Posted July 19, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

John McCrea of Cake: A statement of values

Cake, photo by Robert McKnight
Cake, photo by Robert McKnight

Formed in 1991 by singer John McCrea, Cake started out as an alternative to alternative rock. Regardless of how out of sync it sounded, the band quickly found a following and was signed to Capricorn Records following the release of its debut album, Motorcade of Generosity. The group’s second album would yield, “The Distance,” a quirky song that featured McCrea’s sarcastic, spoken word vocals and the band’s signature trumpet sound. The group hasn’t released a studio album since 2011’s Showroom of Compassion, yet it’s embarking on a short summer tour that includes outdoor pavilions and festivals. McCrea phoned from his Northern California home to talk about the tour and the band’s 20-plus-year career.

You’re playing a handful of dates this summer, mostly around festival appearances. Do you enjoy playing festivals?
I used to hate it. I used to really, really, really hate festivals. They used to be a celebration of bombast and excess in America. They’re still about overeating music but there’s a little less supersized. I think the music selection has improved. It used to be just about massiveness. Now, there’s some sensitive music being played. There’s intricate stuff happening. Think back to your youth. Festivals used to mean dust and lack of water and rape and all sorts of horrible shit. Now, they’re a little more sophisticated.

I remember one Lollapalooza had Metallica and Soundgarden as headliners. Having those macho bands play seemed antithetical to the concept of privileging the alternative.
I know. The sonic DNA of our band comes from a hostile reactionary gesture against the music of the early and mid-‘90s, which for us was just big dumb white guy rock. It was white guys expressing their massive power at the expense of everyone else. That didn’t seem very subversive under the circumstances. It just seemed like more of the same thing . . . more deforestation, as it were. It was like Rush in different clothing. It wasn’t alternative certainly. Things can be alternative in so many different ways. The lyrics are about self-hatred so that should make it alternative. The guitars are influenced by Velvet Underground, so that should make it alternative. If it’s just white male powertrip, then it doesn’t matter. Size is a value statement. We came out and wanted to sound as fucking dinky possible. You wanna rock? We’re doing to turn it down. Fuck you. We would do that. We would go and play these clubs. People wouldn’t know who we were. We’d be quiet and they’d freak out. Not as many people would get mad as I thought would be mad. We won over some heavy metal dudes, maybe because we had some guitar riffs. It wasn’t just an aesthetic, it was a statement of values.

A lot of people didn’t get us. They thought we were too weak and we weren’t muscular enough to compete. That was depressing for me for a long time.

What made you think it was a good idea to have a trumpet player in the band?
That was the same sort of thing. I had these melodies I was writing and if I put them on a lead guitar, they would have sounded heroic and it would have been more veins bulging in the white guy’s muscular neck. I had had enough of that. I was about to vomit from that. We had a trumpet and everyone thought it was a big joke. They said it sounded Mexican so it must be a joke. I loved Mexican music and other music that we were influenced by. We did a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” We didn’t do it because we thought it was stupid or we were making fun of it. We liked it. We thought disco was sort of remarkable in that it was the first massively popular multi-culture pop movement in the United State. The backlash was telling.

The band has always embraced a wide array of music. How did you end up with such eclectic taste?
I don’t know. I can’t speak for the whole band. For me, I got into songwriting. Any songwriter who I think is worth anything doesn’t just cling nervously to one genre of music. If you’re that hung up on culture, you’re going to miss a lot of great music.

You initially signed to Capricorn Records, which I think was based somewhere in the South and had a few jam bands on its roster. How did that happen?
They had that Southern thing going and were trying to venture out into alternative by signing us and some others. Their roots were really Southern. We thought it’d be a safe place to go where they wouldn’t try to change or destroy us. It was pretty safe but then they got bought by a bigger label after our first album was released. That label was Mercury. It got bought by an even bigger label and we found ourselves somewhere we didn’t sign up for. Because of that label heft, our second album did well because the planets aligned and people were trying to prove something in their careers by using our music. They did what record companies are supposed to do, which is so unusual. After that, there was a corporate battle. Everyone was getting fired as we were releasing our next album. That’s what indirectly led to us being on our own label. We didn’t want to put all that work into making an album and then have people in 5,000-dollar suits and don’t even like our music have power over our labor. It was a labor issue for us. We spent a long time and it felt fundamentally disrespectful.

You created your own label to release Showroom of Compassion in 2011. What has it been like to put out your own albums?
We did a tester before that. We put out a b-sides and rarities album. It didn’t do so horribly so that emboldened us to record a studio album. I think it was a salutatory experience. Everyone told us during the precipitous decline that it was foolish to try to do this yourself right now. People were taking our music for free and we’d be crushed. That’s generally what’s happening in the music business. We went into it with some trepidation. After a period of not releasing an album for seven years, it was why we were staying the hell out of it. We wanted to wait to see what would happen. It’s an investment for us to be in the studio for so long. We had to pay people and go into debt to make an album. We sold about the same number our first week as we did seven years earlier. We had people who trusted us that we wouldn’t make a shitty album and would buy it without knowing for sure what it would be like. There wasn’t a lot of attrition. It felt really good. We weren’t exploding but we did have a relationship with some people.

The album debuted at the top of the charts but was one of the lowest selling No. 1 debuts of all time.
Somebody beat us the next week. It’s going lower as we speak. That’s the value of recorded music. Just to sell music you have to pay somebody. There are bands that come from privilege right now. Who else can work for years on something and not get paid anything? The work it takes to not suck is thousands and thousands of hours. It’s not just something you do in your spare time after working at McDonald’s. It is but you have to stay up all night after you get home from your shift. If you’re not going to get paid for that ever, it becomes this thing. I would be fine about recorded music being free as long as nobody is getting paid. Everybody else, all those powerful tech companies are monetizing music. It’s the same old corporate exploitation that we have come to know and love. It’s not a revolutionary thing. It’s just capitalism fucking over workers.

I hear you’re working on a new album.
I am always writing new songs — just compulsively. I don’t feel compelled to release music but I do feel compelled to make songs and express myself that way. It’s a lot of schlep to record an album and to go through all of that. It’s a complicated thing. There’s a lot of people involved and personalities. I would like to see something change to make it easier for me to do that financially. We’re not a band culturally that’s supposed to have a No. 1 album. It was our first No. 1 album. When I think about what I got paid for the hour, it’s no bueno. I think there are other things I could do with my time. But I love music and will continue to play for my friends. The music business needs to figure shit out. I’m not a businessman so I can’t do it. I would like to see a worker-owned non-profit co-op; a platform that’s controlled by the artist, not this superstar stuff. Those aren’t the people hurting. We’ve lost 45 percent of working musicians in nine years. The people who are disappearing are hanging by a thread right now. Cut out Wall Street and Silicon Valley. They’re using up too much money and we don’t have that much money floating around. Develop a relationship with people who want to enjoy music and watch indie films. There should be a hub where the artist can decide what they want to be paid. There should be something about freedom. I refused advertising my whole career only to find myself now with tampon commercials and BMW ads in front of my songs. This is not where I want to be now. It’s my fervent hope we can get something like that together one of these days.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at