In the process of creating the songs on The Sea and Cake's latest album, Runner, songwriter and bandleader Sam Prekop initially turned away from guitar and began the songwriting process with experimental sketches on synthesizer and sequencer.
The original synth tracks didn't always make it to the final recordings of songs, but that's how they began, he said in a recent interview.
Based in Chicago, the 18-year-old The Sea and Cake (which grew out of the art-school, alternative-rock band Shrimp Boat) combines muscular rock, breezy pop melodies, avant-garde sensibilities and electronics to make a pioneering and often-imitated style of music sometimes referred to as post-rock.
The band is touring to promote Runner, its ninth album. Like almost all of their recordings, this one was released by the independent label Thrill Jockey Records.
That tour will bring the band to Tucson for a concert on Nov. 12 at Club Congress. Matthew Friedberger, half of the brother-sister duo Fiery Furnaces, will open the show.
Frankly, it seems like forever since The Sea and Cake gave us a new album. Although it has been four years since the appearance of The Sea and Cake's last full-length, Car Alarm, the band did make and release a six-song EP, The Moonlight Butterfly, last year.
Prekop considers Runner an extension of the work he began with that EP and continued with his composition of soundtrack music for the indie film Pavilion by first-time writer-director Tim Sutton.
"These records are sort of on a continuum. It feels like there was no gap between the making of them," he said.
"Since I had no idea what I was actually doing, I was working pretty closely with the director, relying on what he wanted, what he had in his head. I wanted to make it as good and challenging as any album."
Prekop said the movie is largely wordless, and that Sutton gave him room to expand his music palette.
"It was absolutely wonderful for a while not to know what I was doing, but working still, scrambling with purpose. I truly felt free to try almost anything. In completing a picture with sound, trying to record a nuance, the particulars became huge—to render a space, describe a time, follow a spell. Reaching in this direction has definitely informed the new record."
Prekop said he brought some of that experimentation to Runner, and that when he started work on it in his home studio, more ideas began to flow. He eventually brought his synthesizer demos to the rest of The Sea and Cake: guitarist Archer Prewitt, drummer John McEntire and bassist Eric Claridge. With the whole band recording at Chicago's Soma Studios, the songs were reworked and began to take shape.
The resulting album is hypnotic and invigorating at the same time—as have been most albums by The Sea and Cake over the years. Many tunes are straight-ahead pop-rock with thorny guitar parts and subtle keyboard embellishment, such as "Harps" and "New Patterns."
On some tunes, such as the fuzzed-out bliss of "The Invitations," electronic textures dominate. Throughout most of the record, though, are two constants: Prekop's unerring sense of melody, harking to 1970s pop-rock and the occasional tropical sway of Brazilian music; and a throbbing, propulsive beat, not unlike the so-called Krautrock of such bands as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
For the record, Prekop acknowledged his affection for both classic pop-rock and electronic music. To some listeners, these influences might seem at cross purposes, but with one listen to The Sea and Cake, it all makes sense.
The album's unexpected treat is the track "Harbor Bridges," on which Prekop plays delicate acoustic guitar in almost an English folk-music style while some synthesizer flourishes float in the background.
"That song was a real surprise for me. I couldn't believe it was happening when I was working on it. I have never heard anything similar coming out of my body of work," he said. "I was messing around with different tunings on guitars, and when I played that, it interested me. I wouldn't consider myself technically a great guitarist, but I think I can come up with some nice chords and shapes."
Getting the members of this busy band together can be challenging, Prekop said. He and Prewitt have recorded several solo albums each, and Claridge has played on albums by acts including Broken Social Scene and Brokeback.
McEntire plays with the mighty post-rock band Tortoise, and he's an in-demand producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with such artists as Red Krayola, Stereolab, Richard Buckner, Tom Zé, the Ex, Smog, Trans Am, Mary Timony and Tucson's Calexico.
"On a really pedestrian level, it can be a pain in the ass to schedule things and work it all out in a nuts-and-bolts sense. I lament that I have to go to sleep sometimes. But in my mind, if you know what you want to do, then the scheduling works out eventually.
"I see it all as part of the same occupation. Sure, I differentiate between The Sea and Cake and the other stuff I do. And I think each of us recognizes, or is familiar enough with our work and each other's, that we know what is right for The Sea and Cake and for each of those outlets."
He said the longevity of the band and its artistic successes result from the opportunities for its members to pursue other muses.
Prekop also acknowledged he gets antsy when indie-rock listeners and many critics fall back on calling The Sea and Cake's music jazzy, or jazz-influenced.
"One thing I'm always, especially at this point, nervous to hear is the jazzy part of the equation. I couldn't play a jazz standard to save my life. For me, jazz is about improvisation, and we don't really do that. I guess some of us have different definitions of what makes jazz."