By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The way critics have gone on about the Brazilian influences in this band's music, you'd be forgiven if you arrived to their concerts expecting a bar full of tropical beverages and a singer on stage wielding a goatskin pandeiro.
"I was kind of sick of hearing that," says Sam Prekop, singer for Chicago indie-rock stalwarts The Sea & Cake, of the band's alleged South American influences. "I blocked it out. ... You could hold a gun to my head and I could not play a single Brazilian song."
Prekop calls his band's relationship to Brazilian records a "kinship." The Sea & Cake's acclaimed guitarist, Archer Prewitt, explains further: "A lot of what we respond to in Brazilian music is the musicality of it, the choice of chords. I've always been partial to the jazzier chords."
The Sea & Cake is certainly jazzier, in general. In indie-rock, the band stands out as a consistently light — but musically quite dense — and breezy quartet, often bouncing along on grooves both loose and locked, and supporting Prekop's thin, airy vocals and impressionistic words. More than most bands, The Sea & Cake strives for beauty.
"A lot of the Brazilian stuff attempts genuinely to get at the service of beauty," Prekop says. "It's sunny and melancholy at the same time, and that quality — that mixture — is always something to strive for."
On the band's latest CD, "Everybody" — available Tuesday from local label Thrill Jockey — The Sea & Cake gets down to basics as they rarely have before. Gone are whatever distractions have been written off in the past as foreign influence. Few extra sounds and instruments intrude on this batch of songs. What we have is a compact guitar-bass-drums-vocals band, playing tighter pop-song forms than they have in years.
"These are almost chiseled little pop numbers," Prekop says, seemingly surprised to admit it aloud. "Sometimes people forget: We are a pop band."
The change is arresting and vital, a radical departure. But it's also subtle, ephemeral, difficult to detect. Such is the paradox of The Sea & Cake (it's suitably cryptic name a result of Prekop misunderstanding the title of a Gastr del Sol song, "The C in Cake"). Noticing it likely depends on how long you've been unraveling their music.
The renewed focus — let's not call it "stripped down" — is largely the result of location, location, location. Instead of recording in or near Chicago with drummer John McEntire producing, as the band has done for every record except its first, The Sea & Cake traveled around Lake Michigan's tip to Key Club Studio in Benton Harbor, Mich. There they holed up with producer Brian Paulson for sessions Prekop said had "a more immediate performance quality."
Not surprising since they'd arrived at the studio this time with songs intact. There was not as much to make up as the sessions proceeded, and few effects and overdubs were added afterward, as has been the norm.
That approach made not just recording easier; it's made rehearsing simpler, too. Fewer extras mean fewer surprises when the band hits the road this week to tour "Everybody" (returning for a hometown show May 31 at the Empty Bottle).
"We made this one more documentarian than before," Prewitt says. "In the past, the insular Sea & Cake has remained in the studio doing a lot of post-production work on the songs. But we had things pretty much together ahead of time on this one. This was similar to 'The Biz' [in 1995]. We recorded it straight, no tinkering."
The kids are alright
But in the rural setting of the studio, free time was still indulged in listening to influential music. Just not much Brazilian stuff.
"At night, with beers flowing, we'd listen to inspirational music, courtesy of the battling DJs, John [McEntire] and Brian [Paulson]," Prewitt says. "We'd listen to some old French tune, and next to This Heat, which sounded like Tortoise to me." (McEntire once split his time between Tortoise and The Sea & Cake.) "We even watched The Who's 'The Kids Are Alright.' "
"That was a mistake," Prekop sighs.
"Well," Prewitt says, "you watch The Who completely annihilate, and then you go back in and listen to your tinkly little guitar — you start asking, 'What am I doing here?' "
But the rock was what they were leaning toward at Key Club. And though "Everybody" still sounds perfectly Sea-worthy, a few songs broke through to that ideal more than others.
"I tell people I think we made a rock album," Prekop says, "but they say, 'Sam, you don't know what a rock album is.' "
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.