These vagabond shoes
Cake’s songwriting frontman John McCrea holes up in New York, writing the band’s next album
John McCrea has been keeping a low profile,
The eminently quotable frontman of Cake, a band pretty near ubiquitous in Midtown Sacramento before it went national with its second album, Fashion Nugget, in 1996, has been holing up in a flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He’s been writing songs for the next Cake album, which will come out sometime between fall 2003 and early 2004, with the smart money on the latter. It will be Cake’s second album since it left now-defunct Capricorn Records for the much larger Columbia label; the most recent Cake album, Comfort Eagle, came out in July 2001.
“I’d freaking planned to come to New York to write music with a friend of mine, like way before,” McCrea said in a phone conversation recently. “And then it just turned out to be perfect that I would be here in New York City, by myself, as the whole world gets its war on. It’s just a creepy feeling,” he said, adding a metaphorical observation of the city as a target-rich environment: “It’s just the hood ornament on the luxury car that people want to break off.”
That tension should make for good music. The songwriting partner and friend McCrea was referring to is former Sacramento resident Tyler Pope, guitarist for the late, lamented Yahmos and currently a member of the interconnected bands !!! and Out Hud. Pope and most of the other members of those two bands left Sacramento for the greener pastures of Brooklyn sometime back, and Pope has collaborated with McCrea before.
One of Cake’s saving graces is that McCrea wrote so many songs in the early years, so that even over the course of four albums, the band never quite ran out of material. Even Comfort Eagle has a couple songs Cake was performing in Midtown cafes in the early 1990s. “It made it so that I never felt pressured,” McCrea said. “It made it so that I never felt frantic, like ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to write!’ But eventually, I’m going to have to start freaking out like everybody else.”
For the forthcoming project, it sounds as if McCrea’s contemplating a change in his modus operandi, which might explain him working with a sonic texturalist like Pope. “I’m trying to decide whether to rail against the sort of American, new product, consumption-based idea,” he said. “And, for the first four albums, I have done that—railed against the idea that each album has to be this new invention, this new product. And I’ve tried not to change sounds, almost as a statement against the premise that bands need to evolve.”
McCrea wasn’t describing a natural evolution, a course that Cake’s music has indisputably followed, but rather the kind of forced model change that resulted in 1950s and ’60s Detroit redesigning its cars every year, even if the mechanics underneath stayed the same.
For the last couple of years, McCrea has resided in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, near the flats of lower Berkeley, where he bought a house. But half of Cake’s members still live in Sacramento and didn’t want to relocate. “So, people will probably be seeing more of me around [Sacramento] this summer,” he said, laughing.
McCrea will return to California this weekend to rejoin those bandmates—longtime trumpeter Vincent di Fiore, prodigal bassist Gabe Nelson and guitarist Xan McCurdy—to play an outdoor Earth Day concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park sponsored by We the Planet. That organization, which includes environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill and others, is dedicated to reclaiming the idea of “cool” as something linked to elevated human consciousness, rather than a commodity to be bought and sold. Part of We the Planet’s mission has to do with helping others to find information so they can live more environmentally friendly lives.
“What they want to do is hook people up with alternatives,” McCrea said. The all-day Sunday show will be powered by green energy sources.