An Interview With John McCrea of Cake
Since 1994’s “Motorcade of Generosity,” and through songs like “The Distance” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” Sacramento’s Cake has toed a fine line between smart, sardonic humor and blissfully infectious tunes.
The trend continues with their latest release, “Pressure Chief,” which features the ’80s-synth hit “No Phone,” the funky “Wheels,” and a deliciously peculiar cover of Bread’s “The Guitar Man.”
“Chief,” while sharing the self-production ethics of its predecessors, marks the first time the band–vocalist/guitarist/songwriter John McCrea, guitarist Xan McCurdy, bassist Gabe Nelson and trumpet player Vincent di Fiore–engineered an album on their own, resulting in some happy experimenting. “We didn’t actually know what we were doing when we first started,” McCrea explains. “We kind of learned as we went, and ended up making mistakes that are on the record that I think ended up sounding good.”
The album was recorded in a Sacramento home studio in the summer of 2003, and the band will soon be hitting the road, with stops in Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on the calendar.
McCrea spoke with liveDaily about making “Pressure Chief,” anti-gratuitous innovation and his prime directive.
liveDaily: How long did it take you to make “Pressure Chief?”
John McCrea: I’m writing all the time, so it’s kind of hard to say how long that takes. It takes a while. Some songs come within five minutes, some songs take years. I just have to be there for that process. We spent about nine months on that last album, but not constantly recording; nine months working on stuff, then taking a short break, listening to it, and going back. Because we produced it ourselves, we have to allow a little bit more time for objectivity to creep in. With the luxury of an outside producer, that objectivity, I think, things can move more quickly than they do with us. But if I spend a lot of time and effort recording a certain guitar part, it’s going to take me a while to come to the conclusion that we need to throw it out, and that the song sounds better without it. That’s what a producer can do for you, is just say, “Nope. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how long you spent. Let’s move on.”
Is this the first album you produced yourselves?
No, actually we’ve produced all of our albums ourselves, from the very first one. On this album, we not only produced it, but we engineered it ourselves. We got an old house, bought some microphones, tried to figure out how to place the microphones, tried to learn how to use the equipment. There’s a learning curve that you can hear on this album. We decided to leave some of the imperfections in there. I think it’s not really a matter of perfection; it’s a matter of appropriateness. Like, whether or not a sound serves the overall song. I think a lot of times, engineers get caught up in the idea that things have to be perfect. I think what is perfect is what is appropriate for the song. So sometimes you really have to re-examine.
The video for “No Phone” is basically the same concept that you used for “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” turning the camera around.
Yeah, a lot of people said, “It’s the same video as you did last time.” We said, “Well, do you even get it? Do you even understand what this band is?” Look at our album covers. We’re anti-gratuitous innovation. We think that’s wasteful, and we’re creating a set. We also believe in themes that carry through. When everything has to completely reinvent itself every couple of months, it’s more a sign of low self-esteem than it is, I think, innovation. Dishwashing detergents are nervously scratching for new flavors.
It’s “super extra new!”
Exactly. Cars trying to redesign themselves to create more demand. That stuff makes me barf. So the fact that it’s incumbent upon a band to somehow do that every album just pisses me off infinitely. Because I think my prime directive is to be in service of the song, whichever song that is. Not some sort of conceptual idea about the evolution of a band, which to me is just senseless if it’s not in service of the individual song. An overarching evolution of a band is inevitably going to violate the individual rights of a song. In other words, say you have 10 songs, and you say, “Oh, we’re going to move it in this direction.” Well inevitably four, five, or six of those songs don’t want to move in that direction. It wants to move in the opposite direction. So everything has to be taken on a song-by-song basis. I think when bands let some sort of conceptual goal dictate aesthetic considerations, inevitably you’re going to have compromises that are going to really hinder the full expression of individual songs.
An Interview With John McCrea of Cake