An Interview with Cake: Staying Afloat

Cake have been around since the early ‘90s and to this day, continue to put out music that carries a heft amount of weight to it, despite its catchy qualities. Charismatic and kind, vocalist John McCrea and I recently talked about what Cake have been doing since Showrooms Of Compassion came out a year ago. We also discussed the band’s unique sound, pirating, and their upcoming shows at the Bowery Ballroom and The Wellmont Theatre. The transcription is below:

How are you doing today, John?

I’m doing pretty well, it’s super stormy here. I’m in Northern California near the coast and it’s crazy windy and really loud; it’s pretty exciting.

So the show at The Wellmont Theatre on Jan. 12 is your only Northeast date announced so far in 2013. [Cake has since planned an additional show at the Bowery Ballroom on Jan. 11.]

Yeah, well we’re not supposed to be playing shows right now; I’m supposed to be writing songs—we made an exception. We’re doing a show in Manhattan that weekend and we’re just making a weekend of it. It’s basically we haven’t played there and we should’ve been [wrapping] things up for our album touring cycle and that’s the last show.

I think we’re going to give away our dual benefit with our merchandise; we’ll just give the proceeds to some folks who are still hurting from your big storm. I suppose it’s really not over for most people; it’s out of the media now but I gather a lot of people are still at least financially hurting.

I’m glad you chose Montclair, NJ, for that!

I’ve heard it’s a nice town and had a renewal in the last couple of decades.

It’s very much a college town with some shops and restaurants.

That sounds great, like a good quality of life! You should hang on to that, it’s nice to be able to walk and ride a bike to things that you like to do and it sounds like it’s that kind of place.

There are a lot of opinionated posts on the band’s Facebook page. Have you ever worried about upsetting your fans?

Yes and no. I mean, I don’t think it would be interesting to us if we worried too much. I think part of the secret to staying engaged in what you do is to do it for yourself and not for other people. So musically, I would have not had a good time if I thought about if people were getting mad about what I was doing musically. So I feel the same way about our website and Facebook page.

That’s a great outlook, people should like you for who you are and if they don’t, they don’t.

Yeah, nobody is demanding that anyone “Likes” anyone’s Facebook page. I think there’s confusion between music and person there. I listen to music by people who I wouldn’t want to meet but I love the music. I think it’s good to be able to listen to music and differentiate the music from the songwriters. There are songwriters who I think are bad people but I love their songwriting. I think it’s a good exercise for people; if they hate what we’re posting, I think it’s a very adult ability to be able to listen to music or watch a movie made by someone who isn’t the nicest guy. If we couldn’t post what we are interested in on our website or Facebook page, I’d just take them down or I’d just post nothing.

You mentioned you were writing. When can fans expect new music?

Oh, it takes me forever, don’t hold your breath. A couple of years probably. We just finished touring for Showroom Of Compassion, which we released in 2011. I mean, more and more bands are touring a lot and when we’re touring, I can’t write or record. It’s an interesting statistic that the percentage of album releases actually slowed to half the rate that it was about 10 years ago; bands are generally releasing half as often.

That was something I didn’t know!

I guess making recorded music is less and less a viable way to put food on the table and I think that bands are just touring more and more and more as the value of recorded music turns into nothing.

Do you think it has to do with pirating?

It doesn’t all have to do with piracy; it’s just a general devaluation of what we do in the studio. I think the same thing is happening to film directors and journalists and photographers to a certain to degree. It’s an interesting conundrum, it’s a massive transfer of wealth and value from people that make things and people who distribute things and have found a way to monetize the work of other people. So yeah, there’s a lot of money being made.

When Google gives you a search to a free album or pirated album, if the album is really popular they actually charge their advertisers more money or less money if it’s less popular for the advertising in the margins of that search. They’re clearly making billions of dollars. It’s kind of sad to me that a lot of musicians that I know haven’t been so fortunate and some of them I think are important musicians, and songwriters are learning other trades because the current ecosystem isn’t supporting them.

Between 2002 and 2011, we’ve lost 45 percent of working musicians in the United States according to the Department Of Labor. 45 percent fewer people are able to call themselves professional musicians or are filing taxes as professional musicians. I think a lot of the same can be said for journalists. Less journalists I talk to say they’re working twice as hard for 30-40 percent of the money they made 10 to 20 years ago. The thing to do is connect the dots and it would probably behoove content workers like us to find a way to combine our powers and collectively bargain because no one is going to do it for us.

When the new album comes out in the years to come, are you going to take another DIY approach like you did with Showroom Of Compassion?

I don’t think there’s any reason in the current scenario for bands to align their interests with what is sort of a sinking ship. What I think should be happening is bands should be economizing; they should be coming leaner and closer to the ground and that’s the opposite of signing to a major label. Major labels are sort of about their heft and ability to throw money around I don’t see that as a solution right now. And the major labels’ reactions to piracy have been just ham-fisted and really not smart. I don’t really want to be associated with them.

That makes sense considering many bands are taking a DIY approach now.

On one hand, it’s really empowering and great. On the other hand, I’m not a businessman; I’m a musician. My time is probably better spent writing songs and not looking at spreadsheets. It’s forcing people who aren’t good at business to go into business for themselves. We’ll see what happens.

Our band started out on our own label in the very beginning with Motorcade Of Generosity, and I found enough distribution through Tower Records. We got distribution in France and got really good reviews there before anyone here even heard of us. The DIY approach has certainly been one that we’re familiar with, but lost touch with it when we got picked up by an indie label, Capricorn Records—out of Nashville, Tennessee—and they were taken over by Mercury Records and then they were gutted by Universal. We ended up being quite independent.

It seems that you have been doing well with the DIY approach anyway.

We did! Our last album people told us to be careful with releasing our own album, but we had our first number one album.

The vibraslap makes an appearance in a lot of the band’s music. What made you pick up the instrument?

I always loved the sound as a kid. It’s there a lot in 1970s cop shows—it’s sort of a suspenseful sound. It’s also there a lot in Latin music. It’s actually descended from the jawbone of a large mammal; the teeth, without gums. As it dried, the teeth would rattle in the sockets. And that’s just how badass human beings are. That’s sort of the history of the music. I don’t know why it seems so taboo for there to be percussion in rock music, but I really enjoy percussion in rock music.

It does sound pretty awesome.

Yeah, I’ve been accused of overplaying it—I probably do overplay it sometimes. It’s what I do for fun

So at many of your shows, there is a Win-A-Tree contest. How did that begin?

The idea came a long time ago when I lived in Sacramento. I bought a tree in a garage sale for $7 and I planted it in the median between the sidewalk and the street near the apartment that I rented and took care of it for a while. And it got going and then I got going, the band started doing a little better and I started touring and moved to a different apartment and then to a different place. I forgot about the tree.

About 10 years went by and I found myself in the same part of town just walking and I walk by this 25-foot tree that I planted and I was like, “Wow, all humans should plant one tree because it dwarfs your sense of time in a way or it sort of crystallizes time in a way.” I thought it was a good experience; it wasn’t some sort of hippy environmentalist agenda.

If you believe in science, trees are a good thing in terms of climate change; they also create apples and oranges. It seemed like a good thing to leave in a town as we travel through space for people to take these trees and take care of them. They can even take photographs with themselves as the tree gets bigger and they get older and we can watch the tree grow stronger.

We have this map of the world on our website where you can click on these tree icons and see the guy in Paris or New Jersey with the tree. The vast majority of people have followed through with the commitment and certainly there are people who take the tree and disappear, but for the most part, it’s sort of a good honor system.

Out of your complete discography, what are some of your personal favorite songs to perform?

That’s a good question. I like them all. I like playing the new songs lately because they’re new—songs off of Showroom Of Compassion like “Long Time.” Also “Bound Away,” which is sort of a sad song about having to tour your life away. I’m starting to like songs from the first album again. I sort of got tired of them and now I’m going back to them again. I like singing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle.” “Jesus Wrote A Blank Check” I enjoy.


Cake will be at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on Jan. 11 and The Wellmont Theatre, in Montclair, on Jan. 12. For more information, go to