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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Chicago's fertile ground

Prekop, Prewitt tend postrock's garden

Special to The Japan Times

Traditionally, American musicians who want to reach the masses gravitate to Los Angeles or New York, where the big record labels and artist-management companies are headquartered. However, pop music tends to have a regional pedigree, and with the rise of truly independent labels in the 1980s musicians no longer had to relocate; or, if they did, they didn't have to relocate as far.

News photo
Archer Prewitt and Sam Prekop, members of The Sea and Cake, are touring Japan to promote their solo careers and briefly revive The Cocktails.

Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt have been making music professionally since the late 1980s, mostly in and around Chicago. As cohorts, they are mainly known as members of the art-rock quartet The Sea and Cake, but the nature of their music, not to mention the nature of the local music scene that has thrived in Chicago for the past 15 years, has allowed them to branch out into solo projects that are every bit as vital and every bit as remunerative.

"We do pretty well," Prekop says as he puts away a plate of spaghetti in a restaurant in Akasaka. "I haven't had to take another job for nine years. All my income has been from music."

The Sea and Cake's music is difficult to pin down and promote in any conventional way, so Prekop's admission is worth considering since it indicates that success is mostly a matter of expectations. When asked if the continuing success of the so-called Chicago underground has surprised him, Prekop expresses caution. "It's plateaued a bit," he says. "The audience isn't necessarily getting bigger."

Nevertheless, it's big enough to justify tours of Japan: five for Prekop and four for Prewitt. Both musicians were in town to promote solo records and play a series of club dates to support them -- first the Sam Prekop Band, in which Prewitt plays second guitar, and then the Archer Prewitt Band, which is touring with The Coctails, the legendary lounge-music group that Prewitt played with until the mid-'90s.

Both men record for the independent label Thrill Jockey, which was started in 1992 by Bettina Richards, a former Atlantic Records executive, out of her New York apartment. Thrill Jockey moved to Chicago in 1995 to take advantage of the city's lower overheads, and is now not only one of the most successful indie labels in the United States, but a bona fide Chicago institution since the bulk of its roster is from the area.

"There was a lot of various stuff coming out of Chicago in the early '90s," says Prekop, a barrel-chested, fair-haired native of the Windy City. "From Smashing Pumpkins to Liz Phair to Tortoise, and then there was the return of a kind of Cheap Trick pop sound." That sort of range, which had widespread rock appeal, but was still considered idiosyncratic, helped give Chicago a musical identity. "They defined Chicago in ways that the industrial sound of [alternative rock producer] Steve Albini or the local Wax Trax label didn't."

"In the '90s, there was a declaration that Chicago was the new center of music," adds Prewitt, who's lean, bespectacled and academic-looking. The physical contrast with his friend couldn't be more striking. By the time such a declaration was made, Prewitt himself was already a Chicago fixture, though he was raised in Kentucky and groomed as a musician in Kansas City, where he attended art school.

"After The Coctails formed [in the late '80s] we almost immediately felt restless. It seemed unhealthy for a band to stay in Kansas City for any long period of time if they had any kind of creative energy, but there was no desire to move to either coast, so we eventually moved as a group to Chicago. We liked the music scene there. I knew about Sam's band, Shrimp Boat, and I played a cassette for The Coctails and they liked it. If Shrimp Boat could make a living there, we felt that Chicago would be fertile ground for us."

Shrimp Boat is often cited as the group that heralded what would later be called "postrock," a genre-label made up to describe a style of music that in fact had no indentifiable style and which became associated with the Chicago underground in general and Thrill Jockey in particular. Shrimp Boat favored folksy, almost countryish melodies and applied them to jazzy rhythms and a warm Caribbean atmosphere. What made the group important, however, wasn't its iconoclasm, but its integrity -- the songs were organic things that didn't distinguish between pop lyricism and off-the-wall instrumental digressions.

When Prekop formed The Sea and Cake in 1994, he invited Prewitt to join as second guitarist. The band followed Shrimp Boat's lead in that it was mostly an outlet for Prekop's ideas. In fact, he doesn't separate his two solo albums from his S&C work, at least musically. "I like working in different contexts," he says. "The Sea and Cake fulfills whatever songwriting needs I have beyond just playing. The songs I wrote for my new solo album, "Who's Your New Professor?," could have ended up with The Sea and Cake, but they would have sounded different."

And since both men record for Thrill Jockey they get the benefit of the label's hip cachet, which they had a hand in developing. "There's a built-in audience that pays attention to whatever comes out on Thrill Jockey," Prekop says.

The label's roster runs from the minimalist mountain folk of Freakwater to the experimental jam band expansiveness of Tortoise, and in between embraces laptop electronica and even pure jazz. Prewitt's latest solo album, "Wilderness," his fourth for the label, is unabashed singer-songwriter pop in the melodic mold of Jimmy Webb.

"It's definitely more traditional," Prewitt agrees, though as far as tradition goes many music fans still associate him with his original group. "I didn't really want to," he says when asked why he reformed The Coctails. "We did three shows in Chicago, one of them opening for The Pixies. Apparently, The Pixies were big fans of The Coctails, and Mark Greenburg [a member of The Coctails] checked into it and they were happy to have us open for them when they played Chicago. Because of that we quickly restarted a project to get a box-set out, and we thought if we're going to do that we might as well do some local shows and call it a record release tour."

Prekop has no desire to put Shrimp Boat back together, even for a reunion: "The other members have asked me on several occasions if I would consider it, and I've said no."

"Actually, it's been more of a pleasure than I thought it would be," Prewitt says about The Coctails reunion, as if he were trying to give Prekop a hint. "Given the space, I've learned to appreciate some of the songs anew, either the energy or the writing of the simplicity of it all. It's been nice to come back to for a short period, but I can't imagine doing any more shows after Japan."

The Coctails/The Archer Prewitt Band: July 10, 8 p.m., Kyoto Club Metro, (075) 752-2787. Tickets are 5,000 yen.

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