When those Tijuana horns blow over that twangy guitar noodling and that funky bass starts walking and that spare drum beats. . . . When a voice eases dryly into the grove sing/speaking a sardonic spin on our strange cultural doings, you know right then you’re listening to a Cake song. The pastiche outfit from sleepy Sacramento have achieved a virtually impossibility in our post-post-modern era of mutual sameness — they’ve remained unique.
Hoping to similarly stand out amid MTV’s gloss and digi-effects, frontman John McCrea realized a simple vision for the video to “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” the first single from the band’s fourth album, Comfort Eagle. He shot three clips — in Los Angles, New York and Mexico City — employing the “man-on-the-street” infomercial technique: Put these headphones on, listen to our new single, tell us what you think. The results, achieved for relative pocket change, have been the talk of the video-world for months.
How did Mexican citizens react to the “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” shoot? There is something of a Norteño element in Cake’s music . . .
It was really strange. I wondered if it wouldn’t be just the typical American/Mexican relationship, us foisting products at their heads. One guy even says, “I don’t speak English. Why am I listening to this?” It’s very interesting to hear Mexicans being critical of an American cultural product. I truly liked that aspect, even though it was Cake they were criticizing.
Is video a necessary evil?
No, I think it’s an interesting device. This video idea came about as a desperate attempt on my part to not do a music video, but that doesn’t mean I think music videos are inherently wrong. I just didn’t want to do a video with four white guys lip-synching in an urban decay setting.
Are we to be laughing with the folks in the “Short Skirt” videos or at them?
In general, I find that people are starting to be more interesting to me than celebrities. I don’t even remember any celebrities’ names anymore and, in a way, celebrities — whether musicians or actors or whatever — are much more predictable than if you turn the camera around to the general populous. A meat packer, a salesman for a food company — we don’t ever see those people.
So have you become a massive “reality TV” fiend?
No, I wouldn’t have done things that way. I find reality-based television to be humiliating both for the participant and the viewer. It makes people into animals.
Is there something distinctly Sacramento about the Cake sound?
Sacramento is very flat and dry, hot. It is pretty but there’s a matte finish to the prettiness, and I think that’s also true of Cake.
You’re touring smallish venues and you’ve said that you don’t think Cake’s music translates well in larger concert forums. What about Cake is inherently intimate?
It’s a physical problem, not an ideological one. I feel like the way our songs are built, if you could look at them geometrically, you’d see they don’t fit into a big space the way AC/DC really does with those slabs of guitar. Their gestures are more grandiose and extend over the heads of a huge audience. Our music is a little more dinky sounding and more economical. We play more 1/16 notes, and those don’t work in large venues.
You once likened the thrill of seeing stadium masses sing along to [1996’s breakout smash] “The Distance” to how Mussolini must have felt seeing his legions pump their fists.
Initially, popularity was a very startling experience. Coming out of small cafes and bars, acoustic solo gigs and this scaled down, economical approach and then suddenly standing in front of thousands of people was very shocking. I’m more used to it now. We just played for 90,000 people in Atlanta. I probably would’ve self-destructed five or six years ago if I’d had to do that then.
I think anyone who hears your duet with Ben Folds [“Fred Jones Pt. II” from Folds’ new solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs] will be surprised at how gorgeous your voice sounds. Even Ben said he was shocked at how pretty the harmonies turned out. Were you?
He was smart. He was sonically smart. He chose a voice that, if not a great voice, works well for the song. The credit is his.
Do you feel under-appreciated as an actual singer?
Ben thinks I should just do an acoustic solo album, but I’m not looking for any special appreciation for my voice. The problem with me is that I don’t think of myself as a performer. Intellectually, I know I’m a dancing bear, but I never really embraced that role, and I never think of myself as a singer. I just don’t even give it any thought. People are always wondering, “Why don’t you just sing?” If I were to really just pull out the stops with my vocals, it would sound really inappropriate for the aesthetic in which it would be housed.
If they were to get to know you, would fans find much space between the somewhat snide narrators of “Short Skirt” and “Sheep Go to Heaven” and John McCrea himself?
My reason for playing music is not to project my personality to everyone on earth, and I never will meet any of those people. I write songs. I think they’re good songs. It’s about those songs and not what I do in my time off. I don’t want to address people. I’m getting to a point where I don’t rally care if I represent myself accurately. I just think I should make as much of distinction as possible between myself and these songs.
Would you describe yourself as an intensely private guy?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a private guy, because I don’t want to describe myself. I just want to play music and get paid for it.
Comfort Eagle sounds less dependent on cynicism than the three albums that came before it. Does that indicate some kind of maturation?
That’s an interesting observation. I’d like to believe you . . . I don’t think it’s any specific evolution for us. But it is true: You can’t recline in your cynicism. Cynicism or reliance on an ironic humor aesthetic is a coping mechanism that is very necessary to help some people combat a feeling of powerlessness. Maybe because of the way music is right now we need to indulge in that a little, but I don’t want to make that the main point of Cake and I don’t think it ever has been. I think it was just really easy for people to think we’re a joke band.
Have you figured out how Cake have managed to prosper in so clearly a vapid time for radio rock? Do you think the band’s popularity points to peoples’ desire for something less contrived or more authentic?
I guess you’re saying something good about our band, and I appreciate that, but what we do is no less contrived than what anyone else does in that we build the songs and we write the words. To a certain degree, I have to plead guilty: We try and make something. It doesn’t just pour from our pores like sweat from Jimi Hendrix’s forehead. And honestly, Jimi Hendrix contrived his music as well . . . I don’t know if I’m getting at what you’re getting at.
What I’m getting at is that it’s strange when you’re listening to the radio and there’s a Puddle of Mudd song then a Mudvayne song, then “Mudshovel” and then a song by Cake. It’s like, one of these things is not like the other . . . Don’t you think it’s weird?
[Laughs] Yeah, of course I do. I can’t believe that we’re there. The way I explain it to myself is that we’re like the emasculated court jester running in to tell a few jokes for the king until the guards drag us off. We’re a quick palette cleanser in between those real serious songs of yearning and white-male anger.
Like that sorbet they give you between courses at fancy restaurants?
Exactly. We are that sorbet. We’re not real music. We’re a little break.