The four members of Boston/Chicago collaborative outfit The Sea & Cake are a humble lot, even though the collective resume they share is far reaching and influential.
Sam Prekop, John McEntire, Eric Claridge and Archer Prewitt – former and current members of independent underground acts including The Cocktails, Tortoise and Shrimp Boat – make up the band, long time signings to the Thrill Jockey label.
Over seven albums, several solo projects and film soundtracks, the group’s sound has evolved over time within its own realm rather than following any popular idiom. Not bad for a group that have been together 14 years. It has taken just as long for the group to reach Australia.
So what does a day in the life of The Sea & Cake consist of?
â€œIt starts with a search for coffeeâ€¦ and then it ends with beer and rock and roll,â€ jokes the relaxed and laconic Archer Prewitt, former Cocktails member and erstwhile guitarist with The Sea & Cake. Prewitt’s talents lie in the delivery of rhythmic playing fixed around jazz chords and krautrock-styled fretboard mantras.
“When we’re on tour, we definitely like to pretend that we’re like tourists and not just on tour. But we’re equally content with just seeing the smaller neighbourhoods and looking around.”
His songwriting counterpart Sam Prekop is a keen photographer who began his love of the art form during his first solo tour of Australia. One of the photographs from that trip found its way onto the sleeve of the band’ album Oui.
“I’m into it a lot,” says Prewitt, who had a book of his pictures published this year. â€œI’m more of a dabbler,” says Prekop.
Prekop is also a keen painter, but doesn’ necessarily marry the photographs he takes with the canvas creations. “I occasionally feel like they rub off on it [the painting], but not in a direct way. I feel like the photography keeps me visually exercised and warmed up. But I’ve never taken a photo and painted it. There might be a colour idea somewhere that I could never have come up with in my head. So it’s good from that aspect – special, rare occurrences that happen in real life.”
14 years together is a long time by popular music standards. It seems that via their long term association with Thrill Jockey, a label synonymous with the band since its fledgling days, The Sea & Cake have been granted the grace and favour that many major label outfits never see. On top of that, they aren’ a band who have ever suffered the need to keep themselves in any spotlight or top 10 lists, as they have always chosen a slow burning light to guide them along their particular career path. In regards to performing live after the time with this group and as solo artist and members of other groups, Sam Prekop still gets a charge out of playing before a crowd.
“We’re excited,” he says. “Nervous. But not entirely. We’ve sort of gotten over that but a little bit just before the first note is hit,” – Prekop strums an imaginary guitar – “it’s amazing that you can get used to doing it. I mean I didn’ grow up thinking that I would be performing on stage. It’s still somewhat in the most pleasant way, an alienating activity. It’s a lot of fun.”
Prekop is the group’ enigmatic lyricist. A man whose poetry and turn of phrase has given fans a point of ponderance over the years, mainly due to his sometimes illegible stream of consciousness behind the microphone.
A Sea & Cake lyric is never a straight up “boy meets girl, girl hurts boy.” In fact, even after listening to the albums umpteen times, many fans still don’ always hear the messages in black and white. This is one of the group’ most appealing points. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All sounds blend and intertwine to create a singular dream-scape within the mix. Prewitt’s voice becomes an instrument in itself, accent here and there with a well placed yelp or yowl, reminding you of his conviction. The differences between his songwriting for The Sea & Cake, as opposed to his solo albums are not clear cut either.
“It’s mainly different in terms of the time in general,” Prekop says. “I don’ put on different hats for each project. Of course, it alters a bit depending on what I know is going to happen with it and who’ going to play on it. The song writing business, I always start in a very similar place. I have different ideas for each project. In terms of the real core of it, it’s from the same place for me. Archer’ totally different.”
Prewitt nods in agreement. Prekop takes lead vocals on every Sea & Cake album. Why not give Archer Prewitt, a gifted singer/songwriter in his own right, a chance to strut his spectacled-self front of stage?
“Because I won’t let him,” drawls Sam with a chuckle.”
“I dunno. It hasn’t ever really come up,” Prewitt replies, grinning at Sam’ response.”
“Maybe on this new record,” Sam suggests. The band is indeed returning to the studio this month to lay down a new album while the iron’ still hot. This will be the shortest time between recordings for the band since 1994, when they managed to release their first three albums in a 13 month period. The quick return to the studio seems wise for a band that spent four years between Oui and One Bedroom, the members pursuing solo efforts and other projects along with some touring.
Sam Prekop explains: “We’re going back into the studio next month. We haven’t disbanded since the last record; we’ve been touring and I’ve noticed by not taking a break this time, I think or at least predict it will be very beneficial to this new record. Regrouping for Everybody followed our longest break. It was quite frightening in the beginning and it freaks us out, but it always instantly sounds like The Sea and Cake. It’s not like we take it for granted – we were worried about it before we started that it wasn’ going to happen.”
When discussing the key elements to the group’ sound, Prekop explains, “I don’t separate melodies from everything else, the textures, rhythm and nuances. It’s never cut and dry components. It’s almost elusive, when a record feels like it comes together, it feels fleeting and somewhat intangible as to why or how you’ve decided that it’s finished. But you need to have a certain trust to get to that point every time or you’ll feel eternally frustrated.”
Many descriptions have been tagged to The Sea & Cake’s sound by music writers over the years, many of them getting it wrong, too hasty to pigeonhole the overall genres covered within their sound. One is Afro-pop, a style that can be traced back to flourishes of hi-life guitar sections on the band’ self titled release.
“I think we discovered it by accident,” says Prekop. “There was never a period where I actively studied that type of thing or tried to make active use of it in a direct fashion. But it’s always been a type of music I’ve liked. I’m not sure how it happened, it’s been mentioned as a reference point throughout our whole career. That and Brazilian.”
“And the exotica lounge thing,” Prewitt interjects.
“That’s kind of fallen off because we’ve been trying not to do that,” Prekop says.
“At the end of the day, The Sea & Cake are primarily a pop group, albeit, not in the traditional sense.” Prewitt agrees, to a point. “Yeah I think pop makes a lot of sense to me. Art-pop. It doesn’t sit solely in a pop bracket somehow. Not that it’s art necessarily, but we never think of ourselves in terms of marketability, as sometimes pop gets that connotation to go pop is to want to reach the broadest heights. We never aspire to make something ugly.”
After dalliances with an array of electronics, drum machines and keyboard textures across the preceding three albums (The Fawn, Oui and One Bedroom), Everybody is a strong return to the rawer sound the band forged in their earliest days.
“We wanted to re-emphasise and highlight our real-time interaction as musicians, and expose that as much as possible. I think the way we felt to do that was to strip it back with all of us in a room concentrating, being focused. I do think it’s the most enduring element of the music: our interaction.”
In regards to the use of electronics, the group has only really dipped a toe ever so briefly into the remixing pond. Most notably, the Two Gentlemen EP, featuring reworks by Chicago heavy hitters Casey Rice, Bundy K. Brown and Jim O’Rourke.
Sam Prekop tells why it’s not something the group has considered as a possible project in regards to releasing an album of such recreations. “I wouldn’t be opposed to it. It never seems to work out as nicely as you would hope. I enjoy the process and the thought that goes behind it, but I think actually listening to it is less interesting than actually doing it. I’m not against it all. Archer is very anti-remix.”
“I think it’s run its course, the remix. It’s a fad, Archer says. “A complete album of it seems much more tedious than an EP, where it’s sort of an area to be more experimental – maybe allowing us to be a little more loose-limbed about the end product than a fully realised album.”
Prekop agrees, “It does feel more like it’s from another time, it was mostly popular in the ’90s.”
The first cover version the band committed to tape was a faithful rendering of David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’, the closing track on One Bedroom. Curiously, the gamut of other bands reworking the output of The Sea & Cake runs very thin indeed. “I’ve never heard it, but I was told that Modest Mouse often played ‘Jacking The Ball’ in their live set,” Archer says.
“Maybe we should investigate the royalties on that?” counters Prekop.
In a live setting, The Sea & Cake really deliver a tight sound and the sight of the four individuals moving as one, driven by the ever-present John McEntire and his precise drum beats is a joy to behold. The set list, according to the guys, consists of half new material and the other half, a cross section of career faves such as ‘Parasol’ and ‘Do Now Fairly Well’. Currently, the band have gone back to basics and dropped the electronic keyboards and drum machines from the stage – a return to the band’s early performing days.
“We feel pretty good about not having keyboards, even though they had their advantages. Because we had that person [on keyboards], we were able to do certain songs. It does affect what we can choose to do live because you can’ do a song like ‘Sporting Life’, which is all keyboard. There’ a lot of stuff off those more electronic albums that we can’t really pull off. A song like ‘The Biz’ – instead of my secondary guitar part, I just do that synth line with an e-bow, so there are ways around it, if it’s rudimentary enough. But if it’s complex we just have to decide that we can’ do it,” Prekop says.
After such a long time recording and touring together, it’s refreshing to see that the members of The Sea & Cake still relish the opportunity to join together and make music. It’s definitely a dynamic that allows a counterpoint to the solo projects that someone like Archer Prewitt undertakes on a semi-regular basis.
“I’ve been in a lot of bands and you realise it’s just like personal chemistry. The things that happen in this band are fairly left of centre – odd occurrences, odd decisions and they add up to some of the most unique music I’ve ever played.”
The Sea & Cake’s Car Alarm is available from Thrill Jockey/Popfrenzy on October 21.