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Where in the World Is Sam Prekop?

With a radical left turn of a solo album on the way, the Sea and Cake front man draws nine Xs on his musical map.

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Sam Prekop has been a fixture on the Chicago scene for two decades, as front man of Shrimp Boat and the Sea and Cake and more recently as a solo artist. His forthcoming album for Thrill Jockey, Old Punch Card, is a departure from everything he's done. There's no soft nimble pop, no breezy vocals, no jazzed-up Brazilian bits. There's no singing and no guitar licks—mostly it's just modular synthesizer and a couple odd digital gadgets, which produce flattened drones and bursts of tones and distant digital whirrings and crunchings. Old Punch Card keeps with the forever-mellow tone of his back catalog, but it's a much stranger and subtler sort of delight.

In light of this dramatic stylistic shift, I decided to plumb Prekop's musical state of mind by playing some songs for him without telling him what they were:

"The Silhouettes"

Sam Prekop, from Old Punch Card

I dunno what this is. [Laughs.] This song is one of the older pieces on the new record; when I would work on a track I would finish and not listen again, just keep going, blinders on. When I made this I wasn't even thinking "record," I was wasting ti—

spending time, wisely. [Laughs.] A lot of these things on the record were inspired by some new little piece of gear, and this one, the melody, is generated by an analog shift register, which is like a delay but different. The melody is improvised and the backing part is from an eight-bit sampler that is voltage controlled so it's very unpredictable.

You are notorious for wanting things to be perfect—how did you like working with something that's out of your control?

I used it a lot of the time as a texture enhancer. You can't predict or expect what's going to happen, and I wound up putting everything through it. I was super excited by how it came out.

"Rinky-Dink O.S. Type Rip" remix

Casey Rice, from the Sea and Cake's Two Gentlemen

Is this something else I wrote? [Laughs.] This is familiar. . . . OK, OK, is it a Sea and Cake remix?

It is.

Casey Rice did this. I am terrible with my own back catalog. It's a real problem; the Sea and Cake is rehearsing right now for tour and we're trying to introduce new old songs into the set and it all hinges on "Can Sam remember the tune or not?" I have not heard this song a lot. I really enjoy those fluttering hi-hats, though.

When this came out you were one of the first indie-rock bands to put out a remix album.

I know we were early on with the remixes. We felt at the time that we were doing some stuff people hadn't really tried yet. It was very new for us. I think John [McEntire] had just gotten a computer to record on. It was hard to do then. I was messing around at home with anything but guitars—I'd had it with guitars.

That was 1997 in a nutshell.

It felt like a real discovery, a whole new way of writing songs.

"Linger"

The Cranberries, from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?

I dunno. [Laughs.] This is pretty hot. What is it?

You'll figure it out when the singing starts. It's of historical importance to your career.

Oh man, the Cranberries! Awesome. [Laughs.] Yeah. Our first tour was with them. We had no idea who they were. This was before the Sea and Cake were on Thrill Jockey—we were on Rough Trade for about a year, and right before our first record came out they hooked us up with this tour, since Geoff Travis, who ran the label, was managing them. I don't even think it happened because he thought it was a good pairing; it just was an easy thing to make happen. It made no sense. It was ten shows in the U.S.—I remember the most surreal was in Virginia Beach, in an airplane hangar. At that point we were really young, but they were like teenagers—but they had huge rolling Anvil wardrobe cases . . . the whole deal. It was not good. We did it because we got to play Central Park; that's what made it fun.

"Janie Jones" The Clash, from The Clash

Sandinista! was a huge record for me. I lived in England for a year in high school in 1982.

Were you into punk?

I was open to it, I loved the Clash, but I also would listen to Joan Armatrading and Rod Stewart. Sandinista! got me interested in reggae and music that wasn't rock. The Harder They Come and the King Sunny Ade 80s records were big for me in the same way.

"Stratford-on-Guy"Liz Phair, from Exile in Guyville

OK. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville. I can't say I listened to the record a whole lot. Brad Wood, who was in Shrimp Boat, and Casey [Rice] both worked with her, so I knew her as an acquaintance.

She was someone who was drawing a lot of attention to Chicago when your bands were coming up.

I remember some of that attention rubbed off on us occasionally, which we were into. [Laughs.] I remember an article in Billboard lumped us all together, but [Shrimp Boat] and later the Sea and Cake, we were outside that scene. Later, with Tortoise and the whole post-rock thing, it was different.

"Cravo e Canela" Milton Nascimento, from Milton

Joyce? I know this. Caetano Veloso? No?

No.

Oh, Milton Nascimento. This was a big record for the Sea and Cake around Oui, attempting elaborate arrangements—which is back to haunt me now, how ambitious we were. This and the Lo Borges with the gym shoes on the cover. This record is his high-water mark; he did some more sort of fusion stuff, or worked with some fusion people, and some people can go there . . .

Can you go there on fusion?

No. No, I can't. Some people can . . . I stay away from fusion.

"Sleepy Time" Raymond Scott, from Soothing Sounds for Baby, Vol. 1

Raymond Scott.

You got that in three notes.

This song comes up in my iPod all the time. I love this record. It has the sound of invention—it's all he could do and it's the best thing that could happen with what he had. I heard it and really loved it. While I was working on the new record, I focused on listening to this kind of stuff.

"Oblique Parallax" Sun Ra, from Oblique Parallax

This is Sun Ra. He's one of the few people who uses the Rocksichord—this organ—so it's recognizable. A few years ago I went through a pretty big Sun Ra obsession, and this was before most of his catalog was readily available how it is now, and that was part of the fun—finding the record. I was in Philly once and found the bulk of my Sun Ra collection there, but I got into him from this Blast First compilation of his work about 15 years ago. I would recommend it to all people.

"Don't Stop the Music" Rihanna, from Good Girl Gone Bad

Beyonce? Kelis?

Nope. Close. Think younger.

Shakira? [Laughs.] I give up.

Rihanna. This song is my barometer to see how up on pop music you are.

I have been really busy lately. [Laughs.] Quite busy. Well, it sounds great.

Do you keep up on contemporary pop?

I read about it more than I listen to it.

Where?

The New York Times. [Laughs.] Like, I know about Justin Bieber. About him—though I can imagine what he sounds like. His haircut—it's a nice hairdo.   v

Care to comment? Find this Q&A at chicagoreader.com/music.

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