Cake frontman John McCrea isn't big on the whole arena rock-show thing, so to prepare for the July 24 release of Cake's fourth album, Comfort Eagle, he and his bandmates are testing their new material at a handful of small, low-key surprise shows.
On July 2, the group played the Capitol Garage in its hometown of Sacramento after announcing the concert that day. And on July 9, the band played a completely unannounced gig at the city's non-rocking watering hole Back Door Lounge.
"There were people there in their 50s and 60s who didn't know who the hell we were and were initially pissed off that they saw a rock band setting up," McCrea said, laughing. "We totally won them over. It was just the greatest transformation. We got these hardened, chain-smoking alcoholics who had been there when Frank Sinatra played [the] place back in 1972 to really sing along with our music."
Cake plan to perform a similar gig next week in San Francisco, and they intend to book two shows in Los Angeles for the weekend before the record's release one at Spaceland and the other at a to-be-determined venue. McCrea said the band will announce its appearances either the day of the show or in advance under the name Churl.
"It's too bad everybody can't come to these gigs, because it's the only way to see us play," McCrea said. "Our music was originally intended for very small venues, and the bigger the venue, the less meaning gets transmitted to the audience. The absolute best place to see us is a club that holds 75 people. Unfortunately, we can't tour that way full-time, but I wish we could."
In August, Cake will rock larger venues behind Comfort Eagle, and McCrea said the band will only play outlets with good acoustics. "If a town has a 5,000-seater that doesn't sound great, I think we might just take it in the pocketbook and play a small place, because we're doing this first and foremost for ourselves."
McCrea doesn't mind turning down a fistful of cash to keep his vision of Cake clear. After he was embarrassed by the band's contributions of songs to the movies "An American Werewolf in Paris" ("Never Gonna Give You Up") and "Gravesend" ("Multiply the Heartaches"), he placed a moratorium on the group's soundtrack work.
"We're just tired of hearing our songs in substandard movies," he explained. "They wanted us to be in 'Dude, Where's My Car?' but that's not for us. Basically, movies, like most bands, really aren't gonna be that great. I have to have somebody prove to me that my shoulders are not going to be tight and I'm not gonna be clenching my teeth when I go see the movie."
Similarly, McCrea has little interest in hearing his music playing in commercials while high-speed vehicles hug hairpin turns. He's turned down offers to license Cake's music for Target ads and even "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
"If somebody wanted us to be in an advertisement about the same subject as one of our songs, I would say, 'Fine,' " McCrea said. "I have nothing against commerce per se. I just have a problem with commerce changing the meaning of art."
Considering McCrea's aversion to compromise, it should come as no surprise that Comfort Eagle and its leadoff single, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," are out of step with the lion's share of contemporary rock, blending elements of jazz, pop, new wave, alternative and Latin music.
"It's really strange to turn on the radio and hear all these huge-sounding Viking rock songs, then you hear the dinky sound of Cake coming out of the speakers," he said. "It was almost disturbing the first time I heard that, but at the same time, it was really cool."