Cake frontman John McCrea knows that the richest part of life isn’t the decadent frosting: it’s the satisfying middle.Whether talking about his band’s music, climate change, or shifting technology in the new millennium, McCrea is all about balance, and continues to work towards evening the layers that separate our society both as an artist and an activist.
Recently McCrea helped put together the Content Creators Coalition (CCC), an organization made up of musicians, artists, authors, journalists, artisans, and others. The group aims to defend the rights of those who actually create content found online, by making sure they get their due pay for their work.
Despite sold-out shows all around the country – and numerous ubiquitous alt-rock classics like “The Distance,” “Short Skirt, Long Jacket,” and “Never There” – McCrea knows the challenges posed to most working musicians firsthand, having released Cake’s latest album, 2011’s Showroom of Compassion, on their own label, Upbeat Records.
Recoil spoke with McCrea via phone last month about the struggles of working musicians, what the band’s working on in their solar-powered studio, and why Cake’s music has always had a melancholic, deadpan sense of humor.
Recoil: From the looks of your tour dates, you’ve only got a few shows slated so far this summer. Why were we lucky enough to be able to have you guys up here? Do you guys just like coming up here in the summertime?
John McCrea: Yeah, we’re really in writing and recording mode right now, so we’re just doing as few shows as possible so we can get some new material.
R: It’s been three years since [Cake’s last album, 2011’s] Showroom of Compassion came out. How have things been coming along with the new stuff?
JM: It’s all sort of on my shoulders right now, writing songs and getting material together and at a certain point I’ll bring that to the band and we’ll see what works for the band.
R: At this point in your career, how do you balance how much touring you take on with what you choose to do both writing and recording, and in your personal lives?
JM: I think it’s getting harder in general for bands. Bands used to have this sort of ability to coast for a while during their writing and recording process, and I think what’s happening is, as the value of recorded music, and I guess information in general, descends into the toilet, bands are having to stay out on the road more of the time. Most songwriters I know can’t write when they’re in a hotel room. So I need to be home in order for that to happen, and increasingly – I love playing live shows, but as a creative person you need to have that aspect of your life energized as well. So going on tour for two and a half years, which is sometime what we do, it’s not the best thing for your creative life.
R: At this point does touring feel less like a chore, and more like a removal from that mental space you need to be in to create?
JM: Yeah, I think that’s what I’m saying. Creative people, we like to be creative every day, and it’s difficult to have these periods where you’re living on a bus without a lot of energy or good sleep or good food, for long periods of time. It’s hard to get yourself to a point where you feel [creative]. You also need your personal space, to be alone, I think, is really important, and that doesn’t happen for very long on the road. So I guess what I’m saying is, there’s been a lot of changes in last ten years and some of them have been positive, and some of them have not been positive.
R: You’ll also be playing at Bonnaroo[this] month, and there’s been a lot of changes in the festival climate or circuit in the last ten years as well. Having played so many big festivals, how do you feel about how the festival scene has changed?
JM: Yeah I started out in this band hating those festivals because I just saw it as sort of a big dumb rock culture. Sort of a ‘more is better’ attitude, and my negativity has been somewhat mitigated by some positive experiences with festivals, especially some of the European festivals. And I think increasingly the U.S. festivals are becoming more like the European festivals, in that they’re not just dust festivals. There’s some real curation that’s going on. For me, there’s two different kinds of rock festivals. There are the rock festivals where there’s a valuable editorial process that’s going into it, and then there’s just looking at what’s worth a lot of tickets, and sort of a more economic criteria being put into play. So there are festivals where people are choosing sort of interesting chemical components that would go well together, almost like they’re making a mixtape.
R: You guys explored some of that curation side when you were doing your Unlimited Sunshine Tours [in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007]…
JM: Right, right, and I feel like that is an artistic endeavor in some ways. It is an incredibly difficult one because you’re dealing with logistics and schedules and availability of things. [Laughs] You put together the perfect festival and then one band drops out and the whole thing doesn’t work anymore and you have to start from scratch. So it’s actually an arduous process that I couldn’t commit to doing every year. We do the Unlimited Sunshine once in a while, when we feel like it.
R: Going back to talking about your new material, do you feel like you’ll have enough time coming up here to work on that, or could it be another seven years before you release your next album, like it was between [2004’s] Pressure Chief and Showroom of Compassion?
JM: It’s hard to say. Honestly, we were going through so much transition then, that I don’t think it will be that long of a period of time [now]. A lot of the reason why it took so long was that we had to extricate ourselves from a label deal, and then we asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to do this? Are we going to release it on our own label? Are we going to find a small indie label to help us? What are we going to do?’ So that sort of slowed us down. And we also take our time in the studio. We’ll record something and leave it sitting there for a few weeks, and then return to it. I think it’s really important if you’re going to make something that’s permanent, or somewhat permanent, to be deliberate about it.
R: Like you said, having extricated yourselves from your previous label, and releasing the album yourselves, what did it mean to you to have your fans be there and get the album to Number One when it came out?
JM: Yeah, right, so we took our time and made sure the record was good. I think that’s the most important thing, and then we also had to wear all these different hats, because we released it on our own label, we found our own distribution, and we had to work with that distributor. For musicians, it’s not just enough to play guitar now. Because the sort of decimation of our industry, it’s more of a high-stakes venture, and leaving things up to other people is way more dangerous now. You kind of have to your hands in all the different pots, I guess.
R: Being a musician is more like being a business entrepreneur, in addition to being a creative endeavor.
JM: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s the healthiest thing, but that’s just the way it is now. I don’t think it is the best thing for society, to only have artists who can do that, because there are a lot of really great artists who are completely useless at that. But again, because of the developments of the last ten years or so, you’re going to get more and more of the artists that are good at self-promotion, and that also have business skills and things like that. But I think we’re going to miss out on some really great artists that aren’t able to use the Web platform or whatever.
R: Or any artist that simply does not want to keep up with those technological trends, on top of musical trends. Like I know you guys existed as a band that was always a counterpoint to trends. For you, how important was it to you as an artist to be a counterpoint to that endless cycle of trends?
JM: Yeah, I’m into balance. So I think that’s what that’s about. But also it’s about not taking all your cues from your surrounding environment. I think you have to take your cues from the DNA of the music you’re making. So our music has sort of this less is more approach. There’s a certain minimalist vibe to what we do. So there have been certain things, opportunities that have been presented to us, that I think we have judged as antithetical to the original thesis statement that we’ve been making, which is a more minimalist, sometimes primitive approach.
R: Yet on the flipside, throughout your career you’ve explored a wide variety of sounds, not touched on by many other bands right now, while still sounding distinctly recognizable as Cake. How important has it always been to explore and remain open to different sounds while still being minimalistic?
JM: It’s a bit of a paradox, but I think we’ve taken these influences, to which you refer, and use them in ways that are our own, and used them in a somewhat minimalist way. Are you familiar with the bowerbirds? Bowerbirds are these birds where the males make nests in order to attract females, and they basically make art. They take a bunch of green leaves and make a circle of green leaves, and then they add whatever they can find in an area. So sometimes they’ll use like Coke bottle tops, or like the rubber seal from a car, or whatever. But they’ll use these things to create what they do, and it’s part of their mating ritual, but I think that’s kind of what you do in music. You take things that maybe were used for different purposes and you repurpose them in a different context, and it becomes a completely different language, but using a lot of the same cultural flotsam and jetsam. I like it, and it’s the way I approach what I do.
R: Yeah, you’ve always reused those musical tools to manifest your own personality in your songs, and so many of your fans, that’s what they love about your music is how your sarcastic humor and your wit comes through those repurposed things.
JM: Yeah, and I think that’s what we’re wanting to do. It’s not just a humorous thing, though, I feel like it’s mixed with varying emotions, and musically you’re right to say that. Again we’re repurposing elements historical, and otherwise, and re-contextualizing them. I find that interesting myself, so I think that’s why we have to do that.
R: Touching on those range of emotions in your music, how closely do you feel comedy and tragedy are essentially two sides to the same coin?
JM: Yeah, they’re the same thing. They’re certainly connected. I’m not found of television shows or movies or books, or especially music for that matter, that only portray one of those extremes, or one or the other of those extremes. I find that unrealistic, and imbalanced.
R: As a band you’ve frequently talked about how working, middle class musicians and artists are getting hardest hit by the changes that have taken place in the music industry over the last decade…
JM:Between 2002 and 2011, we’ve lost 45 percent of working musicians, according to the Department of Labor Statistics, so that’s like 45 percent fewer artists filing taxes as musicians. That’s devastating. It’s contested by the tech industry, of course, and their bloggers, for spurious reasons. Like similar to how the climate change deniers will throw some sort of small issue out in order to undermine the entire thing. But it is factually true that we’ve lost nearly half of working musicians. And I think most of that is the same old thing. It’s businesses getting the better of artists. Artists really are like small business owners, so it’s really big corporations exploiting small businesses. For me, I’d be fine with all information being free, as long as nobody gets paid, right? But if certain people, like if the only people who aren’t getting paid are the musicians and the authors and the independent filmmakers, if we’re the only people not getting paid in the supply chain, then that’s more of the same bullshit. Corporate exploitation.
R: It seems like that mass exploitative view is being spread across so much of society, and it’s hurting the things – or the people – that actually create the things we thrive on that are suffering.
JM: It’s rude to the future. It’s weird, because it’s a similar short-sightedness and impoliteness to future generations. But what do you expect when you premise success on short-term profit? For me, though, holy shit, water supply has to be factored in. The value of clean water should be factored in. The value of a working eco-system should be factored in: these are not just externalities. These should be factored in to what we define as success. But what I’m saying, friends of mine who are important songwriters, people who you’ve heard of, they’re saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do a different job now because I can’t do this.’ And the mantra from the fat and happy tech industry is always, ‘Musicians have never made a living from selling recorded music. They’ve been exploited by recording companies, and have made their living selling T-shirts and playing live shows.’ Well, that’s not true. That’s maybe true for the Metallica, Madonna-sized bands, but most bands are middle class. That 45 percent of musicians who disappeared were middle class workers, lower middle class, and they no longer can afford to do it. And I think society and culture is poorer because they’re gone.
R: Do you think there’s any way of turning that around?
JM: Yeah, I think artists should build their own distribution platform. And I also think that it’s ridiculous that we don’t have any collective voice or organized labor. I mean, what were we thinking? Do we really think corporate America is going to be nice to us because we’re artists? No, it’s going to be the opposite. So, we need some sort of collective bulwark. And it’s funny that you say that, because we have a group of artists, among them David Byrne, Mark Ribot, Tom Waits, Roseanne Cash, and quite a few others are putting together an organization called the Content Creators Coalition, and we’re working on a lot of stuff right now.
To find out more about Content Creators Coalition, check out contentcreatorscoalition.org. For more, click over to cakemusic.com.