Assumption of rock
Cake’s John McCrea says bigness isn’t subversive and dinky is no joke
For nearly two decades, singer-songwriter John McCrea has used Cake, his Sacramento-born band, as a way to push and blend musical styles—all while exploring topics of politics, culture and love.
On first listen Cake’s sixth studio album, Showroom of Compassion, recorded in the band’s Sacramento solar-powered studio, seems quieter than previous releases. But upon repeated listenings, songs such as “Mustache Man” and “Federal Funding” demonstrate the best of Cake—literate wordplay, a rollicking horn section and enough self-admitted musical “bastardization” to satisfy any longtime fan.
McCrea, on the phone from his Oakland home, recently checked in to discuss tall truck music, irony and why it took seven years to record a new album.
The last time we talked, you mentioned that the new album was all “old-fashioned” songwriting. Do you think that’s reflected in the finished songs?
The songs aren’t so much of an embracing of old-fashioned but rather a rejection of rock—I’m so sick of it, or at least the assumption of rock. Of course it’s all rock, but that just seems so culturally myopic and sort of inappropriate for such an amazingly diverse time when you listen to anything.
What kind of rock music do you hate, and what do you like?
I don’t really want to go into what kind of rock I hate, but maybe it’s time to not create music that’s inbred.
I love country music; a lot of songs that I wrote when I was first learning to write songs were country. It’s a great way to start for its tradition of simplicity and economy. Hank Williams Sr. is such an amazingly important songwriter. I really respect that tradition of music.
“Bound Away” sounds like a classic country song—which of course can also be inbred.
I was talking to Charlie Louvin about a Louvin Brothers song that I thought came out of nowhere, but he listed influences like the Delmore Brothers—it’s all bastardization.
The song “Sick of You” sounds like both a breakup song and an indictment of our techno-fueled culture.
On the one hand you’re right; it’s a simple breakup song. I wanted it to be that, but I also wanted it to be about isolation and narcissism, and there’s certainly an image that comes to mind when I sing that song—of a certain nihilistic exhalation when you’re feeling negative about the world and hating the president because he’s a corporate tool, but then the circle tightens and you’re hating your cousin and your mother and eventually everyone. It’s a criticism about the things that aren’t good enough. This wine isn’t good enough or this band isn’t good enough and, eventually, it’s just your best friend and closet confidant. And then it’s just you. That’s the constricting nature to negation; that’s just the sad part of it.
You produced Showroom of Compassion yourself. Is there any particular reason why you don’t like to work with other producers?
We’re tool users; we’re just looking for things that work in song arrangements to push a song forth in an aesthetically appropriate way that doesn’t distract from the core DNA of a song. That can take a long time. So, to answer the next question—if you’re going to ask the question that seems to come up in every interview, “Why did it so long to put out a new record?”—that can take a long time.
OK, so why exactly did it take so long to put out a new record?
It takes a lot of time to detach yourself from something you’re invested in, to wrench yourself out of the subjective into the objective and vice versa. That’s why people hire producers to do albums. I would work with someone in a heartbeat if I trusted them to understand our aesthetic. Most people think we’re just a big joke because it’s not about guitars, it’s not screaming and veins bulging from the neck, it’s not white-male-power music—so it’s a joke. I’m sure there are a lot of producers out there who don’t see us as a joke, but in the early days, they didn’t understand that we wanted to sound small.
What do you mean by “small”?
[In the early ’90s,] all the music sounded like tall truck music. It was grunge—for me, grunge was big American rock dressed up in low-self-esteem clothing. The amp was still turned up to 11, and I didn’t believe in the low self-esteem. It was a hostile gesture in the United States, where cars are twice the size they need to be. Bigness isn’t subversive—maybe being small is. Maybe a bigger “fuck you” is to sound dinky.
You mention that some people see you as a “joke,” a novelty act …
Honestly, the only way I can fathom is that we get that from people who haven’t listened to an entire Cake album. This is a culture that’s about singles and objectifying a band for one song, and that’s the song that’s being foisted on people, and so their entire view of the band is that one song.
Critics usually call Cake’s music “ironic.” How does that make you feel at this point in your career?
Radio tends to choose songs of ours that reflect that stereotype. On the one hand, we’re grateful anyone would want to listen to us at all, but on the other hand, it’s slightly irritating when we feel people [don’t] understand what we’re doing. It’s a low-grade failure on my part—a failure to communicate effectively—if I’m being perceived as ironic when I’m actually being sincere. But then again, that’s not something I care about, because enough people do get it—they tend to be smart people. I think maybe that I’ve often enjoyed people not understanding us, especially in the early years when we were riding around [Sacramento] at 1 in the morning putting up our singularly enigmatic show posters with the word “Cake” on them—people didn’t understand it then, either.