Plant a tree, (solar) bake a Cake
John McCrea, Sac’s most famous singer-songwriter, goes green, raffles off saplings, stands up for degenerate songwriting alcoholics everywhere
Cake singer-songwriter John McCrea has never been one to shy away from sharing his worldviews on everything including politics, myriad social injustices and health-care reform. McCrea and the rest of the band are big on the environment, too, and, in an effort to put their beliefs to work, retrofitted their Sacramento studio entirely with solar panels. The band’s sixth album, due out by the end of the year, is being powered entirely by the sun.
McCrea called recently from his Oakland home to discuss going green, old trees and why nearly 20 years after he started out in Sac, it’s much harder for local musicians to afford that rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
When did Cake make the decision to build a solar studio? Did you retrofit the existing studio?
We did the conversion about a year and a half ago. This place is just a house that was converted into a studio five years ago. It occurred to us that it’s really hot in Sacramento and that there were some pretty good ideas out there on solar panels, so we decided to make our own energy.
Was it expensive? Were you worried about recouping the cost?
It was a lot more costly when we did it than it is now; with the world economy tanking, there’s no greater opportunity or window in time in which to do solar panels. The whole industry is fighting to compete.
[Also], we’re not in the studio recording 100 percent of the time, so SMUD—not being as evil as PG&E—actually pays us to make energy. So, you know, if the music-business thing doesn’t work out for us …
Was there any one thing that made the band decide to move forward with the project?
It’s just something I’d wanted to do for 10 or 15 years but just really hadn’t had the time or the money to be able to accomplish it. Then, we just looked at the situation and realized there was no reason not to do this. Germany is the No. 1 solar-energy producer in the world. I’ve been to Germany; Germany’s cloudy most of the time. People like me, naturally, already have a lot of annoying details in their lives, so it’s counterintuitive to [initiate change], but getting a sense from people who had already gone through with solar installations helped quite a bit, realizing that it didn’t have to be this “Grizzly Adams” type of situation.
Do you think it’s had any impact on Cake’s actual sound or the aesthetic of the album?
Emotionally—oh yeah, there’s been an impact. Everything you do as a musician is incredibly destructive to the Earth: the carbon footprint, the touring, being on a bus and on a plane—it’s the worst. It’s one of the worst jobs on the planet, and you put these people in this job who are espousing liberal beliefs and environmental beliefs—there’s just something very disturbing about it. With the record, it probably amounts to nothing, but at least it’s something we can wrap your head around. There’s the thought that at least we’ll make an album that was recorded using solar energy.
Has Cake tried to incorporate any other environmental changes?
On tour, we bring along a water filter so we don’t use as many plastic bottles. We’ve also been trying to use biodiesel buses, but it’s very hard because there are only about five of them; they’re very hard to rent. The whole thing becomes a complex math problem. The idea is not to be a perfectionist, but to be pragmatic.
Also, for the last three to four years, we’ve been giving away a tree [during shows]. We’ll ask a trivia question [from the stage], and someone leaves the concert with a birch tree or a native tree. The idea is to have that person plant the tree and then take a picture next to the planted tree every few years or so.
How many have you given away?
I think we’ve given way a few hundred; we’ve given away a few saplings, and some of them have grown very tall. It’s all just very exciting to me. I planted a tree a long time ago in Midtown, and once in a while, I’ll drive by my old house and it’s huge now; that’s such an exciting thing for a human being to witness. That was about 15 years ago. It was a plum tree, and it’s gone just crazy.
Were you doing it for environmental reasons when you planted that tree in Midtown?
No, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I think I wanted to not see the street so much. I lived on F Street then, and it was basically a very busy street.
How is the new album coming along? What does it sound like?
It’s kind of hard to say exactly what kind of music it is, but there are some aggressive rock songs, as well as some weird pseudoclassical compositions—there’s also some old-fashioned songwriting.
Stuff that’s tied into Appalachian/European music that’s mixed with Delta blues and big-band-era stuff. We like to create a lot of confusion and vitality in our music instead of it just being about the Velvet Underground and the White Stripes. It’s also about Hank [Williams] Sr. and Benny Goodman and Harold Arlen and a lot of other great songwriters.
Cake hasn’t played Sacramento in a long time.
We may do a few unannounced shows. We just want to be able to play them without judgment. A new band is able to practice in public spaces without public scrutiny—and that’s really healthy for a band.
Do you ever get out to see other bands in Sacramento?
Not as much as I’d like to. I’m not there enough to know how things are going. I do know that [the scene] seems like it’s haltingly intermittently vital. It’s always been that way.
I don’t know what’s happening with Midtown, [but] a lot of it is looking like the suburbs. All that development; there are all those high-end restaurants and the rents have gone up astronomically. That has to have the effect of pricing people out—musician people. To be a degenerate-songwriter alcoholic—it’s getting hard to pay for that that kind of lifestyle when your rent is $1,500.