Indie Rockers Cake Offer an Alternative to the Alternative

Concert Preview

click to enlarge Indie Rockers Cake Offer an Alternative to the Alternative
Robert McKnight
On tour this summer to play a few festivals and then headline a gig at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, Cake singer John McCrea says he used to “really, really hate” festivals.

“They used to be a celebration of bombast and excess in America,” he says in a recent phone interview. “They’re still about overeating music, but they’re a little less supersized. I think the music selection has improved. It used to be just about massiveness. Now, there’s some sensitive music being played. There’s intricate stuff happening. Think back to your youth. Festivals used to mean dust and lack of water and rape and all sorts of horrible shit. Now, they’re a little more sophisticated.”

When McCrea, who formed Cake way back in 1991, talks about his band’s “sonic DNA,” he explains that the band was conceived as a “a hostile reactionary gesture against the music of the early and mid-’90s, which for us was just big dumb white guy rock.” Regardless of how out of sync the band’s rinky dink music sounded at the time, the group quickly found a following and was signed to Capricorn Records following the release of its debut album, Motorcade of Generosity.

The group’s second album would yield, “The Distance,” a terrifically quirky song that featured McCrea’s sarcastic, spoken word vocals and the band’s signature trumpet sound. The band's popularity soared.

“Size is a value statement,” McCrea explains. “We came out and wanted to sound as fucking dinky possible. You wanna rock? We’re doing to turn it down. Fuck you. We would do that. We would go and play these clubs. People wouldn’t know who we were. We’d be quiet, and they’d freak out. Not as many people would get mad as I thought would be mad. We won over some heavy metal dudes, maybe because we had some guitar riffs. We had a trumpet, and everyone thought it was a big joke. They said it sounded Mexican, so it must be a joke. I loved Mexican music and other music that we were influenced by.”

The band’s cover of the disco tune “I Will Survive” got radio airplay and became a hit. Fans might think the group was poking fun of the tune, but McCrea says that wasn’t the case.

“We didn’t do it because we thought it was stupid or we were making fun of it,” he says. “We liked it. We thought disco was sort of remarkable in that it was the first massively popular multi-culture pop movement in the United State. The backlash was telling.”

In 2011, the band created its own label to release Showroom of Compassion. The mission was to avoid placing their future in the hands of guys wearing $5000 suits. 

“It was a salutatory experience,” says McCrea. “Everyone told us during the precipitous decline that it was foolish to try to do this yourself right now. People were taking our music for free, and we’d be crushed. That’s generally what’s happening in the music business. We went into it with some trepidation. After a period of not releasing an album for seven years, it was why we were staying the hell out of it. We wanted to wait to see what would happen. We sold about the same number our first week as we did seven years earlier. We had people who trusted us that we wouldn’t make a shitty album and would buy it without knowing for sure what it would be like. There wasn’t a lot of attrition. It felt really good. We weren’t exploding, but we did have a relationship with some people.”

And yet, the band still hasn’t delivered a follow-up.

“I am always writing new songs — just compulsively," says McCrea. "I don’t feel compelled to release music. It’s a lot of schlep to record an album and to go through all of that. It’s a complicated thing. There’s a lot of people involved and personalities. I would like to see something change to make it easier for me to do that financially. When I think about what I got paid for the hour [for the last album], it’s no bueno. I think there are other things I could do with my time. But I love music and will continue to play for my friends. The music business needs to figure shit out. I refused advertising my whole career only to find myself now with tampon commercials and BMW ads in front of my songs. This is not where I want to be now.”

Cake, 8 p.m. Friday, July 24, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-622-6557. Tickets: $37.50-$42.50,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

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].
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