The hysterical pace of development in north Brooklyn led to chronic conditions for DIY art spaces like Glasslands and Death By Audio, where a fair amount of the zeitgeist that fueled said development was forged. But, absorbing the environs of Elsewhere on a damp May evening, the destruction of those haunts at least pangs with creativity.
Elsewhere is an immaculate new multi-story club complex located in the Bushwickian outer banks of Williamsburg. Combined with the similarly impressive Brooklyn Steel in Greenpoint, the complex cements the fact that Brooklyn has traded its punchy underdog industrial pioneering for genuine cultural power, fueled by money and an ever metastasizing narrative of “cool,” whatever is left of that concept.
At Elsewhere, the performance spaces are weightless, the sound system is enlightened, stage lights scare away so much as a speck of dust, and a 12-ounce can of Miller High Life will set you back $7. PBR isn’t even offered at the venue bar. Imagine.
In the spotless Green Room, Archer Prewitt and Doug McCombs, The Sea and Cake’s founding guitarist and new bassist (Eric Claridge left the band after the 2012 album Runner due to carpal tunnel syndrome) are lounging, lost in relaxed conversation. The room is appointed with moody colored lights and high ceilings. The furniture is crisp, unsullied by debauchery.
“This is my chair,” Doug bellows and points, unprompted, after standing up. He disappears from the room. The chair in question is one of those leather loungers that one expects to see cracked and ass-fitted in the accomplished dens of aged professionals — this one hasn’t a wrinkle.
Sam Prekop, chief songwriter for The Sea and Cake, wearing an inconspicuous jacket over a light hoodie and with fading sand-colored hair, enters the room. He immediately moves for the chair in question and plops down.
“No — get out of my chair,” Doug orders, kidding around and not, when he reappears moments later.
“Oh,” Prekop drawls quietly. “Sorry.”
He politely stands and Doug, cased in denim and displaying an ornately manicured Santa Claus beard, retakes his throne. The new bass player clearly is not plagued by any Jason Newsted-esque new-member alienations.
In another spotless backstage room in the shell of novelty that is Elsewhere, Prekop explains his cover photograph for his band’s 10th studio LP, Any Day.
“It said, ‘You should use me as an album cover.’ So it was a rare instance where I selected the image as the album cover before it was done. A weird signpost in a way, or a marker.”
The image suggests a certain against-stream dignity and beauty in obsolescence: a pile of would-be clutter is set amidst a context of control; spotless and effusive white walls contain a pile of, well, crap; an old tube television with faux-wood paneling sets the foundation for a rumpled cardboard box and errant mid-apartment-move items (a coffee mug, a dusty end-table); a bright orange thrift store couch runs out of the frame, stinging the rest of the palate with springlike frequencies, mid-flower. The stark and pristine framing levitates above diminutive sans serif lettering drowning in white space, an aesthetic as familiar to longtime fans as Prekop’s wispy coo.
“I was initially drawn to [the photo] probably based on — I love that orange next to that kind of weird… that kind of green can only exist on a blank TV from the 70s — that combination. In retrospect, somehow it gained a certain resonance,” he says. “There is a sort of weird fragile nostalgia quality to it. I think it is an odd portrait of The Sea and Cake, in a way.”
The band originated as its own mess of bright, spare parts in need of proper framing.
After leading the critically acclaimed Shrimp Boat in Chicago, Prekop was offered funding to develop a solo project. One-by-one, local bassist Eric Claridge, guitarist Archer Prewitt, and renowned drummer and producer John McEntire joined in the recording. The Sea and Cake’s self-titled debut was released in 1994 by the venerable Thrill Jockey Records. Other than the loss of Claridge, the lineup has otherwise been a constant, despite McEntire’s recent relocation to California and the birth of Prekop’s twins nearly a decade ago.
With so much personal history between the members after an improbable 24 years of recording and performing, what could possibly feel different for them this time around, with the release of a new album and a new tour?
“I never have a good answer for that,” Prekop says. “Everything and nothing.”
Around a decade ago, I lent a few of the band’s seminal albums to a friend, expecting thanks and some level of taste-validation in return for the benevolence.
“It’s all very… placid,” he said, handing back the cardboard sleeves for Oui and The Fawn along with Nassau’s plastic case.
Disappointed, I tried hedging him over to positivity. “Yeah, it’s very subtle, sure. But also pretty soulful and evocative, I think.”
He stared back. “Not subtle. Placid.”
Did I mention that part of this band’s appeal, as a college student, was the promise of enjoying the music well into middle age? The malnourished 21 year-old could definitely see himself chilling to Oui at 55. The original insight appears to be holding water.
Subtlety is lost on the disinterested. In the streaming era, the band’s discography must all simmer together for a new listener, into one “lovely” and “gentle” risotto. Even for a longtime fan listening to much of the post-One Bedroom discography, the familiarity and distinction of Prekop’s vocals can turn monotonous. One anticipates many of the chord progressions and bridge-to-chorus drum fills on first listen.
While certain production elements have calcified over time, such as embossed vocals and increasingly precise guitar takes, every Sea and Cake album carries its charms. Everybody (2007) presents an impeccably tight collection of stately pop rock, with the slow burning “Coconut” heaping wistful yearning upon the listener, narrator making peace with commitment, confessing, “You set me free.” Car Alarm draws out crashing rock (“Aerial,” “Car Alarm”), glittering electro-pop (“Weekend”), effusive jazzy rhythmics (“A Fuller Moon,” “New Schools”), and even a steel drum outro (“Mirrors”) for good measure. The surprising EP The Moonlight Butterfly offers one of the uncanny modular synthesizer compositions (“The Moonlight Butterfly”) that have come to dominate Prekop’s solo career, along with the small miracle of “Lyric,” another plaintive confessional that floats above a melancholy Eric Claridge bass groove, punctuated with decaying electronics before transforming into a spindly jam. Runner (2012) pares an M83-esque towering synth flirtation (“The Invitations”) with the achingly beautiful acoustic “Harbor Bridges.”
Should The Sea and Cake be punished for being so good and so consistent? If this were baseball, they’d be posting a damn 2.5 WAR, at least. But music is qualitative, undervalued, and in the end we want our rock & roll to channel dionysian impulses that are intrinsically unsustainable.
Shatter our neural pathways with bliss one day.
Haughtily cursing you the next.
No love lost.
“Occasionally,” Prekop says, “I feel apologetic that we’re still making records and someone might have to listen to them. But then again, it doesn’t really matter.”
Indeed, Any Day carries much of “the same.” It will be heard as antiquated, beautiful, or both. There are the quiet and catchy moments (“Into Rain,” “Too Strong”) that the band deals out with a flip of the wrist, eyes askance. But the title track calls out with something else, its easy groove lifted by Prekop’s light melodies, McEntire’s understated rhythm and Prewitt’s self-possessed riffs and accents that drop like dewdrops on the edge of a glassy pond. The song is all fresh and effortless and calls back to the band’s loose and transformational early catalogue.
The gift for melody was always present, but from 1994 to the mid-2000s, The Sea and Cake moved from dynamic and jammy discursions (The Sea and Cake, Nassau, The Biz) abruptly to programmed beats and synths (The Fawn), then to lush and ineffable bossa nova (Oui) and bright electro-pop (One Bedroom). The band flirted with aggression (“Escort”) and un-harshable mellow rumination (“The Leaf”), yet always returned to its ever-flowering gift for head-nodding pop and effusive romance. The classic “Parasol” and “There You Are” enter into slow trances that reward the patient. Call it Dreamcatcher Pop — this is some of the best nap music you’ll ever find (don’t miss Prekop’s genius self-titled solo album for the pinnacle of this transitory gift).
The loose naiveté of the early work kept a chair open at the table for evolution, and it’s the natural selfishness of a fan to want a return to the freshness, to once more harness those old feelings. We’re all addicts for novelty. Prekop understands the nature of the beast, but does not care to cater.
“There is a definite natural march to the life of any band,” he says. “When you’re starting, that’s a different kind of excitement compared to five years in. And I think, at this point, we reflect on our history more as a friendship and camaraderie than the music. We don’t like to dissect it too much. We’re sort of the antithesis of analysis.”
The Sea and Cake were never for “everyone.” If you were a stereotypical graphic designer in the 1990s and early 2000s, though, you were probably down. And those very graphic designers, solid dudes them all, filled The Hall at Evermore as twin disco balls flitted tiny spotlights across their greying hair while industrial electro pounded for a Trump-era rave called, Let Them Have Their Phones.
The band takes the stage to moderate applause and a few yelps, which quickly die away. Prekop is in no hurry to collect himself for the opening number and flashes a familiar wry grin as the public silence elongates. Notable for this patient crowd, the silence is not particularly awkward. Eventually, the steady beats, rumbling bass, and swelling (sequenced) synths of “Four Corners” (One Bedroom) fill the room.
Any Day’s insistent opener “Cover the Mountain” is surprisingly raw, softened edges from the long recording process obliterated by McIntire’s crashing percussion.
With the exception of a jumpy, chronic vaper hovering stage right, the full room of bought-in fans nod along, mirroring the minor movements of Prekop and Prewitt. Drummer John McIntyre shows, throughout the performance, why he became a force of gravity all his own in the 90s, via his additional work with Tortoise and as a respected Indie producer with his own Chicago studio (Soma). He demands attention, preening above the snare, chin up to the back of the room. He winces and snarls through perfect time, dominating the stage with dead set serial killer eyes and facial twitches, as a ring of sweat expands around his collar.
Meanwhile, Prewitt anchors center stage, keeping watch on his shifting, exotic chord patterns, altering them up and down the neck like a clinician. He ends a riff by throwing his head back in a rare moment of exuberance, but is otherwise as measured as his own delicate and embroidered guitar work. With rising applause after a final note, he nods in shy thanks.
The love from fans may not find expression in screaming, drug dancing, or tumbling flanks of drunk friends pushing their way to the front of the stage — this is not much of a “scene” — but this serene affection runs deep. Among these focused eyes and swaying bodies, there is no room for the casual follower. Kind appreciation is offered to the new songs, while the “oldies,” as Prekop calls them from the stage, elicit sighs and hard-earned affirmations. For those who have followed The Sea and Cake for two decades, these songs are vessels of memory. Immediate presence cracks them open for catharsis of the self-posessed.
Per the graphic designers, The Sea and Cake might be seen as pretentious and aloof. Perhaps they are, but backstage Prekop never sounds like someone who takes himself too seriously.
“I just think, if it feels right and positive to make a record it’d be a shame not to,” he says of the continuation of the band. “I’m quite certain that it doesn’t sound like much else.”
Appropriate to his longevity as a creator, with both The Sea and Cake and other projects, he offers a take-it-in-stride model for art making.
Do as much as you can.
Don’t be precious.
Your failures are venerable.
“People ask, ‘How do you make sense of being an artist as both a musician and a photographer’?
“It’s all work, and I’m trying to be as expressive as possible. So, it all counts. And one thing doesn’t necessarily have to make the other thing happen. I think all of the work is important at different times — on different levels.
“I’m hoping to recognize good stuff that’s happening. But, it’s sort of out of my control. I equate it to photography. It’s all already there, and you have to just find it… frame it.”