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Chosen One: The Sea and Cake

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When you hear something come about like that they’re instantly recognized as potential as a song and it took like a few minutes.”

—Sam Prekop

Words: Mark Carry

sea and cake

This week marks the eagerly awaited new studio album from beloved Chicago indie pop luminaries The Sea and Cake. ‘Any  Day’ showcases a band at the peak of their powers, conjuring up an abstract canvas of bewitching and absorbing song cycles wrapped in sublime beauty and poetic expression.

Following on from 2012’s ‘Runner’ LP, The Sea and Cake continue to explore new sonic terrain with a renewed clarity and rejuvenated spirit. ‘Any  Day’ is the first album recorded as the trio of Sam Prekop, Archer Prewtitt and John McEntire; the result is a wonderful minimalism running throughout the ten compelling sonic creations, with a rich, organic feel emanating from the breathtaking musical landscape.

A charged immediacy is enveloped within the glorious album opener ‘Cover The  Mountain’, conveying a deep, near-telepathic connection between the poly-rhythms of McEntire and intricate guitar interplay between Prekop and Prewitt. Chris Abrahams (of Australian jazz trio The Necks) once said “there’s something balanced about a triangle” and this rings true for the Sea and Cake’s latest sonic venture: a state of equilibrium is forever attained as the dynamism and ripple flow of textures, nuances, timbres, colours ascend beautifully into the pools of your mind.

Prekop sings “I had to follow the moonlight, follow it against the ocean” on the song’s opening verse. Rich poetic prose is masterfully etched – like a painter’s deft touch of hand or a photographer’s innate vision – across the sprawling canvas of rhythmic pulses and gorgeous guitar textures. Equilibrium or furthermore, a kind of liminal state is somehow attained with no trace of effort or conscious thought.

The abstract, non-linear nature of Prekop’s songcraft is one of the great hallmarks of The Sea and Cake’s immaculate songbook – and ‘Any  Day’ conveys the Chicago songwriter’s finest lyrics to date. ‘Cover The Mountain’ invites the listener on a journey: to follow along the waves of the ocean. A heartfelt lament packed with an array of immense beauty at every turn, with Prekop’s moving vocals on the song’s moving rise: “Waiting here with nothing to say” with Prekop’s delicate vocal refrain before pristine synthesizer flickers like stars dotted across a night sky. “Crooked smiles are broken” resonates powerfully amidst the charged electric guitars and thundering polyrhythms of McEntire’s trusted brushwork.

The achingly beautiful melancholic lament ‘Any Day’ – the towering title-track – seeps through your every heart pore with its gorgeously floating spell and early 70’s kaleidoscopic pop splendor. The intricate arrangements is a joy to savor (each and every divine moment, from the captivating woodwind arrangements to the airy melodies and jazz inflections).

Occurs’ displays the masterful inner dialogue that ensues between Prekop and Prewitt’s soaring guitar lines. Prekop yearns to “hold on” on the song’s deeply affecting chorus. The phrasing is sublime, especially on the verses, with the syncopated rhythms forming the gripping foundations. “I’m beginning to trust in getting nowhere” is yet another immaculate turn of phrase. An extended jam – from African sunsets or the Brazilian tropicalia movement – serves the track’s fitting outro.

The rich aesthetic flow is integral to any record, and ‘Any Day’ epitomizes just how feel flows (to coin a Beach Boys creation) throughout. For instance, the soothing guitar instrumental ‘Paper Window’ invites deep reflection of the innermost kind with gorgeous, clean electric guitar tones interwoven with warm percussion. The synth effects and soaring melodies of the pulsating post-rock indie gem ‘Day  Moon’ with its infectious chorus refrain “Seal the night / Not just anyone”.

The tempo is slowed down on the heartfelt acoustic ballad ‘Into  Rain’ with masterful addition of layered organs on the song’s soul stirring rise. Perfect pop songs such as this make you think have you known these songs – at once beautifully familiar and mysteriously unknown – your entire life, like remnants of a faded dream.

These Falling Arms’ is one of the band’s strongest songs thus far (a songbook which spans over two decades and eleven vital albums). Prekop asks to “follow my thoughts” amidst the warmth of floating guitars and gentle beat. It is just how each of the music’s elements is melded together so effortlessly, from the beautiful Americana lead guitar lines to the deeply moving poetic prose of Prekop’s near mystical vision. ‘Any Day’ is another timeless odyssey of meticulously crafted, singular pop songs from one of independent music’s most beloved bands.

‘Any Day’ is out on Friday 11th May via Thrill Jockey Records.

https://www.facebook.com/TheSeaandCake.0

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Interview with Sam Prekop.

 

Congratulations, Sam, on the latest Sea and Cake album; it’s another incredible release from a very special band. I’d love if you could go back to the making of the record and your memories of the particular recording sessions? It’s interesting how you found yourselves with a new challenge of the core group being a trio during this time?

Sam Prekop: Well, thanks I’m glad you like the record. It was quite a bit different making this record than earlier ones. I mean in a weird way it felt the same and completely different simultaneously. So, the big changes were John McEntire moved to California, which he’s been thinking about doing for quite a while and he finally did it but he did that [laughs] while making this record. We recorded the basic tracks all together in the studio and stuff but after that point I worked solo for a month on the vocals and stuff like that. And we actually mixed it over the internet as well which wasn’t the optimal situation but that’s how it came to be. We were really hoping to be able to get together but with John in California, the logistics didn’t quite work out. We were so late meeting the deadline anyway but I think it came out pretty well.

For the title-track – which was the first taster of the new album – the arrangement is wonderful and how intricate all the components are but it still very much has this minimal framework to it.

SP: Those are my favourite kind of songs. So I spend a lot of time just playing the guitar and coming up with ideas and they become pretty solid and have parts that changes and all this stuff. And for that song ‘Any Day’ Arch and I spent quite a bit of time just playing together and that is one of those songs that sort of happened while we were sitting around playing. When you hear something come about like that they’re instantly recognized as potential as a song and it took like a few minutes. All the work beforehand went into like to make an effortless, instant composition; I wish all of it was like that actually. But anyways the basis of that track is born out of improvising situations like on the side, here’s a handful of chords and rhythms that we like and we just made something out of it. But it’s just one of those that wrote itself and took on from there. And it is quite minimalist really, it’s really only two parts and it depends more on the feel than anything else (than any overriding structure). It felt like the right thing to do. And to have that gliding, floating arrangement keeps it wide open for me to try a bunch of different vocals: not just ballad singing but also nice rhythmic punctuation phrases. When a song like that is so open I’m able to take different tacts on different parts of the song so it’s a nice pay-off for the open type of arrangements.

I love how the album opens with ‘Cover The Mountain’with its immediacy and really feels like that perfect opening line.

SP: That song was probably the complete opposite from ‘Any Day’ in that it went through many iterations quite laboured over. My initial idea I threw out half of the song just because it wasn’t working, it was like two songs put together. So that was a pretty major transformation from an initial impulse. I will say I was quite happy with the vocal hooks and lines that I came up on that one. I think lyric-wise, it’s some of the more pointed, visual lyrics that I was able to conjure up; I like that song as well.

I’d love to gain an insight into your songwriting process and whether the process itself has changed in any way over the years? It’s this beautifully abstract nature of your lyrics and with the phrasing, how it melds with the different parts of the music.

SP: I think my technique and strategy I don’t think has really changed with how I get started going and approach it. But I feel like I’ve gotten more refined with it. It’s very particular and how I write it’s a very personal technique and strategy. I don’t think anyone else would come up with anything remotely like it [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but it’s worked for me. I’m not entrusted in narrative songwriting; that’s not my strong point . So I think I figured that out early on so I could find another way of writing interesting songs without having to convey a narrative or typical content. I don’t think the way I arrive on something has changed but it’s become more refined over the years.

I love the placing of the songs and the flow with how each one comes into the next. For instance, the placing of the instrumental ‘Paper Window’ in the middle of the record. You already touched on how some songs are formed without much effort; I can imagine how you and the other members have this really deep chemistry between you that things just naturally occur while you are in the room together.I wonder would you have many conversations in terms of direction and so on, or is it more just to leave the music do the talking?

SP: It’s a combo of both. So that instrumental is another one of those like automatic happened at rehearsal songs. So there’s three on the record: ‘Any Day’, ‘Paper Window’ and the last song as well was also another, ‘These Falling Arms’ was another written in the moment and it just stood out instantly. And it’s really simple and straight forward. Other songs, despite our long history and naturalness with just hanging out and working together, some songs posed different challenges. I would say ‘Occurs’ was definitely a hard one to pull off somehow and I’m not exactly sure why but I think it came out fine in the end. It was a struggle; mainly with the bass stuff and so not having a bass player posed some exciting possibilities but also some difficulties and that was an influence on that song I think. Whereas John was doing most of it but he’s not really a bass player; of course he’s a really fine musician but sometimes you need someone who has years of experience of playing bass to pull it off.

sam-prekop

With regards to your solo work, I love your synthesizer-based music you’ve been creating. I wonder was it a conscious decision you knew from early on that you would step away from adding synthesizer to the album (or a very minimal amount) because there is mainly organic elements to these latest songs?

SP: It was a bit. I mean I recognized that the record was going in that direction so I was following it as it was leaning more that way. I’m still really active and involved with making the synthesizer music with the modular and all that stuff. But I think I just felt like I should focus as much as possible on the singing rather than augmenting or decorating the music with added on stuff so I just felt  that if I could get it strong enough where I didn’t feel like I needed to do that kind of stuff, it would make for a better record. So when I started writing the record it wasn’t neccessarily the case, I just recognized that that was the direction it was taking during the process and I just stayed with that concept basically. Normally, I think if we had mixed it together that’s when we really like to come up with stuff in over-dub situations. So I think had we done that it’s possible that there may have been more organ and synthesizer types of things but since we weren’t able to do that it didn’t quite happen. I don’t feel like it’s missing anything though.

The Sea and Cake typify this, in the way there are so many wonderful off shoot projects and releases from each of the band members (in between the band albums). I wonder do you see things all in the one way or is each one a separate entity that you find is linked to each other?

SP: I guess a little bit. I work a lot on photography and the synthesizer music so I think it’s a case that all the different projects feed off each other and inform the other one and so on. So I feel like if I hadn’t made those solo synthesizer records, the latest Sea and Cake record would be different. I can’t help but believe that would be the case; that everything is a part of a big puzzle and it all adds up. So had I not been making these modular records, with the latest Sea and Cake record I probably would have tried to get [laughs] more of that into it (perhaps, I don’t know). I think it all feeds off each other, enhances and interplays between all of the disciplines.

The music community of Chicago is obviously synonymous with so many great bands and musicians and you’ve been involved in different collaborations with other musicians over the years. I’d love to gain an insight into the nature of the music community in Chicago and how it has thrived so much (and continues to do so)?

SP: I think being in Chicago is really important, more so when I was starting out. The community aspect of it and there were plenty of places to play and to build an audience; enough people to pay attention to what was happening (that was super important I think). I think that’s a benefit of the size of Chicago; it’s a big city and cheaper than New York or LA so that combination makes it a very good music town. But I’m from here so I didn’t come here from somewhere else. And I don’t know if that’s a benefit or not but Chicago is where I’ve always been so I don’t have any outsider looking in perspective. I mean it has worked out for me but I don’t know anything else [laughs]; I don’t know how bad it could be if you lived in St Louis or somewhere. But I will say now that I’ve been doing it for so long I’m less active on the scene than I used to be – not entirely but somewhat – I have two little kids  that I watch all of the time so becoming a father has changed my hanging out at rock bars and stuff like that. And another thing is I feel like I don’t collaborate with a huge variety of people as much as other people. I mean it seems like it but I feel like I’ve got a pretty solid close-knit stable of people I work with over the years. Other people are really good at collaborating on the spot with a wide range cast of characters and that’s never been quite my thing.

Going back to the formation of The Sea and Cake and the early days, looking back on things as a group, would you have had defining records or certain people who you felt were hugely influential and that led to your overall sound?

SP: When I was starting with my first band Shrimp Boat; big stuff from that time was like the Velvet Underground and Tom Waits was an early influence on that music which carried over into the Sea and Cake stuff as well. For The Sea and Cake, I think a big part of it was that I was always interested in a pretty wide variety of music, so I wasn’t exclusively only into rock bands. At that time I think it was somewhat perhaps unusual like I listened to a lot of improvised music, jazz and soul (of course this is completely commonplace now but back in the early 90’s things were more compartmented like if you were a rock band, you listened to other rock bands [laughs] and that’s what you did). So for Shrimp Boat and Sea and Cake that was not the case and we were a rock band basically and we attempted to play jazz or improvized music and we were also influenced by Brazilian stuff and electronic stuff. With the Sea and Cake, Stereolab was a big deal I think for me during that early time, it was quite influential along with a lot of Brazlian stuff (like Caetano Veloso) and even The Velvet Underground and all that kind of stuff. I’d say though in terms of influences it’s never a straight line. I get into some record and it would immediately inform my music, it’s more lke an osmosis process; it warms itself in without me knowing it.

Did you have any important musical discoveries or personal favourites that you always come back to in the past few months or so?

SP: What’s wierd is while I’m working on music I don’t listen to much other music, so the whole year has been quite bankrupt of new music [laughs]. I find that I listen to a lot of techno and electronic stuff (more so than singer-based stuff which people might find unusual). My tastes for listening are much more experiemental and electronica. I guess one recent band – well they are a duo – that I like quite a bit is Visible Cloaks and through them I got interested in a lot of this 80’s fourth world Japanese stuff. It’s not vocal-based, it’s instrumental; I guess ambient (for lack of a better word). But I go back to all kinds of stuff… I really got into that Popol Vuh re-issue from two years ago (on Soul Jazz Records). One thing that I’ve been into though – and I’ve always really liked her but never had been in constant rotation – has been certain Joni Mitchell tracks which I think is more than I’ve recognized before has been quite influential in what I try to do. I think her singing and phrasing is quite amazing; rhythmically along with melodically.

With the new album and the touring it must be exciting, again with a band armed with such a great back catalogue; and the chance to mix new songs with the older ones? Would this be an aspect that you would relish in the sense of how the new songs translate to the live setting and how they combine with the older songs?

SP: Yeah, so that’s what we’ve been working on lately is bringing together the new show. And I’m excited about playing most of the new record I think will be part of the set. So there’s a handful of older songs that we’ve played for years and years and we’re planning on changing that up a bit so that’s exciting to pull out some older songs from the catalogue. One that I’m working on now is ‘Four Corners’ from ‘One Bedroom’ and that’s always been one of my favourite songs from our back catalogue but we’ve never been able to really pull it off live for some reason – I mean I don’t think we tried much, maybe one or two times and I’m excited about getting that one up to speed. So there’ll be some different selections from the back catalogue like we always have to play ‘Jacking the Ball’and stuff from that record; so it’ll be like twenty years of songs I guess [laughs].

‘Any Day’ is out on Friday 11th May via Thrill Jockey Records.

https://www.facebook.com/TheSeaandCake.0

https://www.facebook.com/ThrillJockey/

 

Written by admin

May 10, 2018 at 1:58 pm