Interview with John McCrea from CAKE: From Scratch

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself, even if that means doing it without a major record label or a public utility company. With Showroom Of Compassion, CAKE’s new album, founding members vocalist/guitarist John McCrea, trumpet/keyboardist Vince DiFiore and bandmates bassist Gabriel Nelson, guitarist Xan McCurdy and drummer Paulo Baldi debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top 200, the highest chart position of their 20-year career. And they did it alone, using their Upbeat Records label and a solar-powered studio.

Below John McCrea discusses the value of foresight.

You recorded the new album using 100 percent solar energy. What made you build a solar-powered studio?

Touring in Germany. Germany is the number one producer in the world of solar electricity and it’s not because it’s so sunny there. It’s because laws were passed that monetarily incentivized their public to make the transition. So this fairly gloomy, cloudy country is producing more solar than anyone else in the world. It shamed us into taking action here in California where there’s sun everywhere.

That took some work on your part. Why was it important?

It wasn’t that much work. We didn’t know if it would be work, so I guess we were willing to go through the hassle to make it happen. It seemed like something we could do, so why not? We could have taken a vacation in Europe with that money I guess, but life is short. Sometimes your decisions have to be in line with your values. We’re all dead soon, so you might as well be a person that you’d admire if you weren’t you (laughs).

This is the band’s first album of originals in seven years.

You were going to ask, “What have we been doing this whole time?”

Well, I know you guys were getting Upbeat Records started. What’s the benefit of using your own label?

CAKE is a very hands-on, do-it-yourself, super-involved culture and the interface between the world of CAKE and the world of the major label was somewhat fraught with difficultly. Let’s just leave it at that. I’m not really sure if they understood what we were. We’d started out on our own label releasing Motorcade Of Generosity, where we did everything ourselves, then we were picked up by Capricorn Records, another independent label. We released one album with them, then they were bought by Mercury, which was bought by Universal.

We found ourselves in this really tumultuous corporate warfare type of environment, where we’re releasing our album and everyone is being fired at the label. We were at this point where we worked for two years or so writing, arranging songs, recording them, producing the album, going through all this work and we didn’t feel, given today’s implosion of the music industry, like it was safe to leave things up to other people. It’s that, combined with the fact that we are sort of a home crafts project that’s gone too far. It just feels much more real and comfortable for us to be making all these little decisions ourselves and be back where we started.

I guess the reason it took so long was that after our last new album [Pressure Chief, 2004], we had to extricate ourselves from that deal with Columbia. It took us a while to figure out that we wanted to release it on our own label and find distribution and that’s when we released B-Sides And Rarities. That was sort of a foot in the water to see whether we could do it.

You’ve got your own power source, your own label. It’s a bit like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself?”

Well, I think right now, yeah. There are a lot of things falling apart all at once right now.

But it’s cool that these things are doable.

Exactly. There’s nothing that’s brain surgery about this. Certainly you have to really be committed and think about it a lot, but people have done this before and I think it was a little frightening because there’s a lot of Wizard Of Oz type stuff that keeps people away from harnessing the means of production and distribution in the music industry and entertainment. Generally, there’s a lot of fluff that’s designed to keep people away and we certainly didn’t think we would be on television again. I thought it was more rigged than it really is. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’re having any success at all.

You’ve always written, arranged and produced your own music, but on Showroom Of Compassion you engineer too. How did that change things?

There’s a lot of energy in trying to communicate things that are actually very subtle and hard to pin down. When you can just turn the knob yourself, it saves a lot of time. It expends some time also in that sometimes you can go off on a wild goose chase and find yourself in halls of mirrors, but ultimately it was very good for us and it made us feel more connected to our craft.

Name some favorite songs on the album.

Right now I’m into the songs that are way into the album, not really the singles. I really like “The Winter,” which has this really weird ‘70s rock ballad feel. I also like “Got To Move,” which has a little bit of that. I imagine somebody with a moustache would sing that in like 1973 or something.

What inspires you to write?

Right now death inspires me to work hard. I don’t feel like there’s enough time to write everything I need to. But back when I wasn’t freaked out about death, I think I felt the need to take notes about how strange my surroundings were. It’s a very bizarre and fascinating world. In my back pocket right now I have a pen and paper and whenever something disturbs me or fascinates me or inspires me I just make a note of it. Sometimes sentences come into my head. Every six months or so I get all these chards of paper together and combine ideas and put melodies to them. Sometimes things turn into songs. Sometimes they don’t.

What are you reading?

You don’t want to know what I’m reading right now because it’s really disturbing (laughs). I think I’m a little too involved in non-fiction right now. I mean the world is just fascinating right this second. I’ve been reading The Economist and The Week. I’ve also been reading a book called The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. He wrote The Geography Of Nowhere, which was interesting, but this book is frightening. It’s basically about having hit peak oil, which most experts agree we already have years ago, and how we’re going to transition out of that. He’s saying it’s basically going to be a big bump in the road and it’s going to be very interesting. I would recommend it to anyone who cares at all. I’m not a survivalist or anything. I really have to say that. I just think shit is quickly hitting the fan and we need to wake the fuck up and be adults.

You guys have been performing for nearly 20 years. How does it feel to still be making music in a world that’s changed so much since you started?

It’s been a lot of years driving around in a van that was about to explode and catch on fire. A lot of those years were really hard and I think that’s why I hate touring so much. But also it’s been very satisfying to dream something up and see it happen.

CAKE will perform April 19 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and on April 21 at Terminal 5 in NYC. Find more info at