The Sea and Cake

For almost 14 years, The Sea and Cake have been beloved staples of the Chicago scene, seamlessly weaving together rock, pop, and jazz to create a sound that has rarely been duplicated. So when vocalist/guitarist Sam Prekop states that “We wanted to change it up” for Everybody, their seventh full length, the cliché “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind.
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Existing as a self-sufficient band, with drummer John McEntire producing almost all songs since their inception, few people would see the need to bring anyone else into the mix. But this kind of change highlights the band’s refusal to stagnate. “We thought it’d be good for us to have that fifth member come in,” Prekop says in the laidback style that’s his vocal trademark. McEntire agrees completely, enjoying his role shift. “It was a big plus to not have to focus on the little details, and just play drums.”

While such a drastic change might have been problematic, hiring legendary producer Brian Paulson, best known for recording Slint’s seminal Spiderland, among others, made the transition much smoother. “Archer [Prewitt, guitarist] had worked with him before, and he’s friends with John. He and John really respect each other, and their being friends is what made it work.” Adds McEntire, “It was really collaborative. We’re all cut from the same cloth.” Of course, there was still some difficulty shrugging off old habits. “I thought everything sounded great,” Sam acknowledges, “but I was somewhat caught off-guard because I’m so used to how John works. And there was definitely some one-upmanship between John and Brian. I think John was a little more reluctant to give up his position than I thought.”

Recording basic tracks at the Key Club, outside of Chicago, was also an attempt by the band to break tradition. “We wanted to leave Chicago; and I think the boot camp atmosphere, because there’s really nothing around there, made it easier to focus on the record.” For starters, McEntire and Paulson had to, Prekop jokes, “Haggle over the drum mics.” John details that they finally settled with “a [Audix] D6 inside my kick drum, because I play with a full resonance head, and a [Neumann] U47 out front a foot or so. We had a Sennheiser 441 on the snare and the toms, with dbx MC6s working them. With the overheads there was a mono AKG C-12, a large diaphragm condenser, and a Neumann M269.”

The setup for guitars was situated to enhance the live process the band enjoys using for recording. Prekop explains, “We would all play at the same time, and details were added later. We tried to use our pedals instead of recording chains to pull off a more faithful live recording.” McEntire describes the arrangement as simple, but effective: “It was a [Shure] SM57 and a Royer 121 together next to the speaker, and a [Neumann] U87 back about a foot.” As live tracks were the main focus at Key Club, its atypical board became a blessing in disguise, according to Prekop. “It’s this freaky ’70s board originally built for Sly and the Family Stone. It has a lot of idiosyncrasies and looks like it belongs in an RV. John and Brian were worried about its sonic potential, but in the end they became quite enamored with it.”

While the aim of the record was to produce a sound that elicits a more traditional feel, they still decided to use Pro Tools instead of tape, but with good reason. Prekop describes the decision as “It allows me to transfer the tracks to my home studio to work on vocals. I really appreciate being able to do that, and even though tape does sound better, when you’re putting the music on CDs and MP3s, those advantages are lost pretty quickly.”

After a week of basic tracking at Key Club, Paulson and the band traveled back to Chicago and Soma, McEntire’s well-established studio, for overdubs, vocals, and mixing. After a week at boot camp, Prekop admitted the familiar studio was appreciated. “I’m just so used to the feel of it. For vocals I was able to us an AKG C-12, which is an amazing mic, one of the best, and we ran it through a GML 8302.” As far as mixing, Paulson was given the freedom to take the songs in what he felt was the most appropriate decision. “We all want to be studio people,” Prekop admits, “and while I don’t know a lot about it technically, we all really like the atmosphere. I know that there’s a right and a wrong time to get in the way, so I let him go as far as he wanted, while I dutifully waited for the call.” McEntire didn’t have the luxury of waiting around, though, as he put his other edit room to good use. “I was in there during most of the mixing, cleaning up vocal tracks and getting the drum and bass edits tight. It worked out really great and saved a lot of time.”

While sitting down and listening to Everybody, one of The Sea And Cake’s crowning achievements, it’s hard to deny that their idea for change was a well-calculated move. The individuality of the recording, with its polished melodies and scattershot noise, reveals the talents of both the band and the producer. But there is also another important aspect of their “fifth member” dedication. “We lost a bunch of the mixes through the board at one point,” Prekop sighs. “We thought they were being saved, but something went wrong. We were strapped for time, added a day, and Brian just worked his ass off. But it really was for the best, because we were a lot happier with the songs.”