Keeping it simple with Cake’s John McCrea

Keeping it simple with Cake’s John McCrea

On May 26, Ommegang Brewery will open up their summer music season with none other than Cake who will be sticking around the local area to play MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. on May 28. This will be the first tour the distinctive ‘90s alt-rock band has played since 2013. Since then, lead singer John McCrea says the band has been playing a few local shows around their hometown of Sacramento, Ca. and writing more songs, “which is hard to do when you’re always traveling.” The idea that these songs could be in planning for a seventh studio album for 2018, he adds, is entirely possible. The release would be the first since 2011’s Showroom of Compassion–their sixth studio album and first to top charts–such as the Billboard 200 among other alternative and rock album listings.

In the meantime, the band has recently been involved in a Roger Miller tribute album along with artists like Lucinda Williams, WIllie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Ringo Starr. Cake contributes with a rendition of Miller’s “Reincarnation,” a twanging, plucky love song that’s right up their aisle in terms of playful lyricism and simplicity of melody.

“Richard Miller wrote a bunch of crazy, humor-laced, artistic songs when Nashville didn’t want anything to do with that. He did it anyways, he’s a great artist,” McCrea told The Alt.

It’s the style in which Cake thrives. From their start in 1991—out of the blossoming grunge scene that had taken over rock music—the band looked to simplify in a world surrounded by distorted guitar, screeching vocals and the smashing of cymbals.

“We believe in minimalism,” McCrea said. “Less is more. It’s just practical, the human ear is only able to process so much—which is a really Western way of thinking—but it’s something we really believe in. A lot of the music that I love has in common comes down to the songwriting and it helps to have a strong melody and words that create and atmospheric narrative.”

When the band makes their way to Cooperstown, fans can look forward to McCrea’s monotone, sarcastic lyrics, Vince DiFiore’s distinctive trumpeting and the smooth, danceable orchestra of the guitar, bass and drums —no frills, just some good music to sing along to.

“Our concerts are self-explanatory. It’s a community experience in a really old-fashioned sense, you know, like 3,000 years old where people just get together and play and sing. It’s really familial,” McCrea explained.

One lucky attendee may even walk out of the show with a special gift from the band, a customary practice they have carried out for over a decade. In smaller shows (“because no one really wants to be carrying around a tree in all the mud and vomit, you know,” he laughs) McCrea will engage an audience member in a short Q&A. As a reward, the person is gifted a small tree to plant at home. In addition to helping the environment, the project brings Cake fans together—their trees mapped out in the “Cake Forest” on the band’s website.

The idea came to McCrea ages ago, before the band had any fame at all.

“I was living in an apartment in Sacramento and there was this area of grass between the median and the street,” he said. “I bought this little tree at a garage sale and planted it there. I ended up moving to another apartment and forgot about it. Then one day I was walking down the street in my old neighborhood and I saw this 25 foot tree and realized I had planted it there. It’s a really strong feeling that just dwarfs your sense of time. It’s a respect. A good feeling. A very human feeling. So [the decision to give them away] when we play shows, it’s not necessarily a political move, it’s just a good experience.”

Just as he looks back at that small tree—and the others around the world that belong to the Cake Forest—McCrea looks at the band’s roots with respect and nostalgia. In a simpler time when, like a small plant, rock bands form and begin to play, not much is expected of them. Very few make it big and with that success comes expectation–something the band has struggled with while trying to stay independent in the current music industry. Once a band ‘makes it’ and gets signed to a label, the artists’ ability to make decisions is more often taken away than given. Even the music get more complicated–audiences expect hits and recording a song feels creatively limiting.

“When a band first starts up and no one cares about them, that’s a real gift,” McCrea mused. “You’re just playing to a bunch of drunk people at a bar that aren’t paying attention and you get a chance to experiment with songs and do different things. Its anonymous. Then when you’re bigger you can’t try those things out at a show because you have all these music critics in the crowd, deciding whether or not your album is good. You have to decide what a song will be as you record it and to me, that’s really sad. I hate it when I realize something after it was recorded, like, ‘oh we should have played those four bars over.’”

Cake has found ways around the horrors of the music business, repping their indie status since their first record, which they recorded on their own.

“We started out as a home craft project that went a little too far. We made everything, all of our album covers and merchandise, I made prints on t-shirts in my living room and we were happy that way,” McCrea said.

There were a few hiccups along the way, Cake would join an indie label only to see it devoured by a larger one–part of what McCrea refers to as the “Evil Empire.” Today, they work in their very own solar-powered recording studio in Sacramento. They’ve maintained their uniqueness for 25 years and plan to do so for many more.

Says McCrea of Cake’s long last in the music industry, “I don’t think I could be doing something like this if I didn’t really love it.”

Cake, Friday May 26, 8PM, Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown; Sunday, May 28, 8PM, MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass.

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