Interview by Monte Holman
About five years after his inaugural solo release, Sam Prekop gives us the follow—up, Who’s Your New Professor (Thrill Jockey), an album that charms and puts a jazzy pop spin on post—rock. Prekop, formerly of Shrimp Boat and currently of the Sea and Cake, has a lot of critical acclaim to live up to. His self—titled first solo album was praised by just about everyone, and other projects he touches-his paintings and photos have received a lot of attention as well-turn to gold. But the pressure of this acclaim seems to have fueled Prekop rather than paralyzed him. Proof: Who’s Your New Professor is among his best work.
Simultaneously channeling the Sea and Cake’s fluidity while exploring subtler abrasiveness, Professor expands preexisting notions of Prekop’s songwriting. He surprises us with mini—movements that change forms effortlessly and manage to qualify as pop songs. The percussion on the album slices through catchy melodies like a Ginsu, so fine it’s practically unnoticeable. Prekop’s warm, graceful vocals finish the songs with a dollop of sophistication.
Before embarking on an extended early summer tour (see dates after the jump) to support his new solo album throughout Europe and the States, Sam was kind enough to speak with us about Chicago, the new album, and the Meat Puppets.
FREEwilliamsburg: You grew up in Chicago and are there still. How would you characterize Chicago right now? Is there a sense of community or competition, both?
I have to admit I feel somewhat out of the loop at this point. Of course I know a lot of people who are musicians and artists, and I don’t sense any intense competitive energy [laughs] coming from them. Now the bands that are starting up—it could be ferociously competitive—I have no idea. I’ve been here so long making music and art that I don’t pay an enormous amount of time to what else is going on. I mean I go and see shows, and I live right above Thrill Jockey, so I’m pretty knowledgeable of whatever is coming out on Thrill Jockey. That’s sort of my community. But Chicago’s really big, so there’s no way I could provide any grand scope on what’s really going on here.
FREEwilliamsburg: Do you think you’ll ever leave?
I could see someday leaving, I guess, but as long as I’m making music I’ll probably stay here because I need the system here to get things going, to play with other people that live here, the clubs, the label, all that stuff.
FREEwilliamsburg: Did you have everyone from the first solo album contribute to this one?
Pretty much, except Jim O’Rourke played on the first one and produced it-he was the only one missing.
FREEwilliamsburg: And John McEntire produced Who’s Your New Professor?
Yes, I mean ultimately, it was a collaborative effort, but in terms of the actual technical skills, that would be John.
FREEwilliamsburg: How much of a directive role do you play in the solo albums when it comes to the percussion and other instruments you aren’t necessarily playing?
It’s pretty much a band situation. I spend a lot of time writing the tunes and getting them up to a presentable form, or at least a form I think sounds like a song. Sometimes I’ll come in with not too much—a riff or something-but usually for the solo stuff I have it pretty well together. My aim usually is to get the others to do what they feel is right. We’ll all talk about each piece, what direction it should take. I’m just trying to get the best out of them. I don’t tell them what to do, and they’re all good enough to respond quite uniquely in the best possible way to whatever I put out there—I trust them on that.
In some instances after everyone adds their stuff, I sort of take free reign. Like the song “Dot Eye,” the first half actually had some drumming on it, and when it came down to mixing it, John and I decided the drums were not working on that part at all. And we didn’t call Chad and ask him [laughter] if it was ok to get rid of his parts. They trust me to do that.
That’s where it sort of splinters apart from the Sea and Cake-in that band, everybody’s got to stay around the entire time, whereas in this band everybody leaves and there’s just me to deal with it.
FREEwilliamsburg: You said you spent a lot more time building songs around melodies and lyrics for Who’s Your New Professor.
In the past I’ve always gotten the tunes sounding and feeling really complete without me thinking whatsoever about what the lyrics or vocals will do. In a way, my initial thoughts were that the singing part was by far the most challenging aspect, and as a result I’d always just blow off the vocals until I actually had to do them. So then in turn it was like I’d have to deal with perhaps overly elaborate arrangements and orchestrations before the vocals. I’ve gotten better at knowing how the vocals will function with the tune. And this time around I decided that it would probably be useful if I started singing along while I was developing the tunes from the ground up. That wasn’t the case on all of these tunes, but on a lot of them, the vocals and music arrived simultaneously and seemed to change the mechanics of the tune on a basic level. I don’t know if the end result is radically different, except that I think I wanted to make the vocals more clear and up front. So part of focusing on them earlier in the process helped.
FREEwilliamsburg: So you were happy with the turnout?
I was, but I’ll say I still went through a period where I actually had to write the words and nail it down.
That’s one place I’ve run into trouble before-it’s like we’re playing this part eight or nine times over and over again, way too many times for me to sing anything. So I got myself out of that problem this time, but I still blew off doing the vocals as long as I possibly could. I did find that technically and musically getting the vocals to work was easier because chord changes with the vocals made sense. But actually getting what I wanted, getting the best performances, was a pain in the ass as usual.
FREEwilliamsburg: I’ve read you do a lot of home recording. Is that where you put together sort of rough drafts for the solo albums?
I use home recordings as sort of jump—off points and present them to the band. Oftentimes I start thinking that, indeed, I might be able to salvage some of these things I’ve come up with because I’ve come up with a lot of stuff. But something distracts me or I get bored with it, so I have all these mountains of unfinished little directions that I never take past a certain useful point. I really hope someday I can get a whole record out of my home studio. There’s something to be said for collaborators, for sure, and that’s the way I’ve always worked.
FREEwilliamsburg: How do you decide who goes on tour with you?
This time around, it’s proved difficult to line everybody up. If I had my way, everybody on the record would be coming. The only person who’s not coming for the bulk of the tour is Rob Mazurek, who doesn’t play on every tune but is fairly integral to the live band. Compared to four or five years ago when I did the last solo record, whereas all those people were very available [laughs]-they weren’t doing anything else-times have changed. I’ve had a really hard time locking up the dates with Chad Taylor and Josh Abrams.
Actually in Europe, it’s just going to be Archer and I playing as a duo. Chad and Josh are playing in London, but then it’ll be just Archer and I as a duo, which we’ve done before. It’s actually nice, pretty different. We’ll be playing most of this new record as well as some older stuff.
FREEwilliamsburg: When it’s just you and Archer, do you take a drum machine?
We just go without. I’ve thought about using a drum machine, but it sort of defeats the advantages of just the two of us. There’s a whole other quality to it that’s pretty good, very “of the moment.” We’re playing the tunes, but in the duo situation, they’re sort of malleable in a sense. If we were to lock it down with a drum machine, it would get rid of that quality.
There’s one tune on the new record, “C + F,” that I assumed we weren’t going to be able to pull off as a duo because it seemingly depended on the beat and claps and coronet, but we’ve been working on another arrangement that highlights two guitars playing together. It’s different, but most of the tunes work pretty well.
FREEwilliamsburg: Your parents are both artists. What sorts of projects do they do?
My dad does everything, mainly painting, but over the years he’s done a lot of sculpture and photography. Right now he’s doing installation art in terms of making his entire house like an installation project, so it’s pretty wild. And my mom is an artist as well, more the fashion and design side of it.
FREEwilliamsburg: And your siblings?
I have two brothers. My youngest brother, who lives probably near you in Brooklyn, he’s a painter and musician as well, and my other brother makes furniture, designs it and stuff.
FREEwilliamsburg: Besides music, you also paint and take photos. Are you doing that right now as well as the solo project?
I’m not doing them right now because I haven’t really figured out how to make music and do paintings at the same time. What I end up doing is somewhat enforced by outside things, like I’ll agree to do a painting show at some point, so I’ll end up painting. Or I’ll decide to make a record, do that, and then go on tour. Right now, I’m preparing to go on tour, so that’s mainly what I’m doing.
My next painting show is in September in Davenport, IA, at this museum. I’ve been trying to paint in between things for that, but it’s proven to be slightly difficult. I’m going to be painting as much as possible after this tour. I think I need about ten paintings, and they all don’t have to be new, so I think I’ll be ok.
FREEwilliamsburg: What was the first concert you went to?
I don’t know if it was the first concert, but it was pretty early on. I saw the Meat Puppets play at this tiny bar, and I had their record, Up on the Sun, so it was right around that time. I don’t think I was 21 yet, but I was able to go somehow. It completely blew my mind that they were driving around in a van [laughs]. I figured if you have a record out, then that’s it. It’s all happening now. And that was my first glimpse of the reality of all this stuff. At that point, in a van, tiny bar, not many people there, and I was completely blown away. I was like “how can this be happening?” It was a great show-I totally loved it-and that record I think was definitely a big influence on me.
FREEwilliamsburg: What’s next after the Who’s Your New Professor tour?
Well I’ve got to make some paintings for this show in Davenport. I’m thinking about hopefully getting the Sea and Cake back in the studio in the fall. I’m also working on a book project, maybe. It’s going to be a book of paintings. That’s not totally solid yet, but hopefully it will happen.
Wed June 1 Burlington, VT — Club Metronome w/ James Yorkston
Thu June 2 Boston, MA — Middle East
Fri June 3 New York, NY — Mercury Lounge
Sat June 4 New York, NY — Mercury Lounge
Mon June 6 Philadelphia, PA — First Unitarian Church w/ James Yorkston
Tue June 7 Washington, DC — Black Cat w/ James Yorkston
Wed June 8 Charlottesville, VA — Satellite Ballroom
Thu June 9 Carrboro, NC — Carrboro Arts Center
Fri June 10 Atlanta, GA — Red Light Cafe