” Like, “No dude, you can say it.” I feel like technology has gotten so enmeshed in everyone’s life that they are not willing to talk about it. Everyone’s got their own way of dealing with it, but no one is willing to be like, “Steve Jobs is a demon.” It’s OK to say that. It’s like Pandora and Spotify, they ruined it. For a little bit of convenience.
I think the thing the technology does—there’s a good and a bad to it—you can definitely find out about a lot of things very quickly and easily. But there’s something about when you discover something and it’s not just served to you. Basically it’s hard-won information. It’s sort of like, you find your thing.
For example, blogs will have a new post everyday of some really varied cultural high point, you know what I mean? So people are sort of shallow cultural polymaths. It’s like, “Check out what I’m into, I’m into this and this and this,” and they post all this stuff. It’s like, “Well, what are you really into?” I sound like an old guy, I know I do, but are you really into a million things? When all of those things are singular in their own way? But that’s the way it is, you know? All of it is accessible now, so it’s not like you have to be an expert or anything like that to find out about anything. And in a way that’s cool.
AA What have you been listening to?
MD I want to hear Kelley Stoltz’s new record. I’ve heard the new U.S. Girls EP and it sounds really good. I like the Ty Segall album, Sleeper. I’m stuck in the past, you know?
AA Speaking of being stuck in the past, do you listen to Royal Trux at all?
MD I do.
AA I’m going to present you with a Neil Hagerty quote, by which I mean a rough paraphrase of a quote. He said something along the lines that rock and roll, in terms of guitar rock bands, peaked in the ’70s, and then after that hip-hop took over, and hip-hop was the new shocking popular music form, and then other stuff came along. He said he thinks of himself in the way you might think of a classical pianist or a jazz musician, as a practitioner of this art that has already seen its heyday, but that is still valuable for performance and consumption.
MD That’s pretty awesome. That’s a really good way of looking at it. I always go back to the old stuff too, and in terms of rock and roll, something was in the air. You can’t make records that sound like that anymore, you know what I mean? And the people who try end up failing. My friends make really good records that sound like the ’60s, Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees, and stuff like that. That stuff is amazing. But it’s different too—it’s nice to put a twist on it.
There was something in the air back then. When you think about those guys and what they were coming out of and what they were rebelling against, it’s a slingshot from World War II. That kind of thing can only happen one time. Or one time in a century, maybe.
Andrew Aylward is a musician and audio engineer living in New York City.