Economies of scale

Cake hopes that cutting a deal won't interfere with keeping it real

What a difference a year makes.
Last June 13, when Cake played the Galaxy Club, there were perhaps two dozen people in the audience--if you count each person who came and went and came back again twice. Local act UFOFU played an absolutely ragged set right before the Sacramento quintet took the stage, complete with an in-his-cups Joe Butcher babbling on and on about being buggered by a bunch of French men.

Now--based on their Kingsmen-cum-Beck (by way of Frank Zappa) hit of last year, "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle," from their first album Motorcade of Generosity, and "The Distance," off of this year's Fashion Nugget--Cake is a big deal. It's no wonder; in a market where quirky is its own reward and Beck's unlikely mix of hip-hop and roots-folk is one of a couple of dominant commercial themes, Cake's distinctly off-kilter sound--funky rhythms, countrified guitar parts and melodies, Vince di Fiore's mariachi-flavored trumpet parts, and bandleader John McCrea's flatline, Lou Reed-like delivery--seems custom-fitted to success.

It's a serendipity that McCrea--who wrote most of Cake's corpus, sometimes with guitarist Greg Brown--attributes not to commercial acumen, but to the band's hometown.

"There's definitely something to be said for coming from a place that's not trademark cool," McCrea says, "a place that's not the patented, style-approved, easily mass-produced hipsteriffic place; where we live is definitely not that."

Indeed, upon consideration, the band's sound--an odd pastiche of seemingly conflicting styles that has been described as "Funkadelic jamming with Hank Williams Sr., with a special appearance by the Tijuana Brass"--seems to spring from a place where every influence comes from somewhere else. The band's two albums evoke a no-nonsense workaday town, with none of the Springsteen-esque virtues and all of the drawbacks. Cake's sound--especially on its first album--flirts with lo-fi, another currently credible calling card.

"There are a lot of dorky things about it," McCrea says of the band's spawning ground there in California's state capitol, located on the wrong side of the mountains from the industry bustle of L.A. and the hipness of San Francisco. "Politicians, for one thing, and it's a dry, dusty place, not a finished place...it gives our music a not-finished quality...it gets very hot during the summer, and the light is very harsh and bright most of the year; it makes you very suspicious of shiny cars--not only can your eyes not deal with them, but they're actually very painful to behold."

Like many musicians, McCrea traces his musical development back to his early childhood. "I grew up in Berkeley," he recalls. "I had this AM radio when I was like seven or eight, and I remember that certain songs really stick in my memory; 'Superstition,' by Stevie Wonder used to really rock my world, and I listened to a lot of other black music on that radio--James Brown, Sly Stone. My mother played folk music, like Woody Guthrie, and my dad played Russian Gypsy accordion music, and while none of those things are what you could say our band sounds like, they're the strains running through it, those kind of folk melodies. Plus, I really love old country music--Ernest Tubb, the Carter Family, Bob Wills, Hank Williams."

McCrea was still a kid when he moved out to Sacramento; when he got old enough to act on his folksy roots, he struck out along the one man/one guitar trail, but things didn't quite work out. "I used to play acoustic--like on Thursday nights--at this place that was kinda a cafe. I was doing pretty well, getting to where I'd draw a pretty good crowd, but I'd drink beer, and sometimes I'd make remarks about the espresso machine or something." So he was asked to leave. "It was something about the Euro sensibilities of the whole place," he offers by way of explanation. "There's a part of me that rails against Americans adopting too much Euro-centric culture; I think it's unhealthy, and bad for our self-esteem."

That the man who started Cake's first album with "You need to straighten your posture and suck in your gut" ("Comanche," a vaguely woozy Mexican restaurant sing-a-long that features the puzzling refrain "If you want to have cities, you've got to build roads") has a fairly active inner Jeremiah comes as no surprise. If there were any doubts, they were dispelled by Motorcade's first big attention-getter, "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle," a bored recitation (and indictment) of the facile trappings of Gen-X coolness: "How much did you pay for your rock 'n' roll T-shirt/That proves you were there, that you heard of them first?...Your liver pays dearly for your youthful magic moments/But rock on completely with some brand new components!" But don't dismiss McCrea and Cake as winking ironics exploiting the latest cool attitude.

"Everything is 'oh, so ironic,'" McCrea sighs. "But irony and cynicism are coping mechanisms, especially when you realize how perfectly and completely life sucks. You've got to have some way of dealing with it, and humor is certainly one; unfortunately, I think that leads to a certain mean-spiritedness, which is what's going on now. We do try, in most cases--although I don't think all--to get away from always being so ironic all the time. I think it's a crutch, that sometimes it's a lot braver to just say what you mean."

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."

After six years of constancy, however, things are changing quickly for Cake, and the band is challenged to succeed while keeping intact the very factors behind that success. "Audience size definitely changes things," McCrea admits without sounding nostalgic for last year's Galaxy Club show. "It can make it feel like there's less of a connection with the audience, and we're trying to keep the venues that we play as small as possible; this isn't Viking stadium music."

McCrea himself is feeling the pressure that success can create. "I've got a lot of mixed feelings about getting up in front of a mike and shaking my guitar around; I mean, I do it, I think it's what I'm good at, but I don't want to put myself up there as some kind of totem--that's unhealthy for me and everybody else--but it's the nature of the beast, they're makin' T-shirts and shit, but I hope we can just keep it down...and make a decent living."

Cake plays Deep Ellum Live Tuesday, March 11.

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