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Motorcade of Consistency: An Interview with John McCrea of Cake

Photo: Robert McKnight

Even after scoring their first #1 album, Cake aren't taking it easy. In this fascinating, downright philosophical discussion with PopMatters, frontman John McCrea talks about misguided youth culture, genre as satire, and oh so much more.


Showroom of Compassion

Label: Upbeat
US Release Date: 2011-01-11
UK Release Date: Import

Cake is a band that has achieved something uncommon and enigmatic in modern rock: consistency. They're one of the few bands working today whose albums I can imagine being packaged like those leather-bound "classics of literature" series, where a certain author's works aren't characterized, really, in terms of the developing arc of a career but by the singularity of voice that spanned that career. They haven't changed with trends and yet always seem relevant. They dip generously into genre traditions while never committing themselves fully to any one, always commenting significantly on those traditions. They have maintained a strong fan base simply by being themselves. They pretty much just do what they do, and people always respond. The fact that "what they do" is make great music is a big part of that.

Going strong after over 20 years in the business, Cake never really has been interested in plugging into the "be here now" mentality of a lot of modern music. They'd rather satirize "the now" than be in on it. Having formed in 1991, Cake didn't break onto "alternative radio" until the release of their classic 1996 single, "The Distance", a great song that still gets played on the radio today. It's no accident that both the band and the song have aged better than the lame, short-sighted terminology by which they were originally described.

Cake released their seventh album this year, Showroom of Compassion, and will tour in support of it. Like all their albums, this one shows their distinct brand of musicality and tongue-in-cheek awareness of the prevailing cultural climate. In other words, it's a Cake album, and a good one. If there's one drawback to maintaining consistency of quality over a long period of time, it's high expectations. Cake hasn't disappointed yet.

PopMatters talked with John McCrea, the main song-writer and creative force behind Cake, discussing self-reliance in the music industry, satirical song-writing, and the "petulant, bulbous, entitled spoiled baby" of American youth culture.

* * *

Cake is a band that doesn't seem particularly interested in reinventing itself. You guys have a distinctive sound that has remained consistent throughout your career. Would you care to comment on that?

I wonder what that reinvention that seems so mandatory, especially in terms of rock criticism ... I wonder what that's for. I think maybe there's an imperative, an obligation that a lot of bands feel to reinvent their sound as early and as quickly as possible. And I'm wondering if that has something to do with industrialization, and feeling like a cog in a machine. Wanting to somehow separate from any kind of repetition.

Well, and I think styles change very rapidly ...

Yes, and it almost seems like we're running from something rather than to something. So I guess I may have some questions about [that way of thinking] ... I think as a musician my primary obligation is to the song and not to some over-arching narrative. And why does it need to be going somewhere, is a question. And then a follow-up question would be, where is it going? And then I guess another follow-up question is, what does it do when it gets there? You know, what purpose is there for this over-arching narrative of endless change?

As a song-writer, I just try and figure out how my song wants to live. And sometimes I figure it out and sometimes I can't. If I were to burden myself with some overarching imperative or change or reinvention, I think it would be gratuitous and distracting.

You know, I think there are subtle changes during the career of Cake. But it is definitely a band that doesn't feel a gratuitous need to reinvent itself. And I see a lot of bands reinventing themselves, and I know what they feel, because there's that weight, there's that burden of having to go somewhere. But it's very strange. And oftentimes they end up going somewhere, and they end up coming back. And so it seems like they felt like that had to go somewhere, but they didn't really want to go somewhere.

Right, it's cyclical for them.

Yeah, maybe. Maybe it's natural and cyclical. Or maybe it's artificial. So that would be my ... I haven't figured it out, but that's a good question.

As a songwriter, you seem to be very conscious of your culture. You seem to stand outside of it and comment on it a lot, about the artificiality of it. Do you think that's true?

Yeah, I'm involved in such a shitty, superficial culture. Music, I mean. You know, being involved in a music career is like never being able to graduate high school, in some ways. You know, it's really unnatural and bizarre.

Yeah, but you've been fairly successful at it too, so ...

I don't think we've been very successful ... there are masters of navigating the cultural vicissitudes. I don't know how they do it. But sometimes they do that better than they make music.

That's interesting that you say that. There's this quote from Stephen Malkmus, who was the lead singer of the band Pavement, where he says that there are musicians who are like "cultural magpies", who reflect the culture of their time, like David Bowie. And then there are musicians who just are who they are, and they don't ever change, like Morrissey, for instance. And I was thinking that you guys are the latter. You don't really change with the times.

Yeah, and I would also, just as an addendum to this ... I would also posit that there may be more rhythmic and harmonic and thematic change from song to song on one Cake album than some bands have during their entire careers. So although we may not seem to be going in one particular place, I would say, as a sort of response, that we're going in a lot of different places, and you just don't notice it. And maybe, you know, going from song to song on an album is less boring that way. That sounds arrogant for me to say that.

But there's a lot of bands that are supposedly on this evolutionary path, which is mandatory from the perspective of rock criticism, which is just eighth notes, followed by another song with eighth notes, followed by another song with eighth notes, with a very limited array of melodic hooks. And sometimes you go to a music festival, and it's just band after band after band of just [makes rhythmic, eighth note "rocking out" sound] for four hours. And that, for me, is just unlivable. So we are spending more of our time on a micro level trying to create change between songs, rather than focus on some kind of storyline that people can write about.

I think what you said about changing on the album is significant. Because Cake shifts between genres a lot, even within the same song sometimes.

Right, right. I don't know. Sometimes it's conscious. Sometimes it's unconscious. I think maybe, intuitive? Yeah. I think it's because people in the band, myself included, are listening to, and enjoying, more than just one genre of music ... I guess the geometry of some of those musical aesthetics sort of end up here and there. Sometimes more than one houses within one song. Yep.

What you said about eighth notes made me think of garage-rock. Just the staccato, same-y type music. Were you consciously commenting on that?

Well, I think it's ... it's not just garage-rock. It's rock in general, I guess. It seems to be something that ... I think maybe that's how white people experience enthusiastic rhythm. It's very herky-jerky. It's very linear. And maybe that's how we approach the world. You know, maybe that linear thing, you can find it in corporate America. Or you can find it when people are logging down the Amazon. There's a "straight line" thing to it that I think is very Western that I think is very appropriate, that young Westerners would feel the rhythm of their optimism, and their future, and that kind of sound ... whether it's garage or not. There's a lot of great music like that, don't get me wrong.

It's interesting to hear you talk about rock music in terms of the larger culture, and not just the aesthetic culture, but everything that a culture is about. I recently read something about how you built a studio that is entirely solar-powered ...

Yeah, it's interesting. Maybe being trapped inside this infantilism of music culture and, in general, American culture ... you know, maybe that's what made me so frustrated with the lack of responsibility, and the sort of profligate disregard for the future, that is not conservative or liberal but just stupid. And I guess there's a sense of wanting to become more self-reliant and more adult that I get when I am immersed, sometimes against my will, in American culture generally, and rock music culture, specifically. So putting solar panels on our studio was kind of a gut reaction against that, this sort of wanting to be at the mercy of systems that are probably failing.

And what is romanticized about musicians so much is our being impractical, our being self-destructive, our throwing television sets out hotel room windows. And for me, I just rail against that. I think it's a continuation of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear. And for me, I just want to be an adult, thank you very much. It's not worth it for me to cut off my ear.

So solar panels ... energy is a big issue that ... a lot of people don't realize how serious a crisis it is. In California we were sort of at the mercy of the Dick Cheney, Enron rigging of the energy system a few years back. And you know, our energy bills became like hundreds of dollars, if not thousands of dollars. And so you know, we just thought, "Let's become more self-reliant." We're forming our own record label and sort of removing ourselves from the tentacles of systems that are corrupt and bloated and inefficient. And that was very appealing to us.

Do you think that there is a place for youth culture that is unfiltered from adults co-opting it, and just kind of bratty for its own sake?

Well, I definitely think there are some hormonal things ... you know, it's been that way and always has been. A sort of explosive, hormonal, and somewhat maybe impractical nature to youth expression. That said ... put that sort of natural, biological thing in the context of American civilization, and you have this incredibly petulant, bulbous, entitled sort of spoiled baby ... of rock, of whatever facet of culture you're in. You're gonna see this sort of caricatured, way-exaggerated expression of ... whether it's anger at the man, or whether it's, you know, "not gonna wear the same leather jacket as my dad" kind of thing. It really just fuels consumption.

That's interesting that you say it fuels consumption ...

Yeah, I mean the generation gap was the best thing for corporate America. They got to sell stuff faster.

I feel like your band your band is reactionary, too, though.

Yeah, I mean, we have plenty of hate. Don't worry about that. But it's not a "leather jacket" hate. It's not a "I'm misunderstood, I'm gonna blow something up" hate. It's more ... I don't know.

It's more "I'm going to be responsible and be self-reliant, and I'm going to survive in spite of a culture that doesn't seem to care about the future" kind of hate.

Yeah, and if you want to tag on a "fuck you" at the top of that sentence, that's probably apt. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of self-indulgence in what Cake does. But what we're trying to do is lean toward a more responsible, adult approach to expressing our youth rebellion.

Your music is also a lot of fun. It's not like you're cramming some kind of ideology down people's throats. It's satirical.

Right. I try really hard not to be didactic, even on our website, which pisses a lot of people off. Generally, we're asking questions. We're not overtly ... I think there's some sort of sideways way where we're saying what we think. But I think we're trying to be indirect as much as possible. I guess not always ... And I think that's the thing of putting things in context and trying not to be shrill. Trying to put things in context.

Can you talk a little about your use of humor?

Yeah, it's sort of passive-aggressive in some way. I think the books and the movies and the poems and the songwriting that I enjoy is never purely satirical, and is seldom purely humorous, or purely tragic. I really love movies that are funny and sad at the same time. And I think that if you really listen to our music, you'll find more than just humor and more than just sad-song lamentation. There are elements of country music that have a very well-established, plaintive-voice tradition. But it's definitely an amalgam of different influences. And I think that's what we're going for. We're never purely tragic or comical. It's always humor and sadness sitting together in the same room.

I've never thought your use of genre was purely satirical either. You seem to have an affection for them. Like you mention country music. I don't think you're using country to make fun of people, but expressing a love for country music, too, on some level.

Yes, very much so. Yeah, I have deep respect for the country songwriting tradition, as well as the vocal delivery. I mean, there's a lot of horrible country. But you can't throw out an entire genre. You can say, "I hate opera", but listen to some arias and figure it out ... I don't think there's an entire genre where you can say it's all bad.

I also feel like you have a genuine desire to unveil hypocrisy through the humorous aspects of your music. There's a relationship between the humor and the hypocrisy that you're meaning to comment on. Do you think that's the case?

Yeah, I think sometimes it's a bit like mental Judo. It's like, "Oh, that's what you think? Let's exaggerate that a little bit. Let's take that to its natural conclusion." And that becomes satirical, because it is ludicrous usually. Following a way of thinking that becomes faulty usually ends up somewhere fairly hilarious and sad. So that said, it's always a natural inclination gone wrong when things lead to place that are easy to satire, to lampoon, rather. It's never anything that's completely unfathomable. I think you can get to a point of empathy, as well.

Have you ever written a revenge song?

I've started out some songs that way, and something changed during the writing process, and then it wasn't just about my vitriol for someone else but about my vitriol for myself, or my lack of patience in myself. I think "Sick of You" started out as an end-of -relationship song that turned into an end-of-relationship-with-the-world kind of song.

Yes, that song turns around very quickly to be self-directed.

Yeah, well that's always the way it is with hate. I think the circle starts very broad, and you're hating someone very far away from you. But the perfectionism of it ... the circle gets constrained and smaller and smaller, and eventually it's people you know and love. And then it's just you. You are your thoughts. That's an interesting Eastern assertion that whatever you think about is actually what you are.

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