Art rock, indie rock, post rock — call it what you will, but The Sea and Cake, from Chicago, Illinois, have rocked in a singular, very consequential way for a good, long 20 years.
Formed by Sam Prekop (Shrimp Boat), Archer Prewitt (Cocktails), John McEntire (Gatr del Sol, Tortoise) and Eric Claridge, the sonically distinct band — hallmarked by intricate guitar interplay, multifaceted rhythms and “nicely mysterious” lyrics — have given the world 10 LPs worth (including the recently-released Runner) of thoughtful and important music. Despite countless waves and potentially-threatening undertows — side projects, criticisms and recurring hiatuses — The Sea and Cake have managed to consistently piece it all together again, knowing that what they bring to the table can be brought by exactly no-one else.
So, lore has it your band name comes from a misunderstanding?
Yeah. Our drummer, John [McEntire] was in a band called Gastr del Sol and they had a song called, The C in Cake. He always heard it as The Sea and Cake. We were running up on a deadline and had to choose a name…so we went with that.
Would you say a lot about this band has happened by fluke?
Total fluke. I absolutely could’ve never imagined I’d still be working on this now.
So how did you get this baby off the ground? Tell me how the band was born.
I was in another band — Shrimp Boat — with Eric [Claridge], and we were offered money to come up with another project and there it was.
You’ve been recording and playing together since 1994, which is no small feat; I mean, most marriages don’t even last this long.
(laughs) You’re right.
I’d imagine being in a band is equivalent, if not more work than being in a marriage because there’s so much at stake, so many people invested, and so many public opinions being thrown at you. What’s your secret to such a long working relationship?
Well, we’re all involved in other stuff, too, and that helps. We work on other projects and have done solo albums and so on. I think if we were all absolutely, full-on invested in this band or even if we were more careerist in our approach, I don’t think we could’ve gone on for so long. There have a been a few hiatuses too…breaks we’ve taken, but ultimately, it’s in our nature and demeanor to get along the way we do.
And the music you make is pretty worth it.
Yes, the music is so worthwhile — we know we can only make it in this situation. It’d be a shame to quit it if we didn’t have to.
On one hand it’s obvious how side projects can be beneficial because you’re given that freedom to go and experiment and realize different talents and parts of yourself. How tempting is it, though, being in such a close-knit group, to worry about side projects shifting the focus from your best work as The Sea and Cake?
It’s all…(laughs) not without difficulty to balance these things. The work is so intense and not easy, and of course a bi-product of that is some tension. I think we all trust that this is just part of our process and it’s not going to end the band. If we’re able to come out on the other side with a new record, well, it’s kind of worth it. To be honest, I don’t know that we’ll make another record – and that’s sort of how it is every time. We could show up next time and it just might not work. We certainly wouldn’t allow ourselves to put out a lousy record; I trust that we would recognize that it wasn’t up to our standards.
How are you sure – or are you ever sure – that your record is ‘good’ and relevant? How do you know you’re not just simply mimicking your previous work?
I must admit I don’t spend a lot of time listening to our older records, if at all. My relationship to our music is more about how we play it live; it’s always mutating and changing. Our records are never a direct response to the stuff we’ve done before; all that information is in there without having to dig too much. I’m fully aware that we’ve been criticized for making the same record over and over again but I don’t think it’s true; I think it’s a lazy criticism. If you listen to them, there’s of course an aesthetic that carries over every time, but I don’t feel that means that we’re repeating ourselves.
Thinking in big, broad strokes here, would you say that things generally become easier for you the longer you’ve been together, or do they feel somehow more challenging?
Um…it’s a combination of both. In a way the familiarity in how we play together has become a very rich language…but it’s also a catch 22 and a great difficulty – like you were saying earlier – to not rely on certain habits. When we first started out, on our first three records – it’s like this for any new band – there was something going on that just can’t be recreated. It’s a very natural outpouring of inspiration and excitement.
There must still be a level of excitement today, though, or you wouldn’t be doing it.
Oh, yeah. We are still just as enthusiastic as we ever were when we are all together and recording. I think, though, we’re getting a bit worried about the public opinion of us now that we’ve been together so long; it’s hard to garner new attention. That’s not to say we’re bothered creatively at all, and in fact, our last tour was better than it’s been for a long while. We’re optimistic with Runner. It feels like a lot of people like it and that it could bring some new fans in.
I can see how you might be worried about constantly attracting new, younger fans, but part of the cool thing about being in an established band is that you have such a rich history and your ‘old’ fans have evolved with you and are totally committed. You attract a fan base that’s incredibly mighty because there is so much sentimental attachment there.
The fans that show up are really amazing; it’s so flattering and they make me feel great. People confess that songs of ours have changed their life and it’s so intense. It’s nothing I could’ve ever imagined. We’ve gotten to a lot of people on a very infinite and intense level through our music…I’m proud to have been a part of that.
I’ve read in past interviews that — at least at one point — in time, you add your vocals only once the tracks are finished and that the band only hears them at the last minute. Is that still how you you still do things today?
I do for the most part. For this last record I sang and worked on the music more in tandem but my final takes and most of the lyrics don’t happen until I have the track back in my studio. I do most of my vocals at home and then we mix them in at the studio. For me, I find I do the most interesting work when I’m dealing with the track very directly and getting as much out of it as possible. It’s better for me to be in the moment and writing as opposed to strumming a guitar and writing all the lines and then flushing it out…
Well, everyone has their process.
Yeah, and this could be one habit I’ll never give up. I’ve found it just works best for my style of writing. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a traditional songwriter. I hope the words to end up meaning something but it’s never preconceived; it’s as much about the overall sound and the words I tend to like. I’ve found a way — at least in my mind — to make them add up in a way that’s nicely mysterious for the listener as well as for me.
You said earlier you don’t listen to your old stuff much, but certainly you must have a few favorite records that stand out.
Um…I think it’s more conceptual favorites…and I have favorite songs more so than favorite records. I often cite The Biz as one of my favorite records just because it’s feels like it’s where we hit our stride after the first couple of years together; it feels natural. Certain songs stand out for me, like An Echo In, that was on the Glass EP around 2003. Also, Inn Keeping from our last record is one I’m particularly proud of, too.
What makes a favorite a favorite? Is it an insider’s view on the song where it makes you think of a certain time or specific set of circumstances, or is it more of a universal judgement, like, ‘Damn, that song just sounds so awesome.’
For me, Inn Keeping was one of those breakthrough songs; I feel, truly, like it really is a different kind of song. I would say the same thing about a single on the new record called Harbor Bridges. They both sound like nothing I’ve touched on previously. An Echo In sounds to me like it’s of no particular time; it feels like we could’ve written it yesterday or on our first record. There’s that elusive quality that we are always trying to get to, though there’s no way to know how to get to it, but you have to be ready to recognize it. It could be the right riff or trajectory of a tune…and hopefully you can recognize that it’s happening (laughs).
So the last two albums, Moonlight Butterfly and Runner were put out in pretty quick succession. What’s had you so fired up?
I’m happiest when I’m at work. I feel lucky that we’re able to still be working and that I have this outlet. I’m already thinking of the next record — even though I said already I don’t know if we’ll make another record (laughs). I’ll at least be making another record. I’m hoping to kind of take it back to a The Biz-style record where we’re in a room and just rehearsing all the time and then laying it down.
Have you ever had moments where you just don’t know if there’s anything left anymore?
I have… luckily it’s quite fleeting. I think one of the reasons I’ve been working so regularly lately is because when you stop, it makes it much harder to start up again. Between Moonlight Butterfly and Runner, I worked on the soundtrack for Pavilion. That really kept things flowing for me and that’s why I think I was able to write another bunch of songs for The Sea and Cake. I feel like if I stop, I’m taunting the writer’s block. And now, actually, since this record’s been done, I haven’t really done much other than rehearse for the tour so I’ve been getting a bit antsy to work on something else. I would rather write every day if possible, but post record, you have to do the stuff that’s a little less interesting, like preparing for tours and rehearsing.
When you’re on tour, do you completely put writing on hold or are you the type who can effectively carve out some quite time to put your thoughts down on paper?
Nah, when we’re on tour I’m pretty much just on tour. It’s one of the easiest things to do, really, especially once we get past the first couple shows and you regain total confidence again.
Perhaps I should know this already, but have you played any of the new record’s material live yet?
No, we’ll be debuting a lot of the stuff on this tour…Are you in Toronto?
Okay, well (laughs) we’ll still be working it out in Montreal, but that could actually be a plus, you never know…
On October 26, Sam checks in with us again to dish on each one of The Sea and Cake’s 10 LPs.
The Sea and Cake 2012 Tour Dates
10-18 Toronto, Ontario – Lee’s Palace
10-19 Montreal, Quebec – Il Motore
10-20 Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
10-21 Brooklyn, NY – Littlefield
10-22 New York, NY – Le Poisson Rouge
10-23 Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
10-24 Washington, DC – Black Cat
10-25 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
10-26 Nashville, TN – Cannery Row
10-27 Cincinnati, OH – Taft Theatre Ballroom
10-28 St. Louis, MO – Luminary Center
10-29 Chicago, IL – City Winery
11-01 Vancouver, British Columbia – Rickshaw Theatre
11-03 Seattle, WA – The Crocodile
11-04 Portland, OR – Doug Fir Lounge
11-05 Eugene, OR – WOW Hall
11-06 Arcata, CA – Jambalaya
11-07 Petaluma, CA – Mystic Theatre
11-08 San Francisco, CA – Slim’s
11-09 Visalia, CA – Cellar Door
11-10 Los Angeles, CA – Bootleg Bar
11-11 San Diego, CA – Casbah
11-13 Marfa, TX – Padre’s
11-14 Austin, TX – Mohawk
11-15 Dallas, TX – Trees