Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sound Check: Cake INTERVIEW

Fake Plastic's very own Fr. Jones shoots the breeze with John McCrea of Cake about phonetic momentum, solar power, aural equivalents of deforestation, and of course- Lana Del Rey.

FR: So where did the band name Cake come from?

JM: It was chosen mostly for it’s phonetic power. It just has a lot of phonetic momentum. It’s a four-letter word but without all the other baggage. Do you know what I mean? It’s very abrupt sounding. It looks good on a poster. I used to make all of our posters in the early years and there’s nothing like a four-letter word just sort of juxtaposed with some sort of two-dimensional iconic graphic beneath it to confuse people and generate curiosity. In the back of my mind, I thought, “Marie Antoinette” but we were more thinking about “cake” as a verb than as a noun- as if you were to find some dried banana caked on your corduroy trousers.

FR: Dried banana on corduroy trousers. That actually sounds like a Cake lyric.

JM: Right. Or mud caked on your shoe sort of thing. Or layers of culture or whatever.

FR: How did you guys first get together?

JM: Probably pretty typically. All the musicians existed separately in this music scene of Sacaramento, California. We were in a lot of different kinds of bands and it sort of coalesced around songs. I was actually performing solo acoustic for a while in the area. I just thought that I had these parts and wanted to add a guitar, bass guitar. Finally, we found a good drummer and then lastly, I guess we had some melodies we thought that we could put on a second electric guitar or keyboard or some other horn. Eventually, we settled on trumpet because we wanted to avoid the heroic sound of the lead guitar that has been dominating for decades in the United States of America and the trumpet seemed like a good alternative- long notes without all the bombast and self-importance of the searing lead guitar aesthetic.

FR: You guys hit it big way back in the 90s. The music scene has changed a lot since then. Can you remember the moment where you knew Cake had gone to the next level?

JM: It was like putting a frog in lukewarm water and slowly raising the temperature. It happened without our noticing. It happened while we were touring on the road in a broken-down Dodge van that was catching on fire all the time. There wasn’t some red carpet, it was really gradual. Here and there, suspicious events would happen where we would hear our song on the radio or there would be some famous actor that liked our band and wanted to meet us. But it was just so gradual. I don’t know if there was ever a sense of explosion and I think that may have preserved our mental health to a certain degree as well.

FR: Currently, a popular thing to do is to group music into genres and subgenres- everything’s post. You have post-rock, post-dubstep. How would you categorize the sound of Cake? Even in the 90s, a lot of people my age were drawn to it because of that aesthetic you mentioned. It sounded so much different than anything at the time.

JM: Well, if I were a music journalist I would feel more compelled to figure out what we are. I understand that it may be frustrating because there’s not a whole cultural scene around what we’re doing. There’s not a unified aesthetic consensus and there’s not even really an aesthetic consensus within the confines of even one of our albums. There’s a lot of different kinds of songs. I can empathize with that frustration. If there’s any sort of overarching statement about our music, it doesn’t have to do with our being part of a tribe or movement. I think that’s maybe been helpful to our longevity. When something reaches a critical mass, there’s sort of a gut reaction in America to throw it out. Since we’re not part of a scene, I think we’ve been allowed to live longer than most bands. But if there is an overarching way I can describe us, it’s a “less is more” approach. It’s not about inclusion so much, but it’s about the things we exclude. A lot of bands, during the time of our inception, were about turning the volume up to 11. We just wondered “how is sheer quantity in any way subversive or rebellious to the status quo in the United States of America?” It’s not necessarily about rebellion. It’s about being able to tell one band or song from the other. At the time, there was a lot of big, dumb rock happening, a new type of wide load music. It was different from the wide load music of five years previous, but the same type of approach- creating music that is the aural equivalent of deforestation. It was just sort of about being muscular. Not literally muscular, but the music was just slabs of guitar and to me that was a cultural gesture that was both unintelligible and unsustainable to itself. So I thought, “You know what? We need to turn this shit down.” And hopefully that’s a truly novel approach.

FR: How would you say the music of Cake has developed? From the early 90s to now, what’s the biggest difference?

JM: Initially, our music was a hostile and reactionary gesture towards what was going on at the time. Now, maybe that’s less the case and maybe we’ve gotten a little louder than we used to be. We’re not really making that same statement but we’ve kept our “less is more” approach to a certain degree in how we arrange our songs and write our music. It’s still not about volume so much. I wouldn’t really call that intentional development. I would call it a slight change of attitude. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a band needs to develop in a conventional narrative. I guess what I could say is that, as a band, we have all grown into our separate roles and there’s a lot more confidence coming from each player. This recent album, Showroom of Compassion, I think it’s a step forward in that confidence and ease of working together and creating song arrangements. It used to be the task of one or two people to write these songs. But now, various members of the band are a lot more confident in participating in that process.

FR: One of your biggest hits was a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" from Fashion Nugget. How did you reach this decision? Were you big disco fans?

JM: I always loved that song. Even though it was a disco song, I thought it had a well-written melody. A lot of people just assumed, especially in the Baby Boomer generation, that the whole thing was a sarcastic joke. Actually, we really liked that song. I think a lot of people assumed it had to be a joke because of the whole “disco sucks” movement and all the white, male anger towards all things disco- which is understandable. I think it’s natural to be threatened by such a massive, pop cultural movement that isn’t about white, male power, a guitar, or some other phallic symbol. It was really just an earnest appreciation for the melody of the song. It was a very atypically hopeful song for a band like us to play.

FR: Can you tell me a little about your solar studio?

JM: Speaking about a lack of hope, we wanted to convert our studio to solar power for a long time but we were never home very much. We decided to take a little time off and maybe find a way out of our record deal with Columbia so we had some time to think. We had just gotten back from Germany which is actually the number one producer of solar electricity in the world and just about every time we’ve gone to Germany, it’s been cloudy and rainy. So hailing from California, it seemed shameful for us not to do what we could to make the conversion to solar. It ended up being really easy. And now as the value of recorded music descends into the toilet, we still get a check in the mail every so often from the publically-owned utility in Sacramento, California. So that helps us buy sandwiches.

FR: On the note of recorded music going into the toilet, it’s available in a variety of forms now. You have the digital downloads, vinyl, CDs, even cassettes are attempting a modest comeback. Is there any form you enjoy listening to the most? Is there any form you think Cake sounds best on?

JM: Speaking of the frog being lowered into boiling water and slowly turning the temperature up, when things happen slowly, maybe they go unnoticed. But when you compare the quality of an old vinyl album with the sound quality of a MP3 file, the difference in sound quality is jarring. That said, it’s exciting to fit so much music into such a small space. But I still have my turntable set up in the living room with a lot of albums that I listen to. I listen to albums on CD as well and I do think the portability of MP3 files is valuable- so when I’m on the road, I’ll probably listen to that. But in terms of quality, with most genres that I listen to, vinyl sounds the best. There are some genres, like techno and various forms and offshoots of electronic music, that I think may sound just fine on MP3 and more digital forms. But if I had my choice, in terms of rock music or big band music or old country music or early 70s soul and R&B, those all sound best on vinyl.

FR: The music industry has changed a lot in the past decade. From Napster to iTunes to Spotify, where do you see it going in the next ten years?

JM: Well, for musicians, I think it looks pretty bleak in terms of feeding yourself with music. Spotify, Pandora, and all these other things, the amount they pay musicians for their work is very paltry. The other alternatives are a pretty giant step down from what the evil record companies were doing- they were definitely stealing money from musicians in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But I think it’s gotten more difficult to sustain life in terms of paying for food and rent with music. It’s gotten easier though in terms of there not being this conventional gatekeeper. It is now easier to be noticed like putting a video up on YouTube and getting a million hits. But it’s also harder to get people to remember a few months later. It’s like, “What was that video we watched? There was a dog in it or something? What band was that?” We’re using the warp drive in a way or whatever it’s called in Star Trek or Star Wars when the ship goes really fast.

FR: Hyperdrive.

JM: Right, the hyperdrive. All the stars blend together. It’s a challenge. As far as music being more than a hobby and someone being supported by the community, America’s never been all that supportive of the arts compared to some other countries so this isn’t really surprising. I’ll put it this way- a lot of companies like Google are making lots of money from information being free, they like to talk about how there are other avenues for income. But in the music world, that would mean just touring constantly. I’ve been touring for about twenty years and I can’t do that any longer. So for me, I can see the end of the road ahead where I may go to dental school or something to figure out another way to earn a living. I actually know a lot of bands and artists who are checking out because, if you can do math and can project the precipitous decline, the outcome is pretty clear. I mean, it’s cool if you’re twenty and you love to tour. I think it’s a great thing what’s happening now with people having such an array of music at their fingertips instantaneously. It’s such a great time for exploration.

FR: Do you have any thoughts on Lana Del Rey?

JM: I remember some musicians I know sort of kvetching about her wondering why they put her on Saturday Night Live. But I don’t really watch Saturday Night Live. I just can’t watch that show anymore.

FR: Yeah. It’s really gone downhill.

JM: Always savor the decline.

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