Where were you in ’94? Sam Prekop remembers. Reeling from the breakup of his first band, art-punks Shrimp Boat, the singer-songwriter-guitarist entered a Chicago studio with Archer Prewitt (guitar), Eric Claridge (bass) and John McEntire (drums) for what became The Sea and Cake’s self-titled debut.
While Prekop “had a feeling this combination of people was going to make a really good band,” he never expected that nearly 20 years later, The Sea and Cake would be celebrating its tenth album, Runner, and preparing for its umpteenth tour. “I’d always been obsessed with music,” he says, “but I still think it’s kind of a fluke occurrence that it’s turned out this way.”
With Prekop’s patient falsetto out front, the quartet’s eminently listenable pop has long had a hazy late-afternoon vibe, gradually incorporating electronic elements to give certain songs a wide-eyed nocturnal quality.
For indie-rock types, The Sea and Cake’s music is a gateway to denser genres like tropicalia, Krautrock, and the further-out sounds of fellow Chicagoans Jim O’Rourke and Tortoise (of which McEntire is also a member). The group has never had a personnel change, a fact its remarkably consistent catalog reflects.
A self-taught player who didn’t pick up guitar until age 20, Prekop, now 49, is well aware the band’s albums sound similar. “While it’s a strong point that we’re so immediately identifiable,” he says, “it’s also kind of a catch-22 having such a singular style,”
Still, Prekop works hard to break his own songwriting mold. While his first two solo outings — 1999’s Sam Prekop, and 2005’s Who’s Your New Professor — kept close to The Sea and Cake template, new guidelines were set for 2010’s all-electronic Old Punch Card. “No guitars, no vocals, no beats,” Prekop explains. “It’s not a pop record at all. For lack of a better term, it’s ambient music, with melody and rhythmic elements involved, but also a lot of cut-and-paste editing and real extremes.”
The Sea and Cake’s vitality challenges the notion that indie-rock bands aren’t built to last, but Prekop stresses that 18 years of quality output isn’t effortless, nor is life as a middle-class musician with a family. Perceptive fans may have spotted The Sea and Cake’s leadoff track “Jacking the Ball” in a 2008 Citibank ad. Sometimes, sighs Prekop, “we need the money… so we take it and hope nobody notices.”
Though “quite broke these days,” he’s never stagnated. Besides the band, solo work and various film scores, Prekop has contributed to projects as diverse as Edith Frost’s desolate folk, Prefuse 73’s experimental techno, and The Spinanes’ thoughtful indie-pop.
In spite of his prolificacy, Prekop admits it’s occasionally hard to recapture what made early Sea and Cake records like 1995’s The Biz so seminal. “The way the songs arrived at that point was totally mysterious,” he says. “Especially the song, ‘The Biz’… I still marvel at the bizarre chord progressions.”
Ultimately, Prekop’s partnership with Prewitt guides the band forward. “We’ve played for so long now, and still love touring together. I just can’t imagine making guitar records without him.” With Runner, they’ve made another great one. From luminous opener “On and On,” to concise up-tempo numbers like “Pacific” and “Skyscraper,” this is the sound of a band playing to its strengths while still allowing for surprises. Standout “The Invitations” begins with synthesized warmth not unlike ‘80s composers Giorgio Moroder or Tangerine Dream, later kicking into a propulsive bass-driven groove reminiscent of 1997’s electro-tinged The Fawn.
Prekop cites The Velvet Underground as a major influence, and time has proven that group’s old adage — not many bought the records, but they all started bands — true for his own music. Those yet to discover The Sea and Cake have likely heard its presence in the popular sounds of admirers like Broken Social Scene, Pinback and The Shins.
On the eve of a month-long U.S. tour, Prekop observes his band’s recent milestone with characteristic cool. “I’m proud of our longevity,” he says. “It’s rare that an indie-rock band would have ten records. With every band, there has to be a level of excitement, where you can’t believe you’re hearing what’s happening, and we had all those feelings. “We still do.”