Sam Prekop: Interview
“I feel like it’s been a long time coming for me, to really shake something up.”

Sam Prekop has thrown out his beats.

Holed up in his home studio, a few rooms away from the goo-goo-ga-ga-cries from his newly arrived baby twins’ nursery and the soothing, or maybe spastic, flutter of birds from his abode’s built-in aviary, the singer/guitarist of Chicago’s sleek indie space-jazz propellers The Sea and Cake has finally finished a longstanding assignment from his “to-do” card via a head-swimming journey into a free, structure-defying form of “pretty purely electronic” music: Old Punch Card

Flares of this electronic penchant subtly bloomed amongst the still-yet guitar-dominant landscapes of past Sea and Cake albums, from 1997’s The Fawn to 2008’s Car Alarm, but never to this loose, untamable effect of spilling forth, almost entirely on analog modular synthesizers, with improvisational free will toward luminous and cerebral-sparking senses. This is Prekop’s third proper solo release (he’s personally painting the covers of the first couple-thousand copies) via S&C’s longtime home, Thrill Jockey.

Sam Prekop talked to Tiny Mix Tapes about what a trip it can be to “unlearn” preferred approaches or common techniques, his five patch-cord connected synth modules, and how all these mechanical/computery-sounding songs often resemble the bewitching beauty of the natural world.

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How’s it all going: your year, the Sea and Cake, music, art, life, all of that?

It’s going good. It’s going great, actually. I’ve just been painting a lot of covers for this solo record I’ve got coming out. Finally finished the last one today, actually, so I’m happy about that. I think we’ve got everything for the tour we’ve got coming up with Broken Social Scene that we’re doing; that’s going pretty well. [The Sea and Cake] are slightly rusty, but we’re shaking that rust off.

You’d mentioned S&C’s cover of Bowie’s “Sound & Vision” as planting the seeds for what would become Old Punch Card’s full-bore dive into this kind of electronic music, but, that being 5-ish years ago, I was wondering whether there were things during or about your most recent, Car Alarm — like those electronic interludes (“CMS Sequence”) or maybe something outside of music entirely — that led to the push to the punch card?

I’d been interested in this kind of music for a long time, but being able to actually pull it off has not been easy. I’d never quite planned on really making a record out of it. My first sort of dabbling with these kinds of things is a bunch of bonus tracks I did for Fawn, which woulda’ been, whatever, 10-12 years ago, and that’s my sort of first, rudimentary home-studio foray into the electronic. “Sound & Vision,” the intro to that piece, was something that I did at home and we re-contextualized it for that record; that was one of the few things that was leaked out of my studio.

Take us into that home studio. What’s laid out before you on your table? In your space? Is it all just you? How much is improv?

It was just me. A lot of it, in a sense, was improvised. I approached it like collecting field recordings except in my house, in my studio, for setting up strategies that would result in interesting sounds, kind of random, improvised sound generation. I’d record sounds and material and spend awhile just messing around, making these sounds then hearing bits and pieces that would stand out. When I started working on this stuff, I wasn’t sure where it was headed yet; I hadn’t yet pointed it towards completing an album. One thing is, I have twin babies right now, so that’s kept me at home quite a bit so, also part of the reason for this, this spending a whole lot of time at home, in my studio, this is sort of a Baby Record, I guess. But, um, I didn’t arrive at this dateless cut-and-paste thing until later; for years, I had always tried to deal with more of the straight electronic music, but was never totally satisfied. I threw out ideas of sort of constructing beat-based music and stuff like that; that was a big turning point, when I started to do away with them, for the regular song structure.

“I’m not looking to obliterate Sam Prekop-like-qualities.”

This was a very visual album for me. As I talk about it to my friends I often give it the preface, ‘But you can’t drive around to this…’

Right, heh, you’ll get in a wreck.

Heh, indeed. But, I see these episodes flaring. Mechanical characters coming to life and whirring around the soundscape for 30 seconds, or a minute. You, yourself, work in photography, and I’d wondered if that connected at all. Or if Nuno Canavarro, who did film scores and experimented extensively in electronic music, played any role. Is this a visual album for you?

I could see how that could happen, and I like that that’s happening for you. I couldn’t cite it as a very specific intention, but I understand what you’re saying and it’s sort of to my surprise as well that it holds up in that respect. I didn’t know what the record was until it was finished, and I was pleased to realize it’s more than the sum of its parts. The whole time I was making it, I was really worried. I was not very confident I knew what I was doing, and I was just forging ahead on some bizarre… I just had a fear that it wasn’t going to work out and hold together as real music. One concern was: Who am I, actually fooling with this? But, then, I decided it’s just like taking photographs and making paintings; it’s very connected to that process in terms of making thousands of decisions, one on top of the other, and what people end up hearing are five choices I’ve made, putting things in their process.

Can you talk more about the instruments and equipment involved?

Over the years, I’ve amassed a pretty large modular synthesizer kind of… thing. So it’s a bunch of separate modules that exist separately, but they wouldn’t work with the other ones; you have to use patch chords and all this stuff to get them to work. It’s like a regular synthesizer if you deconstructed it and then added a lot more to it, to configure it however you want. It’s sort of how synthesizers existed before they were made into keyboards, so it looks like laboratory equipment. So it’s pretty purely electronic, but then I will sample bits of it and then manipulate it further in the computer. But, for the most part, in real time — messing around with this analog, modular synthesizer.

“I decided it’s just like taking photographs and making paintings; it’s very connected to that process in terms of making thousands of decisions, one on top of the other, and what people end up hearing are five choices I’ve made, putting things in their process.”

When you say “messing around” and not being sure of where this album was gonna go, having gone through it, what have you learned, either about musical composition, yourself, or yourself as a songwriter?

I’m not sure. The biggest thing is that I was able to continually surprise myself, which is a challenge after having worked for so long, but it seems to be absolutely necessary at all stages of creating anything, actually. So I think it was just shock at the wealth of possibilities. I’d messed around with this stuff for years, but until I had decided to actually make a record with it, [that] was when things really started to happen. I’m not sure; I’m really still very close to it, sort of digesting what’s happened.

Same here. Now, the flow of the songs, like on “Tell Work,” it’s like a new song entirely starts up at the mid-way point. I would find myself, at least from my stereo, whistling back the melody to fuzzy, chilly synthesizer whirring, and I had this Close Encounters of the Third Kind sensation like I was talking to aliens or at least communicating with machines. What do you hear, what do you feel when you play it back?

A lot of the sounds are akin to a natural world in a bizarre way. I think it’s the nature of the instruments that it can be so of-its-own-power that it’s almost like dealing with nature and not so much machines, in a weird way. So, it’s like inherent sort of random and chaotic stuff that’s like dealing with trying to find patterns in a river. A lot of the accidental melodies, I can’t… some things I actually did play in response to what I was feeling, [so] I can’t say that it was all completely out of my hands.

A lot of the songs seem to come with their own noise manipulating, clattering introductions; the title track, for instance, and others seem to sort of explore the space with random noises, hums, buzzing, things like that, and then melodies settle in…

That sort of emerged on its own, and then I kind of embraced it, as a sort of thread or compositional theme throughout. I think it was a way to get through the work; like, okay — I’ve got that sort of in-hand, that song. It wasn’t necessarily a rule, but that seemed to be how it was working out for me. It would get me down the line into the next piece. I could work quite a while on one of them, like three weeks, and then just literally move onto the next one and then refer back to it.

“I threw out ideas of sort of constructing beat-based music and stuff like that; that was a big turning point, when I started to do away with them, for the regular song structure.”

I’ve seen album covers with blocks of lines sort of inching apart or undulating upward, like they’re breaking a pattern, and the last Sea and Cake record had these rows of straight lines strewn across its cover. Then I look at some of the geographical shapes dominating the work present in your photography book, Photographs, and wonder, with you getting away from song structures, is it a parallel to say this is a catharsis of breaking away, moving out, stretching away from a finiteness of frame?

I think so, yeah. I feel like it’s been a long time coming for me, to really shake something up. But, in retrospect, now, listening to this record, I’m somewhat confident that it still sounds like I probably made it. Which, I hope is the case — I’m not looking to obliterate Sam Prekop-like-qualities, but, it wasn’t a strategy, it’s just where I was at, at that time and what I could do and what I wanted to do.

What’s next for you and the Sea and Cake?

I think the Sea and Cake’s gonna make another record. That needs some retooling in my mind. We still have a great time playing and everything, obviously, but we’re constantly like, what, what can we do? Actually, the other day, I don’t know if this is good or bad, but we were rehearsing and we started playing stuff off The Biz and we were like, why are these songs so much better than our new songs? They’re so elemental, but, bizarre in a really curious way. I think it’s just really hard to unlearn stuff. So, I think we might have to wield a radically new palette to get us somewhere else, I’m not sure. But, we’re excited to play and make another record.