Cake finds 'Comfort,' sells product
'We are music workers'
By Brad Hodges
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Forget about the hit single and latest album and the acclaim that comes with all that. Cake prefers remaining decidedly low-fi and low-key.
John McCrea, lead singer for the Sacramento, California, band, doesn't so much sing as speak his offbeat lyrics. His fellow band members -- Pete McNeal (drums), Xan McCurdy (guitar), Vincent di Fiore (trumpet/vocals) and Gabriel Nelson (bass) -- maintain an often in-out, herky-jerky rhythm behind him.
The band, probably best known for the hit "The Distance," has been around 10 years and has recorded four albums. Its latest is "Comfort Eagle," its first disc released on Columbia Records.
Today, after a decade of music making, the band's members say they like where they are: exposed but not over-exposed, on the radar but not in the bull's-eye.
McCrea and di Fiore recently sat down with CNN at a downtown Atlanta restaurant a few hours before they were to perform in front of more than 50,000 people massing outside at the city's Centennial Olympic Park and talked about their music, their goals … and selling shoes.
CNN: Your first single from "Comfort Eagle" is "Short Skirt/Long Jacket." The somewhat unconventional video is getting a good bit of play on MTV. What can you tell us about it?
John McCrea: We wanted to make a video that didn't just consist of five white guys lip-syncing in an urban-decay setting. So we thought we would turn the camera around and look at actual people listening to our song - - which is what we did. ... A lot of people are just more entertaining than actual celebrities, and I'm starting to feel that way more and more.
CNN: Talk some more about "Short Skirt/Long Jacket." Is it about girls? Good times-bad times?
McCrea: It's really just about prosperity and depression and what happens to the human mating ritual when you have population booms and then things start to lag in every way. So I was not really writing about a woman in short skirt/long jacket as much I was writing about humans and how strange our behavior is.
Vincent di Fiore: It doesn't really seem anyone ever gets what they really want, and life ends up being not about what you end up obtaining, but about the yearning and longing. I think it's a snapshot of that moment of feeling which ends up being your whole life anyway.
CNN: Let's talk about the consistency of the cover art on your albums.
McCrea: Our cover art is very dependable. It's sort of like the cover on the outside of a can of dog food or shampoo or ...
Di Fiore: Fast-food soft drinks.
McCrea: That's right. What we're saying with our cover art is that music is just another product and we are really just purveyors of that product. We are music workers and we have jobs similar to everyone's jobs. There's nothing really so special about it. It's just saying: we make -- music.
CNN: Tonight you'll be playing in front of about 50,000 to 60,000 people. A few years back you were playing here in Atlanta in front of about 100 people. A preference?
Di Fiore: We like both, although our sound lends itself to a smaller room. We're able to hear ourselves more and the audience is able to understand what we're doing more. Everything is tuned in. It's not so much projecting out as tuning in. Plus, that's how we started, in smaller clubs. We really played to the people. We didn't pretend that we were playing to 60,000 people.
McCrea: There's nothing worse than seeing a band with aspirations for stardom playing in a small club. Because it's just these huge, gladiator-like gestures -- rockin' in the free world kind of thing.
CNN: If you were starting in '01 instead of '91, would you approach things differently? Would you be different?
McCrea: We would probably just broadcast all of our shows over the Internet.
Di Fiore: Maybe so. I don't know how much has changed. In '91 we were reacting to some of the things musically that were happening at the time -- some of the angst. We weren't really feeling that much of that.
McCrea: But nothing has changed. It's still white guys really upset that they're white.
Di Fiore: But we're still trying to figure out what they're upset about.
CNN: "Daria," "I Will Survive," "She'll Come Back to Me," "Italian Leather Sofa," "Walk on By" -- all songs about girls. Yet on this release, there aren't the songs about girls. Have you found love? Given up on love?
Di Fiore: Well, I'm not the songwriter, but a lot of those songs are about not expecting too much from a ... relationship. There's a certain objective way of looking at it. ... And maybe, with that said, our songs have moved on to another topic.
McCrea: I think that people are really into the idea of relationships being a salvation from personal growth in a way, and escape from personal growth. Those songs are sort of about my coming to grips with the fact that personal growth is sort of inevitable. Plus, I just like blues songs; I like the plaintive voice in music.
CNN: What would you do if you weren't musicians? Why are you musicians instead of, say, shoe salesmen?
McCrea: Well, we are shoe salesmen. We just make a different kind of shoes. We get into the very fine details of what we do, writing and arranging songs. We feel proud of our product. If I could get out of the music business and do something else I would consider it, but this is what I'm good at.
Di Fiore: If I weren't a musician I'd be taking people for walks, walks in the park, (to) talk about things. There are a lot of great parks in this country, and I'm alive and I'd like to enjoy them with anyone else who likes parks.
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