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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Sea and Cake and the Pursuit of Inspiration

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Chicago's musicians are some of the most striking in the United States. They proudly defy most of those “charming Midwestern” characteristics that cloyingly cling to many musicians in the surrounding region, yet unwittingly steal a bit of it, making a case for cool smarts with many a jazz and experimental undertone ingrained in its rockers, and acknowledging that a bit of highbrow can exist without losing that Midwestern ease and charm. The Sea and Cake is perhaps the foremost leader of this pocketed musical idealism, seamlessly blending pop-rock into breezy waves of jazz and dynamic electronica with a sense of confidence that keeps them fresh and relevant, even after more than 15 years together.

Guitarist and singer Sam Prekop spins abstract and introspective hushed secrets with effervescent vocals as the rest of the band builds intricate guitars and drums into varying patterns of rock and pop. Prekop's more experimental nature and John McEntire's precise and propulsive drumming (also seen in Chicago's jazz-rock outfit Tortoise) are the motor that has driven The Sea and Cake, steady and sure, since its start.

“Honestly, I feel that we've always been an experimental band,” Prekop says of the group's beginnings in the mid-'90s. “When we started, it was pretty radical not to be playing 'rock.'”

The Moonlight Butterfly
, the quartet's latest release, was put together at McEntire's Soma Studios in Chicago (which Prekop calls “the fifth band member”). The band set out for a more compact release this time around.

“We went into the recording not concerned with making a full-length record,” Prekop says. “We felt quite liberated, in a sense, by this conceptually: It pushed us to the longer pieces, the lengthy instrumental elements and the somewhat free-form quality of it all. In some ways it was a tactic to keep The Sea and Cake active for a longer-than-usual time, getting this shorter record out and then keep working toward the next.”

Prekop makes a good case for this style of sustainability and longevity, stating that gradual changes can go a long way.

“We function a bit more like a 'project' rather than a working band,” he says. “For the first five or so years we really were pretty much full time, but since that point solo projects and the like began to complicate our schedules and made for larger gaps in between releases. I'll say I'm always quite amazed by how naturally we fall back into place as if from day one—but with the terrific advantage of having so many years of experience together. Of course, all of this time together presents specific challenges as well, and we're keenly aware of trying to advance, not repeat, and innovate without forgetting what the elements are that make The Sea and Cake perhaps a fairly unique band.”

Prekop has always had a natural pull toward unique artistic expression. Raised in a family of artists (his father and brother both call art their careers), Prekop bases his work—whether solo or with The Sea and Cake, and whether it's music, paintings or photography—on simple inspiration, which perhaps lends his work its air of individuality.

“I feel perpetually in pursuit of inspiration at the service of real expression,” he says. “I suppose that's my ideal, and I only get glimpses of it now and then, but it's enough for a lifetime's ambition—at least, I hope.”

Prekop, along with his band, soaked up a new source of inspiration while touring alongside Broken Social Scene last fall. For a band that is often seen as translating more capably through headphones than on a stage, new audiences seemed to bring about a new fervor for performance.

“I love playing live, and I think we've gotten really pretty good at it,” Prekop says. “We've never really been too concerned with recreating the records, and I think that would be a mistake—performing actually feels very unrelated to recording and writing, and comes with its own set of rules.”

The Sea and Cake perform at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, May 19, at 8 p.m.