originally appeared in Hyperactive Music Magazine, Number 2, Jan/Feb 2005
Choose your words carefully when cutting into this Cake. Since its inception in 1992, Cake has provided something of an ongoing vocabulary lesson for rock journalists. Defined as much by frontman John McCrea’s precise lyrics as by the many imprecise attempts to categorize their sound, this California quartet challenges its audience with each new release. It’s complex music evoking complex reactions.
Having been labeled everything from smug and sardonic to witty and playful, McCrea takes an unassuming perspective. Of the band’s elusive sound, he said simply, “I think what we do is really normal–just popular music–it’s using tools from different genres, and the whole point is that it’s resourceful.”
That resourcefulness has earned Cake a loyal following and garnered more than a few clumsy attempts to box them in, all of which McCrea gleefully shoots down. “I hate the word ‘quirky.’ I think it’s a lazy way of saying that maybe it’s not the usual American rock fatass wideload sort of bullshit. I have to be ‘quirky’ because it’s not thick-neck, overly forceful, American rock?”
Figuratively rolling their eyes at the usual American rock is something you might expect Cake to do, and a band that thumbs its nose at the establishment shouldn’t get radio play, right? Oddly enough, Cake has (justifiably) made it into the “token good song” category on many pop radio stations. “There’s some good stuff that is being played on the radio as sort of a token thing–a sort of, ‘Look, we play good music’–and that’s great, but there’s not room for very many of those [songs] at any one point,” McCrea observed.
Ever eager to support good music, McCrea cites some of the not-on-the-radio bands they’ve invited on their tours. Portland band The Decemberists, and Heiruspecs, a hip-hop group from Minneapolis, both made the cut to support Cake on recent tours. “There’s a lot of good stuff [out there] right now,” McCrea assured us.
Currently touring the US and Europe in support of Pressure Chief, their fifth album, the realities of life on the road are facing the band again. “Touring,” commented McCrea, “you’re just trying to keep your head above water, to get through what is ultimately a fairly unnatural and somewhat harrowing experience.” But the singer takes a somewhat philosophical bent about the unpleasantries of tour buses and takeout: “It won’t last forever, so it’s a certain amount of sacrifice for the sake of live music. We’re a pretty good live band,” he said without any false modesty, “and it’s hard to keep a good group of musicians together very long.”
It certainly has been difficult to keep any version of Cake together for very long. Weathering a revolving-door lineup for years, the band has only recently managed to retain the same members for more than one record. Their newfound stability has allowed for some important developments. “We’re much more of a real band,” muses McCrea. “Now it’s actually a collection of people that are all being really creative. It’s really a powerful kind of setup.”
That creativity has extended to the technical aspects of the album as well. Pressure Chief is Cake’s first release recorded outside the traditional studio setup. McCrea described the freedom that came with recording on their own in a renovated house: “We’ve been wanting to do it for a long time, without outsiders watching, [without] engineers who really don’t have as much of an investment in the project. It was a better deal for us.”
Pressure Chief continues the Cake tradition of layering finely crafted melodies with carefully penned lyrics. The resulting songs satisfy McCrea’s penchant for “compositions, not gratuitous musicianship” as well as his comfortable appreciation for seeming contradiction. He enjoys highlighting with his music the many ways “profundity and garbage [fit] right next to each other.”
That’s a rare approach in pop music today, but this is not a band to play to the middle. “I can live with being called iconoclasitc,” McCrea explains. “I’m all for that, actually, because I think what is being broken down is our static sort of cultural shorthand.” He skewers acts of “leather-jacket-style rebellion,” like smashing a guitar onstage, and instead suggests an act of charity: “Now, giving a guitar away to an orphan onstage–get the strobe light going, bring up an orphan–that would be subversive.”
As you might expect, this is not a group aspiring to the musical glitterati of manufactured celebrity stars. Having already exposed pop culture with damning accuracy in songs like “How Do You Afford Your Rock’n'Roll Lifestyle?,” “Comfort Eagle,” and “No Phone,” Cake’s take on the consolidation of media ownership comes as no surprise. “You have very few people controlling massive amounts of cultural circulation, which is very frightening,” notes McCrea. “It’s an unwieldy mess.”
So what’s a genuine rebel to do? For McCrea, the answer is frustratingly subtle. “I don’t think it’s our job to change the whole thing,” he observes, and relates that he’s learned to live with the mess. “It took me a long time,” he admits, “but I read some interviews with other musicians and they just said the same thing: ‘Well, I wrote “Born in the USA” because I fucking hated America, but then it got used for the George Bush campaign theme song.’ So I think that sort of helped me understand it.”
In this business, some things you just have to let go, and others you just don’t try to grasp. Of Cake’s future, McCrea said, “I’m excited to see where we’re going, but I have no idea [where that will be]… our goal is not to have a goal, sonically. I think when the intellect starts trying to control what’s happening, things usually go wrong.”
Whatever it is that controls this band’s trajectory, good things just keep happening. Even though McCrea claims that “there’s been no giant explosion” in the band’s evolution, they’ve nevertheless detonated something in the world of pop music, and the sound is still reverberating.