I don’t remember exactly when, but sometime in the mid-aughts, I fell in love with The Sea and Cake. And, as the summer of 2022 now officially drifts into fall and I ritualistically put The Biz on my turntable, I am reminded of a peculiar story that refuses to leave my subconscious. This description gets loosely thrown around all the time, but I truly believe that TSAC is a band that you either love obsessively, or listen to only very, very casually. I would argue that there is no in-between, as detractors are quick to dismiss their jazz pop, bossa nova (occasionally drifting into ambient) trappings as mere pleasant, background muzak. The one caveat to this rule is that their music is, admittedly, one that tends to lend itself to seasonal autumn and springtime listening. And even though I think Oui, The Biz and One Bedroom are all terrific records front to back, they are a rare exception in one regard. I would probably recommend a newcomer instead try a curated compilation of their best material.
Intertwined with the music is also a unique, identifiable visual component to their records, an element fueled by the fact that every member of the band seems to also dabble in the visual arts. A lot of the album covers include Sam Prekop’s 35mm photography and paintings, plus abundant use of liminal white space. Eric Claridge is also a painter, and multi-instrumentalist Archer Prewitt had a second career as a cartoonist in the underground comix world, known for his cult publication Sof’ Boy. One of the band’s early t-shirts featured a Claridge drawing of a squirrel holding a can opener, completely void of context. The cartoon elements seemed a sharp contrast from Prekop’s abstract work, and somehow, it all just worked and was a perfect counterpart to the music.
The unique, somewhat polarizing nature of the band’s sound meant that as a teenager, I didn’t really have any other friends who listened to them. My best friend at the time actually gave me a slightly water damaged copy of the Nassau album for free because they bought it on a whim and weren’t into it. TSAC was not really music that was typically embraced by the counterculture zeitgeist in my age demographic, who were obsessively discovering buzz bands of the burgeoning indie rock movement, or placated in punk/hardcore circles. It was sort of like the sixties psychedelic records that I also obsessed over at that time. That was still considered uncool, hippie nonsense to a lot of my peers who were fully immersed in that punk ethos, or only seeking out what was perpetually brand new. Like those sixties records, I relied on the internet (and alternative print magazines) to know that there was a fanbase out there for the infectious Sea and Cake rhythms.
When I visited Chicago in the spring of 2006, it was my first time visiting a major city of that magnitude. We stayed at my friend’s brother’s apartment in the heart of Wicker Park, right around the corner from the Smoke Daddy restaurant. That weekend, we took in the full local experience, taking the ‘L’ train all around the city (my first exposure to broad scale public transportation), walking along the shore of Lake Michigan, and seeing free gallery shows near Millennium Park. I remember that the first time I had a store check and hold my bag was when I went into Myopic Books casually touting my empty backpack. Big city and the threat of theft! A bookstore store cat lounging around! It was all so formative as a young teenager from a rural Midwestern town outside of Cincinnati. During all of the miles of walking, I was mostly listening to Oui on my headphones, where even the understated, instrumental tracks seemed to provide a perceived appropriate Chicago soundtrack.
During that era, I mostly associated Chicago music with The Sea and Cake and Tortoise (the two groups shared drummer John McEntire). There was also Jim O’Rourke and the never ending branches that spawned off of his various projects, and other things coming from the Thrill Jockey label (who, since 1994, has put out every single TSAC release to date). I was already a huge Wilco fan at that time, but this was post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and it was hard to think of their royal alternative status with any sort of local regionality. My next visit to Chicago was two years later for the Lollapalooza festival, in which they headlined while dressed in Sgt. Pepper uniforms. Nonetheless, this seemingly tight knit Chicago scene kept coming up in strange places. For example, the soundtrack of the 1998 John Hughes comedy Reach the Rock. Or O’Rourke and McEntire showing up on a strange Japanese Beach Boys cover record I found, titled Smiling Pets.
Fast forward to 2012: The Sea and Cake were finally coming through Cincinnati on tour. Though it was only six years after my trip to Chicago, I was now 22 and four years into college. The differences between then and being 16 felt like a lifetime. I had also recently passed on my love for TSAC to my girlfriend (now wife), due to our shared obsession with Oui‘s blissful opening track, “Afternoon Speaker”. It was the first year that we had started dating, and she was equally stoked for the show. Though I was ecstatic to see one of my longtime favorite bands, the first red flag is that I had never heard of the venue they were playing. It was the new “Ballroom” of the historic Taft Theatre downtown, which was essentially a makeshift smaller space that had been created in the basement. The second was that the show was on October 27, the weekend on the eve of Halloween.
We got to the venue, which is located in a pretty desolate area of downtown. The “business district” where it is located is completely dead on weekends (away from all of the urban nightlife hubs hosting Halloween-themed parties that evening). After walking in, I immediately saw John McEntire getting a drink at the bar. This was because the rest of the bar area and merch stand was completely vacant. We then walked down to the basement, which appeared like an empty reception hall with a slightly elevated stage and panel lights above it. The place was empty. By “empty”, I mean that there were less than 25 people inhabiting the 500-capacity floor. By the time the concert started, we sort of awkwardly leaned against the wall on the side, not sure what was most appropriate. There was a small pocket of folks, maybe ten, who stood right center in front of the stage. Elsewhere, about two or three other small groups of people were hanging out by the soundboard in the back. This was a vacant space.
The vibe didn’t get any better when the opener, Matthew Friedberger, performed. Friedbeger and his sister Eleanor were the experimental indie duo The Fiery Furnaces, and during this time he had launched a short-lived solo career on Thrill Jockey. I would describe the set as a one man band comedy routine disguised as performance art, in which he would move around the stage with a microphone telling a story while stopping to improvise at various instruments. There was no climax, and the set just meandered and meandered and was irredeemably terrible (only magnified by the empty room). The handful of us there had no choice but to, unfortunately, actively engage in it.
The Sea and Cake took the stage shortly after, and ran through their set (including an encore) without ever seeming to acknowledge the lack of audience. It was still early in the tour, did they treat the opportunity like a bona fide band practice? Given their fairly stoic stage presence in general, did the lack of crowd energy even matter? You certainly couldn’t tell as Archer Prewitt plucked away, and Sam Prekop sang the songs with poster board-sized lyric sheets taped to his amp. This was the first tour that bassist Claridge was replaced by Tortoise’s Doug McCombs (a move that would be permanent moving forward). They were an incredibly tight live unit, as anticipated. The band was touring their album Runner at the time, and the set was almost entirely those new songs. Very few classic TSAC songs were played that night, but one highlight was “Parasol”. In fact, it prompted Prekop’s only bit of stage banter. One of the few guys front center had yelled out to request the song right before the band played it. “That never fucking happens,” Prekop quipped back.
I left the show with mixed feelings, unabashedly confused about the unusually empty room. My girlfriend got tired of hearing me rant and pontificate on it, I’m sure. It was a tiny turnout for an indie show, who cares? I immediately thought that people wouldn’t believe me when I attempted to describe exactly how tiny the crowd was. Everyone has stories of going to shows with minuscule turnouts. But not like this. Worse, I had a terrible cell phone at the time and didn’t even bother to attempt taking photos to document it. But the question was why? It simply couldn’t be a lack of interest in the band. Sure, they were niche, but a regular name in indie rock for the past twenty years. Their reputation alone should have brought out more people than the amount who showed up, even if just from local press and record store employees. Was it the proximity to Halloween and/or a lack of promotion on the venue’s part? It was undoubtedly a factor, but something still seemed off. Retrospective digging reveals that local alternative outlets like CityBeat promoted the show as part of their “featured events” that weekend.
A full decade later, the mystery of this empty Sea and Cake concert still haunts me. Over the years, I have brought up my memories of the gig to friends or fellow folks adjacent to the local music/arts scene. I wanted, desperately, to find one of those other 25 or so people who were at the show to reminisce, and also to make sure I remembered the extremes of the empty floor as accurately as I did. Had I gone alone, I might have convinced myself that this was all a strange hallucination. I have yet to come across anyone else who was there. The archives of the internet, however, have brought exactly two anecdotes about the show. It is documented on setlist.fm, a user-edited website that archives setlists. However, the list isn’t entirely accurate, as it is missing the aforementioned “Parasol” performance. Then, I found someone’s Rate Your Music (RYM) profile in which they write mini-reviews of shows they have attended. This user wrote a blurb about the four times they have seen TSAC, culminating with the Taft show. They describe the crowd as “sparse”, and as such, lacking energy.
Ultimately, what insignificant information am I even searching for? There is nothing new to discover or document. It is merely curiosity over speculating why the turnout was what it was. Perhaps it is the longing to have a conversation with another concertgoer, simply to reminisce about the absurdity of the concert as a shared experience, one TSAC fan to another. It has been nearly five years since the prolific Sea and Cake has released new music, though the band members (minus Claridge) still play together live and on synthesizer-based solo/duo recordings. There is little doubt that another great record will pop up before long. Just like revisiting the catalog at the beginning of autumn, I will undoubtedly enjoy the music, while simultaneously thinking back to the mystery on the eve of Halloween, 2012.
Mark Neeley is a Cincinnati-based journalist and visual artist. A contributing writer for Aquarium Drunkard, his written work has also been featured in publications like Shindig! Magazine and Hobart Pulp. Working at the cross section of sound and vision, his analogue animation work includes multiple music videos and personal short film Fragments (screened at multiple international film festivals). IG: @markaneeley Website: www.markneeley.com