The Sea and Cake

WHEN Thu 5/31, 7 PM (with Euphone) and 10 PM (with the Zincs)

WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

PRICE $20, $18 in advance

INFO 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

I’ve never had much use for the Sea and Cake. Their records have always been too mellow and smooth, the kind of thing I imagine people play at dinner parties, and I don’t really throw dinner parties. Chicago post-rock and its cousins can engage me on an intellectual level–they assimilate bits of so many different styles that it’s interesting to try to parse them all–but I prefer the more bodily lizard-brain stimulation provided by punk and dance music.

So my reaction to the Sea and Cake’s new seventh record, Everybody (Thrill Jockey), which the band will celebrate with two shows at the Empty Bottle on Thursday, caught me by surprise. Maybe I’ve mellowed out enough myself to hear something I was missing before, or maybe there’s something new in the music–a lot of critics agree that this is the band’s most direct, rock-leaning record yet–but it blew me away right from the start.

The sound of the opening track, “Up on Crutches,” isn’t much different from what I think of as basic Sea and Cake: genteel and gently funky, with front man Sam Prekop singing breathily about something I can’t quite sort out. The differences in texture are subtle–fewer obvious overdubs, less studio fussiness, more reliance on the band’s customary stage instrumentation (guitars, bass, and drums, as opposed to synths or programmed percussion). The dramatic changes on Everybody are in the structures and gestures that make up the songs: for the first time, they make generous use of traditional rock tropes. “Up on Crutches” begins with a bit of tension, a pleasant dissonance between the instruments and the vocals–a technique the Sea and Cake has toyed with before–and then halfway through, the chords resolve and the group executes a classic major-key pop progression. Any other band would’ve used that moment to blow the song up into a giant catharsis, but Prekop and company barely adjust their volume, allowing the music to bloom naturally and elegantly. Their willingness to hold back and let the music flow around them makes the moment profoundly satisfying, despite the absence of fireworks–and Everybody is full of moments like that.

Prekop is just as chill in person as you’d imagine from his singing. He’s 42, but the 20 years he’s spent in the relative sanctuary of the indie-rock scene have allowed him to grow older without becoming too much of an adult. When he talks about the creative process that led to Everybody, he’s simultaneously articulate and spacey, which makes him sound very much like the art student he was in 1985, when he started his first band, Shrimp Boat. “In general, the consensus seems that it’s not really a rock record, but it’s one that only the Sea and Cake would make,” he says.

For 2003’s One Bedroom, says Prekop, “We came up with much more open-ended, loose ideas and then let them evolve more in the studio.” (Long gaps between Sea and Cake records aren’t unusual–Prekop and guitarist Archer Prewitt put out solo records between One Bedroom and Everybody, and drummer John McEntire stayed busy in Tortoise.) The band spent a total of six weeks making that one, tinkering with their parts during tracking and in some cases recording songs in pieces so they could be edited together in Pro Tools. For the new one, though, “it was decided that the record would come out around this time, and I decided sort of late that we would actually do it. So the timeline was a little more compressed.” They spent five days on basic tracks at Key Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan, four or five more on vocals–Prekop is a bit of a perfectionist about his singing–and six mixing at McEntire’s studio, Soma, here in town, keeping the Pro Tools fanciness to a minimum. “We acted like a rock band,” Prekop says, “got in a room and played the songs and pressed record.”

That’s not to say Everybody doesn’t have the satiny sheen of a typical Sea and Cake album. The band has folded all sorts of styles into its music over the years–jazz, electronica, West African highlife–without compromising its core identity, and streamlining the recording process wasn’t intended to change that signature sound. Sea and Cake fans might be unwilling to believe him, but Prekop says this consistency is a side effect of the band’s limitations as musicians–they can’t convincingly re-create other styles in their entirety, so they end up adopting a few distinctive elements from each one instead. “We’re not capable of being stylists in a regular sort of sense,” he says. “Our skills really expose what we can do.”

Prekop began playing in his 20s “on a whim,” without any training, on a guitar a friend had given him. The raw excitement of discovering music is something he still holds dear. “When I started, if it even sounded remotely musical, I was blown away,” he says. “There were a lot of years where there was a freakishly magical process that was absolutely mysterious to me as to how it works or it’s supposed to function. Being excited all the time. But with experience, you have to work harder to get to that point again.”

One thing that the passage of the years hasn’t affected is Prekop’s singing: his airy voice and straightforward delivery seem untouched by age, and he still sounds naive, almost innocent, no matter what he’s singing about. Figuring out what that is can be fairly difficult, though. A recent New York Times review suggested that Prekop chooses his words more for sound than sense, resulting in lines like “Fair enough / Exact to me / The fraud’s just in,” which imply more than they explain. “The words themselves and the sound, it’s sort of interchangeable,” he clarifies. “The words are important, but it’s music first, I guess. I feel like they’re endlessly intertwined.”

The tune I quoted, “Exact to Me,” is the least rock-sounding thing on the new album, with a cyclical tension-release structure instead of a single resolution, but it’s also probably my favorite. The guitars are in full highlife mode, showering Eric Claridge’s scrambling bass line and McEntire’s subtle but amazingly expressive drumming with little flurries of syncopated melody, and Prekop plays the uptight midwestern white dude, like a more mellow David Byrne, singing in as clipped and forceful a style as he seems capable of. (Which is still pretty gentle compared to everyone this side of James Blunt.) Two songs later, though, the band gets back to pop basics with the pleasantly bouncy “Introducing,” which could pass for a cover of an obscure track by Tommy James & the Shondells.

Prekop says this sort of variety is what keeps the band going. “Every year,” he says, “every record it seems to me to take more work to get past a certain point where it’s going to stay interesting, and to feel like you’ve achieved something better than you did before.” As he explains it, the key to enjoying making records, even after 20 years, is simple: “You have to think that you made the best record you did,” he says, “or else you’ll never finish.” Keep going that way for long enough, it seems, and from time to time you actually will make your best record.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Megan Holmes.