Longtime Indie Favorites The Sea and Cake Bring Runner to Philadelphia
By Dana Giusti
The Sea and Cake, the well-respected, jazz-influenced indie rock band, will be returning to Philadelphia to play Union Transfer on October 23rd.
Originally formed in the mid-90s, the Chicago-based group retains their strong fan base by focusing on the increasingly lost art of albums intended to be enjoyed as a whole, rather than a cut-and-paste collection of singles and filler tracks. Their distinct sound, which incorporates soft vocals over creatively-utilized instruments, synthesizers, and other electronic sound sources, has been refreshed on their tenth full-length album, Runner.
Naturally, creating their unique sound takes time. Singer/songwriter Sam Prekop, who describes The Sea and Cake as “experimental art rock”, began writing the recording sketches for Runner in January of 2012 at his home studio.
“My process is pretty loose—trial and error, trying a lot of stuff out—and the most promising [songs] tend to stick around for the next level of editing,” explains Prekop. “After I got a handful of ideas together that actually sound like music, I start getting the other members involved, primarily by sending files around, and then they each work on their own in response to those beginnings. It’s kind of a slow process to begin with, and then gets a lot more involved and intense when it’s time to actually record.”
Letting the songs form organically is not unusual; however, Prekop’s approach to singing is rather unique. He doesn’t begin recording his vocals until after most of the drums, guitar, and bass lines have been laid down.
“It’s just how I’ve always done it,” he says. “There are some songs where I’ll be working on some vocal ideas with the guitar synth simultaneously [for example], but usually it’s after the music’s been written. Basically I feel I’m more effective when working in a reactionary mode rather than having the music serve the singing somehow; it seems to give less predictable results. Also, since I’m not, in a traditional sense, a songwriter—as in telling stories, exposing narratives, etc. with the lyrics—I find a sense of freedom when working in the moment with the music. The results are more interesting for me, anyway.”
Once the vocals have been recorded, it’s time for overdubs and mixing, which Prekop considers his “favorite part of the process.”
While it’s clear that much thought goes into the recording process, the band is rarely predetermined towards certain sounds. The Sea and Cake’s somewhat avant-garde music has kept them secured in the independent scene. Conversely, early reviews have described Runner as their most accessible album yet, but Prekop insists there was no conscious or intentional decision to make it so.
“In some cases I felt I pushed in [a more accessible] direction instead of a more obtuse or difficult direction. For example, the song “Harps” felt quite unresolved for much of the writing of it; it was a very malleable piece that was easy to push around but difficult to resolve. It felt lost until I embraced its overtly ‘pop’ qualities, though I felt like I was cheating a little bit by letting such an outwardly ‘accessible’ tune emerge. But the material dictates itself somewhat. My favorites seem to resolve their outcomes out of my control.”
While they may not have deliberately steered their songs from aloof to accessible, the band has always carefully avoided creating thematic albums.
“I just don’t think that any “theme” I could impose on an album is going to be better than what we come up with intuitively while working,” says Prekop. “I’m a proponent of having the material expose a theme without me putting one on it intentionally.”
In addition to writing a thematic album, it’s also unlikely that Prekop will be revisiting Runner, nor any of their prior releases, anytime soon.
“I must say it’s pretty rare that I would go back and listen to an older recording. We play a lot of older stuff live, so my relationship with it is through that. I think if I could somehow listen to the records more objectively I would find it more enjoyable, but I just hear stuff that bugs me. [However], if I hear something just out and about unexpectedly, I’m usually pretty amused and like it well enough.”
The Sea and Cake’s songs will be on full display on October 23rd at Union Transfer. Prekop says he is looking forward to coming back to Philadelphia.
“I really enjoy Philly; it makes think about [jazz legend] Sun Ra, and the Museum of Art is one of my favorites. The Philly crowds are excellent. We’ve been playing there for years, and it’s always good to come back.”