Building a religion

Behind the man in the Cake pulpit, there’s a man with a wicked horn

CAKE MIX (Left to right): Xan McCurdy, John McCrea, Vince DiFiore, Gabriel Nelson. (Not pictured: Pete McNeal.)

CAKE MIX (Left to right): Xan McCurdy, John McCrea, Vince DiFiore, Gabriel Nelson. (Not pictured: Pete McNeal.)

Maybe it’s a nice day to feed the ducks, but Vince DiFiore forgot to bring the bread.

The trumpet player, who joined the popular Sacramento quintet Cake in time for its second gig way back in 1991, is sitting on a bench facing the duck pond in McKinley Park, with the all-weather jogging track and Alhambra Boulevard directly behind him. “I have some stuff in my car that I want to keep an eye on,” he says.

Despite his casual dress—loose-fitting shirt, trousers, sandals—DiFiore seems a little preoccupied on this quite pleasant late afternoon. It isn’t that he’s nervous; it’s more as if he’s aware that his life is about to change radically in a matter of days, and he’s still reconciling himself to that idea.

A quick listen to Cake’s newest album, and it becomes apparent why DiFiore might be a bit edgy. After three albums for Capricorn Records, Cake recently signed on with a much larger delivery system, Columbia Records, which released Comfort Eagle on July 24. Which might not be a problem if the record stank.

However, it doesn’t—which means that there is a distinct possibility that Columbia, with its proven marketing muscle, will turn Cake’s new album into a massive hit. Which also means that the 37-year-old DiFiore most likely won’t be spending a lot of time relaxing in McKinley Park during the next year or two. And, judging from the number of songs that continue to bounce around inside the old cranial cavity after taking off the headphones, Comfort Eagle is Cake’s finest piece of work yet.

DiFiore happens to agree. “It’s an exciting record,” he says. “I think the other records were exciting, but after we’d finished them, there’s a lack of adrenaline that I experienced when I heard the final record.”

‘We are building a religion. We are building it bigger. We are widening the corridors and adding more lanes,” John McCrea barks into the microphone, his vocal underscored by an ominously buzzing fat-string guitar line. “We are building a religion, a limited edition. We are now accepting callers for these pendant key chains. Resistance is useless …

Indeed it is.

Track number seven, “Comfort Eagle,” which follows a dandy instrumental titled “Arco Arena,” builds—first, propelled by an insistent beat from the former drummer Todd Roper (who’s since been replaced by Pete McNeal), and then followed by synthesizer filigrees that curl like cartoon hookah smoke, courtesy of DiFiore.

McCrea is off on one of his infrequent jeremiads, this time nailing what’s either one of the many chain-wallet-wielding trendsetters who populate the lower rungs of the music business, or some sort of tattooed New Age fakir for the Jim Rome generation—or both. His spoken delivery has the kind of measured urgency you hear on old recordings of Malcolm X or Gil Scott-Heron, and it sounds as if it were blasting through some Reverend Ike parallel universe of radio static. And by the time McCrea gets to the payoff line, “He is in the music business, he is calling you ‘Dude,’ ” you’re hooked.

But it’s the backing track that frames the song with an almost claustrophobic rigidity. Roper, bassist Gabriel Nelson and guitarist Xan McCurdy march in vicious instrumental lockstep; weaving in and out of the mix is DiFiore, jumping in on keyboards when he isn’t blowing the horn, and who sounds as if he’s woodshedded with plenty of old P-Funk sides to capture the essence of Bernie Worrell.

The overall effect reminds this writer of a cab ride from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in New York to Brooklyn one sweltering summer afternoon. The middle-aged cabbie probably hailed from somewhere east of Greece; his occasional, furtive glances toward the back seat indicated he was a few seething degrees beyond pissed off. He snaked his decrepit GM full-sized beater through the overheated red-brick canyons of some distinctly non-palatial neighborhoods in Queens while blasting a tape of a very, very angry harangue in a language that sounded something like Arabic, through a funky-sounding reverb unit that made it come off much like McCrea does here.

The ride was scary, but it got my attention. Same with this arresting track: It’s riveting but quite effective—and by the time McCrea gets to the couplet, “Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke. The wacky morning D.J. says democracy’s a joke,” it’s all over. Here’s proof that at least someone in post-coup d’etat America is still making politically charged rock ‘n’ roll that you can dance to—and for a major label, no less.

And the rest of the album is every bit as winning. The album has its share of classics—a hauntingly beautiful tune titled “Meanwhile, Rick James … ,” on which McCrea demonstrates superior crooning technique that sounds like Jackson Browne imitating Perry Como; “Shadow Stabbing,” with its oblique refrain “The man on the street might just as well be,” underscored by liquid guitar lines from McCurdy; and the infectious “Commissioning a Symphony in C.” DiFiore thinks “Love You Madly,” which draws on McCrea’s fascination with ‘70s disco recordings, will be the follow-up single to “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” And “Opera Singer,” “Long Line of Cars,” “Pretty Pink Ribbon” and “World of Two” are pretty damn fine, too.

While McCrea was unavailable for comment—something about a last-minute vacation, according to his publicist at Columbia—DiFiore would make himself available to talk. As the utility player in the band, DiFiore—who has a master’s degree in psychology—has always seemed adept at smoothing out ruffled feathers, a skill that came in somewhat handy before former bassist Victor Damiani and guitarist Greg Brown, both now with Deathray, departed Cake during the making of Prolonging the Magic.

“Well, they had their own thing, Saturday’s Child and all that,” DiFiore says of the power-pop trio made up of Damiani, Brown and Roper that was absorbed into Cake. “It worked out well that they were in Cake—they had a good gig, something to show their chops and play well and be a part of a successful group. But then when it came right down to it, they really wanted to do their own thing.

“Yeah, that’s the thing,” he adds. “You get involved with something and it’s working, but then you think, ‘Oh my God—this is my whole life. Is this what I’m committing myself to, for my identity?’ So they had to leave.”

Rather than play the role of conciliator, however, à la Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls, DiFiore seems more like the quiet backbone of the band.

“I’m just doing a job,” he says. “And I’m working hard to do the job. And if I don’t do the job right, I’m in a lot of trouble.” He pauses, laughing. “It’s a lot of work to make it sound right. And then it’s just like any other job, I suppose—there’s a little bit more glory, but the glory is really just paper-thin. And you can’t really take any of that glory and use it to make your ego a better place to live. That’s not something that really exists in the real world.”

Sure. And although McCrea has cultivated a star persona, one of the things that has kept Cake on the level has been the grounding counterbalance DiFiore has provided McCrea and band. For example, where would David Letterman be without Paul Shaffer?

DiFiore fell into his gig almost by fate, after growing up in Palos Verdes and going to college in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. He moved north to go to graduate school at Sac State. “I was living in Sacramento and trying to work on a regular career,” he says. “I was going to school and trying to make some sort of life for myself. But in the meantime I was playing with a lot of bands around town. And that was really satisfying.”

After playing with the late, lamented Pounded Clown and others, DiFiore was playing a jam-session night at the old nightclub J.R.'s on J Street (Taqueria Taco Loco occupies the space now) when McCrea popped in. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“My life turned inside out,” he says. “The thing that was the pursuit of fun and happiness became my life, and I had to flesh that out and make it right.”

And what of international stardom and its attendant pitfalls?

“The cult of personality is a tricky thing,” DiFiore wryly observes. “You have to have a lot of spin control.”

Or your ducks lined up in a row.