Being so used to arriving at a concert venue and hearing the sounds of voices shouting over music, beer bottles clinking and of course loud tunes pumping through giant, suspended speakers, the silence around me feels unnatural – like the calm before a storm. An eerie unease lingers as I am escorted through the back, deep into a hallway lined with doors. All that can be heard is the faint echoes of sound check reverberating through the walls. Waiting in an unoccupied dressing room, vanity mirror and all, sound check finally ends. Silence returns, but is broken just as quick with a warm greeting from Cake lead singer, John McCrea.
Without band mates Vince DiFiore, Xan McCurdy, Gabe Nelson, and Paulo Baldi in tow, McCrea takes the interview for the team. McCrea speaks at a steady pace, often taking a moment to think before answering, suggesting that his thoughts are refreshingly unrehearsed and solely his.
How was the writing and recording process for this new album?
I have a pad of paper that’s in my back pocket everywhere I go, and a pen. I take notes of things that alarm me or interest me in some way. Eventually I collate them and make songs out of them. These songs are from a period of probably ten years. The process of arranging songs and recording them is a band process… Our process is getting more and more democratic.
Aside from the B-sides and Rarities, the last album was in 2004. Why the new album now?
One, democracy is very, very slow. To get all these people [the band] to agree on something, sometimes you hit a brick wall and just have to stop and start another song. We did that a few times, but what we ended up with, everyone is very happy with. The other factor is that we were able to extricate ourselves from a record deal with Columbia Records. The B-sides and Rarities album was us putting our foot in the water to see if we can release albums independently again. We released our very first album Motorcade of Generosity on our own label. We’re going full circle and coming back to that.
Where did the album name, Showroom of Compassion come from?
It was mostly a phonetic decision, although the meaning of the words goes very well with the illustration on the front cover, which is of a tiger devouring a human being. It seems like a nice counter-balance.
All your album covers match too!
It was a reactionary gesture to maybe too much strident assertion of individuality. A lot of album covers are screaming to be different. We thought that with so much of everyone trying to be different, that sameness was more subversive.
Going back to the “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” music video, it shows how your music defies genre boundaries. After all this time, do you still prefer your music not be concretely defined?
We didn’t set out to be eclectic. It was more a process of negation, of things that we didn’t like. When we first formed the band…we heard a lot of big music – lumbering, very empowered, very entitled, big, dumb rock kind of music. We were reacting against that. We wanted to make music that was small, economical and low to the ground, and rhythmically compelling. We did that successfully in our own minds, but in turn, we are misinterpreted by everyone except for a very few – misinterpreted as a joke because if it’s not muscular with veins bulging out of the neck, then oh it must be a joke right?
The Cake website posts band information and social issues. Does being in the public eye make getting out issues you care about easier?
I don’t know. We get a lot of backlash with that. We don’t see it as out of line to bring up issues that have to do with sustaining life. Environmental issues are not political issues; clean air is not a political issue.
Are you guys trying to put across any statement with the song and music video for “Federal Funding”?
Not so much a statement one way or another, but bringing up the issue…People complain a lot about the government. They would like to minimize government down to nothing, but I mean government’s great sometimes. The legislation that came after the Great Depression seventy years ago kept us out of a great depression for seventy years until the financial systems became too complex. Basically laws are good. Laws are amazing sometimes when they’re done right, but there’s a sort of fetishizing of the idea of a free market and fetishizing of deregulation.
From starting out in the ‘90s up to now, what changes have you seen in the music industry and how has it impacted you as an artist?
What’s really great now is that there aren’t really the same kinds of gatekeepers to culture…Now, the means of production, the means of distribution and the means of promotion are within reach of anyone if they’re clever, which is a really great thing. The downside of that is that you can get people’s attention for a few weeks, but it’s very difficult I think now, to put food on the table with music because number one, for a lot of nineteen year olds, you’re an idiot if you pay for music.
Number two, it’s increasingly competitive to tour. It’s this highly competitive glut of music as far as touring is concerned. It’s a difficult time and it’s an exciting time. I think there will always be celebrity level musicians. If you’re willing to talk about your life, be an alcoholic in public or do exciting things for people to watch, there will always be a job for those musicians. Whereas the bulk of musicians that just want to play music because they love music and they don’t really want to talk about their private lives, I think it’s going to be harder and harder for them.
What’s the rest of 2011 looking like for you?
We’re going to be touring a lot. We’re actually very excited about the record. We thought that we would be squashed like a bug releasing the album because the music business is a business of relationships and some of them are sleazy. We never thought that we would be on a late night talk show again. Turns out the music business is not as sleazy as I thought it was. Our album debuted at number one in the States. I’m going to reserve judgment about the music industry because it may not be as rigged as I thought it was.