It has been more than 20 years since John McCrea formed Cake, the band noted for their ability to point out the ridiculousness of our modern existence with deadpan delivery and made famous in the mainstream for their hit "The Distance."
Over their six studio albums, they've managed to incorporate a wide variety of genres into their songs, including country, Mariachi, rock, jazz, blues, funk, folk, hip-hop, and more.
Their latest album, 2011's Showroom of Compassion, debuted at No. 1. It was applauded by critics but was infamously the lowest-selling No. 1 album of all time. Although McCrea had long been aware of the music industry's decline, this paradox was more evidence that holding a career in music wasn't going to be easy.
Leading up to Cake's performance at LouFest, Music Times chatted with McCrea about the new music he's been working on, his thoughts on gratuitous change, the state of the music industry, how and why he writes song, and some of his favorite Cake tracks.
Music Times: It has been more than three years since the release of your last album, Showroom of Compassion. Do you have another album in the works?
John McCrea: Yeah, actually what I should be doing right now is working on some songs I've been writing and you know finishing up arrangements and things like that. So yeah, I don't know whether bands are supposed to release albums anymore, maybe we should just release ring tones or something but just out of habit, I continue to write songs.
MT: Are there any sort of topics or themes that inspired your writing this time around?
JM: The themes that I'm inspired by haven't changed that much. I'm still interested in romantic failure, cultural excess and things like that.
MT: Are you still dabbling in the same genres you guys have worked with in the past?
JM: We haven't actually started recording. I'm still kind of woodshedding here. Once I get 20 or 30 finished songs together, I'll bring those to the band and we'll try to work on arrangements. Probably about half of those songs will fall by the wayside in the process, and maybe 10-15 will make it through.
MT: Do you have any idea of when fans might be able to expect to hear new material?
JM: I wouldn't hold it abreast. I have been thinking about maybe just not releasing a recorded album and just release the album by playing new songs live. That might be an interesting way.
Recorded music is just kind of garbage. It's just for promoting products nowadays, so I just wonder if it might be more special to not record an album and not let Google monetize it with advertising. I mean I saw a Newt Gingrich ad in front of one of my songs, and I just thought, "Wow, the tech companies are just as sh*tty as the old major labels in their disrespect for music."
MT: I know your approach seems to be "less is more." Do you think that applies to being prolific and putting out albums with frequency, or do you find that to be gratuitous as well?
JM: Well it seems like a rat race. And also you know maybe there is enough music. Maybe we're all fine. Maybe we can stop. Maybe there are enough products, and you know maybe we're all okay and we should just settle down a little bit.
So you have accurately identified my first inclination, which is that maybe enough is enough. We're going to continue making new music, but I don't feel like there should be any huge hurry for it. People have plenty to listen to, and everybody is well fed. You know what I mean? I know people are competing against each other for the fickle whimsy of the popular attention span, but that's not why I play music.
MT: Showroom of Compassion was your first No. 1 album, and you did it independently from a major label. I'm sure that confirmed that your self-reliance and DIY mindset worked, but ultimately it didn't make a ton of money. Did that feel like, "Man if a No. 1 album can't make us money then are we screwed?" Was it discouraging?
JM: It's like the rest of the U.S. economy that the middle and lower tiers of the economy are sort of being hollowed out, and that's the same thing with music. I mean we're okay because we can continue touring endlessly for a while but friends of ours who maybe didn't sell quite as many records as us but who I think are just as musically important if not more important in some ways are now working other jobs because it's not a sustainable profession.
And there are people, mostly in the tech industry, who say, "Oh, music shouldn't be a job, you should have a day job and then play music on the side." But most day jobs don't allow you to go on tour. So that's why friends of ours have quit because you can't just take off from your day job and go on tour for a month.
There is a choice. So I see it as rather disingenuous of an industry that is actually monetizing our work and making really good money off it but not even thinking to share that money with artists to tell us that we can't have a professional career. It is kind of selfish and sh*tty.
MT: Yeah. I think I read that you have compared it to a cow in that you either get free meat for a few days or milk for many years.
JM: Oh I don't remember saying that, but that's a great analogy. Maybe said that and had too much coffee that morning. But yeah there is a sort of a chowing down that's been occurring, and I think we have to look at musicians, and I would say journalists even more importantly, and authors of books, and independent filmmakers as people. You know if we only want rich independent filmmakers to have a voice, then we can just keep going the way we're going. But if we want all kinds of people to have an opportunity to communicate in the arts, we're going to have to find a way to support that somehow.
MT: Would you ever consider recording albums with a Kickstarter sort of fundraiser, where you only make the record after people have pledged to buy it?
JM: The problem with Kickstarter is that it favors the already well known. So if you already have a big audience, yeah, you can sort of use them up in that way. But it doesn't really create a lot of awareness that isn't already there.
As much as I hated major labels and indie labels, probably more than anyone I know, one thing you can say for them is that they were able to translate the success of one band and invest in a new band that no one knew about. And there is nothing currently that is actually doing that anymore. So that's a structural problem. But you know who is going to fight to keep the current status quo are the tech companies that have grease running down their faces and hands from the fat of their plunder.
MT: You said you are able to sustain yourselves through touring but...
JM: That's not what I want to do. You know George Jones died at age 80 on the road. Musicians aren't very good at managing their money, and that's our fault, but there is something to be said for not living out your final years in a bus or a van.
MT: ...But I know you are extremely environmentally conscious. I am sure that is a conflict for you. Would it ever not be worth it?
JM: We just try to be as conscious as possible about what we are using up. When we can we rent a bio-diesel bus, but that's not going to save anyone. There are little things you can do, but on the road it's really hard. Unless we want to have a bicycle tour, which I think be really exhausting to have to do that all day then play a show that night, I think there was some artist that was doing that, which is great but not necessarily sustainable.
But as your suggesting, there is really nothing worse that you can do for the environment than going on tour. It makes me entertain the thought of other jobs or other careers, yeah. So if there were something I could do and be able to stay home, I would do it. I just don't want to go to dental school. There may be something I could be good at other than music, but generally creative occupations don't pay very well, so it's a difficult decision that I'm going to have to make.
MT: I guess another option could be a residency somewhere. But then you only reach audiences in one city.
JM: Yeah. That's an interesting idea. You probably use up that audience pretty fast. They'd probably get sick of you pretty fast. So that's why tours are good because you just keep moving and moving and no one gets sick of you.
MT: It's almost like you'd have to do it in a tourist destination where people are coming in and out all the time.
JM: There you go. Yeah, Las Vegas. That's my future.
MT: When the band started more than 20 years ago, it was reactionary to the grunge scene that felt disconnected from its message. Do you see the band being reactionary now? If so, to what?
JM: No. We aren't as reactionary as we were in the beginning. Obviously we are reactionary to music that we hate, and there is certainly plenty of that now. But I think it doesn't end up in our music.
What we were doing early on, we were trying to make recordings that sounded small and kind of bad, you know what I mean, because we hated the bluster and bloat of certain music at the time. But I don't feel compelled to make that sort of statement now.
It's a big enough job for me to write a song that I think has a good sort of narrative and geometry to the melody, and that's a tall order. So I work really hard on that and focus mostly on that. There are little things in terms of the subject matter of the songs that I think that maybe I'm being reactionary against something here and there, and that's just sort of a product of who I am. I use my medium to express positive and negative reactions to my surroundings. But there is not central sort of thematic hostility in what I'm doing. At least I'm not going at it with that intention, and I didn't at the time, even back with our first album. It wasn't this really self-conscious thing.
MT: I know you've talked in the past about how bands feel the need to change their sound or have this overarching narrative that talks about all the changes their sound has been through over their career. Do you think that maybe people are overreacting to this idea that the music industry is adapt or die? Do you think that people are changing their sound as an arbitrary talking point for music journalists like me to write about?
JM: Yeah. Well you really have done your homework, by the way, and you understand what this is about at least for us, which is refreshing. But yeah I think you nailed it. As a journalist you need a narrative, and also it kind of mirrors products.
A band coming out with a new album is like reinventing themselves, like "new an improved lemon scent" and maybe that's the wisdom of our consumer society. Maybe bands do need to ape detergent marketing techniques. But again I don't believe in gratuitous change. I think that's wasteful, and it also seems forced. I like to look at the song as being it's own sort of universe and not the album or not the trajectory of a career, but just an individual song that has everything it needs to make sense within that three-minutes of whatever it's doing. It doesn't need to have a reference point to some other thing or event outside of itself. If a song is good enough it can just sort of exist on its own terms with no reference points.
MT: You always hear fans complaining about their favorite bands selling out or changing their sound. I know Cake fans applaud you for staying consistent that way. So you'd think that it would almost benefit a band to stay the course and not change.
JM: I think even that is good for music writers and critics. I think again because it shows the band's disinterest for material gain, and they are following their muse and rejecting the dictates of commerciality and pleasing their fans. It's like showing this sort of rugged individualistic artist imperative. But again, in a lot of cases you can see right through that. You can see that that is just another dance. For me, I just want to follow the dictates of an individual song. If that song wants to be one thing or another thing, I don't want get in the way.
MT: When writing a song, do you think about its context within an album or do you still see it as this individual universe?
JM: I just want to focus on the song itself. And if the song doesn't fit on the album after we're done recording it, I'll just leave it off the album or we'll put it on a different album where it fits. I don't want to ruin the album with a bunch of songs that don't flow well together, but I don't want to be thinking about the album when I'm working on one song. That song deserves to be the center of its own universe. I choose songs for an album, but I don't believe in concept albums.
MT: You guys have managed to keep a career in music for more than 20 years. Looking back, what have been the biggest surprises along the way or lessons you had to learn? What would you tell your younger self, knowing what you know now?
JM: I think I had a sense of the cruel hoax of it early on. And I knew that when technology companies started becoming billion-dollar businesses that, yes, they would try to capitalize on the naïveté of artists as well. So I saw that coming for a long time. Not before anyone else, but I definitely could smell it.
I don't know if I would do anything differently though. I actually don't regret anything that much. And I hesitate to create an axiom because I just think everything is in such tumult.
I will say what I think I did right, though, which was focusing on individual songs and focusing on individual notes and words and putting my prime directive there, instead of somewhere else. That's what I think we did right. I did a lot of things wrong, but I think I did them wrong because I was that one thing right. So that's why I can't give any advice because you're going to do things wrong probably because you're doing some other thing right.
MT: With the box set that came out on Record Store Day, do you have a favorite song from your career so far? Or a couple that you are the most proud of?
JM: One song for all time? No. But I mean I go through phases of liking different songs. Right now I like our first album quite a bit just because it sounds so small and the songs I think are pretty strong within this context of sounding dinky. You know I like the song "Haze of Love" because I think it's really sad but also has its own rhythmic imperative. I like the song "Ruby Sees All" because it's a little bit mysterious.
MT: So no one song to play at your funeral?
JM: No (laughs). I think I'd want to play somebody else's music at my funeral.
MT: You'll be playing at Loufest this weekend, and I was wondering if you'll be previewing any new music there?
JM: No. I think we are going to save the brand new songs for when we actually sort of have a whole new album worth of material. We'll just go ahead and tour that album. I think it's possible but not that likely that we'll preview new music.
You can check out Cake's LouFest set on Saturday from 7:30-8:30 p.m. on the Forest Park Stage.