When Mike Donovan and Matt Hartman founded Sic Alps in 2004, San Francisco’s storied modern-day garage-psych community was still bubbling below the radar. Prolific scene fixtures like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees were just beginning to build zealous worldwide fan bases, and the minds behind the Fresh & Onlys, White Fence, and Sonny & The Sunsets hadn’t yet founded those projects. A lot had changed nine years later when Donovan decided to disband Sic Alps, having kicked out Hartman two years prior. By then, the skuzzier corners of San Fran’s music community had developed a reputation as one of the world’s most fertile sonic breeding grounds, a reputation Sic Alps never quite benefitted from. Their primordial mix of lo-fi rock and folk was one of the city’s finest exports, but Donovan had to settle for the admiration of influences like Pavement and the Fall rather than anything resembling a sustainable career.
Donovan took two years even farther out of the limelight after releasing a one-off solo album in 2013, but he’s back to full speed ahead with Peacers, a new combo that will release their self-titled debut LP on Drag City next week. Conceived during a 10-month exodus to Germany, the project’s ambling, monumentally chill demeanor will undoubtedly resonate with Donovan’s longtime listeners; he continues to uncoil fragmentary psych scraps with the best of them. Donovan mostly recorded the Peacers album alone with Ty Segall, but it’s a full-fledged band now with longtime collaborator Eric Park. After a handful of shows with Wendy Farina on drums, they’ll make their first appearance with former Thee Oh Sees drummer Mike Shoun at Golden Gate Park for free this Friday.
I spoke with Donovan by phone earlier this week. The interview is below, but first, get into Peacers’ headspace with “Laze It,” a new teaser track we’re premiering today. It’s a gently fuzzy psych-rock tune that reminds me of tumbling waves, so it only makes sense that the accompanying visuals by Jim Drain were filmed at Miami Beach. Press play and read on.
STEREOGUM: You obviously record with Sic Alps under so many different lineups, it seems like you could of kept that name going and then your released a solo record and it seemed like you could of kept that name going. So why did you start recording as Peacers?
MIKE DONOVAN: Well you know, Sic Alps yeah we definitely could have kept that going. You know, there’s a point that seemed like it was a good time to end it, and the solo record was already kind of in the works. It wasn’t really meant to be like, “OK, the band’s breaking up and now there’s this solo career that’s burgeoning” or something. It wasn’t planned that way, but it was kinda the way it went down I guess. As soon as that record came out we did a US tour with William Keihn on drums and Eric Park on guitar. As soon as that tour was over I went to Hannover, Germany for like 10 months and just totally peaced out. So that’s kind of why…so it was kind of like a big break from both of those things. While I was there basically wrote the record there and in Hannover. And my friend Luke lives there and he leant me his four-track, and so I just sat in room in Hannover and just worked on that.
STEREOGUM: So how did that become Peacers rather than another solo record?
MIKE DONOVAN: It was just at some point I felt like, rather it have be a continuation of the solo project, that it would be so much more fun to be in a band again and have that sort of mentality. So Eric Park, he’s the big reason, really. Eric Park plays guitar on the [solo] record, and we really did that record together — probably should of called it Donovan/Park or something like that. He’s like the best thing about that record; I love his playing on that, it’s amazing. We really worked hard on putting that solo record together in terms of like practicing on the front end. We just went in and recorded it live, two guitars. We really put our work in on that. And so coming back from Germany, I wanted to work with him. But I didn’t want to be like, “Yeah, you know, you’re my dude that makes my solo records with me.” So he’s playing bass and singing backup in the live version of Peacers now. He’s been singing a lot and so it’s super nice. So he’s really kind of the main reason that that went the way it was. But also you know, I wanted to get down with other people too, be in a band.
STEREOGUM: So did Eric and your other bandmates make the record with you and Ty, or was it just the two of you?
DONOVAN: Well it was a lot of me and Ty. We did the record in Los Angeles. I came back from Germany and went right to LA — didn’t even go home, hadn’t been to my apartment or anything yet, and like busted out with Ty basically like, “Here’s the tune,” and he would be like, “Got it.” We’d do the drums and guitar at the same time time. And he’d be like, “Do you wanna put bass on that?” And he would put bass on it, cause he just knows my style or whatever. And so he can just knocks shit out like crazy. But to answer the question, Barrett [Avner], who was the last person in Sic Alps, plays guitar on one of the songs, and Eric plays guitar on one of the songs. And few other people like Brigid [Dawson] from Thee Oh Sees sings on two songs. But a lot of the main chunk of it was Ty and I. In fact we had plans to do more recording in LA but we got so much done that I was kind of overwhelmed by what we had and ended up just taking it back up to San Francisco where we recorded the rest of the overdubs at Eric Bauer’s studio, Bauer Mansion.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you spent 10 months writing it while you were in Hannover. What was the reason for that trip? Or I guess it was more than a trip.
DONOVAN: Yeah basically a boring story but it was like just the whole tune of heartache and confusion, and I just didn’t really want to be around or something. So I just kind of walked around Hannover trying not to look bummed out and do as much work as I could, writing and stuff. So that was kind of the reason. But also just to get away from the whole San Francisco trip and everything, which is kind of a bummer in itself lately.
STEREOGUM: Would you say heartache was informing what you were writing at the time?
DONOVAN: Yeah, that’s always the case I think. Always that kind of stuff that ends up getting into the tunes — stuff about people that you know and love and stuff.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you wanted to get away from the whole San Francisco thing for a while, what was your reasoning for that?
DONOVAN: Well I mean, a lot of my friends moved. When you see somebody from a few years ago or from the music scene here they’re always like, “Whoa, dude you’re still here!” People are surprised that you can stick it out in the economy here, which is insane. The whole zeitgeist here, it’s like everything revolves around convenience and distraction and how to make money off those things. Everything is so iPhone here, the virtue that people aspire to is how to get over times 10,000. It’s not how to provide a service and make a living. It’s more like how can we get over times 10,000, you know, like Uber or you know what I mean? That’s the virtues that are sort of like lauded here, which is total bullshit as far as I’m concerned. Those kind of values, they don’t mean anything to me. I don’t respect them. But it’s really pervasive here, so sometimes you want to get out.
STEREOGUM: Obviously that scene there over the last few years did get a lot of attention. That didn’t make it anymore livable in terms of just like paying the rent?
DONOVAN: In terms of being able to play shows locally and make money that way?
STEREOGUM: That, or just, so many of those bands were touring so much and I would imagine that at a certain point the tours got bigger. Did it have like an impact?
DONOVAN: Oh, yeah. The best way to make money, honestly, is to play with my more famous friends — [laughs] my super generous and cool friends — that’s the best way to make cash. But yeah you can definitely can make money still touring and stuff like that, but I’ve just taken a huge break — something like, I’ve played four shows in the last couple of years. But I’m looking forward to the touring, we’re gonna tour the record in October. And we’re psyched too because we started Wendy Farina, we play the first four shows with her. But now our drummer is Mike Shoun from Thee Oh Sees, who is their drummer from like 2008 to 2013. That’s insane, he’s an amazing musician. And we’re going to play our first show with him on Friday at Golden Gate Park.
STEREOGUM: When I think about his drumming I just imagine — maybe it’s just because of the music that Thee Oh Sees specialize in, but like I imagine something so intense. And your record is so chill. Is the live show going to be more intense?
DONOVAN: It’s going to be more intense, yeah [laughs]. If you’re in San Francisco you can hear us for free on Friday. But yeah, it’s really fun playing with Mike, for sure. And we’re going on tour in October with Elisa [Ambrogio] from Magik Markers. She has a solo record out, so we’re gonna do that kind of like double headliner US tour thing with Elisa.
STEREOGUM: You were talking a little bit about some of the values in San Francisco that you don’t really get down with. The last song on the record is called “Super Francisco.” Does that address any of those things?
DONOVAN: That’s an old song. The song I think is 10 or 15 years old or something like that. So I threw in some new lyrics. It was always called “Superficial,” and it predates Sic Alps, I think. But yeah, just changing the title kind of changed the meaning to it. Yeah, for sure.
STEREOGUM: We’re premiering the video for “Laze It.” Could you describe the concept for that?
DONOVAN: Jim Drain made it. We did a thing when I was in Germany, Luke and I, my buddy in Hannover, he has a radio show there, and we made a soundtrack for one of Jim’s movies for the radio show that we did. So we worked on the soundtrack for one of Jim’s movies before, and so that’s kind of how it came about. But the video itself is kind of based on that movie that we worked on with him, and it’s all filmed at Miami Beach on Memorial Day weekend. Also, he’s got some weird technology where he’s figured out how to spin a camera in the real world, so there’s lot’s of spinning horizons in the video. It’s like a beach and party action, horizon spinning. Appropriately enough, I guess [laughs].
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that a lot of the people from the scene you used to to run in have moved away. How do you assess the current scene in San Francisco. Is there still a pretty vibrant music community?
DONOVAN: It’s definitely different, you know? Just based on the sheer number of musicians, creative people in the city now. I mean, it’s really stark compared to when I moved here. I moved here like 20 years ago, nobody worked and everybody was like in clown’s school or at CCA or something. Seriously, that’s what it was like. And now it’s like nobody does anything. Well, I think the people think they’re creative, but it’s sort of all business-based creations. But just starting to play shows again, after putting this record together and now the records coming out, I’m just getting back into what’s happening here. So like Kelley Stoltz and like Sonny And The Sunsets and a lot of people are still here making stuff. So I’m just kind of happily weaning back into that stuff. But it’s definitely a smaller thing. And you lose someone like John [Dwyer] from Thee Oh Sees who made so much happen, and that sort of energy is infectious. So that not being here is a big deal for sure. But definitely there are people here still doing good stuff for sure.
STEREOGUM: If you’re thinking through the record, are there ] one or two songs that really stand out to you like, “This is the one that turned the faucet on” or “This is the one that was a turning point in writing the record”?
DONOVAN: I don’t know if there was a particular song. I mean when I went to Germany too, I had an idea to write some fiction and put something together and like working on that for the first few months. And I never tried to do anything like that before. At one point the faucet turning on moment was when I decided that I was going to write a record, ’cause I was like, “Oh, I wanna try to do this.” And I did. I wrote like 50 pages or something like that of like Roald Dahl-inspired short stories. That’s kinda what happened. But at some point I was like, “I shouldn’t be using the time like that,” or I could use my time better. And as soon as I switched over to four-tracking, I was like, “It’s on.” I had my mission. So no one’s read that stuff, you know [laughs]. I self-published a book of poetry from that time. I came back with some poems and put that in a zine. So that kind of represents the first month. But that was like the big moment when I switched back.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the writing kind of cleansed your palate?
DONOVAN: You know, maybe. Yeah, that might be the case. I was definitely there like, “I’m gonna sit down and work on something.” And anyone who’s tried to write has had difficulty writing, it’s the oldest story in the world. In a sense I walked away from it. It definitely made me realize what I wanted to do, though — what I was good at, maybe?
STEREOGUM: So is Peacers full speed ahead, then? Are you planning on making Peacers records and touring them indefinitely?
DONOVAN: For sure, I’d be down to make another record, and I’m gonna play some solo shows coming up too, just by myself, which is fun to do. But yeah definitely, in August we’re going to get in the studio and record some stuff. Yeah, I would say full speed ahead is the order of the day for sure. But we’re a little bit older, so we’re not going to like knock ourselves out completely. We gotta last for a while, you know? [laughs]
Peacers is out 7/17 on Drag City.