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Prolonging the Magic: Cake's John McCrea talks success, songwriting and irony

Cake is Generation X’s Cheap Trick. Everyone likes them, finds their music to be funny, ironic, danceable and perhaps not very deep, and few profess to be fanatical. They float above generic boundaries; if you’re narrow-minded, you can maintain your primary musical identity (metalhead, polka boy, indie rocker, etc.), and still like Cake. A dynamic live act, they make excellent, punchy records, and no one snickers when they cover semi-sacred ground, like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or the "Sesame Street" song “Mahna Mahna,” just like Cheap Trick performing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety makes you think, Yeah, that seems reasonable. And, like the quartet from Rockford, Ill., almost nobody will go out on a limb and say Cake’s music is exceptionally complex, a notion that’s patently false.

“There are a lot of people who can’t stand us,” says singer-songwriter John McCrea, who spoke to the Advocate from his home in Oakland, Calif. “People who want a more muscular affair, more conflict in our music, they might not like us.” It’s like folk music, McCrea says, in that it’s specifically designed not to exclude anyone — parents and other authority figures, for example — the way other rock music does. “It’s more like country music,” he says. “It has that inclusiveness, but that might put people off as well... It’s unusual for music in the alternative category to be inclusive.”

Cake, who’ll perform two sets of hits at Waterbury’s Palace Theater on May 9, was formed in the early ’90s by McCrea, trumpeter Vince DiFiore, guitarist Greg Brown, drummer Frank French and bassist Shon Meckfessel in Sacramento, Calif. (Of the original Cake members, only McCrea and DiFiore remain; Gabe Nelson replaced Meckfessel early on, left for a time and returned, Xan McCurdy replaced Brown, and Paulo Baldi took over on the skins.) Their first three albums, Motorcade of Generosity (1994), Fashion Nugget (1996, featuring the hit “The Distance”) and Prolonging the Magic (1998), all released on Capricorn Records, were self-produced, relatively successful affairs; after signing with Columbia, each of the next two records, Comfort Eagle (2001) and Pressure Chief (2004), took slightly longer to germinate, and although neither was a huge-seller, each brought the band to a slightly higher level of visibility.


After Pressure Chief — a dry record, sonically, and also deadpan, measured, and somewhat reserved, but very catchy — they quietly fell off the radar. Last year, after a seven-year recording hiatus, Showroom of Compassion, their first independently released record, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Whereas Comfort Eagle and Pressure Chief were meticulously crafted and hyper-arranged, there’s more abandon to be found on Showroom, in tracks like "Mustache Man," “Federal Funding” and "Sick of You." This one's rougher in some ways, and it's a little darker too. There's some reverb in there. And the band sounds like they are really enjoying playing.

“It’s more band-centric in a way, this album, which I think is a good thing for us socially as well as musically,” McCrea says. “The band feels more a part of the process now than ever before. It’s been slowly heading this way, where the band is more and more involved in the production and song-crafting process. That was not so much the case at the very beginning. The farther back you go, it was more me and the guitar player. The bulk of the weight was carried by one, two, sometimes three. Everybody is really confident enough to contribute now. It makes a difference for me when I listen to the record.”

Although the new album reached the top spot, its success was somewhat clouded by critics, who were quick to point out it sold the fewest number of units in history for a number one record. But that didn’t sully the experience for McCrea. “Culturally, I'm not sure we are supposed to be number one in the first place,” he says. “It was befuddling. The music business is in a precipitous decline, and the album that we have been recording for two or three years is now essentially free, so it’s difficult... The way we looked at it was, the next week the number one was even lower. So it continues in its decline... In a way, not that we had built a relationship with our fans, but a lot of people trusted us enough to go out on a limb and buy the new album.”

McCrea also says he had no idea the new album would be a success. At all. “We were bracing ourselves to be crushed,” McCrea says. “We weren’t thinking about being number one, and we weren’t reaching for the stars. We just wanted to put enough food on the table to afford a new album to go on tour. We’ve never been trying to be big. So it was befuddling and a huge release.”

As for the part about Cake’s music being simple: not true. There's some serious contrapuntal activity going on in nearly every song, between the melody line and bass, between guitar and trumpet, in the interplay between the drums and handclaps (as on “Comfort Eagle”). References to classical music (“Opera Singer,” “Commissioning a Symphony in C”) pop up all over the place. There’s some serious musical geekery going on.

“I was supposed to go to Oberlin [College],” McCrea says, “and then financial aid fell through... I appreciate and have always appreciated the contrapuntal approach, whether it be classical music or big band era jazz, Benny Goodman, there’s nothing better than that. There’s also a translucence. You can hear through two or more parts at the same time... I think a lot of the great recordings of the last 40 years or so have that sort of multi-layered approach, but it’s a lot of work in terms of arrangement.”

That complexity accounts for why it takes so long for a new Cake record to pop up. “We come back from touring,” McCrea says, “and people say, ‘Where’s your new album?’ If we wrote a song and we thought of ourselves as punk rock, we would know: you play eighth notes. We would be adhering to tradition, you know? Caring about purity. Same thing if we were jazz musicians, or heavy metal or bluegrass. We would know from the outset what the bass would sound like, and so on. But every time we put a song together, it’s like reinventing the wheel. Some people say it all sounds the same... but there’s more variety on one Cake album than in other bands’ whole careers.”

Cake’s music is also a lot less pointedly ironic, McCrea believes, than people believe it to be. “There are not that many songs that fit that description, if you understand the dictionary definition of irony,” he says. McCrea’s vocals are deadpan, yes, almost to the point of seeming sarcastic (which isn't quite the same as ironic, or which is just narrow slice of the irony spectrum). It’s easy for critics to focus on the “sense of humor” angle and overlook the prettier stuff, but there's always one or two touching, melodic songs on each Cake album: Showroom has "The Winter," Comfort Eagle had "World of Two," Pressure Chief had "She'll Hang the Baskets," and so on.

“As a [media] writer, you want to abbreviate a shorthand narrative, and it’s easier to say one thing about a band,” says McCrea. “There’s so much music out there, you don’t have time to dig into one band’s albums. There’s this endless flood of music pouring into your digital music player. You can’t really expect someone, especially a professional writer, to really dig into an album and find a song that doesn’t conform. So, [the irony angle is] an idea that has a lot of momentum. I’m a songwriter, so it’s difficult for me to imagine me talking to someone who only looks for one thing. Nobody that I really respect ever tells me that they only like one genre, no matter how hostile the boundaries of one genre. If you can get in there and get some sort of candor, they like stuff they don’t expect to like.”

An Evening with Cake, May 9, 8 p.m., $37.50-$52.50, 100 East Main St., Waterbury, (203) 346-2000,,

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