Producing a bevy of pop-rock tunes that are as catchy and danceable as they are witty, well-crafted and self-effacing (just check out the video for "Short Skirt/Long Jacket")—is, needless to say, not a piece of cake. That is, unless you are CAKE, the quartet from Sacramento whose songs have earned them critical praise as well as a steady, devoted fan following since the release of their self-produced 1994 debut Motorcade of Generosity. Thirteen years later and the band is still going strong with a rarities album as well as a new studio album in the works under their own, newly-created label. Lead singer and songwriter John McCrea recently spoke with Ticketmaster about Rarities and B-Sides, the forthcoming album of original music, their current tour and the importance of trusting your instincts. Ticketmaster: So how did you know that it was time to release a Rarities album? John McCrea: Well, it's kind of good timing for us in that we're not with Columbia anymore, so it's good in that way. The economies of scale have changed in the music industry, so the old frameworks don't really work as the sales of recorded music are decimated every year, so it's better to not have so much overhead. TM: I see. So it made economic sense? JM: Yeah, but also we were surprised that it made sense in terms of music as well. Once we put it together we did some remixing and remastering and tried to really make an album out of it, and it ended up working I think, if we can say so ourselves, quite well musically. Not that anyone cares about albums anymore, but it seems to be an album. TM: So is that how you went about selecting the tracks for the album? You found tracks that were, sort of, cohesive in theme? JM: Yeah, pretty much. I wouldn't say it was a Yes album, or prog-rock album, but there are some recurring themes and, musically, it seems to hold together. What I always ask myself when I listen to albums by other people, or even our albums, is "Do I feel like hearing this next song?"—do I feel it viscerally, mostly. And a lot of times the answer is no. I think a lot of mistakes are made in terms of album sequencing. TM: When you're not trusting your gut? JM: Yeah. And you can extend that to the entirety of your life, actually. TM: True. So can you reveal to us some songs that almost made the cut - or maybe some that almost didn't make it? JM: There were some live songs that were interesting, but we wanted to keep it mostly studio recordings. There were some good songs, some really good performances that didn't make it on, but we could always release something else someday. TM: And why did you choose to put scratch and sniff scents on the packaging? JM: Well, as a kid I was always thrilled by the stranger scent combinations, but, you know, it just seems like a good visceral thing to do with CDs. If you're going to make a CD, if you're gonna use physical materials to put music out, you may as well play with the fact that it is a visceral medium in a world where that is disappearing. TM: Engage all the senses. JM: Right, right. TM: On this album, you've included covers of Frank Sinatra, Barry White, Buck Owens, George Jones, Ozzy Osborne, and Kenny Rogers—which is about as eclectic an artist list as you can get! How have you chosen your cover songs over the years and what are the main challenges posed? JM: Again, it's more of on a visceral level that we choose things. I think we chose songs that we thought we would enjoy playing ourselves and then if they sounded good, well then other people would enjoy listening to them. There was no grand scheme. I mean, there was a grand scheme overall with this band not kowtowing to musical fashion trends. The songs on the album are probably the most unfashionable songs you could choose, but we think fashion is just effete and wasteful overall. I think that extends from music to just about all kinds of fashion. I'm not sure that the earth can support this s*** much longer.
TM: I empathize. You've got a highly anticipated album of new music coming out in 2008 on your own label, Upbeat Records. First off, what precipitated the decision to form the label? JM: It's something that we'd been thinking about for years. Five or six years ago we couldn't do it ourselves. We didn't have the energy. So much about the music industry has always been about mass, and we didn't feel like we had that critical mass wherein we could adequately release and promote an album properly. And we may have been able to do it back then but we just settled for the conventional wisdom at the time. We'd seen other people at the time who were more commercially successful than us who were flushed down the toilet trying to go independent and release their own music. So we decided to hold off. We could have stayed on Columbia, but we had the opportunity to weasel our way out and it seemed like the right thing to do for us. The culture of larger record labels...well, we didn't really feel at home in that culture. Not to be judgmental, it's just that it's a different kind of aesthetic. And we started out as a very do-it-yourself sort of band. We did everything. With the first album, we released it ourselves, did all the artwork and videos and produced ourselves. Even engineered a lot of our own stuff. We've kind of gone back to that aesthetic with this album and it feels quite natural, frankly. TM: Can you give us a hint as to what to expect stylewise from the album? JM: Well, we're not a bandthat likes to make gratuitous departures. We feel like the important thing is to take it on a song-by-song basis, to let each song be king of its own world. And to say "oh, yeah, we're gonna do a soft jazz album" or "we're gonna sound like 1972 Brooklyn," that's not something that we feel like doing. So it's hard to answer that question. We owe our primary fealty to the song. If there's something that we fetish-ize, it's the song, not the wrapper. TM: Again, it's back to the visceral. Going by instinct. JM: Yeah, yeah. And I think a lot of things are made to subvert that instinctual process. You could subvert the integrity or identity of a song by prioritizing the album over the song. Or you could go bigger—you could prioritize the band's career direction. But nothing should be more important than that one moment of that one song. And I think that people think about it too much and they think "we're gonna make it sound just like garage rock from 1968." It's an amazing time we live in right now, and I'm actually quite floored by the accuracy of the sort of wax museum of stylistic variations. I've never experienced anything like this in my life, listening to something and thinking "is this a real song from 1973?"
TM: Yes, the real self-conscious imitation in music now. JM: Yeah, like the fake ‘80s music is amazing.
TM: Are you treating fans to a lot of new music on your current tour? JM: Umm. Well we'll do a song here and there from the rarities album if we feel like it. We don't use a setlist, so there's really nothing guaranteed. As we're playing the song, we ask ourselves what we feel like playing next, and we play that song next. Sometimeswe end up just playing mostly songs from one of our five albums and then after the show realize that we shouldn't have done that! But we also have a better time playing live than people who are slaves to the setlist. TM: So what's the most amazing live performance you've ever attended, and why was it so memorable? JM: There are a couple of them...I got to see Frank Sinatra before he died play at a casino in Reno, Nevada. And I was going through a tough time in my life at that point and he really lifted me out of it. He was inspiring because he was fighting a cold and you just wouldn't know it. He was a real professional. And when people question his importance...you know, he was an artist. An artist of phrasing. That's something that's a very important but invisible art form. He was able to enliven songs with the right sort of emphasis. TM: He was a true consummate performer. JM: Yeah. TM: Alright, so before we wrap up, I'd like you to talk a little about your website which has a sort of activist element throughout it. In fact, your news section contains far more social and political news than it does news about CAKE. It seems like there's a deliberate attempt to take the focus off of the band—is that a fair statement? JM: Well, I like talking about subjects. And I don't know that musicians are that interesting of a subject. I think musicians serve the culture and not the other way around. So, yeah, I mean we talk about things that we think are weird, and I don't think we think of it as an activist site...it's more...well, maybe it's an activist site in a more passive-aggressive way...but we try not to be overly didactic. But we have fun with it and I think it's a website that we (the band) enjoy probably more than anyone else does!