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Interview: Cake

maxwell barna interviews cult pop-rockers Cake …

For those of you living under a rock for the past six months, there’s a new band on the scene making a bit of a splash. And by “new band,” I mean a bunch of guys who’ve been around longer than a lot of you have been listening to music, and by “making a bit of a splash,” I mean debuting their 100-percent independent (and solar-powered!) record at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. They’ve been touring and consistently blowing away their fans, both new and old.

The band I’m referring to is Cake.

Since the band’s beginning in 1991, Cake has developed a sound that unique only to them, incorporating everything from funk and soul to blues and rock. Over the years, they’ve turned the band’s unique musical tastes into hit record after hit record, and their newest release, Showroom Of Compassion, is no different.

Cake guitarist Xan McCurdy was kind enough to sit down for a bit with Pop-Break’s Maxwell Barna and discuss the new record, where the band’s been, what they’ve been up to and where they’re going.

Photo Credit: Robert McKnight

Pop-Break: Where the hell have you guys been?

Xan McCurdy: Well, we’ve always played gigs. At least a few a month, everywhere, trying to keep our chops up. Sometimes [we do] normal-type sized gigs and sometimes doing little hundred-seater bar shows every once in a while.

PB: Oh yeah? Why so small?

XM: Yeah, testing out new songs, you know? If you’re gonna go try out new songs and potentially really suck at doing them, you can’t force people to pay $45 or whatever it costs to go see it. But we also spend a lot of time working on our little studio thing, getting good at being engineers and stuff like that. Because we’ve never had a producer, but we’ve always had engineers to help us turn the knobs and plug in the mics. But we spend a lot of time kind of figuring out how to do it ourselves, so now it’s just us, which is cool.

PB: Showroom Of Compassion is the title of your newest record, following 2004’s Pressure Chief. Seven years is a long time without a record. How long did it take you guys to actually write, and why NOW did you guys decide it was the time to go back into the studio?

XM: I think it was just enough time off. I think we were interested in doing stuff. You know, it took us a long time also to settle all the business with Columbia Records, our last record label. Once all the dust got settled, then it became exciting to make music again.” Once we were like, well OK, we’re going to do our own label; OK, wait, we have our own studio; wait, we don’t have to be on the clock; wait, we can put the album out whenever we want to. Once you realize you have all the time in the world you need, you go, “Wow, let’s start something.”

PB: How long did Showroom Of Compassion take to write?

XM: Well, some of the songs were already written, but to arrange them properly, decide what kind of beats they were going to have, what kind of bass lines they were going to have, is it going to be a trumpet-based song or is it going to be a guitar-based song … that took about two and a half years. It took a long time. I was saying, we didn’t have any engineers pushing buttons or plugging in things, so we did it all ourselves, which is awesome. But it’s also helllllllll slow when we do it. So it takes us forever and you know, we all came in with lots of ideas. There’s no clear-cut rules. [We don’t say], “The trumpet player can only come up with trumpet player parts!” No, we all come up with parts for each other, you know? So, we all have to listen to each other’s ideas and be very democratic. And that’s a beautiful, lovely thing, but it’s an incredibly slow thing.

Xan McCurdy

PB: In the December issue of Rolling Stone , you guys had a little mention. It was funny what they said: “We heard this hip little fuzzed-out tune on the radio, and we were, like, who’s this cool new band? Maybe something called Bear Antler? Then we realized it was Cake.” Obviously, you guys have been out of the public spectrum for a while. You’ve been busy, but you’ve been out of the “scene” for quite a bit. When you guys hear stuff like that, does it make you mad? What kind of impact does it have on you guys as musicians who have been around for the better half of two decades?

XM: Oh no, it’s fair. There’s so much information going across the airwaves and the internet and everything. We fully expected to be completely forgotten. I mean, we always knew we’d have our core fans that we can go to a gig in Memphis out of left field and people would show up, and that’s great. But on the larger scale of things, we thought for sure we were long gone; dead. So when they make a joke like that, I get the joke. I think it’s funny.

PB: Let’s not discredit the album. Showroom Of Compassion has been getting a hugely good response by critics and fans. And you guys are getting a lot of radio play. Did the sudden buzz hit you guys unexpectedly? Do you think it’s well deserved?

XM:Well, we don’t know if it’s well deserved. I can’t tell how good our album is. I know that I like it a lot and I think I’ve got some pretty great taste, but a lot of things I like other people don’t. We’ve put in a lot of time, it’s been a lot of years. We’ve been pluggin’ away. We put out a record that doesn’t suck. That’s pretty great, you know? I don’t know. I’m not trying to brag or anything; I just think we did a good job. You know, maybe it took six years of not putting out a record and then two and a half years of making a record to make a good record. Maybe that’s what it takes for us. Other people can just fart that stuff out, and that’s great. More power to them. Although I will say our next album will not take nearly as long. We’ve got a bunch of leftover songs from the last [album] that are really good, that need to get finished. So it won’t be six years; it’ll be maybe a year or so.

PB: A year or so until the next album, then?

XM: Maybe a year or two, a year and a half. It depends on when we go back into the studio. We’re still touring on this album, so …

PB: Gotta love that freedom, huh?

XM: Yes! You do! You have to love that freedom, absolutely. And I do!

Photo: Tim Jackson

PB: It seems like some of the songs on Showroom Of Compassion are a lot more serious than some of Cake’s past tunes. “Federal Funding” is obviously anti-corporation; it’s pretty heavy. What’s the backstory on that?

XM: Well, I wish I could answer that for you, but that’s more [lead singer] John McCrea original written.

I have my own thoughts about what I think it could [mean] and what the backstory is, but I kind of like to leave things open for interpretation and not have them totally over- explained. So I’ve never asked John myself.

PB: It’s crazy to think that you guys have been around for the better half of two decades. And when bands have such an extensive history they typically tend to change, and by “change” I usually mean “screw up their sound and disappoint their fans.” But you guys haven’t really changed things up too much. Don’t get me wrong, songs like “Federal Funding,” “The Winter,” and even to an extent,”Bound Away And Easy To Crash” are different from Cake’s norm. But song’s like “What’s Now Is Now” and “Mustache Man” can only be described as “classic Cake.” Have you guys changed things or kept things the same this time around? Like Pi, is there a formula for Cake? How does it all work?

XM: [Laugsh] Well, I think we just do what we do. I think things have changed. We’ve worked with different people, we’ve worked with different studios, our music tastes have expanded over the years, and there are a lot of things that have changed. We’ve all grown a little older and stuff, but I think it’s telling that a lot of our approach about how we construct [songs] and work creatively has stayed the same in a lot of ways. I just sort of think it’s interesting that we haven’t done a metal record and we haven’t done a disco record, but we find a way to satisfy ourselves by putting a tiny little bit of metal, [and] a little bit of disco in each record. I think we try to incorporate as much outside influences we can, subtly, into everything we do. And therefore I guess it keeps us from not going out onto some sort of crazy wavelength. I think we like the way we do things, you know? We don’t feel the need to change anything. If people don’t like our albums, then that’s OK. But we do, and that’s really the most important part, I mean, apart from being able to pay your rent, but uhm … It is more important.

PB: You guys still have the Moog, you guys still have the Vibra-Slap and all that stuff. Cake is there in all these tracks, but at the same time, it’s never repetitive. How do you avoid repetition without sacrificing the sound that’s made Cake famous?

Photo: Robert McKnight

XM: Good question. Uhm, it helps to not be in the band. [laughs] Uh, I don’t know how we keep from being monotonous. We just uh … I don’t know. It’s just how we do things. You know what it is? I think we’re impatient when making music and we don’t want to get too monotonous ourselves. We won’t listen to anything that sounds too much like the old thing, over the course of an album, anyway. I don’t know, maybe some people think we are monotonous, I’m not sure. It helps to have lots of studio time in which you can try out types of things. We’re adults; we’ve got big record collections [and] we’ve got lots of friends with big record collections. There’s all kinds of stuff to tap into and kind of meld and create and make your own.

PB: Fashion Nugget is probably one of my Top 5 favorite albums of all time. And you joined up with Cake after what some would consider their heyday. Do you agree with this sentiment? How easy was it for you to join up with Cake, who had already dropped two albums and who had already developed much of the sound that their fans had come to know and love about them? How did you adapt?

XM: Getting into [Cake] was fairly easy because I was in a band that was kind of starting out. Our band would play with their band in Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area all the time. And we’d see each other on the road, if we were traveling up the Pacific Northwest, or if we were going toward the southern roots into Texas and stuff like that. I saw them play 50 times. They saw me play 50 times in my band. We knew. I knew their material, they knew what I did and what I could do as a guitar player and what I could bring to the table. So joining was fairly seamless. I was friends with their guitar player, Greg Brown, and we were mutual admirers of each other’s work. So getting in was fairly easy, it wasn’t like I didn’t know who they were and was just from a line of L.A. studio hotshots, you know? We actually had a relationship before then. But I didn’t know what was going to be their heyday or not. I joined right around the time of Prolonging The Magic, and as far as that’s concerned, it was still their heyday. “Never There” did really well and then “Short Skirt Long Jacket” did well. I can only look at it from my point of view, which is that it was an ongoing thing.

PB: I’ve listened to Showroom Of Compassion extensively, and one track that keeps tripping me up that I want to know a little more about was “Teenage Pregnancy” because it’s really dark, minor-chord driven, no lyrics. It’s kind of like an interlude. Was there a good reason for the title and what purpose do you think it serves on this CD?

XM: Well, we like instrumentals sometimes. Instrumentals are fun. And I think the purpose is just a musical interlude. It’s a moment where it was time for something dark and a little bit spooky. I don’t know where the title came from. It was John’s piece. He had written this thing on piano and then brought it to us and said, “What’ll we do with this?” And then we all put lots of different ideas to it. We were thinking of titles and we had a bunch of different titles and then John said, “I’m thinking of calling it ‘Teenage Pregnancy.’” I loved that, me personally. I just jumped on that. We thought it might be a little bit morbid to say, but we all got into it. I don’t know; it is what it is. I don’t think it would do so well with lyrics. I like the notes; it’s pretty articulate piano stuff. That’s another thing that’s different on this album is that we’ve used an acoustic piano, which we’ve never done.

PB: I remember the buzz picking up about Cake a few months ago and now you guys are red hot. The way you guys were received in Brooklyn and all over the country has been proof of this. Not to mention that Showroom Of Compassion debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Do you feel Cake might be the new “it” band of 2011?

XM: Nah, no, of course not. There’s just too much competition. I don’t think we’d survive very well as an “it” group. I’m afraid for the “it” groups because then they become the “who the hell are they?” groups pretty fast. We’re doing great just where we’re at. We’re very happy. We feel lucky.

Photo: Robert McKnight

PB: From what I understand, Showroom Of Compassion is Cake’s first entirely independent endeavor. You spoke briefly about your issue with Columbia Records. Would you say Cake has gone anti-corporate?

XM: First of all, it’s not Cake’s first entirely independent effort. Motorcade Of Generosity was first made independently and sold as a cassette tape many many years ago but then got picked up by Capricorn Records and was redistributed later. And secondly, I don’t think Cake is anti-corporate necessarily. We don’t consider [Columbia Records] bad people or that major labels are evil in some way necessarily by design. We just think that it didn’t work for us. I think major labels work well when there are lots of dollars being spent on something that is a heavy duty brand that’s surrounded by t-shirt lines and liquor brands or something like that. Someone like Beyonce. Beyonce was on Columbia, the same time we were. Who do you think is going to get more attention? It’s just going to work out a lot better for her. They see that as a much more solid investment, and I don’t blame them. I think that possibly, maybe, made a mistake in signing us in the first place. And therefore, it was problematic for both of us. But they actually did a lot of really good things for us. I think people know who we are a lot more because of Columbia, because of what their work was, and we have them to thank for that. As a long-term thing, I think it’s going to be harder and harder in the future for major labels to be working with smaller-level artists. There’s too many ways around that big system now, with smaller labels and smaller recording studios putting the power back onto the internet where you can become extremely popular with one cooky video.

PB: A large amount of time has elapsed between 2004 and 2011. If you really take a look at it, the way bands distribute their music have completely changed. How have you guys adapted to this, as opposed to your 2004 release and has it affected record sales? Are you guys concerned with this, or do you think you have a pretty good handle on it?

Photo: Robert McKnight

XM: For now, we can’t figure out how to make the money to keep doing music that used to be possible 10 years ago. It’s a lot different. You have to tour a lot more because there’s no more money in record sales … because the average 21-year-old can get anything they want for free. And a lot of average 21-year-olds don’t have a lot of disposable income for something as expensive as a compact disc. So it sort of seems natural that a lot of people are going to not pay for it if you don’t have to. It’s common. We don’t know exactly. We wish there was a way around touring as much as we will have to do because although playing live music is a great thing, a beautiful thing; it’s fun, interesting, and a challenge, and it’s always good to see faces and to have the concert experiences. I hate to use the word “magical,” but it’s a lovely thing. But that’s a lot of jet fuel. That’s a lot of bus diesel fuel. And traveling is not terribly healthy in the first place. We’re not 21 years old anymore ourselves and some of us have families, you know? So if you have to be on the road for six months out of the year, Vince [DiFiore] is going to miss the first steps of his child or something.

PB: What do you think you guys are going to keep doing? It’s been six years of touring and shows for you guys. And now that you have the new album out, you said it yourself, you’re going to have to tour a lot more in order to make the kind of money you were making years ago. Where do you see Cake in five years?

XM: We’ll probably still be playing. We’ll do it as long as it is possible for us to feed our families and is enjoyable and is not too destructive. But otherwise, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll become farmers. We’ll, uhm, move to the Valley and to the countryside and we’ll grow things and have farmer’s markets and then have concerts every Friday. Watch out, we might do it!

PB: Last question. You have to answer it. What’s your favorite beer?

XM: My favorite beer? Oh well, it depends on the mood. On hot days, I like myself a nice Pilsner. Since I travel a lot, it’s hard to always get the same thing. But I think I kind of have to give a shout out to Berkeley and give it up to the Trumer Pils. It’s very crisp and refreshing.



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