By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Sam Prekop is painting when I call at the appointed time. And, as unromantic as it sounds, he's on deadline. In need of 15 paintings for a solo exhibition, Prekop has a definite plan: Don't try anything revolutionary, just paint what works.
"It's a little bit weird now, working toward a show," Prekop explains via phone from his Chicago home. "I feel pressure over my head. I know in the back of my mind what works and what doesn't. I know that I need 15 paintings, but if I start going in a brand-new direction right now, that might not make as good a show, or so I think."
Prekop's approach to painting may sound methodical and safe, even with the possibility he's sacrificing quality for quantity. But it's just as difficult, just as dangerous to paint this way. Having a plan is one thing; making it work is something completely different.
"I feel maybe that's a little bit of a cop-out," he admits. "But it's not making doing the paintings any easier really, so I assume it's still OK. It's still really hard. If it seems to be easy, then I'm probably in trouble."
Prekop's philosophy toward productivity has relevance to his music as well. He fronts the quiet, Chicago-based quartet The Sea and Cake. The band has, almost dutifully, pumped out five albums (and one EP, 1997's Two Gentlemen) in just six years. On October 3, the group released Oui, its first album since 1997's The Fawn. Like Prekop's paintings for his upcoming show, Oui isn't revolutionary; it isn't a new direction for The Sea and Cake. In fact, out of context, the album might seem, well, boring. Oui is the kind of work that requires a certain listening environment, say, during intermission at a crowded club, blaring from oversized speakers, or in the background at a party. It doesn't demand attention, encourage dancing, or inspire exalted kudos--it simply fits certain spaces.
The Sea and Cake is certainly familiar with the subjectiveness of art, in any medium. Like bandmates Archer Prewitt (guitar) and Eric Claridge (bass), Prekop is a devoted visual artist. In fact, he and Prewitt met at the art school from which they later graduated. Drummer John McEntire went to music school and has his own recording studio.
"Being a professional artist is as tall an order as rock musician," he says. "In fact, I think it's been more difficult just because the outlets and the audience are so much less. With music, there's someone somewhere that's probably going to be into whatever you're doing. The art network is a lot more closed-up."
Since the release of their self-titled debut in 1994, The Sea and Cake have developed a small, devout fan base and significant critical acclaim. The band is lauded for its simple, yet complex, approach to pop melody. Like most of their Thrill Jockey labelmates, they've snagged the post-rock tag, a misnomer since most of their songs are quiet, concise pop introspections rather than experimental, edgy improv sessions.
The Sea and Cake formed from the ashes of Shrimp Boat, a young band in which Claridge and Prekop wer members. Prewitt had been playing with The Coctails, while McEntire was working at the studio where Shrimp Boat recorded. The Sea and Cake's first album was originally released on the European label Rough Trade. Later, through McEntire's association with Bettina Richards, who operates Thrill Jockey, they found a new label closer to home.
The Sea and Cake is a tight, simple album, with most of its songs short and bright pop constructions. Prekop has always delivered words much like a young, sober Lou Reed, though his manner is slighter, more sensitive. Prekop's lyrics, however, have nothing in common with Reed's narratives about junkies and losers; most of Prekop's songs are about relationships, or personal ruminations and minor observations, albeit abstract ones. Like the band's music, Prekop's lyrics appear to be an afterthought. And, well, they are.
"I definitely consider composing lyrics my most difficult job," he explains. "I don't write stuff until I have to. I don't do it for fun--ever. I use that as a motivation, like, someone's got to do it. It's a little tricky because I almost never have a theme or message that I need to convey through words. Writing is a fairly abstract process, mainly through trial and error. I hope that certain things will sort of add up to some sort or sense or resonate with me. Or that they're somehow poetic--not to abuse the word. I have some strategies I use to come up with stuff, to try things out. As soon as I start working on a particular tune I work on the lyrics hand-in-hand with the music and take clues from one or the other."
Oui is better than previous efforts in some respects, especially when it comes to Prekop's vocals. (For instance, only the studious, highly attentive listener would notice, but Prekop actually sings backing vocals now, too.) Still, Oui is not exactly a departure from The Fawn. Since The Fawn, The Sea and Cake simply have sounded middle-aged. Gone is the charged, blunt pop aesthetic of "Escort" (from The Biz) or the sheer youthful vigor of "Nature Boy" (from 1995's Nassau). Prekop's visceral yelps and bantam screams are sadly lacking from all post-Biz recordings. The singer's random outbursts confirmed the fact that The Sea and Cake don't take themselves too seriously. Hearing Prekop raise his voice to Axl Rose heights, if only for a few seconds, was a welcome touch next to the band's sleepy music. The Fawn was the band's first electronic, streamlined album, recorded at McEntire's own Soma Electronic Music Studio. Both The Fawn and Oui sound airbrushed, clean, as if washed over by sand and water.