March 10, 2009

Kicking Out The Jams: An Interview with Archer Prewitt.

"The Bangtails was my first exciting foray into melody again; instead of just listening to it on records, I was creating it," says Archer Prewitt, lead guitarist of The Sea and Cake and singer/songwriter commanding a rather laconic solo career; it's about twenty after five in the afternoon, and I'm still sorting through questions, review mock-ups and biographical information, having literally rushed straight home from my day job in which I pose as a mild-mannered IT professional. Archer has been sick most of the week, and although he sounds rather knocked out during most of our interview, a spark of enthusiasm seems to leap from the artist within as important and genuinely interesting topics arise. "I heard them practicing in the sculpture studio at the art institute where I was going, and they sounded great, they sounded like The Jam, you know, they sounded like The Who and The Beatles and The Jam all mixed into one, and I thought 'Wow, this is great'. I marched in there and I said 'You guys are fantastic, when are you playin' out?"

We've only discussed some influential artists to Archer's solo work, and his marked inhibitions as a stage performer, though rightfully so, as someone who does not genuinely enjoy the spotlight; "I think the problem I have with playing solo is that on any given night on tour or even locally, I could be in a more vulnerable state than others; I think by and large I'm coming out of that vulnerability and I can sort of put on a brave face and get on stage. Otherwise, I think you can get in a sort of a dark place where you don't feel like your music's any good or that you should be on stage playing," he says, and you've got to give it to the guy; it takes guts and a burning passion for something beyond recognition, or fame or even money to do what he does - to bring yourself face-to-face with the devil, look him in the eye, and sing your heart out.

"When that band was slowly falling apart, Mike Sump looked me up and he said 'I need a bass player,' and I said, 'Well I've been messing around on bass,' and that's all it took," Archer recounts, speaking of his fortuitous enrollment in The Bangtails, which marked his introduction into the world of melodic pop music. He explains further of his early days as a musician, "I started with drums, and then I was doing backup singing, and then I started pretty early on with a hardcore punk band...so that was a lot of emotion, just beating the hell out of a drum set; then I slowly moved into pop and more experimental stuff. Eventually I started plunking around on guitar about twenty-one, and then I just slowly developed songs that I felt like I wanted to sing; it fell into The Coctails at that point."

I'm listening with intent as Archer explains further the progression from his role as bass player in The Bangtails to guitarist in The Coctails; "I'd add these sort of weird, melancholy tunes to this kind of...bubbly pop, and it was kind of an odd mix," he says, and I'm quick to agree. The Coctails put out nearly five full-length albums, and even the most blatant lo-fi rocker of the lot, being 1994's Peel, felt thoroughly estranged from one song to the next; Archer did indeed bring his sentimental guitar tunes to a mix of jangly, almost grungy garage rock, and the concoction amounted to a slightly pulpy pop experiment - pop that pulls out all the stops. He opines of this experience, "It pulled me out of the shadows in terms of where I felt like I belonged, with what I was doing, and it put me into a situation where I sort of had to think, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to just keep improving, keep writing a better song.'"

I shift the focus from songwriting back to performance, and ask him about his experience as guitarist of The Sea and Cake; I'm wondering whether he isn't more at home behind his black, Dano-style Jerry Jones guitar with that lonely, neglected microphone a comfortable distance in front of him. "I keep trying to get Sam [Prekop] in the middle of the stage, but he always prefers that off-center thing, and so I feel a little weird even though the spotlight isn't on me," to which I jest how center-stage he usually is because of this. "I know," he laughs, "I don't like it. I keep trying to change it, but [Sam] won't change; he's very superstitious about changing things. He's always painted on the same beat-up old chair even though it's painful to sit on, and he's always on that side of the stage - even from the first show we've ever done." Then again, why fix it if it ain't broke?

When asked a little more specifically about the inhibitions involved in solo performance, Archer offers his remedy; "I keep my eyes closed, and that helps," he says, rather matter-of-factly. "When there's a moment in a song that I feel like I can go on auto-pilot, I'll look out a little bit...but it's not a good idea," he chuckles. "I've had my moments of confidence."

There's a good number of those moments embedded in his first album on Thrill Jockey, 2002's Three. One wonders, even upon first listen, just how Archer manages to find such an effortless flow between the emotional, sentimental, flowery and all-out rocking moments. "I write a series of songs and think if they can all work together in a record; I definitely delete songs that aren't going to work and, with the help of the band, omit songs that don't flow or mesh. I also feel that I don't want to create a sleeper of a record; I have a fairly laconic voice and I think there's an inclination now to avoid stretching things out too much and to have moments of excitement in a record. I feel like some songs I purposefully inject some heavier moments, if the song feels like it needs it." Three is also very much a memento of love's power and beauty, embodied within that special someone; "That was just being in love with the woman I ended up marrying," he explains of Three's lightheartedness, "and also sort of putting away past romances that didn't work out and closing the door on those things. So it was both very positive and sunny, but it had its moments of reflection."

Three
was perfectly contrasted by 2005's Wilderness, with its stark and tortured subject matter. "I was picking from some really old tunes that I'd never written lyrics to; there were some darker, stark musical periods that I'd gone through that I had documented lots of music but no lyrics. After my father passed away, all of a sudden lyrics would come more freely, and I was aware that these songs could possibly work now. I was digging up some ancient, ancient material for that, and writing new stuff too. 'Oh Lord' was probably over ten years old, as well as 'O, Ky'," he says of some of the more intimate songs off the record.

I'm finally asking him the question I love torturing everybody with: "Could you supply your top ten list at this time?" We'll save the list for our Kitty Digs, however, and ask a more pertinent question instead: Will there be a sneak preview of any new material at March 27th's Empty Bottle show? "Yeah, there's some new material I'm trying to finish for presentation to the band; I've been working on some newer songs that we may or may not be able to work up to their full potential, or at least a presentable one. That said, there's like three songs that are newish, if we don't get the brand new songs done; they've only been played a handful of times live and only maybe once locally."

Archer Prewitt will be performing near Chicago's Wicker Park at the Empty Bottle on March 27th. Doors $10/10pm. Come enjoy an evening of Archer's unique and elegant pop folk. More information about Archer and the show can be found at thrilljockey.com. Thank you kindly to Archer Prewitt and Paco Barba at Thrill Jockey records.
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