Crazy for CAKE
Singer John McCrea Hangs His Hat in Oakland
Named for the buildup that adheres to the bottom of your shoe (or your life), the band CAKE certainly has experienced similar staying power. Since 1991, it’s been gumming up the works with a hybrid confection of musical styles. The indie band has tackled rock, rap, country, waltzes, Muppet covers and oh-just-a-thousand genres. A friend once said CAKE sounds like the members broke into their elementary school music room and absconded with all the instruments they could find: the triangle, Jew’s harp, maracas.
At once exuberant and world-weary, the band’s eclectic sound always makes for varied listening, yet it’s instantly recognizable. That’s thanks to two things: the enthusiastic trumpeting of Vince DiFiore that contrapunts behind most songs, and the voice of singer John McCrea.
That voice, which delivers wit on a plate, is half Masterpiece Theater armchair and half that caustic guy in the next cubicle. Bearded like a Gold Rusher, McCrea exhibits the clothing choices of a 1970s collegian (wide-wale cords, suede-elbow coats) and always, always wears a hat. It’s impossible to find an online image without a topper, be it a diesel trucker’s hat, a cadet cap or a Stetson. On stage he’s seemingly reluctant to dance; he performs a slow, groovy semaphore or maybe a blissed-out Third Reich salute.
When not touring, McCrea lives in Oakland near Lake Merritt, where he sometimes works out lyrics while strolling the 3-mile circumference. “My writing process is sort of intermittent and continuous. I have a pad of paper that’s in my back pocket, and my pen, and I sort of take notes and these song fragments come into my head,” he says in a recent phone interview from Las Vegas, where CAKE was playing.
So if he’s walking the lake and writing lyrics, does our fair city appear in his libretto? Why, yes, but without being named. Oakland’s landscape has been immortalized in a line from “Dime,” a brilliant song written from the point of view of a resolute, upbeat coin. The chorus goes, “I’m a dime, I’m fine. And I shine; I’m freshly minted.”
Sounds good, right? Here’s Oakland’s line: “There’s a sparkle near the fast-food garbage and roadside trash.” McCrea was inspired by standing underneath Interstae 580.
But all is forgiven, because throughout the interview he drops little bits of knowledge that demonstrate he’s a true Oaklander. When we talk of his shows at the newly-restored Fox Theater, he mentions the bowls held in the laps of the giant figures that flank the stage and how they once held incense that would waft smoke upward. He’s a big fan of ranked-choice voting, by which Mayor Quan was elected, and thinks it could save us on a national level. He spoke of the 12th Street dam project. He’s noticed the bronze sidewalk plaques that mark creeks culverted beneath, and is disappointed they didn’t daylight the creek instead. Street cred right there.
The creek reference was wholly expected for a band member who gives away a tree at each show (McCrea asks a trivia question, and the winner comes to the stage to pick up a sapling.) He wants people to ride their bikes to his performances, and the band website contains a rideshare page so people can carpool to shows.
McCrea’s very low-key, not the kind of rocker who mutinies over M&M’s or ransacks green rooms. The band stays in less grand lodgings than you’d expect while on the road (no names, but let’s just say this chain celebrates Arbor Day twice). CAKE’S latest album Showroom of Compassion was released 1/11/11—numerology, anyone? – after four long years without a peep.
It comes without a plastic jewel case, bedding down instead in a 100 percent recycled paper holder (with a free bee tattoo, should you wish to gussy up your bicep). It was recorded in a solar-powered space in Sacramento, the band’s original turf. While there, McCrea sleeps in a “very small” studio apartment. “It’s not about humility; it’s more a matter of practicality. I don’t want to use more than I need. The music business is pretty unstable; pragmatism and staying low to the ground is a good idea,” he says.
Before CAKE hit big, McCrea sold $10 T-shirts for a living, with the robotic corona of a silk-screen machine hulking in his living room. Talking with him, it doesn’t seem that he feels that far removed from the narrow ledge of doing your art and paying your rent. “You struggle as a musician to even get to the point of thinking about making a living,” he says.
But the “cruel hoax,” as he puts it, of the musical career is that once you achieve it, there’s no elation, since you’re not able to be home much. Married with four chickens and a daughter who sleeps so well he says she’s a “part-time baby,” McCrea now finds the touring life tricky.
He calls Oakland “ultimately good-natured, with a good sense of community...It seems like home, for now."