If there's one word Cake frontman John McCrea never wants to hear again, it's "quirky."
"That's a lazy adjective," he says wearily, phoning from a San Francisco soundcheck. "Those words don't really describe anything. All those words say is that it's NOT something. I think that's lazy journalism. Quirky? What does that really say? That it's not extreme modern rock? It also reminds me of someone trying to describe They Might Be Giants or something. Quirky seems like a really '80s word."
Of course anybody who's ever heard one of Cake's many hits the sardonically robotic "The Distance," a laconic cover of the disco classic "I Will Survive," the recent "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" knows the band's music is about as far from the garage as it gets. Maybe its the kitschy hornblowing (courtesy Vince DiFiore's drunken trumpet) that causes Cake to get lumped in with Barenaked Ladies and Ween. Still, as those familiar with the ensemble's catalog dutifully attest, for every over-the-top lunacy, there's a handful of brooding, bleak odes acting as counterbalance. After all, this is a group that once postulated that "friend is a four letter word" hardly the sentiment expected from shiny happy rock jesters.
"I think it's easy to think of us as falling into self-parody if you haven't listened to any of our albums," McCrea says. "If you just listen to the songs that they choose to play on the radio, I think it's probably pretty solid in your mind that there's a lot of self-parody going on. There's humor, but it's pretty sad humor. Right underneath the skin of the humor, there's some desperation.
"Focusing just on the humor of it DOES make us into a joke band; I never knew there was a joke. The quirkiness, or the idea that this is some sort of wacky thing, doesn't make sense to me; we're very serious about what we do. Just because it doesn't sound like big dumb rock, doesn't make it NOT serious. I think our music is really hate-filled in a lot of ways, maybe more so than the modern rock bands that tout their frustrations. There's a lot more in there because it's restrained."
Formed in Sacramento during the early '90s, Cake (McCrea, DiFiore, guitarist Greg Brown, bassist Victor Damiani and drummer Todd Roper) released its first album on indie label Capricorn Records in 1994. Though "Motorcade of Generosity" didn't exactly light the world on fire, it did well enough to make Cake a buzz band in underground circles. With songs like "I Bombed Korea" and "Pentagram" (perhaps the world's first square-dance number designed for satanic cult members), the debut was packed with plenty of fodder for music critics, who quickly took to the task of defining and pigeonholing the Cake sound. One College Music Journal wag pointed out the group's "happy-go-lucky ... good humored rock" and "wacky percussion," descriptions similar to those found in a majority of the band's early reviews.
"Oh God, there've been some good ones," McCrea laughs. "Somebody, when we first came out said, 'Sly Stone meets Hank Williams Sr. They drink beer and listen to AC/DC records backwards' or something like that. You know, some self-indulgent writer said that. I think that's not true. We've been compared to a lot of different people, but I don't know if any of them has really fit really well."
Though "Motorcade" contained all of the necessary Cake ingredients, it was the band's 1996 sophomore effort, "Fashion Nugget" that provided a recipe for mainstream success. Beginning with "The Distance," the quintet scored a number of hits off "Fashion," with disc jockeys even giving airplay to non-singles like "Frank Sinatra." "Nugget" sold 1.5 million copies and earned the group scores of new devotees, many of whom undoubtedly expected to see confetti-filled fun-fests when Cake came to town.
On the "Nugget" tour, the band staunchly refused to allow its shows to be transformed into the big-gestured wrestling rock that always goes over so well in arena settings. Instead of being the loudest, flashiest new kid on the modern rock block, Cake deliberately turned down the amps and microphones, forcing fans to shut up and listen instead of mooking out like morons. For McCrea and company, the issue went beyond the confines of the concert hall, extending into the realm of worldview.
"I see it as a practical issue and a philosophical issue," McCrea explains. "Practically speaking, the human ear cannot accommodate sound above a certain decibel level. You can't accurately figure out the sonic messages after a certain point, so it's just bombast. Maybe the bass feels good shaking the tissues in your body, but your ear can't really access the information.
"The philosophical angle is that is just seems like more American excess. It's not rebellion, it's just like 'Let's turn it up all the way. Let's turn up the shareholder profits, let's turn up consumption, let's drive a car that's as big as a house in India.' So for me, there's something more rebellious about a sound being small and turning the volume down there's something more subversive about less. In a culture like this, the idea of less is something that is fundamentally threatening. I think if we could intelligently turn the volume down as a nation, we could avoid a lot of problems."
Goat's head soup
Perhaps it was the success of "Nugget," or maybe just too many nights on tour, but 1997 proved to be a transitional period for Cake. Ensconced in a tiny California studio, the band members (Brown and Damiani were replaced by guitarist Xan McCurdy and bassist Gabe Nelson) toiled relentlessly on "Nugget's" follow-up, released in 1998 as "Prolonging the Magic." Though some listeners felt alienated by tracks like "Sheep go to Heaven," which joyfully poked fun at brain-dead consumers/fans, most of the "Magic" material was completed long before its release.
"We tend to record about 20 songs for every 10 we use," McCrea explains. "There's a lot of good songs that just don't get performed well in the studio that day. It's better to just wait until you get a really good performance of it. For us, that happens most of the time. That's why on our albums, we have a lot of songs that are old."
While "Magic" (fueled by the bone-dry hit single "Never There") was another platinum smash for Cake, the band was becoming dissatisfied with its relationship to Capricorn Records. The once-independent label had been chewed up and swallowed by the corporate mergers that shook the music industry in the late '90s, and Cake (a free-agent after "Magic") found itself increasingly at-odds with the new management. After a few months of slugging it out, the group joined the big-leagues, inking a major label deal with Columbia Records in the spring of 2000 and getting back to work.
"It was a pragmatic decision," McCrea says. "It made sense for us at the time. We signed to Capricorn Records, which was at the time we signed, an independent label. But I have no romanticism about independent labels; it's a business, and I have a lot of friends who have been ripped off by independent labels. I prefer to keep my idealism about my music career to the music itself. When people focus on whether this band is on this label or that label, a lot times they're forcing themselves to listen to substandard music. In other words, there's a criteria other than musical value.
"Within the context of reality right now, we were tempted to try to just sell our records over the Internet when our last contract ran out. But we thought to ourselves, 'If someone as huge as Prince sort of just disappeared doing this, I think we still need a larger mechanism by which to distribute our music.' It can be a really messed up system, but I want to spend less time worrying about business and more time worrying about music. And that's I guess how these labels stay alive: Musicians are focused on playing music, and that's certainly how they get taken advantage of."
When scribing the lyrics for Cake's Columbia Records debut, "Comfort Eagle," McCrea dug deeply into the past. Not his own of course, but the histories of other musicians, a subject that's fascinated the Cake frontman for a while. "I am an opera singer," he croons on "Eagle's" opening number, clearly a vocalist who enjoys donning a disguise or two from time to time.
"When somebody changes from somebody who wants to be a professional performer into somebody that actually does that for a living, their experiences change," McCrea says. "With Bob Seger, it was reflected in songs like ("Turn the Page"), where he describes what a drag it is to be on the road. And there's a whole host of songs that other artists have written about their experiences of no longer living in their mom's garage practicing with their friends. And it can become kind of clich, having all these musicians writing about being on the road.
"However, I was in the position of having actually had experiences around being on the road and about being a professional musician. So I think maybe some of the songs on this album are about the experience of the musician, but maybe not in this century. It was sort of my way of writing those kinds of songs, without actually writing those kinds of songs. It's sort of a comparison between somebody that wrote music a couple hundred years ago and somebody that writes music now. Maybe there's something that's similar about the opera singer. So that's the closest I think that I'm gonna come to writing my on-the-road-again song."
Right now, McCrea spends the better part of each day on the road, reluctantly crouched in a tour bus bunk bed, waiting to take the stage again. Not exactly the life of an opera singer, but not so bad either.
"It's a lot like being a truck driver," McCrea muses. "There's that search for food and that search for the necessities of life that any traveler has to experience. Most people can go on a family vacation for five days, and on the fifth day, they're really, really ready to come home. So if you can imagine multiplying that five-day vacation by two years, there's something of a grind to it. There's something to be said for performing live music, unfortunately that means moving people and equipment through space. That's just the law of physics, I suppose. I don't really care for sleeping in a bunk that's the size of a coffin on a windy night when the bus is veering off the road, and then you have to be energetic onstage. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't in all honesty. Sometimes I just don't feel like I can. There's a lot of stuff that I guess I shouldn't tell people about. I should preserve the dream."
To keep from burning out, Cake (including new drummer Pete McNeal) has done away with a good deal of hackneyed rock-concert traditions. Rather than meticulously plotting out shows for maximum visual and emotional impact, the group members avoid setlists, improvising their way through every show, deciding songs on-the-spot and making it up as they go along.
"There is a lot more honesty to the way we do it than sticking to a setlist, where probably 75 percent of the songs weren't the songs that you really felt like playing, but you had to play them because they were on the list," McCrea says. "For that reason, I would say there's less artifice in our show, amazingly enough, than a lot of bands ... We've been on tour for a while, so I may seem a little bit ragged around the edges. That doesn't really matter onstage. I think I can be worn out onstage. It's not like we're trying to be modern rock, we're more from a different tradition of music. It's more scruffy than Creed or something."