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Creating a musical language, note by note

The Sea and Cake are four guys who are hungry create; they reinvent pop note by note on their new album, ‘Everybody.’ By Paige Newman
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The Sea and Cake have been together for 14 years, but after talking to vocalist and guitarist Sam Prekop it’s easy to see what keeps the band’s sound so vibrant. There’s no sense of complacency or self-satisfaction — no easy groove they can just slip into.

“Before we get together I’m always a little nervous or hesitant as to whether it’s actually going to work again,” says Prekop. “Only because it’s an unknown. Perhaps something has changed that’s out of our control, and we’re not going to know what it is until we try to play together again.”

The sense of re-discovery extends to the band’s sound, which Prekop doesn’t really like to describe, perhaps because of the limitations such a label entails. “We’ve always strove to create our own musical language and have it particular to what we can only do,” he says. “So I hope that has made for some music that couldn’t be made by anybody else.”

And though the band is most frequently described as “jazz-inflected pop,” even that label doesn’t quite fit the new CD, “Everybody,” which feels a bit more rock-inspired.

“We tend to usually counter-react to what we did last time,” says Prekop. “The last one was much more involved with a lot of post-production ideas. Working more directly with the studio and building up songs with a layered approach to just see what happens. This time out most of the pieces were pretty well put together before we started recording them. We could have probably played them live before starting the record.”

First they had to come together again — it’s not like these guys weren’t doing anything during their time apart. Prekop and guitarist Archer Prewitt each made amazing solo records. Drummer John McEntire also plays with Tortoise and appeared on the Exploding Star Orchestra record. Bassist Erik Claridge spends his off time and he, too, has a solo CD in the works. All four of these guys are simply hungry to create.

Focus was key to making the new CD and the band spent a week at their own self-prescribed “rock ’n’ roll boot camp” up in Benton Harbor, Mich. “There’s nothing else to do there, and we all slept there as well,” Prekop explains. “They have barracks that go with the boot camp, so you wake up and you’re ready to go. I really enjoy that sort of concerted effort to not be distracted by anything.”

Though Prekop writes the songs, he still counts on collaboration. “I’m always begging for any kind of input they can give me,” he explains. “But they’re careful to stay aware of the right and wrong times to get me going. I usually record the vocals with John, and he’s usually like my private little coach who keeps me going. Also, Archer is always incredibly encouraging no matter what. He’s definitely the most sunshiny of the bunch.”

That positive attitude is vital when struggling with a song like “Lightning,” which started out as a simple home recording with Prekop singing with his guitar and a drum machine, but which just didn’t seem to translate when the guys first recorded it as a band. “When we left the boot camp, it was a consensus that it wasn’t quite working,” Prekop says. “So we re-approached it in the way that it originally came about. A much more stripped down affair. Like we changed the drum sounds. John is actually playing the drums but it’s electronic sounds and stuff, and that sort of afforded a different quality that wasn’t there otherwise.”

The band loves really spending time on a song — seeing what kinds of happy accidents can occur just through the process of trying different things. The gorgeous guitar work on “Exact to Me” “probably stems from a little guitar doodle kind of thing,” says Prekop.

“I think we always trust that we can make something out of anything. We don’t get easily bored either. We can concentrate on a tiny little thing like that for a long time and work to make it interesting or seemingly more than the sum of its parts.”

Another striking quality is that not all of the songs on “Everybody” follow a typical structure. The song “Up on Crutches” uses no chorus — instead it simply moves forward. “I like a sort of travelogue quality to it, in that it never visits the same place exactly more than once,” he explains. “I think that strategy stems from way back in the beginning, before I could even think about pretending to write a pop song.”

Lyrically, it would be hard to take any song on the CD and just proclaim, “Well this is what this song’s about.” The lyrics can be quite abstract, which makes sense because Prekop sees them as secondary to the music as a whole.

“It’s a real give and take,” he says. “I realize that I have the most power in the band in terms of changing the mood or feel of the song with the words or the singing. But I guess basically it boils down that, to me, the words aren’t necessarily more important than the delivery,” Prekop says. “I mean, I work hard trying not to sing bad lyrics. It’s definitely a challenge.”

What’s nice about the lyrics is that they are so far from spelled out that as a listener, you can really glean your own meaning — and it doesn’t have to be what Prekop intended. Even the guys in the band do this, and Prekop does it, too. “What’s weird is that much later, or after I’ve been singing the song live, they’ll sort of take on a whole different life just because I’ll start to hear things that I could have never realized when I wrote it,” he explains. “I really love when that stuff happens. It might be that as I’m getting more used to them, they start to accumulate more significance. So I’m excited about all these shows coming up and seeing what happens.”

The Sea and Cake’s tour stars in Vancouver, B.C., on May 14. And Prekop and the guys are ready to play. “I’ll say that unlike a lot of past records, most of this material is really seeming to come across live — not easily — but really well. It feels all there without trying to wrangle a bunch of extra sounds and stuff. We’re able to pull it off as a four piece and nothing’s missing. So I’m really happy about that. The material feels really strong at this point.”

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