Of the various and sundry labels and genres that populate the modern music scene, some are mostly meaningless (alternative rock and its little brother emo), some are pompous (intelligent dance music) and some seem almost paradoxical (slowcore). But no label is as loaded with meaninglessness, pompousness and paradox as the term "post-rock."
What is post-rock? It's rock that doesn't, well, rock (paradox). It's music that transcends the boundaries of corporately imposed musical uniformity (pompous). It's any band with a bass player that doesn't have a saxophonist and doesn't always play in 4/4 time (meaningless). From Wire to Slint to Tortoise to Mouse on Mars, post-rock is the kind of music that doesn't get piped in at Target.
So how is it that the Sea and Cake, a veritable post-rock supergroup, generates so many comparisons to Steely Dan? The group has all the trappings of post-rock: an impeccable Chicago pedigree (singer/guitarist Sam Prekop and bassist Eric Claridge were in Shrimp Boat, guitarist Archer Prewitt was in the Coctails and drummer John McEntire is in the legendary post-rock outfit Tortoise). They experiment with soundscapes that just barely follow basic song structures, and they use their keyboards for more than just melody. So does the label fit or not?
"'Post-rock' really never bothered me," says Prekop. "It's such an open-ended term. Sure, it's got some connotations. We're used to that. But I feel like the Sea and Cake kind of skirted the boundaries. It let us be whatever we wanted."
So labels don't matter? "Now, 'lounge,'" he replies, "that's a term I have a problem with."
Unfortunately, the term is apt. "Post-rock meets lounge music" is a perfect way to describe the Sea and Cake's sound, or at least it would be if it hadn't been for the lounge revival of the '90s. But because we all remember the sticky cocktails, campy clothes and horrible music of the swing/lounge scene (Prewitt's Coctails being a rare exception), it does seem insulting to use the term to describe the soft, rolling sound of the Sea and Cake. Although the band's sound sometimes recalls elements of everything from Martin Denny to smooth jazz, there's nothing about the Sea and Cake that brings to mind smoking jackets or pencil-thin mustaches and pomade. It may be mellow, but don't call it Computer Age bachelor-pad music. Think of it more as music for the chill-out room at a math-rock show.
"Four Corners," the opener of the Sea and Cake's sixth and most recent album, One Bedroom, is a perfect example. The gentle propulsion of what has been called the tidiest rhythm section in indie rock almost slides beneath your radar, and washes of keyboard slide back and forth, building slightly but never breaking the surface. Just as you've slipped into instrumental mode and moved the song to your subconscious, Prekop's voice brings you back. It's not jarring -- nothing as smooth as Prekop's voice could jar you -- but it does bring you back to the song to marvel at its mellow progression.
"It kind of bothers me when somebody says we're overly smoothed out," says Prekop. "Even though, we're guilty as charged."
The Sea and Cake (so named after McEntire misheard the title of the Gastr Del Sol song "The 'C' in Cake") formed in 1993, coming together in the key-party member-swapping explosion of the Chicago scene. Intended as a one-shot record, the group's 1994 eponymous debut was a sharp contrast to the hypnotic droning of Tortoise or even the melodic but noisy Stereolab.
"We didn't come together to have a sound," says Prekop. "We just came together. There never were any designs, any plans."
Prekop modestly insists that he's incapable of forming an overarching musical scheme: "I don't know what I'm doing with singing and playing the guitar, so I couldn't really have a plan. There never was an assortment of agreements."
Planned or not, the Sea and Cake had stumbled onto a shining thread of pop gorgeousness in the sometimes dour Chicago scene, and it led them to release two more albums before the end of 1995. But it was their 1997 release The Fawn that started to make critics outside Chicago sit up and listen. Of course, that meant it was time to go on hiatus.
The three-year break that followed was filled with side projects and solo albums (including a string of absolutely stellar orchestral pop albums from Prewitt). There were also paintings and illustrations from Prewitt, Claridge and Prekop, lots of production work from McEntire and, eventually, the creation of the Sea and Cake's best album to date, 2000's Oui (a title that once got them written up in the porn magazine of the same name). That album's follow-up is being released just now, three years later, which suggests that the Sea and Cake, so prolific in the early days, is losing a bit of steam.
Prewitt, in a recent interview with Lazy-I, disagrees. "It doesn't seem like that big of a gap to us," he's quoted as saying. "We had just finished a half-year-long tour for our last CD when I went into the studio for my solo record, and then we started the sessions for One Bedroom. I haven't had any downtime."
The constant work has also caused the band to get some distance from the scene that spawned them. "I need to find out what's going on in Chicago," Prekop admits. "The scene isn't as cohesive as it once was. I just haven't had the time to reassess it." He agrees that the scene, infamous for its tightness and uniformity (of members, if not sound), is probably heading in a new direction: "It's still evolving. And that's a good thing."
With a sound as mellow as the Sea and Cake's and the band members' tendency to perform live while seated, it's a logical fear that the prevailing mood at a Sea and Cake show would be silent indie hipness. But Prekop dispels the assumption: "The audience is pretty much over the top -- vocal and expressive. Maybe we've just been lucky to get good crowds, but the audience isn't there to just be there. It helps to play the old songs, the ones people know. So that's what we do."
Not that the Sea and Cake is already embarking on a greatest-hits tour. "We're playing lots of new stuff, too," Prekop says. "Our shows reflect our sound -- maybe a little more upfront. More like a rock band. It's a good time. It's not a lot of arms folded and head nodding."