Listen to The Sea and Cake on Rhapsody...
By: Chris Clark
Long known for its desolate winters, coronary-clogging foods and, of course, Jordan and the Bulls, Chicago is seen as the archetypal Midwestern American city. Sure, there's the lackluster, post-industrial mess that is Detroit, the resurgent, Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame graced Cleveland and Hoosier-filled Indianapolis, but no city in our nation's midsection offers quite as much as the Windy City.
The Sea and Cake
Coupled with the city's massive, waterfront allure is a burgeoning, oft overlooked cultural scene. Within an array of blossoming art galleries and museums, diverse neighborhoods and venues like The Vic and House of Blues, gifted, left-of-center local bands have thrived. This city has birthed Tortoise, The Shipping News, 90 Day Men, Shrimp Boat, Jeff Tweedy and The Sea and Cake to name a few.
Formed 15 years ago, The Sea and Cake came together as a regional supergroup of sorts, bringing together members of Gastr del Sol, The Coctails, Shrimp Boat and Tortoise. The results are a band so collectively creative, forward thinking and artistic that their sound and style have always defied categorization. JamBase caught up with The Sea and Cake's songwriting frontman Sam Prekop to talk shop about Chicago, evolution, the band's new album Everybody (released May 8 on Thrill Jockey) and what it's like to create music people fall in love to.
JamBase: It's been quite a while since The Sea and Cake's last studio release (2003's One Bedroom). What have you guys been doing in the meantime? How has the band's vision and sound evolved since then, and moreover, since your formation in the mid-90s?
Sam Prekop: Yea, it's been a while. However, it never feels as long as it actually is. Pretty soon after touring for One Bedroom, I started writing my second solo album. Also, I got further involved with photography - built a darkroom, learned how to use it, etc. I did quite a bit of touring for Who's Your New Professor with the whole band, but also Archer [Prewitt] and I played quite a bit as duo, which was great. I also suspect I wasted quite a bit of time messing around with my home studio, not to much effect, but hopefully one day something will come of it. I also had a painting show in there.
In terms of the band's sound evolving, well, I don't know. I feel this latest record reflects back in a curious way to our earlier records. I think we were hoping to glean some qualities we thought were maybe missing from One Bedroom from some of our earlier approaches - more off the cuff, less careful in a way. I don't think there's any way we could have written these latest songs without having made all of the other records. So, the evolution of the band is the product of our long history playing together. I sense we're forever evolving but I'm afraid I'm too close to it to really describe in what way.
The Sea and Cake
JamBase: When you say the band is "forever evolving" where do you feel the next stage may take The Sea and Cake's sound? Is there that preemptive decision-making or is it just a natural process?
Sam Prekop: I mean, a little bit. For this latest record, we decided to try to make a more live feeling record, sort of to-the-point somehow. There's loose guidelines but they're not always adhered to. It's a process of paying close attention to what seems to be needed as we work on it.
Tell us a little bit about the songwriting and recording process for Everybody. Who was the principal writer, or was it a combined effort? I read that this was the most stripped down of the band's recordings, a "rock album," so to speak.
When we decide we're going to make a record I begin by playing the guitar a lot, just exploring. Out of this comes the beginning of what become the songs collected on the record. After I've got maybe half a dozen ideas, Eric [Claridge - bass], Archer [Prewitt - guitar] and I will get together and start to refine and develop these early sketches and in the process come up with more ideas. One thing leads to another. Then, we'll get together with John [McEntire, also of Tortoise] on the drums and start hashing out what potential there may be for actual songs, and more material will develop from there. For this record, I think we had about 15 potential keepers. After this studio time, I bring the basic tracks to my home studio and start to work out the vocal melodies and lyrics. Then back to the studio to then record the finished vocals. By this point, I've figured which ones are working and which ones aren't.
Basically with this record, the songs were ready to go when we recorded them, as compared to One Bedroom, which we left a lot of that material intentionally open-ended with the idea that they would evolve and develop in the studio. So, One Bedroom was more a collection of sketches that we fleshed out in the studio. On Everybody the songs were basically finished before recording them so it was in the spirit of merely documenting the band playing in a room, and hence, the more straight-forward qualities stem from there I think. Regarding the current state of The Sea and Cake, with each record we're hoping to accurately reflect what we're interested in musically at the time of making a record.
How did the finished and mastered cut of Everybody stack up to your impressions? Where does it with other TSAC albums?
To be honest, I had a hard time listening to Everybody once it was finished. I'll say I usually have this problem with all the records, but with each new one, the stakes seem higher and I put more into it. In turn, I become more overly saturated by it and have a harder time dealing with it once it's finished. I have since come around, spent some time not listening, gaining a perspective away from it a bit, and am now really proud of it. In the end, I always feel that the latest record is the best one. If I didn't feel that way I don't know how we could consider it finished. Ultimately, we're always trying to make a record that's better than the last one.
John McEntire wasn't enlisted for production duties on this record. Was that a conscious choice or just how the band has evolved? Does he still have that multi-instrumentalist dynamic for this album?
We decided that it might be a good idea to shake things up a bit. We thought it could be interesting to have some outside input while making this record, and thought that Brian Paulson [Mark Eitzel, Chatham County Line, Uncle Tupelo] could do a great job. John has a lot of ideas besides playing the drums, so even though he wasn't technically recording the session, he certainly had input, along with the rest of us. It's always a collaborative process. The production-John is also likely the most skilled keyboard player among us, so most of that stuff is John.
What are the band member's strongest attributes when it comes time to develop and record an album?
It's a little bit hard to single people out. Everyone has their very specific way of responding. Everyone contributes beyond their respective instruments, in a sense. The production is a very collaborative process. When I'm singing, I'm always looking for outside input that can be helpful, but ultimately I write the words and figure out how to do it.
Over the last decade-plus, The Sea and Cake has established themselves as one of today's leading purveyors of post-rock. But, they aren't merely a post-rock or even a postmodern pop-rock outfit. These labels offer nothing more than a vague pigeonhole. The Sea and Cake has a more diversified appeal. There are elements of abstract guitar-pop, experimental ambient and dark programmed electronics. Together, the band fuses complex time signatures and melodies with an incessant ability to craft great songs.
Prekop has capably merged his trademark songwriting and delivery with modern technology to create a unique sound. With John McEntire's multi-instrumental and production flare and Archer Prewitt and Eric Claridge's ability to fulfill several roles, the band fuses their distinct talents into a cohesive unit. It's a sound to be heard in the flesh, not merely read about.
JamBase: How does the band continue to thrive at seamlessly combining electronic production and textures with pure, jazz-based musicianship?
Sam Prekop: Actually none of us play "jazz." I couldn't name one of the chords I played on the record, and to play jazz requires at least some amount of music theory I would think. We've been interested in using electronics since the band's inception. How much there is ebbs and flows, but I think we'll always be interested in exploring those types of sounds. Our attitude with electronics isn't really different from how we work with guitars, drums, bass, etc. in that it gets the same focus and thought. In the end, it's just sound, just like anything else.
JamBase: Let's change directions for a minute. What role do all the members' side projects have on The Sea And Cake? And how does The Sea and Cake live sound compare to the band's sound in the studio?
Sam Prekop: I think all of the other stuff we all do contributes to what we do [in The Sea and Cake]. There's no way to divorce oneself from previous experiences, so it would have to have some impact. The main issue it presents is scheduling. The Sea and Cake live is probably louder than people expect. The songs tend to evolve quite a bit as we play them live. The dynamics shift a bit, there's more improvisation, but there wouldn't be a point where you wouldn't recognize the song being performed.
What role does improvisation and on-the-spot spontaneity have in the band's live shows? Does stretching a six-minute song out to 12 or 15 appeal to you at all?
Yeah, occasionally. It's likely we'll be playing almost all this new record live. There's lots of parts that are there for expansion in the live setting. Through playing we'll figure out which ones are natural.
How does your solo work differ from The Sea and Cake? It seems with each TSAC album the band tends to go an unexpected route. Is this to keep you guys fresh or just how it goes?
I go through a similar process for either project at the beginning stages of coming up with material. Naturally, it ends up different because of who is dealing with those ideas. When deciding to work on a new record, we try to not have any hard-set guidelines. It's more a matter of paying close attention to where the material is leading you. So, it's a more "just how it goes" approach. There will be certain basic directions that will be quite influential, like deciding to record at a different studio with someone else engineering.
I've heard the band's music called a "sound to fall in-love to." What are your thoughts on that notion? Does your music make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
I'm not opposed to that notion, however, I'd wonder how realistic that would be. "Warm and fuzzy," hmmm, I think the music's a bit darker than it might seem initially.
The Sea and Cake
I'm not too keen on that, either. "Warm and fuzzy" seems a little over the top to me. That brings me to this: Can everyone truly get TSAC's sound? Do you think this post-modern-ness, odd time signatures and abstract vibes can be understood competently by the masses?
I think we're interested in complex music but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be difficult to listen to. I think ultimately The Sea and Cake is quite approachable.
Where would you place The Sea and Cake's sound? I've heard everything from glistening post-pop to "Euro-influenced indie soft-rock." I'm not too sure what to call it or even if it's a good idea to try to do so.
I try and not give a name to what we do. I've never really come up with an accurate description. Depending on who I'm talking to, I'll come up with different things. I've called us a rock band, a pop band, an art-rock band. Maybe that's it - art rock. I never really minded post-rock, either. It's so generic. It's useful in that no one quite knows what it is. However, it doesn't usually involve singing, so that doesn't really work either.
The Sea and Cake
I find your music completely accessible but do you think the complexity of your compositions can be lost or go over some listener's heads?
I'm sure that happens. I can't really worry about it. We certainly wouldn't change to accommodate people who couldn't hear it. I think the music can be enjoyed on a rock-pop band level, as well as a more experimental outfit.
The Sea and Cake is the culmination of all that is great about the Chicago post-rock, indie scene. Just living in the Windy City has played a pivotal role in their development and artistic expression. It's in the city itself that these collectives of artists found their inspiration to create. Chicago has long been a hotbed of geographic migration. Families from all over the world would make their way there, bringing fresh infusions of culture and creativity with each wave of immigrants. As worlds collide, so do various forms of expression, producing an eclectic melting pot characteristic of the modern American megalopolis.
JamBase: Describe Chicago's role in your music. You guys, Tortoise, The Shipping News, 90 Day Man, there's been a slew of quality music coming from the Windy City over the last 15 years.
Sam Prekop: I don't think there's a prescription for this kind of thing to happen. It's likely a fluke, and also depends on who you're talking to. There are so many factors involved that create a perceived scene or movement I wouldn't know where to begin. But, I'll say the audience here in Chicago is as responsible for it as the bands. Chicago is a music loving, supportive city.
The Sea and Cake
Are you living in Chicago now? Other than the thriving artistic scene, what are some of the city's greatest attributes?
I've always lived here so I feel like my objective perspective on it is a little skewed. I have to trust it's been a large part of my make-up as an artist. It's sort of an endless pool of influence. It's hard to pinpoint one specific thing. It's a big city but it's entirely livable. Therefore, it's attractive. Your overhead here is so much lower. Basically, it affords you the time to explore more esoteric musical avenues. That's an important fact for how that all got started here. Chicago has a long history of people migrating here and making creative music.
How do your paintings help inspire your compositions? Do those two worlds often collide? Taken together, how do the art and music worlds, and the creative processes that go along with, offer you outlets to convey your thoughts and emotions?
There no discernible link I've found in the process of making paintings or music. I never work on them simultaneously. Basically, both disciplines reflect my sensibility. Hopefully, where one would find the connection is if I've successfully expressed myself honestly you might be able to tell that I'd did both. Beyond that, there's really no practical correlation, except that I'm compelled to do both.
The Sea and Cake
Lastly, where is The Sea and Cake heading? Is this ever going to be a full-time thing or will you maintain this sporadic, almost cult-like approach?
We're definitely planning on recording another record sooner than later, hopefully this Fall. I think another four-year break could be problematic. I think it's time for us to take advantage of the current momentum, so look for another one soon.
JamBase | Chicago
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