Going the Distance

Can you have Cake and eat it too?

John McCrea used to wonder why all musicians are freaks and degenerates.

“Our lifestyle looks really amazing from a distance, but being on tour for two years straight is soul-destroying,” says Cake’s lead singer during a phone interview earlier this week. “You come home and find all your houseplants have died — and not just that, people have died, married, life has gone on. You’re moving through space, like an astronaut, but not through time — your connection to an authentic community is gone.”

This is the reason McCrea says most turn to alcoholism, or at least chain-smoking. While he admits to dabbling in some things, he says he’s gotten through being in the successful alt-rock band for more than 20 years relatively unscathed.

“Luckily for me, I can’t write songs on the bus,” he explains.

It’s because of this that Cake doesn’t tour relentlessly.

At home now before heading north to play the Festival at Sandpoint this weekend, children can be heard in the background. The new family dog has just thrown up.

“It’s sort of chaotic,” McCrea says. “I like the dog, though.”

McCrea lives in what he describes as the middle-of-nowhere-Northern California, not in Sacramento, the band’s hometown.

“I don’t hate people,” he says. “I wouldn’t rule out moving to a more densely populated area. But what I do is fairly self-contained and I’m fine out here.”

This is where his songwriting takes place. He keeps a basic notepad and pen in his back pocket — no fancy digital devices to dictate to. Anytime during the day, if something strikes him as hilarious or tragic or somewhere in between, he scribbles it down. Like the sound of the vibraslap or trumpet throughout Cake’s instrumentation, McCrea’s lyrics often immediately give away which band wrote it.

“This is the kind of music I would listen to if I weren’t in the band,” McCrea says. “I try to have humor and sadness in one place. I like books and photography like that, showing the interplay between opposites. It’s the processing of life.”

Critics have been quick to refer to Cake as smugly superior and ironic. McCrea agrees that if you’ve only heard the group’s radio hits (“The Distance,” “Never There,” “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”), it’d be easy to conclude the band is one sarcastic joke.

“I think they’re misinterpreting us,” McCrea says. “If they don’t understand something, they think we’re trying to insult them. And certainly, you have songs that contain ironic notions … but people need to revisit the dictionary definition of ironic.”

Cake’s most recent album, Showroom of Compassion, was released in 2011. While a new record is not ready, the group is putting out an eight-disc vinyl collection of everything in their catalog in November to hold fans over.

McCrea contends that if a really good amp is involved, there’s nothing better than listening to music on a turntable.

“Not all of our albums were released on vinyl originally — we wanted to fix that,” he says.

And since the band has been around for more than two decades, they can pretty much do what they want. Like give out trees at shows (which you can actually track on their website).

“As long as it’s not a big, stupid three-day vomit-fest festival, we like to give out a tree,” McCrea explains. “If it’s our own show, we feel it’s a good opportunity for us to bring them.”

While giving out greenery is a kind gesture to fans, it’s not what keeps a band together for so long.

“We’re here because we’re focused more on the music than on being a band,” says McCrea, who also plays acoustic guitar, vibraslap, piano and organ. “No matter what you say, the reason you’re in a band is because you love music. Sometimes people love the other aspects of being in a band more, and that’s where the trouble comes.”

Even if his feelings about touring are viewed through weary eyes, McCrea knows that in the end, the shows are what make it all worth sharing his work.

“It’s not about the applause, it’s about the communicating,” he says. “People have a natural inclination in needing to communicate. That’s what we’re doing.” 

Festival at Sandpoint: An evening with Cake • Fri, Aug 2 at 7:30 pm • War Memorial Field • 855 Ontario St., Sandpoint, Idaho • $49.95 • All-ages • festivalatsandpoint.com

Sarah Jarosz, The Ballroom Thieves @ Knitting Factory

Fri., Feb. 23, 8 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Laura Johnson

Laura moved to the great Inland Pacific Northwest this summer. She is the Inlander's new music editor.