It's hard to get Nick Sakes, guitarist and vocalist for local off-kilter punks Sicbay, to talk about his own music. Which is funny, since so many local bands can gush about themselves like broken dams. The 39-year-old Sakes--an established musician both locally and abroad, a husband, father, and all-around champion of the D.I.Y. scene--is just too damn humble. He's content to discuss other people's bands, praising those whose records he released on his self-proclaimed "hobby label," Sawtooth Records, and those whose shows he booked for clubs in Springfield, Illinois (where he lived in the early '90s) or, more recently, for Big V's. He has just as many good things to say about the groups he toured with, or reviewed in zines like Your Flesh. Sakes is proof that it's just as much fun to write about or book a band, toiling behind the scenes, as it is to play in one.
On a recent blustery February evening, Sakes, Sicbay guitarist Dave Erb, and I relax in Sakes's northeast Minneapolis home, where he lives with his wife and toddler Ruby. (M.I.A. this evening is drummer Ed Rodriguez, who is off supporting San Francisco's Deerhoof on their European tour.) Sakes's attic doubles as his office--it's like Willy Wonka's chocolate room, reinterpreted for music geeks. Screen-printed posters line the walls, and Madison-based punks Transformer Lootbag play on the stereo while Sakes and Erb chat with the easy chemistry of old friends. They met when Sakes's former Skin Graft band, Dazzling Killmen, played with Erb's Walking Octopus in Springfield in 1991. (Sicbay formed eight years later.) Both grew up in semi-isolated areas of the South, Sakes in Arkansas and Erb in Missouri, and they frequently share the banalities of their day jobs with each other. But, like most fellow band members, the two found their strongest connection in music.
With faint remnants of a Southern drawl, Sakes says that when he was younger, he spent many late nights kept awake by his father, who wanted his son to listen to Devo. Erb grew up with an older brother who praised the smashed-pane pop of the Flaming Lips and Elvis Costello. Which might explain why both have an inexhaustible penchant for music-geek conversation: They quickly move on from talking about their pasts to admitting that Internet message boards like GigPosters.com and the now-retired TCPunk.com are incredibly addictive--especially for the average cubicle dweller. They discuss which vinyl 45s make great mix-tape contributions (the obscure ones are best). And Sakes lists the problems that arise from running a label--or being signed to a label that suddenly goes under.
Don't ask what happened to boxes of Sicbay's 2001 full-length debut The Firelit S'coughs, which was supposed to be released on Seattle's Obtuse Mule label. The records moved to Boston with the label's owner, who Sakes says now refuses communication with everyone. The band members have been trying to get them back from the now-defunct imprint, but in the meantime they've released a string of hit-and-run split singles with fellow noise-punks like Vaz, Craw, Grand Ulena, and Deerhoof (the latter has a release forthcoming on Sawtooth). And there's an endless list of bands Sakes would love to share a 7-inch with in the future. Having recently uncovered his own early Walking Octopus recordings, Erb inquires about having them remastered. "Hey!" Sakes remarks, "We should do a split 7-inch with your old band!"
For now, though, their primary concern is Sicbay's latest release, Overreaction Time (54° 40' or Fight!), an album that's far more temperamental than the band members' casual conversation might imply. The trio makes several unsettling shifts between the vernal and vitriolic, like a sonic Gestalt test. The short, spastic burst of "Herculaneum" subsists on a circular guitar riff and Sakes's voice--the gruff howl of a dog left home in its cage all weekend. "Summersaults" sneaks by with Rodriguez's stuck-in-the-mud stickwork trailing behind vocoder overdubs. The understated tracks "Smokestains" and "Outside Help" represent Sicbay's more reflective moments, making the band sound like Slint as fronted by Silver Jews deadpan David Berman. For two songs, the band is introspective and quiet. And then they're manic again.
Sakes and Erb attribute Sicbay's bipolar nature to whimsy rather than math-rock-type calculation. And appropriately, beneath their livid lullabies, the band has an unlikely pop mentality--a trait that's evident on the forthcoming split single with Deerhoof. Of "Species," the Sicbay half of the record, Sakes muses, "It's funny, after I wrote the lyrics to that particular song, all I thought was This is a cheesy Ruby song. It's an innocent pop song with my daughter in mind. It's about small animals and bugs," he laughs. "I've never done anything like that."
Some day, Sakes might be releasing split singles with Ruby's band. But until then, there are too many groups that Sakes loves and wants to support, and it's hard to choose just one to share a 7-inch with. "We should do a regular single with just us," Sakes jokes to Erb.
Then, more seriously, he turns to me. "You got a band?"
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