The Sea And Cake have been making elegant, assured, and singularly unique music for over two decades. The band is made up of a who’s who of Chicago experimental/indie/jazz/post-everything musicians that include Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt, and John Mcentire.
Their latest album on Thrill Jockey Records is Any Day. Sam Prekop (singer, guitarist) sat down to talk with Pedal Fuzz about writing and recording the record, just after a soundcheck in Durham, NC, ahead of their performance at The Pinhook. THE FOLLOWING EXCERPTS HAVE BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.
Pedal Fuzz: Your Last album Runner came out in 2012. When did you start working on the songs that would make up Any Day?
Sam Prekop: So it was probably February 2017. Got a bit of a slow start I guess. I started actively playing guitar for that mainly on my acoustic, roaming around my house cooking dinner for the kids. Strumming the guitar, getting it together kind of. And then Archer Prewitt (guitar) and I spent a fair amount of time together before John McEntire (drums) showed up. And then the three of us rehearsed at the practice space for probably about a week with the new material. And then we went into the studio to record the basic tracks.
PF: Is that generally how it's worked in the past, you starting just with the guitar then bringing everyone else in?
SP: So Archer and I spend a lot of time without drums to work out the intricacies of the arrangements. Of course John contributes as well, but to get the ball rolling usually I start, get the basic gist of it, and then I have Archer come in. There's a few songs on the new record that Archer and I came up with just sort of messing around improvising and stuff. So it happens that way as well. "Any Day," the title track comes out of that, and also the last song "These Falling Arms."
PF: Did you record in John’s studio, Soma Studios?
SP: His studio in flux now because he moved to California. So it was different in that regard, so we used a different studio in Chicago. He had already moved right around the time I started working on the guitar stuff.
PF: So did you track in two locations, or just go out there to L.A. and track?
SP: We never made it to L.A. actually. The original plan was to go and mix it and finish it in L.A. And John moved to L.A. but then he bought a house more northern, east of San Francisco. So that kind of threw our plans for a loop a little bit. So John would mix, and then he would send us the files and we would give input on it.
PF: As far as the songwriting. how collaborative does it get once everybody else joins in? By that point do you already have the structure set, or is there room for change?
SP: So when we have the basic tracks, it can still change because I haven't done any singing yet. So I get the basic tracks into my home studio - and I have been doing it this way for a while where I record the vocals at home and mix them later with John. So I spent quite a bit of time writing and singing and recording the vocals on my own basically. I spent more time doing that this time around than other records I would say. I'm not sure why, I think I just found myself with more time.
There were a few setbacks. One was how we thought the studio would be ready in time, so we were kind of waiting for it. Things were hinging on different factors as we were working, so I wound up like, “OK, I have another month to do other stuff,” and so I ended up redoing a lot of things this time around which was good. I think because I got a little bit of time away from what I had done, I got a slight amount of perspective. I could discover that it could be better if I tried to rewrite certain lines or words.
PF: Was it mostly lyrics and vocals you were changing, or other elements?
SP: Sometimes it was just the delivery of it, like I can sort of get more out of the performance. Other times it might be some slight adjustments to the words, or rhythm things, but usually it was that I felt like I could inhabit these vocals more...not intense exactly, but just be more familiar with them. Just to be able to really perform the song.
PF: That's something striking about the record too, it kicks right off with the vocals.
SP: I know - this is the most vocal-centric record of all, and when rehearsing for this tour and playing some older stuff I'm like, "Oh my god I hardly sing at all in long spots." And I have to say the shows have been quite the vocal workout. It's an hour and a half show and I'm singing the whole time. I'm quite burnt by the end.
PF: Are you having to come up with like a honey/lemon regimen?
SP: I should maybe! It's getting better, you know. So this will be maybe our seventh show tonight, and each night it's getting a little easier. It depends on if the monitoring is good and if the sound is good on stage. If I have to over-sing, that's a problem, and sometimes that's the case if I don't hear it properly.
PF: It seems that on this album, compared to some older songs like "The Argument" or even "Harps" from the last record, there's less electronic elements. It has much more of a band feel. How did you decide that was going to be the vibe this time?
SP: Well, usually with these things the project tells you what it wants as you're working on it. I feel like my job is to pay attention as much as possible to what the material is leading you towards. So I didn't start out like, "Oh this should be a super vocal-heavy record and it should be all about that." So as it was leaning in that direction, it seemed like there was just less room for electronic stuff. And I think I think there would have been more of that if we had been in the studio together during the overdub process - which we had planned, but didn't quite happen because of logistics. So that's also part of the reason I think.
PF: Let's talk about gear a little bit. What guitar and amp are you using on the record?
SP: So I started writing on my acoustic. It's a pretty old beat up Martin 000-17. It's a Mahogany, small body kind of deal. And so I write a lot on that. I've never played it live and I don't plan on it - too many problems involved with drums and stuff.
And my main guitar is not actually a Fender Telecaster, though it looks like one. I got it maybe 15 years ago. It was built by Greenwich Village Custom Guitars (GVCG). It's sort of a legendary builder (Jonathan Wilson) which I didn't know at the time. But as soon as I tried it I'm like, "This is my guitar." So that's been my main guitar for a while.
And I use a Fender Bassman amp - but it's not actually a Fender. It's made by Victoria Amp Company out of Chicago (Victoria 45410 Tweed, modeled after a 1959 Bassman). And I've been using that for a long time as well, at least 10 or so years.
PF: What do you like about the Victoria?
SP: It sounds very acoustic. Not like an acoustic guitar, but the sound of the wooden box is very forward in a way. It feels very lively and unveiled in a way that feels very direct. It's very responsive to the way you play, very quick and responsive. There's no reverb or anything, it's a very direct, classic amp design. I imagine it's probably pretty simple. It's designed originally for bass players but it works really well as a guitar amp.
PF: And are you putting anything between the guitar and the amp?
SP: Yeah, I have a few BJFEE pedals, from Norway. Björn Juhl made them, he went on to design Mad Professor pedals. I have one that’s a very subtle overdrive I use all the time called the Honey Bee. And a BJFE EQ pedal (Sea Blue EQ) that’s amazing. I also have a Mad Professor Deep Blue delay pedal I use for a little color – I’m not big on changing my sound per song very much.
PF: You have a very crisp, but full, clean sound.
SP: On the song “Color The Mountain,” I play some pretty distorted guitar. On that I use this Swedish Himmelstrutz Fetto Nord 70 distortion pedal I’ve had a long time. But I don’t use it much.
PF: You’re in a band with people that are in so many other bands, and so many different collaborations. Does that become difficult for everyone to juggle what they have going on?
SP: There’s no real difficulty. That’s why there’s sometimes longer breaks in-between records. So Tortoise had a record in-between, so that was about two years of the lag time. I also make solo records and usually tour on those. No problems really, it’s just a matter of making the plan and it works out.
EDDIE GARCIA PLAYS GUITAR AND ALL THE PEDALS AS 1970S FILM STOCK. YOU CAN ALSO HEAR HIM REPORTING ON NPR AFFILIATE 88.5 WFDD IN WINSTON-SALEM, NC. IN THE WEE HOURS HE RUNS PEDAL FUZZ, WHICH IS A PROUD RECIPIENT OF A GRANT FROM THE ARTS ENTERPRISE LAB / KENAN INSTITUTE FOR THE ARTS.