Words by David C. Obenour
For over twenty-five years now, Sam Prekop has been experimenting in pop sounds and its outer fringes. Whether with the seminal band, The Sea and Cake or the inventive and warm explorations in synthesizers of his own albums, these releases have made up an impressive and evolving back catalogue.
For his latest solo record, Prekop has sourced from a number of recent home recordings to create new inspirations and bounds. Implementing an attention to beat-driven synth music, Comma sparsely and dreamily floats from genre to genre.
Born from improvisation, thoughtfully distilled, and then released back to the creativity from where it was born, in this way his music continues to evolve.
Off Shelf: How have you been holding up? Have you been based in Chicago throughout the pandemic?
Sam Prekop: I’ve been fine. I’m in a somewhat beneficial position in that I work at home, so my basic day to day hasn’t been significantly effected. Of course I worry about it and what’s to come! And the odd creepiness of it all has been a distraction.
Naturally my biggest concern has been for my kids, who just turned 12, they’re twins. They have been rolling with it all quite well, but definitely concerned regarding the schools reopening, and as this drags on, It’s a real shame, tragedy to be experiencing this when your’re 12!
OS: Have the ways that reality has changed since you wrote and recorded the music for Comma affected how you hear it now upon its release? The world and America particularly, feels like a much different place than we were just six months ago.
SP: To be honest I haven’t listened to the record much, since I finished it, which is often the case with me and finishing records! Once they’re done I move on pretty quickly. The problem I have with listening to my own records is it’s nowhere near objective and inevitably what I end up focusing on/hearing is what bothers me about it. I trust there will be a situation where I’ll hear it and be quite pleased surprised by it, well hopefully!
OS: Can you talk about the genesis of Comma? I have to imagine you’re always exploring sounds and textures, but what started developing these into songs and then songs into an album?
SP: So yes, I have a home studio, with a lot of modular synthesizers / synthesizer etc., and spend quite a bit of time as you mention just exploring, experimenting. I keep a running recording of the material that feels more interesting or that just inspires me to push “record”. it ends up being quite a bit of material, after not that much time!
When going back through the recordings, which doesn’t happen that often, a natural selection of sorts occurs, most it doesn’t hold up some of it does, so I make a note of the more interesting material. I guess making a record is never too far back in of my mind, but really these explorations are untethered to thinking about making a record out of this stuff directly.
So when I felt I wanted to make a record this process feels like a lead up to that decision but most of it doesn’t make it onto the record but establishes a general direction, inspiration, state of the studio. So there were a couple of instances where some of these early experiments were expanded upon and focused into tracks on Comma. One example is “Approaching” which stood out in it’s early phase with an unusually coherent song like form, so this piece became and early jumping off point for the whole record.
I’m strong proponent of following the work, taking cues from the material as to where I should move next so in a sense “ approaching” set that initial direction. After this point the record came together fairly quickly especially as more pieces were complete my direction became more clear. However it’s quite a bit easier hanging out in that exploration phase.
OS: You worked with beat programming on Comma, what inspired you to explore that further this time? Was it gear, a song or musician or something else entirely?
SP: “Beats” is something I’ve always avoided with my synthesizer music, and planned on that being the case this time out as well. While writing and looking for material for this record I discovered that incorporating “drums” opened up possibilities not available otherwise, so I became interested in exploring what I like to think of as “utility” rhythms. Basic ideas of pulse and momentum. Also I was thinking about ideas with regards to “techno” how it’s a form of perhaps “utility” music in a sense. Made for specific purposes, which I found interesting and useful in my own work. Basically it was something new to deal with and pushed me in other ways, helped in breaking up some familiar habits I’ve fallen to over the years!
OS: The press release talks a good deal about your balance of preparation and improvisation, and composition and chance. Is that more of a consideration in the creation of a song or does that stay with you through recording and then into performance?
SP: In a sense everything is an improvisation to start, and incorporating elements of chance make the process richer. The “songwriting” happens as a tool to organize and cohere those “improvisations” adding another layer of expression. There are elements of chance and happenstance during this part of the process as well and this is partly due to using music editing software which is an important tool at this step in realizing the actual “piece” of music. The reality is that I don’t actual perform any of this or older material live. What I would have to set up technically to pull it off, would make the work pretty static and difficult getting it beyond just replaying the recordings, so realizing this my live shows in support of this music is on the spot improvisation with a “live synth patch” I’ve developed over the years from which the origins of many of the studio recording come from. So they are connected in that sense.
OS: How important – to you and to the audience – do you feel performances are to the music? Would you consider a live streamed event or performance?
SP: I love playing my modular live and definitely will playing for this new record. I’d be up for streaming but afraid it’s really hardly a replacement, so will just have to wait I guess.
OS: You said in an interview from some years ago that you would never be done looking for a way to express yourself musically. It’s been over two decades since the release of your first solo album and I was wondering, do you feel the same? What still excites you in your exploration?
SP: Yes, absolutely. I feel quite fortunate that I’m able to focus quite singularly on making music. I have no idea why the appeal seems to never diminish, part of it has to do with a restless energy I have, a never being fully content, so I’m perpetually compelled to get, or make something better.
OS: You’re in a very interesting position of having three separate creative outlets in your solo music, your music with The Sea and Cake, and then your work as a photographer. I’m assuming the followings for each of these might not always or even frequently overlap. Do you see them as three separate pursuits? Does it surprise you there isn’t more carryover between those that follow your work?
SP: Actually I’ve been surprised there is more carry over than I would have expected. I do recall a lot Sea and Cake fans were not exactly thrilled with my first electronic record, “Old Punch Card”, I think it was quite a shock at the time, but since then, I feel like most people that have kept up with my work are quite open to whatever I get up to. A couple of years ago I started posting photos on Instagram almost daily, this has been the primary outlet for my photography and has been really interesting to find out who it reaches. Quite a few Sea and Cake fans but plenty of people just interested in photography.
OS: Can you talk about the image you choose for the cover? Both the story of where and when you took it and why it spoke to you for Comma?
SP: The photo is from about five years ago in a small town not too far outside of Tokyo. Japan is definitely one of my favorite place to photograph, and this photo has stuck with me over the years as being very Japanese but not in an obvious way. Somehow a Japanese sensibility and aesthetic permeates this photo and it just resonates with me on that level. As an album cover I feel it works because it’s clear but mysterious. I like thinking about the photo as a “chance” situation captured just this one time, in a way I equate it with how I approach the modular.
OS: Has all of the time in quarantine led you to any new projects, experimentations or interests?
SP: John McEntire and I have a duo project where I play modular and he plays electronic drums. It’s an all improv project and we have recorded a handful of our shows, and have wanted to get a record together, but the pandemic has delayed our plans! We have done some work sending files back and forth which has been promising, but quite different from our original intention. But it has been good working on new material with a specific project in mind. I recently did a remix for the band Pia Fraus, which is not something I would normally do, but it was an excellent challenge. I doubt I would have taken it on outside of a lockdown situation!