The '90s produced grunge and nu-metal rock acts that wallowed in dark emotions. And the '90s also produced Cake, an outlier that sprinkled mariachi-style horns into quirky singles such as “The Distance” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.”
Speaking via phone from his Portland, OR home where he was doing “regular life things like fence building,” Cake founder John McCrea says he was and is fine with being the odd band out.
“No one at that time was foolish enough to make a sound similar to ours, so it didn’t become a thing” says McCrea, who formed the band in 1991 in Sacramento. “We came up during the grunge era when the music was big and important sounding. People thought we were only a joke. I was okay with it at that point. We’d play big rock festivals and all these loud bands with self-hating lyrics and what not. We would play our songs, and it felt like we were the intermission or palate cleansers between the real music. But then, three years later, we’d play another rock festival in the same town, and all those bands were gone, but there’d be a new group that was more important. And three years later, they were gone. That’s my recollection. Things were explosive and big and powerful, and there were veins bulging from people’s necks, and then, it went away.”
Cake, however, never went away. The band self-released its first album but then signed to Capricorn Records, a label mostly known for Southern rock and jam bands, for its second release, Fashion Nugget. That album would deliver the monster hit “The Distance” and solidify the band as outsiders with platinum sales potential.
“Our music is kind of like Southern rock,” insists McCrea. “Southern rock has some connection to country, and we have that. There’s not a negation of groove. Other white guy power music is linear and the rhythms are unrelenting because it’s so powerful. It doesn’t need to have curves. It can draw a straight line like 'fuck you — if you don’t like it, I’ll kill you.'"
Capricorn imploded, and the group wound up in the grips of a major label that McCrea says found the band’s approach baffling.
“We found ourselves dealing with people in New York in expensive suits, and they didn’t understand us at all,” he says. “That became really scary because your ability to earn a living is in the hands of someone who just doesn’t get you and doesn’t know how to sell you to people.”
The group’s last studio album came out in 2011, but that doesn’t mean the musical well has gone dry. In the past five years, Cake issued a cover of “Age of Aquarius” and “Sinking Ship,” a song that amplifies McCrea’s latent pessimism with lacerating guitars and droll vocals. McCrea says he tries to avoid playing the latter because “it’s so negative, I can’t do it right now.”
“I’ve got a ton of songs, and I am deciding who I want to work with and how I will record them,” he says. “Some of the arrangements are up in the air, but I want to release some new songs soon.”
Uncertain if new songs would find their way into the band’s set at Jacobs Pavilion, McCrea says he’s particularly fond of the band’s spontaneous live shows.
“The live show is really fun,” he says. “We don’t use a setlist. We just ask ourselves what song we’ll play next. As a result, we put on a better show. and we’re inhabiting the song better that way. it’s a drag if you have a list and then just have to play the next song even if you don’t feel like doing it. It’s like you have a middle manager or something. We get to pause on stage for a second and think about what we actually want to play. It’s great.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].