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McCrea is dancing around more than a song's subject, however. "There can be a poetry to irony sometimes," he ventures. "In real art, there's something to be said for going around things, like your English teacher used to say--'show me, don't tell me.' The same thing is true of irony: You can use it and use the negative space to describe what you're talking about, rather than saying "this is what I believe" and waving your fist in the air; that's how I hope I use it."
A commonly misunderstood song is the disco anthem "I Will Survive," a longtime live staple finally put to disc on Fashion Nugget. Cake delivers the song not as campy sendup, but as a heartfelt declaration of will. McCrea's monotonal singing voice isn't jaded or knowing here, it's just flat-ass tired and tattered by a poisonous lover, but it's still the voice of a battered fighter who refuses to give up, who won't give the bastards the satisfaction of seeing him fall. It's a misapprehension that McCrea feels the whole disco movement has suffered. "It's irritating and a drag for us when people don't get it," he says, "because I really respect that music. The anti-disco movement was a major racist movement, because disco was one of the first--if not the first--super-pop, mainstream American multi-cultural movements...you had jazz in the '20s to the '50s, but that was hipsters only; disco was all Americans, white, Black, Hispanic together, albeit on a very base and hedonistic level. Anti-disco mania, for the most part, was an all-white, all-male movement, and that whole baseball stadium album-burning thing [most notably Comiskey Park in Chicago in the late '70s, when boozy revelers rioted] was such a fascist, Nazi Germany-type deal."
But McCrea admits that his deadpan delivery is deliberate. "I had to do that to get away from some of the histrionics and melodrama of the original...what I really respect about that song has nothing to do with genre, really, but with the way it's written. I think I seek balance, and if a song is one way, I tend to go the other." That need for balance ties into McCrea's need to be comfortable with a song. On Nugget's "She'll Come Back to Me," Cake indulges its country leanings to the utmost, layering the weeper with steel guitar and turning the soul and R&B rhythms way down. It's a song the band seldom performs (as is "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle"). "It's too emotionally vulnerable," he says of "She'll Come Back." "I don't feel like doing that on a nightly basis, because I don't want to mass-produce those emotions."
After getting booted from his acoustic cafe gig, McCrea started hanging out with guitarist Greg Brown, working on songs and putting together a band. "There was a time when I was getting drunk and going to this jazz improv club," he remembers, explaining how Vince di Fiore and his trumpet came to give Cake its category-defying sound. "Vince was playing with this band called the Bub Orchestra...Greg and I had already played some half-assed gigs around town, but I had these parts that I'd written that I didn't know what instrument I wanted to play them. I knew it wasn't a saxophone," he explains, disparaging that instrument's fake beer-commercial/Clarence Clemons heroisms. "I'd been listening to a lot of Mexican mariachi and ranchera music, and one night--I was in a stupor, I guess--I asked Vince to play with us."
It wasn't easy. "At first it really didn't work," he says. "We just couldn't do it. Then, gradually, over a period of about six months, we put it together, but it was so tough." Eventually, however, di Fiore found his place in Cake's sound, which is very much an ensemble creation: Solos are sporadic and often end before you really notice they're there. "We're not about the complexity of the individual part," McCrea explains. "It's about the complexity of the whole, which comprises a bunch of people intelligently playing simple parts...a lot of players who are amazing musicians aren't looking at a song from enough of a distance to realize that what they're doing is making music that's unpleasant."
At first the band found itself at odds with the angst-ridden grunge popular in the early '90s (Cake once played a gig in Seattle and were paid $4 for their effort), but through relentless touring, it built up a loyal West Coast fan base. The band released Motorcade of Generosity on its own label in 1994, then caught the eye of Capricorn Records, who signed it in the beginning of 1995 and rereleased the debut. As grunge faded and the recombinant folk-rap of artists like Beck ascended, Cake's odd mix of country melody and soulful rhythm was perfectly situated. Fashion Nugget kept the band's basic approach intact, but moved even closer to beat-box cool, particularly in the case of di Fiore, who adopted a more percussive, less mellifluous style of playing his trumpet.
McCrea disavows any style-chasing, however. "All of those songs [on the first and second albums] are from the same period, written about five years ago," he says. "All of a sudden everybody likes us, and there's this mood that wants us, but we're not tailoring our music for something we think is happening; we've been doing this for six years."