Over the next two weeks, Cake will play seven cities in Europe, then return to the U.S. to tour well through next year in support of their fifth album, Pressure Chief. And frontman John McCrea is about as excited to be back on the road as most people are at the thought of having their spleens surgically removed.
"Long live your fantasies about being in a touring rock band, but it's actually really rootless and depressing," McCrea said a day before heading to England. "Saying goodbye to friends and family for two years at a time has created a lot of chain-smoking, alcoholism and heroin addiction in musicians."
This is a typical comment from McCrea, a man who finds intense dissatisfaction in things others only strive for — such as hit videos, soundtrack offers and collaborations with top-notch producers. What the Cake founder loves, however, is writing and recording music, which may explain why his songs are frequently jaunty and spirited, buoyed by bleating horns, singing violins, quirky guitar lines and spectral keyboards. By contrast, McCrea's lyrics address isolation, romantic disillusionment, rampant consumerism and the destruction of the environment.
"I like to have sadness sitting on the same couch as humor," he said. "A lot of my favorite books and movies have elements of opposing emotional extremes housed within the same narrative. And that's not irony or sarcasm. It's more about hopelessness. When you're a creative person and you have to play the same song over and over every night and live on a bus and eat truck-stop food, that's not a very creatively fulfilling lifestyle."
Road fatigue wasn't the only motivation for Pressure Chief's disconsolate lyrics. The war in Iraq, terrorism and the sinking U.S. economy played a role as well. Still, McCrea emphasized that Cake are not a political band, adding that neither the album title nor its cover art — two hands shaking in front of a globe — were meant as commentary on world events. "I wanted to depict the menacing mood in America when we were making the album but not really make judgments about it," McCrea said. "People seem to almost be enjoying fear right now. There's a lot of relevance to the Joseph Goebbels quote that if you keep the populace afraid, you can get them to do anything. It's certainly a very interesting time to be alive if you're a writer."
Even though it exists outside of the reach of most current rock, Pressure Chief has been embraced by rock fans; it debuted at #17 three weeks ago and is now at #79 on the Billboard albums chart. Cake's originality and craftsmanship surely have a lot to do with their appeal, but don't tell that to McCrea, who shrugs off the band's success as fleeting and transitory.
"I don't think we're building our fanbase with this album; I just think our pre-existing fans are deciding to buy another album," he said. "Culturally, we're totally not right for the time, and I'm sure next week we'll have, like, zero more records sold."
McCrea isn't just skeptical about Cake's ability to prosper in the contemporary rock landscape. He also doubts that any artist can survive in what he calls a "self-hating culture."
"Things that become popular have a mandatory expiration," he explained. "When too many of your neighbors know about something, it's no longer cool. Things have to reinvent themselves, whether it's rock bands or a new flavor of dishwashing detergent. There's this endless appetite for new inducements to buy, sometimes unnecessarily. And I think strident rejection of gratuitous innovation has made us culturally irrelevant."
Cake haven't just refused to change with the times: They've consciously adhered to the same types of themes and formulas since their 1994 debut, Motorcade of Generosity. All of their album art has been similar, and their sound has evolved only gradually over the past decade. Even their new video for "No Phone" is incredibly reminiscent of the well-received clip for their 2001 hit "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," in which the song is played on headphones to various people, who provide a running commentary (see "Cake Concoct New Versions Of Hit Video").
"In our strident and obstinate refusal to engage in gratuitous innovation, we decided to do what the record company calls 'the same video again,' " McCrea said. "We went around with a camera on the street and got people to put headphones on, and instead of talking over the song, we just got them to dance however they felt like dancing. So far, the label has been kind of resistant, so we may try to do another edit of it. We'll see what happens."
Cake worked on Pressure Chief in a house in Sacramento, which they converted to a studio. They decided to produce the record themselves to avoid the discomfort of outside intervention. They brought in a bunch of modern recording equipment but didn't have a lot of experience operating the machinery, which accounts for the disc's rough sound.
"There are a lot of imperfections because the so-called 'rules of the studio' were broken on this album," he said. "A lot of bands try to do that in order to sound exactly like 1967 late autumn New York or something. We ended up sounding the way we did because we didn't know what we were doing. But it ends up being an album that's more aligned with music I like to listen to, in terms of production values. It's not a slick album, but it's also very open-faced."