Name: Mike Donovan
Current release: Blexxed Rec on Drag City
Recommendations: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by William Henry Davies is a great read / “Servant Cloth” by Run Dust is a stellar track for the ages. Check 'em out!
Learn more about The Peacers on their mysterious website totalpeacers.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing songs the same time I started playing guitar, at 18. I was always in a band from around 4th grade on- Noise was our name, I was the singer. In high school, I was a big Elvis Costello fan - I knew all his stuff backwards and forwards. But it wasn't till I was 18 that I got into the music that would really inspire me to write my own songs, stuff that made me feel I had a chance at making my own music. The Wedding Present and The Velvet Underground were the two big influences. I remember thinking I could write books or play music and that I should make a choice. Even though at the time I felt I was a relatively talented writer I chose music because I didn't actually have any real musical talent so there would be a greater distance to travel, with more to learn.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It wasn't until my early 30s that I really started making what might be considered original music. I’ve always done things wrong, without training and proper technique. I’ve never been interested in any of that. Eventually, because I’m stubborn and have a strong will, this worked to my advantage. For a very brief time no one was making music like Sic Alps because, in terms of song writing and playing, I got there on my own, inadvisable route.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Sometimes it has me missing the boat entirely. It can be a hindrance if the mood is foul. But nothing can beat the feeling, the sense of self, when I'm in the moment and the vocal take is going well.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Lack of ability has always been the main challenge. But I think in the best of times I've learned to use that to my advantage, like how in karate you use your opponent's own force against them.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools to recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I always wrote on guitar but I’ve been working on the piano for the last few years. I guess, like a lot of people who switch it up, I’m just looking for a way to make something new happen.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I spent a long time in the wilderness of various SF recording studios, trying to get the sound right and failing over and over as the clock ticked loudly. Teaming up with Adam Stonehouse of The Hospitals in the first incarnation of Sic Alps was very educational in terms of learning how to make it happen by just recording it yourself. He was really into pushing gear in harsh and un-tested ways. He was the guy who brought the Tascam 388 into the picture for the SF scene. He would probably hate to hear me say that, since name-checking that machine has reached such corny heights, but it’s true. That machine opened up a lot of doors for poor SF rock and rollers 15 years ago. It has its limitations but also makes it easy to produce something on your own, that sounds like a record, without a lot of fuss.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I really like working with one other person. A duo works so much faster than a trio because decisions are made quickly and without a thought for democracy.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I get up mad early- usually around 4:30. I’m a substitute teacher now, working most days, so I try to get as much recording / creative work in as possible before school. I can usually get some fiction/non-fiction writing done on the clock and when school’s out I usually go down for a nap and then head back into the home studio.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
“Semi-Streets” by Sic Alps was the breakthrough, in 2004. I was blatantly trying to write a Dead C rocker. This was the song where I started paying great attention to the original demo, the very specific sound of the thought leaving my head. It was about capturing the idea on tape as it left my head and then spending a lot of time replicating that moment and paying attention to the smallest details of timing and phrasing. Instead of trying to improve things I made sure I was being true to that moment of creation. It's the complete opposite of shredding / jamming your way to a definitive version. The challenge is always negotiating this process, knowing when to diverge from the original thought and when to stay honest to it.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’m happiest working early in the morning, before the sun is up. Alone with a cup of coffee.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music stirring memory and emotion in non-verbal elderly folks has got to be the most amazing use of music I’ve ever seen. People speaking after being silent for years, when they are played music from their past shows what a powerful tool it can be.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I don’t really see a limit to it. If the spirit of the thing is love, anything is fair game- as long as something new is born out of it. David Bowie once said “It doesn’t matter who did it first, it’s who did it second”.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I’ve never experienced any kind of synaesthesia. The only overlap for me is when I’m making music videos. In the planning stages I can kind of see flashing colors and patterns that I’ve found to be difficult to translate into reality.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I try not to put my lot in with the world and just get on with it, get as much done as possible while I’m inspired. When I hit a wall, I try to saw through it.
Music can express the inexplicable. What can it express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think that depends on who is behind it and who is listening. There are many unknowns here. Like why does a song make you remember a certain time or place that is seemingly unrelated?