Personal history, thankfully, overwhelms the concept of honest taste.
Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt (The Sea and Cake)
Of Themselves Plus The Sea And Cake
We obsess over the freshly-named band from Oakland, with barely an EP to call their own, who have produced little yet overflow with promise. These bands allow us to love them not for what they are, but for what they may become. But perhaps more notable is the band or artist who never achieved grand success, is far too old and established for hype, yet consistently leaves room for the fan to imagine what might come next. Proven shape-changers. Although Chicago’s pop-soul-electro-rock-lounge-dance-jazz-sonic-renaissance-men The Sea And Cake will never get adoration similar to what Radiohead, Wilco, and The Flaming Lips receive for their commitment to evolution – a close investigation of their formidable catalogue reveals they just may deserve it. In our self-congratulatory, diverse culture of isolated homogeneity, praised be the artist happy to change, experiment, shift their style or their sound.
I sat down with The Sea And Cake’s singer-guitarist Sam Prekop and lead guitarist Archer Prewitt for a chat before the pair performed a solo gig supporting Sam’s latest release, Who’s Your New Professor (Thrill Jockey). The night before, they’d opened for Stereolab in Manhattan’s posh Town Hall.
How was the Stereolab Show? Was Town Hall a nice place to play?
Sam Prekop: Yeah. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Of course, I’d heard of the place. I didn’t realize it was going to be a seated theatre kind of thing. Before we got there I just assumed it was going to be a bunch of people milling around, talking – NOT listening to what we were doing. Then we got up there and it was like, dead silence and total focus on every little maneuver.
And every little mistake.
S: Exactly. Magnified.
I wanted to interview you both so I could primarily talk about The Sea And Cake.
S: I like them.
Archer Prewitt: They’re an okay band.
Is there anything you guys would like to say about –
A: We still exist.
No, about your solo careers.
A: I just started work on a new one.
When’s that coming out?
A: I don’t know. We just did some touring on the west coast. Solidified some new songs that we’re going to demo.
S: You’re going to do that? Demo?
A: Well, just at Mark’s. We’ll live with it. It’ll be a first.
S: That’s a good idea.
A: Create music, live with it for a little while. And either keep it as is or re-record it with a different take. So that’s fun to think about.
What kinds of differences are there between when you’re working on your solo material versus writing music with The Sea And Cake?
S: For me, when I start, there’s no difference. I mean, the songs will develop and take a different direction just because I know who’s going to play on it. Usually I’m not thinking that far ahead, but when the band comes together – of course they’re totally different bands. The big difference is, the solo band... they’re not around that much to work on the record with. It’s like a week. This last one, I had a bunch of tunes, we put some stuff together in a week and recorded it in a week. And then, they all left. I never saw Archer again. (laughs) I call them up to tour. So then, that’s a big difference. Like, I’m left with –
S: - just a mess. Like, "Did I even ask for this? I don’t know." Whereas with The Sea And Cake everyone has to stay there for a while and singing and shit, it’s just a fuckin’ nightmare.
A: You do a lot of singing at home, though.
S: Yeah but, you know...
A: In the end, we all hunker down on The Sea And Cake projects.
"’We’re doomed.’ He says that a lot when we’re making a record. ’We’re doomed.’" - Archer Prewitt
When The Sea And Cake got started, did you have any inclination you’d be getting ready to record your 7th album someday. Any idea this would last?
A: I did.
S: Not during the first record, probably. Well, mainly Eric (Claridge) and I had gotten this money from Rough Trade. We were in this band Shrimp Boat that broke up, and they were like, "we’ll give you this money to do something else." And I had no idea if I could pull it off. I had no experience of trying to come up with stuff on my own. I think it was like two weeks before we were scheduled to record when I called Archer.
How did you know each other?
S: Well, we went to art school together. But we never really knew each other that well. And Archer’s band (The Coctails) ended up moving to Chicago, were fans of Shrimp Boat and we ended up playing shows together. So it was through that. I think it was some song, what was the sort of jazzier record?
A: Long Sound.
S: Yeah, Long Sound. It was some song on there that I heard. Some guitar thing that I heard. I was like, "Oh yeah, that Prewitt guy. He would be alright." So then it was just Eric, Archer and I playing around with stuff. And we were booked in this studio. And Brad Wood, who was in Shrimp Boat also, played on some of the songs on the first record.
Did he produce the first record?
S: Yeah. I mean, he recorded it. But his attitude was totally unsatisfactory after a certain point. And John (McEntire) was interning at the studio or something. And we were like, "Hey, okay man we’re fed up with this Brad Wood dude. You want to play some drums?" And at that point he was maybe like 15 or something, really fuckin’ young.
He was nine-years-old.
S: And he started playing with us and he was incredible technically, amongst everything else. And it definitely clicked as soon as he started playing. So, soon after we recorded that first record, we knew this was turning into something. It wasn’t until Nassau that we were a defined band.
It’s interesting that you came out with those first four records so fast. So, what was the vibe of that time? And is there any difference you can perceive between that and the last two albums when you’ve taken more time between getting together to record as a band?
S: Yeah, for those years we acted like a normal, regular band. We played all the time. I’m not sure when the shift happened. I guess it would have been after The Fawn (1997). I’m not sure exactly what changed. I guess probably Tortoise got more popular. John was less available. And that was the first time there was this period where it was clear there was no time for The Sea And Cake to put out a record.
All of the guys in the band make music, but also have some sort of visual art going on as well. When you were young, did you guys decide at any point you wanted to be artists or live this kind of life, go into music? It just seems that all of your lives are full with creating art, be it music or visual.
A: I mean, I always would draw. I never decided to become a musician per se. I messed around with drums. But, I made a decision to go to art school rather than a liberal arts college. I thought, while I do love English and reading and other things, it seems like that’s what I should really do – is make art. Then along the way I was learning drums and messing around, playing in bands. That was just this peripheral thing that slowly presented itself to be something that I felt I got better and better at. I was like, "Wow," I can’t believe this once mysterious realm of my life that I was obsessed with – listening to records - became something I was really involved in and productive in.
S: Um, the music for me was never part of my plans. Kind of a fluke. I grew up thinking I was going to become an artist. My family is very art oriented - teachers and stuff. All these artists around. So that was just part of my make-up. And the music just kind of happened... kind of late.
A: Yeah, I started guitar at 21. In a strange way we both did that.
"At some point I figured out that you have to pay attention carefully, almost slyly, to all the stuff that you don’t realize is happening. You hope you’re listening at the right point to capitalize on the better shit."
A: Yeah I found out later, you started at 21? That’s when I started. And interestingly enough we ended up with similar made up kind of chords that were pleasant to our ears. So when we first got together to jam, I was kind of like, "I don’t know. You probably want someone who can play leads and real proficient guitar." Because the guitarist, Ian Schneller from Shrimp Boat, was a great guitarist. So I was thinking, well, why am I coming to do that with you cause I don’t do that kind of thing. But we started, Eric, Sam and I, locked in to this ensemble kind of thing that we all thought, well this sounds good. It became more of a fabric rather than someone sitting on top. So that was kind of exciting because we all came at it from sort of a self-taught way. But we were very invested in music making - maybe more so at the time.
S: Yeah after art school I stopped making art.
S: Yeah. That was somewhat disconcerting. Started playing ROCK all the time. (laughs) What went wrong here?
But don’t all students go to art school to join bands?
A: No! What happened was I went to art school and just started talking with people who had similar musical interests, then you find yourself in a band.
I feel like you’re musical brothers or something. You both started with separate bands, then The Sea And Cake happened, that became a main focus, you’re doing the solo stuff too, visual art, you (to Archer) played on Sam’s solo record, you tour together. Obviously you get along. You must know each other rather well. Maybe not best friends, but...
A: Yeah, we get along real well –
That’s not my question, but you can talk if you want.
S: Let him finish!
This is all a lead in. This is the snappy segment of the interview. We’re going to play a little game here.
It’s called, "What’s he like?"
A: Oh no!
I know, it’s an internet review and you probably didn’t think this shit was coming at you, but I’m always looking to spoil the interview... somehow.
A: (exaggerating his southern drawl) "Wuts ’ee laike?"
Here’s how it’s going to work. I’ll ask one of you guys a question about the other person, and you guys can feel free to refute what the other person says, if you want to.
A: I need another beer.
So Archer, what’s Sam’s most oft-used phrase?
A: (thinking) Oft-used phrase... Well he has a lot of them really.
S: I can’t even think of one.
S: I’m trying to help you out.
A: Umm, can we come back to that one? Oft-used phrase... Yeah I draw blanks on these kinds of things.
A: You’re in a world of pain. Is this going to be broadcast?
A: Thank god.
No worries. Your reputations won’t be ruined by this interview.
A: Uhhh... shit, I don’t know.
How about his most oft-used phrase while recording an album?
A: Oh, there we go. Some context. Ummm... . "We’re doomed." He says that a lot when we’re making a record. "We’re doomed."
Alright Sam, this one’s easier, what’s Archer’s favorite comic book series?
A: He would never know.
S: I don’t know.
A: We don’t talk about comics. He’s not interested (laughs).
Well do you have one?
A: Well, I guess Chris Ware. There’s a lot of people I like, and that’s kind of an obvious one, but...
"I need another beer." - Archer Prewitt
Archer, what’s Sam’s favorite sports team?
A: The Cubs.
S: I don’t have one.
A: He doesn’t really watch – he SAYS he-
S: I glom on to whoever’s winning at the time. The Sox, I was way into them DURING the World Series. Before that, I could care less.
A: I actually found out this year he played a lot of baseball in high school?
S: That’s true. I did.
A: And he was obsessed with it? I had no idea. I thought he was not as interested in sports as I was. And it turns out he was a –
S: No, I played baseball.
A: - a JOCK.
S: Total jock.
Sam, what’s Archer’s favorite thing about Chicago in the summertime?
S: Leaving. To his country house.
Where is the country house?
A: It’s a shack out in Michigan.
S: But it’s not in Chicago.
A: All my friends are starting to think it’s a fictitious place, because I never invite them.
Maybe you should stop describing it as a "shack."
S: I saw it, though. It IS a shack.
A: It’s a shack. But we’re working on it.
Archer, if Sam could be declared king of any land or idea, what would it be?
A: King of any land or idea? ... If he could claim himself?
He would be choosing.
A: I don’t know if he’d be comfortable with a King-ly position.
Archer, Sam would label _____ a genius...
A: Sun Ra.
Sam, Archer has an irrefutable talent for _____. I’d like this to be non-musical.
S: (to Archer) What was that term we saw today? Filling up the page? We were at the Folk Art Museum and there’s this really specific term where you’re compelled to fill up the blank page – I guess marks, in an obsessive manner. Archer’s good at that. And I think he was interested in that kind of thing.
Archer, what was Sam’s favorite band as a teenager?
A: Well, maybe The Clash, for a while.
S: One of ’em.
A: One of many. Maybe Curtis Mayfield.
S: The Police.
Are you being sarcastic?
S: No, I was really into that "Roxanne" tune. Elvis Costello. The Velvet Underground but that’s probably a little bit later. Definitely The Clash. I actually liked Bruce Springsteen a lot.
Last one: Sam, Archer would describe touring as...
S: A shopping spree. (uproarious laughter)
A: What? He’s as guilty of it as I am.
S: We like to take advantage of our worldly travels. We go and see all the art. And we’re really into that - it’s one of the perks. And we like to eat good food. And we like to buy stuff.
A: But we’re picky. It could be a little vintage photograph that’s striking. If you have space and a van at your disposal...
"Well, I keep hoping we make a blues-rock record. And I convince myself that it’s actually happening. And then I hear it and I’m like, ’What the fuck happened?’" - Sam Prekop
Where do put all this stuff?
S: The country house.
A: Oh, The Shack. That has more wall space.
Does The Shack have an Appalachian porch?
A: It’s got a little porch – think there’s some raccoons living under it. It smells kind of like animal droppings. But, it’s cozy. It’s a cozy little place.
Thanks for enduring that segment.
A: The segments over? "Wut’s ’ee laike?"
How do you account for The Biz (1995) being so much more rockin’ than the other albums?
S: Is it? I haven’t heard it in awhile. I want to try to get back to the rock.
I feel like The Fawn had a lot of electronic elements. Oui (2000) had a really strong organic element to all the songs.
A: I think that album was really great.
I love that album, Oui.
A: A lot of people, it seemed, writers had a lot of problems with that record when it came out. There was some good press, but there was also some really strong reaction to it from what I remember.
S: No, it was more the last one.
Well, the last record took another turn that I wouldn’t have expected as a fan. Because the last album returns to the electronic stuff, more strong in some ways than The Fawn.
A: I just remember The Fawn having a lot of generated beats and sampled things that John was comfortable representing him. They were his choices, and it was really interesting.
S: The Biz and The Fawn really reflect John’s studio (Soma) at the time.
Then how do you account for the difference between the two albums?
S: We did The Biz almost all live in a box together on an 8-track tape machine.
A: An 8’ x 10’ room. It was unbelievable.
S: And then John got all this stuff – a computer and stuff. He got all this money to do a soundtrack for a movie. I also remember feeling I’d come to an impasse with guitar. I’d run out of guitar things to do. And I messed around a lot with a 2-bit DJ sampler and a keyboard. I came up with a lot of beginnings of tunes that way rather than guitar. But it’s funny to think back to that. It’s like the dawn of computer albums.
It seems like you’re not sure of what’s going to be happening until everyone’s together. But do you have any idea what direction you want to be moving in now?
A: Ideas start to develop over time. Just through conversations – what the focus might be on in terms of group effort.
S: It’s never like a pre-conceived situation.
A: It seems like we have an idea we try to fulfill, then we all just ignore it anyway.
So what’s the idea –
S: Well, I keep hoping we make a blues-rock record. (laughter) And I convince myself that it’s actually happening. And then I hear it and I’m like, "What the fuck happened?" Over and over, the blues-rock dream is dashed... by... somebody. But, it would be interesting if it was as cut-and-dried as, think of what you want and then do it. In effect, I think that would make terrible records for us. So we don’t really do that. You have to generate that stuff to do something. But at some point I figured out that you have to pay attention carefully, almost slyly, to all the stuff that you don’t realize is happening. You hope you’re listening at the right point to capitalize on the better shit. It’s always this – could it be the wrong jam on that piece of toast this morning that fucked everything up for that tune? But lately I’ve just started messing around a lot in my home studio and playing a lot of guitar.
For the new Sea and Cake record?
S: Yeah. And I’m not sensing a super clear direction yet. I sort of want – and we always say this – a more immediate record.
S: I would like to play all the stuff as a band for a while, and then record it. One of the main differences I think, starting with The Fawn, is that all those tunes were written specifically for a record. Whereas with The Biz and Nassau we played, I mean we knew we were making a record, but we played a lot of those tunes live as a band before they were recorded. So they sort of evolved differently. And Oui and the last one were all written for the record.
I thought Oui and the last record were so different from each other – dramatically.
A: Yeah, I do too.
I thought the last one was almost more of a dance record. A lot of the melodies were classic stuff, but just the sound seemed a lot more hi-fi.
A: I think one thing, which is a great point to get to, is that we strip away a lot more now. I think with the last record we came together as a full band to construct the songs, whereas before it was just Sam, Eric, and I so sometimes it got a little Baroque, in terms of that fabric I was talking about. And when you have the drums slamming away, you can tend to play a lot less because there’s that fourth eventual member – he’s there now. And he’s filling the space that you were trying to fill. So it was great to me to get to that point where you can decide to sit out for a stretch. Things get skeletal and you know the vocals – the thing about Sam is he sings after the music’s made.
A: Pretty much. And he comes up with vocal melodies that really shift the song around. So when you first hear it it’s like, "Wow, the song is really different now. It’s better, but I didn’t expect that." So maybe you didn’t want to be playing something there. And then if it doesn’t mesh, you take the guitar away. So it’s even more skeletal than you even planned. So it’s really – it’s what I like about a lot of music, when things get really elemental.
S: I think we suffer from overly decorating things.
A: I feel like the last two –
S: Ornamented. We just totally contradicted each other.
A: I think they’ve gotten really skeletal and really specific.
S: I have to admit I haven’t listened to any of those records in a really long time. So...
But your impression is that they’ve become more and more ornamental.
S: Well, in a sense. The last record is a lot of post-production. We did take away a lot of stuff, but then adding to what was not much there yet. And Oui was a lot different than that in that that thing was pretty much arranged. We knew what it was going to sound like before we recorded it. And I guess I’m feeling we should do that this time a bit - in terms of being able to really tell that we’re playing as more of a unit, as more of a band.
A: Like the decisions are being made at the time they’re being recorded.
S: More of a real time situation that’s documented. Now, whether or not we can resist adding the tasty... whatever, sample... we’ll see.