Not long after waking up in a D.C. hotel room, John McCrea starts taking phone calls from reporters. There are lots of calls these days — more than there have been in recent years, that’s for sure. One journalist asks McCrea how he celebrated the 20th anniversary of his Northern Californian indie rock band Cake. Working on a cup of coffee to soothe a throat still ragged from last night’s performance, McCrea puts his mug down and laughs. There was no celebration, he says — only a great, long sigh of relief.
“The fact that we still have jobs is amazing,” says McCrea. “We’re so surprised that anything’s happening at all. I thought the music business was more rigged than it is. I’m conceding that my view was overly pessimistic.”
Named Showroom of Compassion and released this past January, Cake’s sixth studio album ended up being a D.I.Y. project from start to finish. The band took several years to self-produce, release, and distribute the album on their label — the newly founded Upbeat Records — and were stunned when it hit #1.
In 2007, Cake decided to take the wheel for themselves after a public legal battle with their then-record label Columbia Records; the label wanted to release a collection of the band’s greatest hits but the band promptly disagreed, feeling it would be premature to package their most popular songs together.
“We’d been on independent labels, we’d been on a major label, we’d watch them sort of consume each other,” says McCrea. “There just didn’t seem to be a lot of stability working with other people so we eventually decided we’d release [the next album] ourselves and find distribution. Still, when we successfully got out of that deal, we realized, ‘Holy s***, what are we gonna do now?’”
Cake tested the water in 2007 by self-releasing a collection of B-sides and rarities, and they were encouraged when it fared surprisingly well. The band had even nobler ideals for their next release — they installed a system of solar panels on the roof of their recording studio and committed to 100 percent solar-powered recording sessions. They also agreed to uphold their highly democratic songwriting process. Oh, and they had their liner notes printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper stock. Though — coupled with extensive touring — all of this ate up years of the band’s time, Showroom of Compassion ended up being a work that McCrea calls “more tedious but ultimately more lastingly satisfying for us [than any of our other records].”
Compassion of Showroom is jam-packed with all the ingredients that have kept the band in the game for so long: McCrea’s half-sung, half-spoken deadpan lyrics, a bleating trumpet, strong bass line, and crunchy guitar riffs. Even the gloomier material has that trademark blissful, devil-may-care vibe. Their first single, “Sick of You,” sounds like nothing else on the radio and yet it’s universally likeable and unmistakably Cake.
“We’ve never been part of a scene,” says McCrea. “Scenes sort of build and then eventually collapse. But we weren’t invited to the party, and when the police came to break up the party and everyone got hauled to jail, we didn’t have to go to jail.”
Not being part of a scene or a particular genre was part of the plan all along. Instead of looking to his peers for guidance, McCrea took cues from vocalists of yesteryear — jazz singer Helen Forrest as well as Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams, Sr.
“In the very beginning [our music was a response to] a lot of the music that we hated that we wanted to avoid with great fervor,” says McCrea. “I didn’t want to have this powerful, muscular, veins-bulging-from-the-neck kind of emotional intensity in my vocals or in the music anywhere. I didn’t want our songs to have that kind of oversimplified emotional thrill.”
Plenty has changed but McCrea still writes his songs in the same way that he did 20 years ago — by keeping a pad of paper in his back pocket at all times and scribbling down everything he finds particularly interesting, funny, or sad.
“When I walk through life, I can be in the middle of an argument with somebody and I have to say, ‘Wait a second I need to write something down. I’ll be right with you in a second,’” says McCrea. “I have these little shards of paper and every month or so I’ll try to make sense of them and make songs out of them. It’s not always easy. I don’t force anything, and it’s always been that way.”