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John McCrea of Cake
'Prolonging the Magic'

Cake: Behind the guy with the goatee

Web posted on:
Wednesday, November 25, 1998 3:46:46 PM EST

From CNN Interactive Writer Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- When most rock music fans think of the band Cake, they picture the "guy with a goatee and a hat," says Todd Roper, the band's drummer.

The Sacramento, California, alternative group can't seem to shake the image of lead singer John McCrea's scruffy face enunciating lyrics with off-beat precision, emanating a sort of white-boy groove that has led to such off-kilter hits as "The Distance," that 1996 loveless hit that became the anthem for anyone training for a 5K.

But there's more to Cake than McCrea's facial features and fashion sense.

"Maybe if the band sticks together for another five years and continues to put out albums that are accepted, the other individuals in the band will have our own celebrity status," says Roper.

He's not that serious, mainly because this is a down-to-earth, tongue-in-cheek rock band we're talking about here. Sure, it would be nice for the other guys in the band (Roper, Vince di Fiore, Gabe Nelson and newcomer Xan McCurdy) to get noticed, get known. But this fleeting existence called success might not last, and neither might the band everyone knows as Cake.

"You hate everybody in the band and you just can't do it anymore."
-- Todd Roper, drummer for Cake.

Did you know that Cake is breaking up soon? It's true; you can even mark it on your calendar. The band will return home for the Christmas holidays, and they will part ways.

"If it doesn't happen this year, it will be the first time in four years (that it hasn't)," says Roper. "(You) come home from touring and you freak out, and you want to stay home and put your life back together again, and you hate everybody in the band and you just can't do it anymore. You break up and you feel better for a month and then you get the itch again."

Good thing, because Cake still has quite a distance to go -- 16 months of touring starting at the beginning of the year, and plenty of fans who are hungry for new material. That's what happens when you release a follow-up to your platinum success and the first single off the new record, "Never There," is getting solid play on radio and MTV.

Watch a clip of "Never There"

Audio clip: 260k MPEG-3
Audio clip: 710k WAV
Video clip: 1.9Mb QuickTime

'Cake mud on your shoes'

At a recent stop in Atlanta, McCrea's bandmates sat down for an interview with CNN Interactive to talk about Cake's latest album, "Prolonging the Magic" (Capricorn Records). Aside from lobbying for more credit and the imminent temporary break-up next month, one can learn trivial things when chatting to the guys who put the march behind McCrea's stutter-step lyrics.

For instance, the band's name does not refer to the food you eat on your birthday. Instead, it's a phonetic cousin to a certain four-letter word, and also it's a verb.

As in, "cake mud on your shoes, cake tortilla salt and flavorings on your fingers," says trumpet player di Fiore.

And here's another taste of Cake trivia: In the "Never There" video (a song that is pure Cake with a catchy beat and the lonesome pining of a lovelorn dude) and at the band's Atlanta concert, members wore Western gear, complete with cowboy hats and butt-kickin' boots. But they say they haven't gone country, despite some songs from all three albums that lean to the toe-tapping genre.

"You should think more Devo," says Roper, referring to the 1980s new wave band who gave us "Whip It."

"We're like Kiss," counters di Fiore. "We're just trying to wear some outfits."

Cake, in other words, is having fun, the life of the party at small venue concerts across America, and soon to be visiting the international market.

Sound Clips:

[225k MPEG-3] or [310k WAV]

"Walk On By"
[280k MPEG-3] or [390k WAV]

"The Distance"
[260k MPEG-3] or [360k WAV]

"I Will Survive"
[250k MPEG-3] or [350k WAV]

[320k MPEG-3] or [430k WAV]

"Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle"
[265k MPEG-3] or [360k WAV]

(All sound courtesy Capricorn Records)

'Rock 'n' roll lifestyle'

It started in Sacramento in the early 1990s. John McCrea returned from Los Angeles wanting to form a new band. Soon, Cake was evolving into the form that made them famous -- lonely horns mixed with solid guitar riffs and an alluring beat.

"Everyone played really low to the ground," says di Fiore. "There was kinda this ethic that our music could be played out on the sidewalk or with acoustic instruments, or in a very small room with no volume. Everyone had a pretty clear idea that we weren't going to be putting the pedal to the medal and playing all out. It was about restraint and playing as an ensemble that was aware of the audience and aware of someone trying to sing the song to the audience."

McCrea found the music to his liking, as he took lyrics both new and from songs written long ago ("Never There" was written around 1979, Roper says) and put them into a new form, a sort of half-speaking, half-rapping, half-singing amalgamation that lures listeners into singing along.

"Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle" was the first single off Cake's debut record, "Motorcade of Generosity" (1994). The song is a sarcastic salute to a hipster life spent wasting money -- and wasted -- on the rock concert scene, and it caught the attention of a burgeoning fan base.

"Fashion Nugget" was the sophomore effort in 1996, and thanks to the run of "The Distance," as well as a cleverly metered remake of Gloria Gaynors's "I Will Survive" (in which McCrea's delivery gives a tragicomic twist to the lyrics) the album sold over 1 million copies.

Suddenly, Cake was looking in the eyes of its own song, eating at expensive French restaurants, "very velvet rope and A-list models are there and waiting to be served food at three in the morning," says Roper. "That's when we knew, that's being in the rock and roll lifestyle."

Xan McCurdy

'Solo all the time'

Meantime, fans were memorizing McCrea's words to Cake's other tunes on "Fashion Nugget," lyrics riding a wave of unsophisticated originality, like:

"I need you to be here with me/ Not way over in a bucket seat";

Or, "She's got a serrated edge that she moves back and forth/ It's such a simple machine, she doesn't have to use force";

Or, "While Frank Sinatra sings 'Stormy Weather,' the flies and spiders get along together/ Cobwebs fall on an old skipping record."

Now the band has returned with "Prolonging the Magic," a strong, if a bit familiar, third record with titles like "Satan Is My Motor," "Cool Blue Reason," and the heartbroken waltz "Mexico."

"Never There," the story of a one-sided long-distance relationship that includes the lyric "A golden bird that flies away/ A candle's fickle flame/ To think I held you yesterday/ Your love was just a game," uses a Touch-Tone telephone as an instrument. It's as complicated as Cake gets.

Roper says the attraction is in the simplicity.

"There's no wall of sound, there's no constant guitar strumming or keyboard pads," says Roper. "There's a lot of space. It gives us a lot of room, in a very understated way, to solo all the time. You have so much space to breathe and to be heard.

"John's a great songwriter and he has a ton of songs," says Roper. "There's no shortage of materials."

"The people come to the party and usually we just play a role as a soundtrack for their lifestyle."
-- Todd Roper

No shortage of materials -- does that mean Cake will be around for a good long while?

Don't get Roper wrong: he doesn't want to give the impression that he doesn't enjoy the band's success. It's just that success, between the A-list models and restaurants, can devolve into one long grinding tour of shows in an endless stream of towns. The rock 'n' roll lifestyle doesn't exist for bands the way most fans believe it does.

"We're the wallpaper and the people come to the party and usually we just play a role as a soundtrack for their lifestyle," says Roper.

"As much money and as outrageous a lifestle you think (bands) have, we're all working and putting our time in and busting our ass going from city to city," says Roper. "It's part of the job."

For some, like the guys behind the guy with the goatee, it's a thankless job. No one is complaining, but Christmas break is just around the corner.

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