“A lot of times, the culture of a record company conflicts with the culture of a band,” says John McCrea, singer, guitarist, and main songwriter with North Cali alt-rock band Cake. “The culture of a record company is corporate and much of it is depending on sort of vying for position and claiming credit for things that are successful. That seems to be the bulk of it. A lot of it is not based on production of useful product. There’s a lot of investment in career, so to speak.”
Fiercely independent and musically dextrous, Cake’s 15-year career bounced casually from small-time bar band to college radio and 120 Minutes critic’s darlings to major label act and back. Their sound worked off a weird blend of styles and genres — from the tinny Buckaroo “Bakersfield” country sound and L.A.-born ’70s disco ballads to soft-rock grooves and the punk-inspired stuff of the ’80s and ’90s.
McCrea first started playing rock music around California in the 1980s — from his native Sacramento to San Fran and L.A. and back. After a brief stint in London, he returned to the state’s capitol city and formed the first version of Cake around 1990.
In 1994, they released indie debut Motorcade of Generosity and then signed with the Capricorn label by the end of the year. “How Do You Afford Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle?” became their first college radio hit. In 1996, Capricorn released the band’s second album, Fashion Nugget. The hard-driving, riffy tune “The Distance” helped propel the album to great success. 1998’s Prolonging the Magic (recorded with used a tag-team of guitarists) featured “Never There” and “Sheep Go to Heaven.”
In 2000, Cake signed with Columbia and assembled the 2001 collection Comfort Eagle. The MTV clip for song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” — replete with “man-on-the-street” reviews of the song from random pedestrians — was one of the funniest of the year.
“On the positive side, if you have success before the label gets a hold of you, they’re going to change the formula on you … they’re not going to mess with your feet as you’re diving off the high-dive, you know?” McCrea says. “That happens to a lot of bands who might have a sound or a cultural stance that makes a lot of sense, and then it’s tinkered with and in such, becomes less believable and authentic. And people can smell bullshit. I think there’s a geometry to things that are authentic, but if you play with it too much, it becomes less balanced.”
How do the frontman and his bandmates avoid the distractions of their own industry?
“That’s the challenge,” McCrea deadpans. “As this whole industry gets so desiccated and flushed down the toilet, and then maybe reinvented, or maybe not … the challenge is to be flexible about your working habits. Sort of like the Medieval traveling minstrel musician had to remain flexible abut the fact that he wasn’t coming home for 10 years.”
In what became a healthy habit, Cake regularly poked fun at the music biz/rock star game, pulling the air out of the silliness behind much of what propels the music industry. It’s a consistent theme with the band’s entire catalog.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a ‘joke band,’ per se,” says the lead singer. “We don’t have music that we feel would be ruined by having elements of humor. In other words, we think that the inclusion of a sort of lampooning of rock ‘n’ roll ape dream, so to speak. In some ways, by not being able to engage in that ape dream, we don’t get to live that sort of striving, veins-bulging-from-the-neck thrill, because we don’t believe in it. But we get to have a bunch of disillusionment about it. It’s more sustainable.”
Cake released their most recent studio album, Pressure Chief (Columbia), in 2004 and stayed busy touring the States and Europe over the last two years. They already have a collection of studio out-takes packaged and ready for “limited release” this spring titled B-Sides and Rarities (available at shows and online).
A new studio album using a rotation of drummers is already in the works at the band’s home studio in Sacramento. According to McCrea, who normally designs the band’s “non-art” cover art work, each cover will be a different color with actual “scratch ‘n’ sniff” patches that match. A live album recorded at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace venue in Bakersfield is due in the fall.
The current lineup features four original members — McCrea, Vincent di Fiore (trumpet), Gabriel Nelson (bass), and Xan McCurdy (guitar) — with newly-inducted guest drummer Tom Sweetwater, who recently stepped in for longtime skinsman Todd Roper.
“The only variable right now is the drummer. We’re experimenting with different drum situations. One challenge with our music is that we go from a country gallop to a ’70s funk or disco beat to a conventional rock beat within three or four songs, so it requires a drummer to lean back and lean forward and sit in the middle. We require flexibility.
“We’re not stylistically good enough to ape some of the other popular rock bands out there,” he adds. “We’re good in different ways, but our area of expertise has never been a mercurial, shape-shifting band.”
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