It takes a special gift to become a celebrity despite your best efforts to fight the trends. But that’s just what CAKE has done, consistently packing houses on the success of their last four albums (most recently, Comfort Eagle on Columbia Records). NT caught up with John McCrea, the lead singer of CAKE, prior to the first night of the Unlimited Sunshine tour, featuring CAKE along with their pals the Flaming Lips, De La Soul, Modest Mouse, KINKY and acoustic bluegrass interludes with the Hackensaw Boys. The concept of the Unlimited Sunshine tour was entirely John’s and CAKE drummer Pete McNeal’s baby, designed to break the rules of what’s becoming the standard music festival, treating audiences to new genres, unexplored avenues, and what’s sometimes commercially unhip, but still very cool.
“As record companies start to become less and less of a factor in our lives, we were looking for ways to do it ourselves,” McCrea says. “We thought of Unlimited Sunshine as a way of continuing working whether or not the record company was working. They are very self-pitying right now about their current state.”
McCrea is the first one to admit that CAKE, and his other Unlimited Sunshine colleagues, aren’t necessarily reaching for (and never really tried to get) commercial success.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re playing music that we like, in a style that we like, and I think that if we weren’t in the band we’d go to the record store and buy a couple records of this kind of music. That’s all that matters. I want to say there’s some integrity, but I don’t think of it as any kind of ethical issue. It’s more an integrity to notes than an ethical struggle. We’re just playing the notes we want to play. It’s always a surprise when we interface with popular culture. Pretty much, we tell ourselves each time ‘we’re doomed that this album is not gonna do well,’ and something happens, and it does better than we expected.”
CAKE’s music has always been somewhat of a mockery of popular culture, always very wry and sharp. The words and message are always as much a part of CAKE as the sound—which is pretty much characterized by Gabriel Nelson’s snappy bass lines and John’s talking-through-the-music vocals. There’s a lot more going on than just the melody.
“Yeah, we’re having a party, but it’s sort of an unhappy party. We’re reclining in sarcasm as a coping mechanism. In a way, I think that’s a realistic assessment for the times in which we live. It’s hard to write really simple, like, 1940s style ballads. And it’s also hard to write really simple, yarling music ballads.”
“Yeah, it’s sort of a vein-bulging-from-neck, earnest striving that Americans feel right now. A sort of Tall Truck energy in the United States in general. We’re just livin’ every minute of it. It’s a strange time culturally, very weird. I think of Creed and super-aggressive stuff as beer-drinking buddies on one end of the spectrum. On the other extreme, you’ve got the hyper, teen female role. We have a polarization of gender roles: extreme frustrated, punk rock lumberjack on one end. The masculine, big thick sound. And on the other end we have this super sexualized, flirty 12-year-old. It’s sort of bizarre.”
McCrea says CAKE’s artistic vision hasn’t always worked with the labels in other ways, too. In fact, when they told Columbia how they envisioned the “Long Jacket” video, the label said, “yeah that’s really great, but it needs a plot.’ Realizing their vision couldn’t happen through Columbia, the band decided to undertake the video themselves, spending hundreds of hours shooting it, editing it, and footing the bill.
“In the end, it was good. We made a good, entertaining video, although it didn’t really exist within the framework of a music video. The record company said, ‘oh, it’s funny. I guess maybe we could use it for advertising purposes or something. Now you have to go back and make a real video.’ I was crestfallen,” he says.
After the label rejected it, MuchMusic in Canada unexpectedly began to play it. The next thing they knew, MTV made it a Break-Through Video. “It was a good lesson for me. I learned to stick to my position; you don’t always have to listen to the so-called experts. This was one case when, despite pressure, we didn’t have to make a so-called rock video. The label wasn’t thrilled, but we are.”
McCrea says that Unlimited Sunshine is comprised of bands fitting anywhere outside of the dominating rock paradigms.
“Those are the two broadcasting towers, not only of sexual identity, but of cultural identity. There’s a lot of other music that’s somewhere else, but certainly not on the radio. A lot of cities don’t have community radio, public radio, or even college radio. All they have is the ClearChannel pipeline. It’s rough right now. The business structure is not really conducive to an honest expression of our culture.”
McCrea says that in the cities where Unlimited Sunshine has been promoted it’s definitely doing well—a signal that people are hungry for new and other kinds of music.
“We’re just trying to do something that we don’t hate. A lot of times, as musicians we’re forced, maybe not at gunpoint, but strongly encouraged to do things that don’t make sense to us aesthetically. This is our taking the steering wheel and going where we think it should go aesthetically-- rather than a promoter, or a radio station, or a record company calling the shots.”
Check out CAKE and friends at an Unlimited Sunshine date near you:
Wed 07/31/02 St. Louis, MO The Pageant
Thu 08/01/02 Kansas City, MO Beaumont Club
Fri 08/02/02 Morrison, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Sun 08/04/02 Seattle, WA The Pier
Thu 08/08/02 Santa Barbara, CA Santa Barbara Bowl
Fri 08/09/02 Sacramento, CA Memorial Auditorium
Sat 08/10/02 Berkeley, CA Greek Theatre
Sun 08/11/02 Los Angeles, CA Greek Theatre
Tue 08/20/02 Pontiac, MI Phoenix Plaza Amph.
Wed 08/21/02 Cleveland, OH Tower City Amphitheatre
Thu 08/22/02 Philadelphia, PA Mann Center
Sat 08/24/02 Brooklyn, NY Celebrate Brooklyn @ Prospect Park
Sun 08/25/02 Brooklyn, NY Celebrate Brooklyn @ Prospect Park
Mon 08/26/02 Boston, MA FleetBoston Pavilion
Thu 08/29/02 Columbus, OH PromoWest Pavilion
Fri 08/30/02 Chicago, IL Aragon Ballroom
Sat 08/31/02 St. Paul, MN Roy Wilkins Auditorium