Cake Leader Sticks His Fingers Into Latest Concoction

Sacramento-based quirky rockers almost called it quits after departure of guitarist and bassist.

Surely rock bands have stayed together for better reasons. But Cake mastermind John

McCrea swears his quirky combo stuck it out for, ah, art's sake.

"Basically, I wanted to do another record cover," said McCrea, 34, the group's musical

leader and cover-art designer for the band's most recent album, Prolonging the

Magic, as well as previous releases. "I did the first two, and I had a chance to do

another one, which was the clincher for me. It was a purely aesthetic decision."

Given singer McCrea's exceedingly dry wit, it's hard to tell if he's serious when he

swears it is the latest album cover alone that inspired him to go ahead with the group's

just-released, 13-track effort. Surprisingly, the cover art in question is simply a picture of

a brown pig.

It would have been easier, surely, for the group to fold it in.

Cake lost bassist Victor Damiani after a lengthy 1997 tour. Earlier this year, guitarist Greg

Brown -- who penned the group's biggest radio-hit to date, "The Distance" -- left because

of artistic differences.

After two albums with Cake, McCrea said he seriously considered starting over.

Instead, he forged ahead and tried to fill the space left by the guitarist. Brown was

subsequently replaced by Xan McCurdy and Damiani was spelled by Cake's original

bassist, Gabe Nelson, who performed and recorded with the band prior to its 1994 debut,

Motorcade of Generosity. "Leaving this band was the dumbest thing I ever did,"

Nelson said, "but it feels great to be back."

The result is another batch of south-of-the-border-inspired, Tex-Mex rock slathered with

McCrea's offbeat, stream-of-consciousness lyrics about cars, sheep, parking lots and

nocturnal gropings. This time around, however, the rattlesnake sounds of the hand-held

percussion instrument, the vibraslap -- as well as Vincent Di Fiore's brassy Tijuana

trumpet -- are accented by a number of tracks featuring analog keyboard parts and

looped drum sounds, as on the album's hit radio-single,

href="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Cake/Never_There.ram">"Never

There" (RealAudio excerpt).

Although he wrote the song more than 10

years ago, McCrea said it sat on the shelf for

that long because he could never find the

right arrangement. Working and reworking

with Latin, rock and even country beats, McCrea said he finally figured out the right

sound for the track after randomly plucking out a bassline and smacking his hand on a

chair for just the right combination.

"That was one of those songs that we just sort-of punched up with those other sounds,"

the 34-year-old Di Fiore said. The funky, acoustic-electric, mid-tempo, lost-love lament

features one of the first drum-loops of the band's career. "We started with live drums and

then put the bassline through a sequencer and piled an old Roland keyboard on top of

that," Di Fiore said.

The group broadened its sound elsewhere

on the album as well. There's a pedal-steel

guitar on the sad-sack country lament, "Mexico." And McCrea and company delved into

nether lyrical regions on the mariachi rock-tune,

href="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Cake/When_You_Sleep.ram">"When

You Sleep" (RealAudio excerpt).

"When you sleep/ Where do your fingers go?/ What do your fingers know?/ What do your

fingers show?" McCrea sing-talks in his signature deadpan delivery on the song.

While Di Fiore claimed he didn't know what McCrea was getting at on the track -- which

also contains lyrics about Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology, as a womanizer

-- he alluded to what could be Cake's first "masturbation song."

"I guess your fingers are usually down there somewhere by your hips," Di Fiore said, not

wanting to try to plumb the motivation behind McCrea's often impenetrable lyrics. "But I'm

withholding judgment about that one for now."

For his part, McCrea also wished to hide his cards, but he was more than willing to offer

any number of other equally obscure interpretations.

"Yeah, that's one place your fingers could go," McCrea said. "But if you're thinking about

nails on a chalkboard or playing guitar, it could be about that too. The hands are very

expressive and, well, I guess you're sort-of busted there if that's what you think it's

about."

Another new wrinkle for the band is McCrea's decision (following a recent photo shoot)

that they should all model Western gear for public appearances. "I always admired that

subculture for its honesty," McCrea said without a hint of sarcasm. "It's so much more

honest than alternative culture."

As with all things Cake, what McCrea wants, McCrea gets.

"Sometimes you get that feeling you had when you were in school," Di Fiore said of the

black-and-white outfits modeled onstage and in the "Never There" video. "And the

teacher is telling you to be quiet and you start laughing and you know you're not

supposed to."