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."