The members of quirky Sacramento alt-pop band Cake are square pegs in a round-hole world.
They've never tried to conform, and they've never aimed to push their agenda on others. They'd rather play small clubs than booming arenas, and they'd prefer to tour with a gospel group than a rock band.
In short, their music is so offbeat and out of step with pop culture that they should have been relegated to obscurity long ago. And yet, not only have they stuck around for seven years, they've achieved mainstream success on their own terms.
The band's new album, Comfort Eagle, due Tuesday, is characteristically strange, with eclectic songs that blend elements of alternative, pop, jazz, rock and Latin music in an unorthodox but compellingly melodic fashion.
Throw in abstruse lyrics about a woman with short clothes and a strong portfolio ("Short Skirt/Long Jacket"), a classical composer who is paid by an exploitative Austrian nobleman ("Commissioning a Symphony in C") and highway traffic ("Long Line of Cars") and you've got a band that defies the norm at every turn.
Just don't call Cake defiant or subversive. They're way too subversive to accept such a simple classification.
"We don't try to be subversive because subversiveness is not subversive," frontman John McCrea griped last week from his home in Sacramento, California. "It's just what baby boomers have been doing for 30 years. We're not railing against anything. We're more like some sort of hooptie home-crafts project that got out of hand and couldn't be stopped."
Considering the band's unconventional approach, it somehow makes sense that instead of hiring some big-shot video director to film "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," their first music clip in three years (and the first for new label Columbia), they recruited some camera-operating friends.
And instead of flaunting high-tech wizardry, bodacious babes and big rock poses, they merely invited random people to listen to "Short Skirt" and filmed their reactions. What's surprising is that their creative approach struck a chord with viewers, who have responded favorably to both the song and video.
"I was amazed that anybody even played it, because it doesn't have any boobs or butts in it," marveled McCrea. "We just thought it would be kind of funny and interesting to do what we did rather than just film five white guys lip synching and pretending to play their instruments in a setting of urban decay."
McCrea laughed quietly in his wry, understated manner, and pointed out, "There are all these songs out there now by white guys that are pissed off about living in the suburbs. Their videos are all shot in settings of urban decay. And then you look at all these black videos, and they're shot inside really nice suburban homes with white shag carpeting. And that's where the white guys who have the urban decay videos live. I just want people to get honest with themselves."
If Comfort Eagle sounds more developed than Cake's 1998 disc, Prolonging the Magic, it might be due to the addition of guitarist Xan McCurdy, who joined after the band's last record was recorded. McCrea, however, refutes the idea that there has been a sonic evolution since the band's previous output.
"I take issue with the idea that bands need to evolve or have a departure," he said. "I think that's bogus and it's mostly created by rock critics. I think the demands of each song should dictate where the band goes musically. All we wanted to do was set the table with a good composition and with all the right number of forks and spoons."
Cake McCrea, McCurdy, Vince Di Fiore (trumpet), Gabe Nelson (bass) and Todd Roper (drums) recorded Comfort Eagle over 11 months last year in Sacramento's Paradise Studios. Roper, who has since left to spend more time with his family, was recently replaced by Pete McNeil. Some of the new songs were penned after the band finished its last U.S. tour, but many are far older.
"I often drag the songwriting process out over a period of years," McCrea said. "I never force myself to finish a song. One song on the record, 'Meanwhile, Rick James ...," wasn't written about Rick James at all, and it was written 10 years ago before any of his brushes with the law. Also, I've tried to put 'Shadow Stabbing' on every Cake record to date, and it never seemed right before now."
One of the reasons Comfort Eagle took so long was that Cake produced the disc themselves, and they did it in their hometown so they didn't have to adhere to a rigid schedule.
"It was nice to be able to do it whenever we felt like it," McCrea said. "It took a lot of the pressure off. Of course, producing your own album provides extra stress because you're subjectively embedded in the music making process and then you have to extract yourself and listen to it again [as a producer] and decide what you have to redo."
He laughed, then added, "If it sucks, we have no one to blame but ourselves."