May , 2011
By Ron Redden
Mixing It Up On Their Own Terms
Not everyone gets John McCrea's wry wit and humor, and the Cake founder is fine with that. He doesn't get a lot of people either, especially himself. The musician is often at odds with the songwriter within. That's especially true when it comes to finding just the right balance in a song that will mix nicely when it's presented to the band. Simply put, it takes about 100 ingredients to bake a single Cake album.
For nearly 20 years, this Sacramento-based outfit has been making unpretentious music that is distinctly their own. Formed in 1991 by McCrea, trumpeter Vince DeFiore, bassist Gabe Nelson and guitarist Greg Brown, the band went about crafting its unique sound by fusing the genres of rock, folk, hip-hop and the spoken word, then cleverly punctuating the sound with a horn. Cake initially made its mark on college radio stations in 1994 with their independent release, Motorcade of Generosity. The LP became an instant hit on the college campus scene nationwide.
With the release of their first full-length disc in 1996, Fashion Nugget, the secret was out. Mainstream radio created a massive buzz for the band as they played "The Distance" over and over again. Two years later, the aptly titled Prolonging the Magic would put the icing on the Cake as the song "Never There" fueled universal acceptance of the band's music. Success, however, brought on its own set of problems. First, Greg Brown walked away from the band.
"At the time," recalled McCrea, "I respected his decision to do his own music and write his own songs. Greg's a fantastic guitar player. When he made his decision to leave, it grieved me. Personally, I didn't think it was a good idea. However, it turned out to be the best thing for everyone concerned. It was tough on us at first, because musically we had a great situation going after our first two records. When he first left, I thought to myself, ‘What a waste?'"
McCrea had become the de facto leader of Cake simply because he wrote the music - a lot of it. Brown couldn't come to terms with the situation. Instead of swallowing his pride, the guitarist decided leaving a successful band, for the great unknown, was far more preferable than playing second banana.
"I tried not to act like the leader in this band," McCrea offered, "which in hindsight was probably a mistake. Greg found himself in a situation that was less than what he had bargained for. In other words, if you have someone in a band that feels they should be the leader, but is not, it creates tension. I always thought of Cake as a democracy. Finally, it dawned on me that the person providing the bulk of the material, should have a big say-so as to how that body of work materialized within the framework of the group.
"For example, I write ten songs for every one song I feel comfortable bringing to the band. That's a serious time commitment. That's a serious amount of work. For every one song that gets through, there's all this hundreds of hours I've spent on other music, just to create that one group worthy Cake tune. When you have invested that much into the music, it certainly means more to you than someone who plays the guitar, learns the song, and plays it a few dozen times."
Cake kept its strong following intact with the release of Comfort Eagle in 2001. Featuring the hit "Short Skirt / Long Jacket," it was the major label debut for the band on Sony Music. The album was symbolic for several reasons.
"When we were in the studio," recalled McCrea, "and the engineer played the song "Long Line of Cars," that's when I realized Cake is one of my favorite bands. It may sound immodest for me to believe that, but that's all that mattered to me at that time. That song, combined with Gabe and Victor's work on "Opera Singer," let me know we were really on to something. I can't tell you what a relief it was for me to realize just how good Cake was going to be.
"We signed with Sony because I didn't think it was the right time for us to go the independent route again. Technically, I didn't necessarily want to think about the music business or recreating our infrastructure. For the time being, I wanted to concentrate on just being Cake, not Cake with its own record company. It was a different world out there with the Internet starting to make its presence felt. Honestly, the music business was just starting to undergo what would be some painful changes. I didn't want to have to think about promoting an album when it was released, getting airplay, or hiring people to do it for us."
That euphoria would be tempered by the Sony / BMG merger in 2003. The combined powerhouse was going to streamline both record company operations. The announcement sent shockwaves through the Cake camp. When the release of their second Sony disc, Pressure Chief, was delayed two months to accommodate the official completion of the merger, the handwriting was on the wall. It was time to go.
"When we first signed with Sony," offered McCrea, "I had this real sense that the people at the label were happy in their jobs. I found that comforting. Many of the people had been with the company for 20 years. That wasn't common in the business. The people we were going to work with were very professional and the best at what they did. Also, the Japanese were pretty hands off with the company. For our career, it seemed like the right move.
"Obviously, that all changed with the merger in 2004. Almost 2,000 people lost their jobs. Veterans were let go to make way for younger, less expensive salaries. The whole culture within Sony changed. People that once took pride in their jobs, were now scared of losing them. This band had to re-evaluate its whole business model. We knew that it probably wasn't a good idea to be on this big label right now, so we asked to be released."
It would take the band three years to end their relationship. They christened their new-found freedom in 2007 with the release of B-Sides & Rarities on their own label, Upbeat Records. Cake had come full circle by returning to the independent roots that had spawned them in the first place. There were still some fears, says McCrea, that the new record would be ‘crushed like a bug,' upon its release. That paranoia quickly subsided as the album debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard charts.
Cake's sixth studio album, Showroom of Compassion, was recorded in the band's own solar-powered studio, and released this past January. It had the distinction of debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, with an asterisk next to it. The album sold 44,000 copies its first week, making it the lowest No. 1 in the 20-year history of calculating record sales. The irony wasn't lost on McCrea.
"We're not a band that's supposed to be No. 1," quipped the singer. "It's not in our culture. We put our energy into the music. By the time we are finished making an album, it's time to tour. We are musicians for Christ's sake, and our job is to make the noise sound good that's coming out of us. I have no problems enhancing our performance if it helps the music. In fact, we spend so much energy on the music, there's no time to think about our clothes, or wearing corny outfits, on stage.
"We have talked about stage presence. The thing about Cake is we started out in small venues, and we have kept that mentality despite the size of the room we play. You won't see arm gestures and wild antics on stage from the members in this band. We don't pretend to be anything but who we are. A lot of bands go for the gold every night - or world takeover - and often times look silly doing it. Cake makes music that works for us. I can assure everyone we are not getting rich. My dentist makes more money than I do when I have a good year, even with a hit single."