When Sam Prekop isn’t crafting progressive, polyrhythmic pop tunes as the singer and guitarist for the Sea and Cake, he’s releasing records under his own name and exploring the outer possibilities of electronic music with modular synthesizers. Prekop is subtle and focused in his musical journeys and is not only well-respected in the independent music scene at large, but he’s also synonymous with one of the Chicago’s flagship labels, Thrill Jockey.
His latest solo offering, Comma, is an album crafted and built entirely from Prekop’s exploration of beat programming and the possibilities of its creation. Comma is unlike what you might imagine a Sam Prekop or a Sea and Cake record sounds like. It is fluid and motionless, an immediate and intimate buzz of beats and stripped down musicianship. The album swarms and swells from one track to another; tracks like “Park Line” and “Circle Line” conjure a constant state of movement, while other tracks like “September Remember” and “Summer Places” are ideal for reflection and floating downstream. There are no vocals on Comma so in many ways, this album is a pure, distillation of Prekop’s musical visions — as unique as they are evocative.
Prekop was working on music in his home studio this summer, taking advantage of some free time before his kids returned from out of town. In a short break from music-making, Prekop talked to PopMatters about life under quarantine, his creative process, and the changes he’s seen in his 25-plus years as a musician.
How are you doing navigating everything including the pandemic?
I’m doing fine, yeah. It’s bizarre but I’ve gotten used to it, which is tragic in a weird way. Everything is so odd and unusual, but I’ve adjusted. It’s a little weird for me because I work from home, so I’m self-quarantined anyways. My routine hasn’t drastically changed. The kids are out of town now, which is good for them to get out of Chicago. The other thing is The Sea and Cake played six or seven shows right before it all shut down. So I feel quite fortunate to be able to play a last show right before it all happened. You could feel it coming, nobody knew what was going to happen. The shows were amazing and a lot of people showed up but it had a certain unknowable feeling about it and I sensed people were aware.
Which can make for a very intense experience, I bet.
Yes. We did a handful of shows on the West Coast and our last show was in Mexico City for a festival in March … 9th or something? Then everything was shut down five days later.
Have you taken this opportunity to explore some new music/writing or is music the last thing on your mind right now?
Since my kids left town, I’ve been desperately trying to get a lot of new stuff going in my home studio. For most of the quarantine, I was in charge of homeschooling so it was difficult to get a lot done beyond that. But it was a nice break, nice to have a new focus and think about them primarily. Instead of thinking about what I could be doing all the time. [ laughs] Now, I’ve been left to my own devices, full-on in my home studio trying to do work.
Nothing has really gelled yet. John McEntire and I have a synth duo project. We’ve done two tours in Europe, me on my modular setup and John on electronic drums. We’ve been recording a lot of those shows and we played in Portland where I was mixing Comma with John. Our plan was to make a record, without knowing that we would not play together, and try a few ideas remotely. It’s not exactly what we do, you know? That project is very “real-time” and improvised. But I’m trying to adjust and come up with some ideas and send them to John for a little back and forth. So that’s where I’m at now. We haven’t gotten through with anything yet, but we’ve just started. I think it could work out, but I’m not sure.
I think the biggest hurdle I’ve noticed musicians talk about is a change in the way they “normally” work, the time they have — or don’t have — to create. Sounds like that’s been an issue for you, too.
It has, but for the past month, I’ve had time to work on it. Before that, yes, it was different.
When you returned to music, did you feel refreshed, like you hadn’t missed a beat?
I don’t know. Perhaps “refreshed” … I work on stuff all the time in varying degrees, so I’m a perpetual dabbler. That’s sort of my process. I’m always messing around and looking for happy accidents until I get past a certain threshold and then it becomes a new project. That was the origins of Comma. I had a lot of time on my own working in my studio until I thought it was time to rein it in and focus. Put an actual record together. Now, I’m in the very beginning stages of a new project. It’s pretty all over the place — which can be nice, but I always worry that I won’t find the focus and direction necessary to complete it. [laughs] But I’m compelled to keep working on it. That doesn’t always equate to digestible music for the public. I vacillate between the two quite wildly, I would say.
I’m always working on stuff so I never feel … like if you asked me have I been playing guitar, I would say absolutely not. That would be a question of coming back to it, getting “refreshed” on guitar again. Or writing a Sea and Cake song. I have not done that in quite some time. Doing the touring keeps me limbered up with playing that material and remembering how to play the guitar, so I am concerned about the future in terms of that because no one knows when we can play live again and/or record in a studio with other people. I don’t know how that’s going to go or what’s going to happen with that.
You said something that caught my ear. You said you look for “happy accidents.” Is that the seed of some of these songs on Comma?
I definitely do and I feel like my job is to generate tons of raw material. But then the real work is recognizing the interesting bits and making something out of it. So that’s my process and it has been for this electronic stuff. I have an ongoing recording sketchpad where I record things that seem to be going somewhere or working. Then I’ll go back and sort through that stuff and some things will lead to the next step or I’ll actually get into that piece and refine it, or extrapolate ideas from it and make something else.
For Comma, I did a lot of that for several months. But then I get past a certain point where I started to hear the record and I was working much more deliberately in that direction. Like most of the stuff on that record is not from my audio sketchbook; I needed to do all that to get to the next step where I was actually writing the pieces and putting them together.
Listening to the record, it took me aback a little bit because it didn’t sound like I thought it would. Then, I thought, “Well, what do I expect it to sound like?” It felt more like an exploration of all of your musical sounds and ideas. Is that off-base?
On my other electronic records, I deliberately stayed away from any sort of pop music — Sea and Cake-leanings or whatever. This time I incorporated some of my songwriting moves within this electronic, instrumental umbrella. That was a big change and opened things up for me. It’s weird that using certain familiar strategies becomes quite alien in this context. But I wasn’t able to escape it; the work was telling me to do that so I took the cues and went in that direction.
Who are you to refuse what the work tells you?
Exactly. That’s my mantra. Whatever ideas I can come up with beforehand are gonna be less interesting that what I find in the actual work, basically. That’s how I’ve always gone from one step to another, in a way. Of course, there’s tons of choices made and ideas thrown out all at once, all the time, but it’s the decisions at the right time that sort of end up leading to the actual work. A lot of those are based on what you’re hearing in the moment. That’s how I work.
Is it different not having to think about adding vocals or melodies when you know the music is the only pathway?
That was one of my concerns with the new music: “It sounds fine but why aren’t you singing on it?” I had to resist that in some ways because once the vocals enter the picture that’s all people will hear basically. I had to keep going, don’t sing, and focus on other qualities that could potentially make it compelling. Through working on records all these years, I recognized that the power of the singer is unparalleled in a band. It overtakes everything. That’s just how it is, which is great but it’s also one of many directions you can take.
In some ways, vocals are a trap, too. Whatever you’ve developed musically gets squashed if there’s a strong lead vocal or melody. Once I realized you created something different — without vocals — it really opened up the space of the record. Were you trying to peel pieces away and minimize? Or do you have to keep from layering more on?
There’s always the temptation to put too much stuff in there. Through my experience, of getting to know that less is often more, it’s mainly a matter of clarity. You want your ideas to be clear, you want your sounds to be clear, so if one more element doesn’t make it interesting, it’s probably not worth adding.
Because you can bury a song eventually by having too much.
Yeah, totally. I think one of the things that lends it a minimal quality is that my beat programming is super rudimentary and that’s kind of what I liked about it. It’s a very basic tool but I felt like I needed it to change the music in other ways. What I know how to do and what I’m comfortable doing in terms of programming beats is super basic and minimal. And I like it that way. It changes the music without being the focus. You need some hammer and nails to build a wall, and you need the basic beat to get this other stuff to interact properly with the other elements. I’ve not previously dealt with that, so that was a big change for this record, as well.
I’ve always avoided any sort of beat [programming] because I wasn’t necessarily interested in exploring that and I never felt that would have been my strong point. And it points a song in the direction of “pop” music which I’ve always tried to escape in some ways with those other electronic records. Comma has definitely changed my focus for the better and created new and interesting challenges, and not have it feel like dopey electronic music. [laughs] I’m not quite sure how best to explain it. [laughs]
The beat programming is rudimentary but it doesn’t come off that way, it comes off as fulfilling the song.
Right and I just didn’t want it to be the focal point. Which a lot of stuff is, beat-first, other stuff afterwards. For me, I hope they work hand-in-hand quite carefully.
There’s one song I kept coming back to: “September Remember”.
That’s a beat-less number, that one.
Right, but there’s this faint pulse, almost like a heartbeat, then it drops out and there’s this gorgeous melodic part that takes over. This song isn’t beat-driven at all, even though the record is. Was that always the shape of the song you intended or was it a happy accident?
That’s one of the older pieces on the record. It was probably before I was dabbling in beats in some ways, perhaps. The other interesting thing with that song is that a lot of other songs are based around sequences or lines, so I have all these analog sequences where you directly interact with the knobs and the rhythms — like a give-and-take situation. For that song, though, I actually played those chords, so that makes it feel different, probably. I spent a long time arriving at that sound — which was accidental. Kind of a weird resampled, chord/synth tag. Then I actually replayed it in real-time; the pattern over and over and the human interaction to it I became really interested in exposing that element. That’s perhaps what you’re hearing and responding to, in a way.
My first thought was it sounded like a Brian Eno-inspired soundscape. Not to throw out an obvious comparison. Were you taking inspiration from anyone or anything in particular?
I love Brian Eno so it’s probably in there. I never work intentionally under the influence of one thing or another. It all co-mingles. What I think makes for great music along those lines is always kind of in the back of my mind. Eno is a big deal, also the ’80s Japanese environmental scene — there was a compilation this year from Light In The Attic Records. Which I think came out after I had become more aware of that type of material. Very specific Japanese ambient, which sounds like Eno, as well. They’re bouncing off of his ambient ideas. But the record is a bit different; it’s more upfront and experimental in terms of texture and surface. I’ve been thinking a lot about that stuff — without trying to do that.
Right, like how do you pay respect to influences without sounding derivative …
It’s hard enough to do anything [ laughs] so I’m open to using influences. I’ve never found it terribly helpful in a weird way. I think I’m so stuck in my process that it would be hard for me to use an influence to my benefit in a way. I hear so much of it all the time … and once again I bring it back to this: the music usually points me in the right direction. But I definitely hear the Eno-thing on that piece, for sure.
This one is broad so take it any direction you want: you’ve been making music for several decades, is there a specific change in either the industry or in music-making that has been difficult for you to overcome?
For me, a lot has changed, and not a lot has changed. [laughs] I know that’s not really an answer …
It makes sense, though.
I’m still able to not get a regular job, still able to work all the time — which is my priority. But it’s a pretty meager existence, as well, I’d have to say. [laughs] There was a time, I’d say maybe ten years ago, where it would seem like every record, we would sell a lot more of them. It’s hard to imagine that would change. But, of course, that has changed because nobody buys records anymore. My perspective (ten years ago) was much more optimistic in those ways but I’m still able to do exactly what I want so I feel quite lucky. And I don’t envy … I’m very grateful to our strong, loyal fanbase for all the stuff I do. I feel very lucky that they’ve followed my every move for all these years. That’s how I’m able to do it.
It would be impossible to start from scratch right now. We’re able to keep going because we’ve been doing it for so long in a way. And that’s quite rare, and I feel quite lucky that that is my situation. I can do these off-the-wall ambient records, and people might enjoy it. [laughs] That’s amazing, and I feel quite lucky … yeah. I feel quite lucky in that respect.