Cake: Sunshine Unlimited Again (INTERVIEW With John McCrea)

Over the course of four records, Sacramento, California based rockers Cake have fashioned their knack by releasing intelligent, cynical, offbeat, and one hundred percent eclectic rock and roll. From the hit singles, “The Distance” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” to their quirky arrangements of familiar tunes, to continually surprising the ears of their listeners with novel sounds, Cake always remains fresh.

With the summer festival season winding down, Cake is about to embark on a travelling festival of their own – The Unlimited Sunshine Tour. The second time around (last year featured De La Soul, Flaming Lips, and Modest Mouse), this year’s festival includes power pop pioneers Cheap Trick, garage rockers The Detroit Cobras, bluegrass rebels the Hackensaw Boys, and 76-year old country legend Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers. The tour kicks of September 2nd in Atlanta and runs through September 21st in Los Angeles, covering mainly theaters and more intimate venues than your standard oversized outdoor summer ampitheatre.

Lead singer John McCrea discusses with us why he gets a kick out Cake being labeled as “dinky” and the reasons why this year’s Unlimited Sunshine Tour delivers the goods.

On the approaching Unlimited Sunshine Tour, Cheap Trick is opening up for Cake. Did you ever imagine your band would be the headliner?

Yeah, that’s really wrong isn’t it? I didn’t know what to do about it. It was just a matter of who has the biggest audience and at this point ours is a little bigger. That’s rough, you know what I mean?

Yeah, especially when you think of their famous live album, Live at Budokan, and how they were such a vital part of pop-culture from that 70’s period.

I don’t even like to think of that. I’m thrilled to just be playing with them and who cares who goes first. I think everybody is going to be there for all the bands. I would never want to go to the concert and not see one of the bands, I think they’re all really good.

The Hackensaw Boys are quite an original throwback band and they’re on your tour for a second time. How did you get involved with them?

We needed an opener in Virginia, and friends of ours were in a band, and we asked them to do it, but they said they couldn’t ‘cause the singer was having a baby or something like that. So they recommended the Hackensaw Boys, and they played with us and sounded great. People loved them…everybody was singing along, it was a great time for everybody. There is a through line to this lineup, in that all of the bands are really different, but they all play folk music. Cheap Trick are folk music, as is Cake, and certainly Charlie Louvin is just a mammoth talent. The Louvin Brothers really were as important as anybody in country music. If you talk to Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, anybody, about the Louvin Brothers….it’s a big deal.

Last year you had the Flaming Lips and De La Soul on your lineup. With the last twelve months being an incredibly successful year for the Lips, do you credit some of their success to being on the Unlimited Sunshine Tour last time around?

I think it couldn’t hurt. It was a good time…it was just a good thing. You had people that were wanting to listen to De La Soul, having to listen to Modest Mouse and enjoying both. People that were coming to hear the Hackensaw Boys, were enjoying De La Soul. It was like, ‘wait a minute, what the hell is going on here?’ In a way, what was going on was the negation of the idea that genre is a supreme dictator of playlist.

Well the tour really appears to draw an eclectic fan base, fans who really listen beyond what’s currently hip by commercialism standards.

Yeah, it’s not about tribal assertion, it’s really about listening to music. Music doesn’t care what genre it is, if it’s good music and you have an open mind, you can’t help but like it. There’s a lot shitty opera and there’s a lot of really great opera.

As evidenced by your music…you listen to almost everything.

As a songwriter, I have to. I can’t just listen to rock. That would just be really stupid.

If you had your own radio station, would you would play in the morning, afternoon or evening?

Man, I want a radio station so bad! I would just love to have a radio station. This is sort of like getting it out of my system I guess, but I don’t think I would play any one type of music at a certain time of the day. You know, there’s no rules, you just have to go with your intuition of what you feel like hearing. That’s why radio play lists are inherently life destroying. Because ultimately, you don’t know what song you’re going to feel like listening to at 10:36, and you don’t know what songs really sound good after a song you just played, and so you are right at that point where you’re listening to the song and you’re asking yourself, ‘what song do I really feel like hearing after this one?’ I really think it’s a flaw, and radio will never be that great until they just get rid of the playlists and play what they actually feel like listening to.

Yeah, it takes away the whole artistic merit of a DJ

They are total robots, it’s a sad story.

You had a warm up show with Devo, how did that go?

That was really fun, we played with Devo before. We played with them at a really big festival in Australia, and that was really fun. They have big suits that they wear and they dance around really hot. (laughs)

In addition to playing with Devo and Cheap Trick, I hear a lot of The Cars in your last album. There’s a molding of eclectic classic rock in a lot your music, particularly in Comfort Eagle. Any thoughts on new-wave and the 80’s sound making a comeback.

It’s all right, but it seems so self-conscious though. It’s like ‘o.k., lets wear leg warmers,’ and it seems really intentional and not so spontaneous. I’m all for it physically, but it seems really deliberate. It seems a real deliberate decision for people that are calling the shots culturally.

When you started Cake in the early 90’s, lots of the new music was grunge influenced, with darker chords. What made you turn your music into this new off-beat style?

I thought that volume and excess wasn’t very subversive given the nature of American culture, and what would be more subversive would be turning the volume down…a less is more approach. I just thought about the wide load bad-ass culture. I thought, ‘wow, how would people react to dinky sounding music?’ I think a critic was trying to put us down and used the word “dinky beats” and I couldn’t have been more flattered. I don’t like excess in music. I like Led Zeppelin, because they have lots of space in their music and have a very intelligent use of bigger space.

Do you find it hard to keep inventing new sounds for each album? How do you go about topping Comfort Eagle, as your new release is said to incorporate new drum-beats, harmonies and rhythms?

Well, by not thinking about it too much, and trying to enjoy it myself, because no one will enjoy it unless I’m enjoying it. It can’t be this battle for dominance, there has to be some vigor because you like it.

The riff for “Short Skirt/ Long Jacket” is classic. Did that come together in the studio by the way you were describing, by not thinking about it?

Yeah, that came together when my friend and I were jamming around with the song and just realized that the song needed something, and that riff just really worked.

I’ll say, I bet Moby wishes he came up with that one.

I hope so.

On a final note, how would you describe your singing style? Is it crooning, rapping, talking or singing?

I’d say it’s lame. (laughs)

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