When The Sea and Cake hit the Chicago music scene in the mid-'90s, the group helped redefine the Chicago sound. Until then, Chicago's rock scene had been known for clangorous din and hard-edged, macho aggression. And then, suddenly, there was Sam Prekop singing and sighing, just above a whisper over this band that was closer to bossa nova than seemed reasonable for a bunch of former School of the Art Institute punks.
Their albums jangled and floated and helped usher in the genre known as post-rock. That was 18 years ago. Against the odds and ebbing tides of the music industry, The Sea and Cake has sustained and subsisted on the support of a dedicated fan base. The group's 10th full-length album, “Runner,” released last month on local label Thrill Jockey, is the closest the foursome has gotten to making a rock record, even if it is still awfully ornate and exceptionally pretty.
The band's figurehead, artist Sam Prekop, lives in Pilsen with his partner, Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards and their 4-year-old twins. The walls that aren't shelved from floor to ceiling with records or books are heavily decorated by children's artwork, clearly hung by their own hands. Prekop balances his work as an artist and a musician with parenthood, working and rehearsing while the twins are at preschool. Last week, Prekop took time out from dad duty to discuss his creative evolution, The Sea and Cake's musical language and what it means to stick around. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: You've been doing Sea and Cake for 18 years. What is it like to be a musician now in Chicago as opposed to when you first started making music?
A: I participate less in Chicago as a music scene. That's more based on having little kids. In the old days, we used to play all the time. I don't know if there are any bands that still play more than once a month in Chicago. It's not what you're supposed to do anymore (laughs). It's interesting we're so associated with the city, especially (to) people outside of Chicago. Then they'll ask me what's happening in Chicago, and I don't know (laughs). But I'm proud of my association with this town and being part of it. And I feel how it would be different, but without knowing how it would be different, but I think our music reflects the city. It's definitely urban music. I don't feel we're just dabbling in what we do. I sort of long for those days where instead of writing songs for a record, we'd write because we're a band and we're going to play next week. Now we act like a band, but it's very regimented and scheduled. I'm happy we're able to continue making records and go on tour. I'm not complaining at all, but when people used to buy CDs, it was very helpful to us (laughs). And now that's no longer the case, it's more difficult to make it because we don't tour enough to do it. We toured a lot last year. What happens now is that we have to go farther away. We're playing South America. As soon as someone from China calls us, we'll be there.
Q: Do you get the sense that you weren't supposed to stick around for 18 years?
A: Yeah, but luckily our sort of fan base is very hard-core, and they are quite happy that we have. In terms of (an) insane Pitchfork-style renaissance for the band, I don't see it quite happening. Who knows? Perhaps if I break both my legs and lose an eye, it might happen (laughs).
Q: Where do you think your band would be if you didn't have Thrill Jockey?
A: No idea. It's quite certain the band would not exist without the label. It's been one thing about having been around so long — well, it's a Catch-22. There's a lot of name recognition. I hear a lot from other musicians, certain name checks and stuff. I feel we're this weird legacy act that no one actually has personal experience with (laughs). But it's flattering we made an impact.
Q: How did becoming a dad affect your creative process?
A: I haven't figured out exactly how yet. There's a song on this latest record that I felt was like my first kid song, kind of, which I never would have had any of those songs before.
Q: Which song?
A: "Harbor Bridges." Not that it sounds like kids music, but I was thinking about what they might be entertained by. Francis, my son, is much more into the harder, heavier music.
Q: What makes it a "kid song"?
A: In my mind, the song is about discovering new things, and the sort of instrumentation is very intimate. I didn't go to work on it with the sentiment: "I need to write a song that kids would like." It went in that direction.
Q: Are you satisfied with "Runner?"
A: I think "Runner" is a great record. I think it's a really good Sea and Cake record.
A: I felt like I was really reaching more than I have before. I sensed I was really going at it harder, pushing harder than I'd previously done.
Q: In many ways, it's the most aggressive Sea and Cake record to date. It's your rock record.