Cake’s John McCrea on the Importance of Musicians and Degenerates in San Francisco
Last week, the Bay Area print edition of The Onion published my interview with Cake‘s John McCrea, in advance of their big NYE show at the Warfield. Following is the unpublished full-length version of our talk, in which we delve a little deeper into things San Francisco:
Cake is a consistent band. Despite hitting fairly big during the alterna-boom of the mid-’90s, they stayed true to themselves and their sound. Fans stayed true too, and Cake has been going strong ever since. In October, they put out “B-Sides and Rarities”, their first self-released effort since parting ways with Columbia Records. In November, they embarked on their Unlimited Sunshine Tour, a rock anti-festival of sorts, featuring an eclectic lineup and a strict no-wait policy between acts. On New Year’s Eve, they bring their show to the Warfield, with Oakland’s the Lovemakers in tow. Frontman John McCrea keeps a tight leash on everything Cake-related (during shows he operates the venue’s disco ball with a foot pedal), but it’s all a part of delivering a quality product.
A.V. Club: How has the Unlimited Sunshine Tour been?
John McCrea: Musically, it’s the most cohesive tour that we’ve put together. The different sounds fit together in a way that’s not repetitive but is also not gratuitously jarring, though I prefer that jarring quality to the repetitious quality of most festival concerts wherein you have basically the same rock drumbeat every song for five hours. The human ear turns off after a certain point. That’s the value of variety, that the human body can stay engaged.
AVC: What’s Cake doing lately to keep bodies engaged?
JM: We’re playing a subtly anti-war Kenny Rogers song called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” about a guy who comes back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down, and his relationship problems after that. Probably the saddest song about war I’ve ever heard. It’s on our album, B-Sides and Rarities, that we released in October on our own label.
AVC: Right, so having ditched the majors, do you feel like you’re right where you want to be?
JM: We’re not where we don’t want to be. It’s good not to be on a sinking ship. It’s better to be on a little raft, I suppose. There are still a lot of confusing aspects to the situation right now that will be pretty challenging, but it’s certainly easier to do this without the incredible waste of the major label industry system. By the same token, if music sales continue plummeting and the rate that they’ve been plummeting, we won’t be immune to that either. Just separating ourselves from a major label isn’t enough to insulate us from the stark reality of all recorded music being free. I want music to be free, but I also would love sandwiches to be free, and rent to be free.
AVC: Still, despite industry ups and downs, your fans have stuck by you for more than a decade. Does that surprise you?
JM: I think what you’re doing, and we all do it somewhat, it taking for granted the idea that it’s a use-and-discard culture. In this fearful frenzy of not wanting to be associated with a band that’s over six months old, people use music as a badge to wear instead of something to listen to. There’s something self-hating about our culture that suspects anything that is too widely embraced. In other words, if the groundlings like the Shakespeare play too much, maybe the people up in the fancy seats think maybe this isn’t his best play. Regardless of the quality of the music, if too many people like it, there’s this distancing process that has to happen.
AVC: On a related note, Cake’s sound doesn’t change much from album to album. Why don’t fans get tired of it?
JM: I guess I would ask someone to listen to the variance between songs on a single record, and then ask that same question. I don’t believe in gratuitous progression or evolution of a band. The prime directive should be to the individual song. I don’t want to sacrifice a song for some sort of theoretical, overarching narrative. That’s my problem with that. I like to be able to go a lot of different places on one album. Also, I’m glad that certain bands have a certain sound that they don’t try to reinvent because they feel like they’re supposed to reinvent it. For instance, AC/DC. They’re providing a quality service by making that sound, and if they totally reinvented it, no one would be making that sound. I would feel sad.
AVC: How are fans reacting to your cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”? Any stage diving?
JM: As far as I’m concerned, we play easy-listening music. There’s no hormonal, veins-bulging-from-the-neck thing going on. I’m always taken aback when people start crowd surfing or moshing to an easy-listening song. It tends to happen when we’re playing for a college crowd.
AVC: I saw your friend Jonathan Richman at the Great American Music Hall the other night. Lots of fans were requesting older material, and he ranted a bit about how, to him, those songs were like day-old bread.
JM: I respect him tremendously, but I have a different view about it. Music being sort of a service occupation — now more than ever — i think it’s honorable to play a song that people want to hear even if you’ve played it a lot. I think it’s honorable to reinvent it and find a way to be thrilled with it again. There’s a real nobility to what I saw when I saw Frank Sinatra live. I saw it as really honorable, him playing songs to regular people. Maybe those people weren’t in the music industry, or didn’t realize that was “day-old bread”. They just loved that song. They wanted to hear “Mac the Knife” by Frank Sinatra. Is that perspective so wrong?
AVC: So on New Year’s Eve, will you surprise the audience with some oft-requested favorites?
JM: I don’t know if it’s a surprise if I say what’s gonna happen, but yeah there are surprises. And there are some surprises that are non-musical. There will be all kinds of stimulation. We’re giving away a tree every time we play for the rest of our career — however long that lasts. We’ll ask some question like “How long did the Civil War last?” Last night somebody answered “four years”, and they were right, and we gave them a Colorado Blue Spruce. We’re asking them to send a picture of themselves standing next to the tree every year or two, and we’ll watch the tree grow as the person shrinks.
AVC: Speaking of things green, what’s your take on local San Francisco politics as of late?
JM: There are some things that happened in San Francisco politics that could happen nowhere else in country. I’m grateful things are as progressive as they are. Compared to all the other cities that we visit in the United States, it’s pretty remarkable. People lambast us using catch phrases like “San Francisco values”, but i just think values are shitty everywhere else, so… live it up. That said, all my friends have moved to Portland, and I’m not sure if San Francisco’s gonna be as livable without any musicians or degenerates. Sure there are lots of great musicians and bands, but they’re musicians that happen to have jobs at Yahoo! or something.