John McCrea and his band, Cake, have gone the distance, and more than a few times. Maybe more than he would have liked. McCrea is the declarative voice of a band that came of age at the pinnacle of alt-rock radio and more or less conquered a once-robust industry. Albums went platinum. iPod commercials were soundtracked. Multiple continents were toured. Those stats were the product of a brand of rock 'n' roll that was indifferent to the fads of radio-rock. The stats were also partially a product of being on Columbia Records.
Now, for the first time since their 1994 debut album, the members of Cake find themselves in a position where they must go the distance by themselves. They have joined the ranks of the humbling and sprawling independent music universe, where the pressure to perform comes from within, and record sales are rarely assigned an element on the periodic table. Cake's January release, Showroom of Compassion, is on the band's own Upbeat Records, and so far, sales are good. At the end of January, the album was No. 25 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
That it had been seven years since the band's last proper full-length (2004's critically and commercially underwhelming Pressure Chief) is not lost on McCrea during our conversation. The day he picks up a phone call from a reporter also happens to be the day of Showroom's release, a time to reflect on the last seven years. While that may seem like a long time between albums, he says the band members were as busy as ever: "We just wanted to reconfigure our whole situation."
After negotiating a break with Columbia, the band decided to test the DIY waters and self-release a collection of rarities and B-sides in 2007. It had also undertaken a completely different kind of project: Ever the socially, environmentally, and politically conscious denizens of Sacramento, the members of Cake hollowed out their recording studio and built a shiny new one powered entirely by solar technology.
Showroom is the first album to come of it, and much like the building, the album is all about sustainability. The band clearly thought it best not to tamper with its matter-of-factual sound. Cake has always valued lyrical clarity and uncomplicated, catchy song structures, and Showroom clings to that proven formula. McCrea is still a master of the pithy, to-the-point refrain, whether he's discussing politics, relationships, or modern sociology. But too much emphasis is on the poetry once again, and artistic risk is not in his feverishly partisan vocabulary.
Album opener "Federal Funding" pairs throttling guitar and sarcastically glorious trumpets with McCrea's declaration "You'll receive the federal funding/You can have a hefty grant/Strategize the presentation/Make them see that you're the man." We dare not take him at face value. This is McCrea sarcastically going the distance again.
"Easy to Crash," too, has the same omniscient narration found in Cake's best work, with McCrea singing (spoken word moments are few, if not entirely absent), "Clouds hang oppressively over our little cars ... driving our luxury cars down to our pretty city of stars." "Bound Away" finds the band instrumentally and comfortably bucolic, and McCrea at his most personal, lamenting the tough-luck reality of life in a touring rock band.
Indeed, Dean Moriarty he is not. "We tour as little as possible," he says. "It's not something I'm crazy about doing for all kinds of reasons." (Hint: Don't miss the four Fillmore dates, it might be a while before the band comes around again.)
But the road calls when your singles are played the world over. "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," "Going the Distance," "Frank Sinatra," and plenty more have worked their way into radio airwaves, TV shows, and movies. McCrea is well aware how the industry model has changed in terms of the way singles are marketed to promote albums, and the diminishing role radio plays today. He seems relieved that bands aren't defined by their hits as much as they once were. "I don't know if it matters that much what gets played on radio anymore," he says. "I don't see a renaissance of the album, but maybe a little less singularity."
McCrea is surely thinking of Cake when he says bands are generally objectified for their hit songs, when they've recorded perhaps 13 songs as a complete artistic work. Now that Cake has found autonomy, the days of new singles heard around the world may be over. "I think the band is just frustrated having to think about that, usually because we disagree about what sounds like a single, and we don't want to force people to promote songs that we don't think are the right songs," he says.
He seems more at peace with the music he's hearing today, which certainly wasn't the case some 10 years ago. In particular, McCrea says he grew disillusioned with the music that seemed to be a response to the 9/11 attacks, and the concentration of power in the music industry. "The cultural gatekeepers screw up a lot, and also maybe my tastes are not in line with other people's tastes," he says. "Maybe they're doing the right thing, but there are periods that are really hard to deal with ... now the Internet gatekeepers are becoming more and more relevant."
Cake's relevance seems safe in this transitory moment. The band is sustaining. It is going a measured distance. It's what Cake isn't going for that might determine its shelf life.