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Interview: John McCrea of CAKE

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I first heard of CAKE in college, circa 1998. I walked in my dorm room as my roommate was playing some music. It was unlike anything I'd heard before. It was an amalgam of jazz, blues, soul, rock, and pop. The amazing trumpet added a hearty helping of funk. The lyrics didn't make a lot of sense. I was especially attracted to the lead singer's distinct vocal style, who sounded like he was half-singing, half speaking the lyrics, but not quite in a Bob Dylan manner. It was more like the singer was mildly amused by the song and was going along with everyone else. For the rest of that year, that CD was in constant rotation at our dorm room, especially the song "Never There," which became one of CAKE's greatest hits.

Two albums, a few band member changes, several tours, and nine years later, CAKE is still going strong. The band continues to produce their unique style of music and bucking the pop music trend. While the band itself is still indie to the core, their music has reached a large audience over the years. Some of their songs have been featured in a number of popular TV shows and films, such as Friends, The Sopranos, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. In 2002, 2003, and 2006, CAKE established and headlined the Unlimited Sunshine Tour, a music festival featuring bands from a wide variety of music genres. Past festivals have included performers such as Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips, De La Soul, Cheap Trick, and country singer Charlie Louvin.

The band is currently on tour promoting their latest album, B-Sides and Rarities, which drops August 14, 2007. I had the opportunity to speak with CAKE frontman John McCrea over the phone last week. He was calling from the band's hometown of Sacramento, California. Naturally we discussed the album and the tour, but also engaged in a little political discussion as I inquired about whether the band's views influenced one of their cover songs. In addition, we talked about the concept of technological advances in music possibly affecting the public's affinity for albums.

Oh and by the way, feel free to laugh at me as I confuse "War Pigs" with "March of the Pigs". Rather embarrassing, that was.

Your upcoming album, B-sides and Rarities, is a compilation album, and in your press release you explain that it’s a collection of songs that didn’t quite fit past albums. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, you know we’re real sticklers about song sequencing and we really try to make albums, which is really frustrating because the album seems to be not something that people are that interested in anymore, but we really try to put together something that can be listened to all the way through and enjoyed. Sometimes it’s a tall order with a group of songs. On past records, we’ve always had to throw out songs that were perfectly good in and of themselves, but because they didn’t quite fit in thematically with an album, or viscerally with an album, we’ve had to save them for another album. Sometimes the songs end up on the next album and sometimes they don’t, and so these are songs taken from many, many songs that we thought fit together into an album. So we were sort of surprised how these songs fit together into an album. But again, no one really cares about albums anymore, so it’s our own self indulgent exercise, I guess.

Why do you say that people don’t care about albums anymore?

I’m generalizing but generally it’s true that people are more interested in acquiring as many songs for their shiny song holder as possible. It seems like there’s a frantic sort of acquisitional urge to [do so]. Rather than collect albums, more of collect songs and make the value of your shiny CD player – er, your shiny mp3 player – enhanced. Does that make sense? It just seems like a different culture now. And there’s plenty of exceptions, but I get the feeling that it’s a different culture.

I don’t know, I mean, I could be wrong. I’m sure I’m wrong. There’s probably thousands of people who are exceptions to that, but in my travels and in my conversations with people it seems more and more that the emphasis is being moved from physical – the value being placed on compact disc or any kind of physical representation of music – to being placed on the physical value of a music player that's just stuffed full of songs.

So basically you’re saying that, nowadays with the advent of mp3 players and whatnot and getting piecemeal songs – that tends to be more of the pattern nowadays, from your observation.

Yeah. It’s not a crazy or outlandish assertion, really.

In B-sides and Rarities, you cover songs from a very diverse group of musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Barry White, and Nine Inch Nails. How do you choose which songs to cover? Have there been songs you’ve wanted to do but weren’t allowed to?

Okay, first of all there’s no Nine Inch Nails' songs, I don’t think. Maybe that was a misprint or something. If anything, we’re sort of anti-genre in its tribal form. When that becomes more important than the song, we take issue. We’re not interested in musical fashion trends so much in that we’re interested in songs. There’s probably not a less fashionable collection of songs being released in August of this year than ours.

You mention that the album will not contain Nine Inch Nails songs, but I thought that "War Pigs" will be on there.

Oh. "War Pigs" is by Black Sabbath.

Oh okay, I'm sorry about that.

That's okay.

Because I thought that they had done this song previously.

Maybe they have. You know, a lot of people have done that song. It's a good song. You know, I heard a bluegrass version of that song that was really good, a long time ago.

Speaking of "War Pigs" in general, I went on your official website and I noticed that it talks a lot about news that's politically inclined. Is today’s political climate what inspired you to cover “War Pigs”?

It’s sad that we are gonna be involved in resource wars for the next 50-100 years and it’s sad that people will die in those wars. We haven’t really prepared for some of the changes that are occurring in the world and the only thing we’ve got is a big, strong military. What we really need to do is be creative and resourceful, but instead kids have to die, which is unfortunate.

So does covering "War Pigs" maybe have to do with that, or do you just enjoy the song for what it was?

Both. We wouldn’t play a song if we didn’t enjoy it. And that’s really the through line of this album. These are songs that we chose for no reason other than the fact that we wanted to play them, because we thought we’d enjoy playing them. In the case of "War Pigs", I guess that’s an exception. Maybe we felt that way and so we played it.

Basically it was like a direct political commentary.

Well I mean, it’s an indirect political commentary. I think that sometimes indirect political commentaries can be more effective. It brings up the issues. It really has a sort medieval sounding way; it’s an interesting song.

You have a studio album coming in early 2008. When you go in a recording studio, how much creative process goes in while recording? Does the album turn out pretty much the way you expected, very differently, or a little of both?

We go in usually with some overarching idea or theme, maybe a couple of different themes and usually we end up with something quite different. It’s an instinctual process. I think it’s a lot of people's opinions that the subconscious mind makes these kinds of decisions a lot better than the conscious mind. So we just sort of feel our way through the room, as it were. Sure, like everyone, we always have these ideas ahead of time, but I hope that we can continue to have the good sense to let go of all those ideas when we have to.

You guys are going on tour starting this week, right?

Yeah, we’re kind of touring sporadically as we work on the next album. We’re doing a show here and there.

Any cities you’re looking forward to the most? Any cities you want to visit but can’t this time around?

Yeah, that’s probably most cities. We’re really not visiting all that many cities this year, so yeah I can say that unfortunately we’re not able to go everywhere that we’d like to go. And I think we’ve got to hurry up and do some touring before oil is $200 a barrel. We should take advantage of the cheap gas while it lasts, I guess.

Would you be recording while on tour, or will you get right on it when you’re done?

We’ll take little breaks in between legs of the tour and record in our studio here in Sacramento, California.

Well, that's about it. That's all the questions I have for you today.

Thank you so much for your interest and time.

No problem, and thank you once again for speaking with me.

For more information about CAKE's tour, to pre-order B-Sides and Rarities, and a free download of "War Pigs", check out their official website.

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About Toni Schwartz

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2pgqfasrxM Dave

    “War Pigs” on YouTube.

  • RxChickPDX

    Very interesting and informative conversation you had with CAKE’s McCrea. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.noface4film.com/ Kaonashi

    Thanks very much RxChickPDX!

  • Chrissy

    He is such an intellectual speaker

  • John

    “War pigs” confused with “March of the Pigs”.. I can see how that happens, they are both great bands! (That being Cake and Nine Inch Nails)

  • [personal attack deleted]

    i’m sorry i thought i just read that nine inch nails is a good band. you can understand why i would be confused because that is obviously false

  • Joe

    In regards to comment # 6…

    I don’t know if I’d call that false – I could see how you’d be confused. It’s more just Trent Reznor than a “band” per se… oh wait… you meant they’re not good ! [insert personal attack here]