John McCrea, the lead singer and songwriter of CAKE, is pretty awesome. The guy doesn’t care about anything, which, of course, makes him cool. But his secret is that he actually cares about everything, and he’s not even secretive about it. (Blows your mind, huh?) Additionally, the guy wrote some of the most recognizable songs and hooks of the last 15 years and thus, had a very cushy position at a major label — before he told them they could shove it at least and started his own Upbeat Records. Also, the guy plays the vibraslap, which is that instrument that sounds like a musical rattlesnake. The Sun decided we thought the vibraslap, and CAKE and John McCrea generally, were pretty cool, so we asked him a couple of questions about music and philosophy. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:
The Sun: You guys, moreso than almost any other band, have a decided continuity in your album artwork. Does the visual art connect to the music as part of a larger CAKE aesthetic, or were they two separate decisions to have consistency in musical tone and consistency in artwork?
John McCrea: That’s a great question. It’s I think both. They are probably two decisions that came out of the same philosophical leanings, which I think have to do with simplicity and consistency and humility, perhaps a “Less is more” approach. I really believe that “Less is more” is an idea whose time has come. And there’s an anti-art aesthetic to what we do. There’s a funny wine connoisseurism that I believe is unsustainable. It’s a philosophical thing and a cultural thing that you could talk a long time about, and it would all sound really pretentious. There’s an economy to what we do and that comes from a philosophical place.
Sun: Has the same person been doing the artwork all these years or is it sort of easy enough that anyone could do it?
J.M.: [Laughs] Probably both! I’ve pretty much done all of our five albums. Our most recent release was done by a real graphic artist, the B-Sides and Rarities album, but all the other ones I did myself.
Sun: Speaking of that album, most if it is a lot of the covers that you guys like to do, but CAKE has been including covers in the regular releases over the years. Why do you choose to put them on many of your albums, especially this new one, when many bands save them just for the live show? Do you think that your approach makes covering songs almost more interesting for your band than other bands?
J.M.: I think something happened in the 60s culturally where the idea of the singer-songwriter was fetishized to the degree to which the singer-songwriter became a musician-poet-philosopher-king kind of thing, and to actually partake in someone else’s work, like to play another person’s songs, became slightly shameful. That didn’t happen in the country music culture, and I actually really like the country music culture better than I like the rock music culture because its an inclusive culture, not an exclusive culture. It doesn’t say, “I hope I die before I get old.” It doesn’t say, “Not for you.” It just says, “Everyone come on down.” There’s something really, in my mind, arrogant about making an album, which I think the prime directive should be making the best possible album. There’s something, I think, arrogant about only including songs that were written by you, because if the album is of paramount concern, if someone else’s song works better on that album than your own, then why are you just including your own music? Willy Nelson is an example of an accomplished songwriter who includes lots of songs that were written by other songwriters. There are millions of songs in the world — probably thousands of them are really great. So why would anyone who had self- confidence not include a song written by someone else? Does that make sense?
Sun: Yeah, is it sort of like a question of art for the sake of creation versus what is best in a way? Like a philosophical question about art?
J.M.: Yeah. I don’t really like using the word art, but I think it’s a question of what is best for the listener or what is best for the artist trying to prove that they can write songs. Does that make sense? It’s not about the artists proving themselves. It’s about making the best possible album. That’s one of the things that’s kind of sad about the decline of the album right now where it looks like the collection of ten or twelve songs is no longer something that people even hear anymore. I think that there’s something lost.
Sun: That’s all really interesting and there’s so much to pick out from there, but I’m most interested in why you don’t like the term art.
J.M.: When I hear the word art, I think of rich people in a gallery with pointed black shoes.
J.M.: Drinking, you know, medium-priced champagne. And that makes me think of poor people. I can’t think of rich people without thinking about poor people. I think art is this weird badge that people use. In more psychologically healthy cultures, perhaps like in some of the mountain tribes in Mexico, you have craft. And everyone can do craft. It’s not fetishized in the same way that we fetishize art and commodify art. I think there’s something healthy about everyone participating. I could go on and on about this, but for the most part, it just has to do with my opposition to overtly defines class boundaries, I guess. I don’t like the idea of a lot of really poor people. Does that make sense?
Sun: Yeah, it brings me to another question: it sort of seems like the state of the music industry makes it such that these days, you can be successful without having to kowtow to what a major label says, as you guys have proved. Do you think that the industry is now more “for everyone” since there’s so many options for both artists — I mean musicians — and the people who consume music? And also how life’s been treating you since you parted ways with your major label?
J.M.: Well, I think it’s a two-edged sword right now. On one hand, there’s something really good happening. That is, major labels are withering up to a large degree, and independent labels are picking up the slack. But the other thing that’s happening that’s a little weird to me is just the way the labor of a lot of people is sort of becoming free. In other words, it costs us money to rent a studio and to pay for everybody’s lunch and health care and things like that. So I think we have a little bit of a crisis and also a little bit of an opportunity. There is a weird sense of entitlement, I think, that people have about other people’s work sometimes that I find a little repugnant and, perhaps, typically American, in the same way that we sort of help ourselves to other countries’ natural resources because we can. There’s a little bit of that going on, I think, in the world of music.
But it’s a great opportunity just generally. I’ve always had more than a big problem with the conventional structure of the music business. It’s a vampiric sort of evil beast that is, thankfully, in catastrophic decline. But I also think that there’s gotta be a way for musicians to work on an album for six months or a year and get paid for it. I know that sounds crazy, but if somebody came up to you and asked for your job to be now just totally free, that’s hard. That’s a hard one because what you have musicians whose only real income stream now, if things continue the way they’re going, coming from touring, which is a hard life. If that’s the only money that you get, or the bulk of it, what that means is that you’re going to be on tour most of the year for the rest of your life, if you’re successful. [Laughs] And if you fail, then … So anyway, what I’m saying is I think if we want good musicians who have time to make good records, they have to be able to be at home once in a while. And also I think you do have to sort of buckle down and ask yourself is it fair that they don’t get paid for their work?
Sun: That reminds me, I couldn’t quite tell what you thought about your latest poll on your website, which is about how that woman is being sued for over $200,000 for downloading music.
J.M.: Yeah, we didn’t really wanna tell everybody how we felt overtly, but we did want to bring up the subject. That’s generally what we like to do with our polls, just ask weird questions that make people have to think about it. Basically, I’m glad we succeeded in not betraying our true feelings completely because it’s not really about what we think as much as it’s about people asking themselves what they think. [Pauses] But you’re sort of asking me, I guess, what I think … I pretty much think what I said before, which is I think there’s a little bit of a crisis in terms of how good musicians that spend a lot of time making their music pay their rent. It would be great if music could be free, but I think we need to be also asking ourselves how we can make sandwiches free.
J.M.: You know what I’m saying? If music’s going to be free, I think sandwiches also need to be free. And to just say, “Oh, well it’s good! It gives you exposure so you can play live shows 365 days a year,” is a little bit of a cop out intellectually as well as emotionally. I think there’s maybe an unintentional cognitive disconnect that happens to be very convenient for someone that doesn’t want to empathize with somebody else. Can you tell what I think now?
Sun: I completely can tell. Is it that you don’t agree with the fact that they’re suing her because that’s sort of feeding the beast that you hate, but she shouldn’t have been doing it also?
J.M.: Honestly, I definitely have no sympathy for major labels. I enjoy watching them wither up and die. I really do. But I also have friends that — I’m not going to say which bands they’re in or which artists they are — need to sell their 65,000 copies of their CD because their wife is having a baby and they don’t have health insurance. Musicians are not these movie stars just traipsing around the world. They are actually people; a lot of them don’t have health insurance. Even if they sell a million records, which never happens anymore, they, a lot of times, don’t even break even. In a way we’ve fetishized musicians into becoming stars, and we sort of absolve ourselves from being unfair to them maybe because they’re living this life that we wish we could live. At the same time we admire them, we also resent them, and also demonize the victim—I hate to say it. I hate to use that word, but I think there’s a certain amount of demonizing. In other words, in order to not empathize with the person you’re taking from unfairly, you make them into these glamorous, decadent, iconic not human entities. That’s been my experience.
Sun: Since we’re on the topic of your general opinions about things, the last time I saw Cake was in the summer of 2006 in San Francisco at Summerthing, and you were mentioning a lot of your thoughts about the imminent apocalypse at that show, which my friends informed me is actually something you bring up at many of your shows. Could you elaborate on your thoughts about the apocalypse?
J.M.: I wouldn’t call it “apocalypse.” I think we’d be lucky if we could have an apocalypse, honestly. That would be getting out of it easy, I think. But what I do think is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. [Laughs] I guess I’d probably need to expand on that, but the way we’re living on this Earth, and the way we’re living without a sense of consequences is unsustainable and eventually that behavior is going to reach a brick wall. I think apocalypse would be a lot more fun than the slow degradation of quality of life that I think we’re going to experience. It’s a math problem, isn’t it? We have to just shake ourselves and wake up and realize that there’s some numbers we need to look at. And we shouldn’t shit where we eat — excuse my language. That’s just a primary thing: don’t shit where you eat, whether it be in foreign policy, or whether it have to do with dumping toxic waste in your town, or whether it have to do with cutting down trees that supply our oxygen. One of the poignant statistics that I’ve read in the last few years is the fact that the rainforests supply 45% of our oxygen. We’re cutting them down at what rate? A football field a second? You have to have a sense of consequences, and I just don’t think our culture has that built in. I think we’ve fetishized capitalism. We fetishize markets and the wisdom of markets to the point where we’ve rationalized getting rid of any kinds of laws that regulate industry. That’s just crazy. That the government is bad and that markets are good has been a very successful campaign to fetishize the idea of magical markets, and that’s scary.
Sun: What kind of stuff did you study in school before you started the band?
J.M.: I was an English major and I studied also cultural anthropology.
Sun: Is this stuff related to anything you were studying in school, or is it an interest that you’ve taken up or a cause you’ve come to realize is important after that?
J.M.: I just feel like I’m being a responsible adult in facing the reality of my situation, which is also part of the world situation. I think everyone should reflect on who they are, where they are, what’s happening around them. I just think that’s normal. And what’s not normal is strident cognitive disconnect, which I feel like is the rule.
Sun: For a 180, when did you discover your distinct approach to singing, which most people describe as deadpan, like when you discovered that you could do that instead of just the normal singing technique that most people use?
J.M.: Oh, you mean like, my bad voice?
Sun: [Laughs] Is that just what you think it is?
J.M.: Yeah, maybe. [Laughs] Unfortunately, it’s made a lot of people think I’m being ironic, which I guess is a failure on my part because I’m being totally sincere. But, yeah, I think it’s just my bad singing voice.
Sun: So you’ve always sung like that from when you were little to today?
J.M.: Yeah, I mean there’s two different things that I do. Some songs I talk through, and other songs I try to sing. But those are two separate things.
Sun: What do you think of the fact that some people have compared your style with a sort of rapping?
J.M.: I think a lot of rap is really good. I don’t have a problem with rap music; a lot of it’s really creative. Especially in terms of production value, it seems to be way more creative than rock, or it has been. I don’t know if it is right this second. I think over the last three years it’s been more creative than rock in terms of just production values. But I enjoy rap music. I’m not a good rapper. And I’m not a good singer. But I do write. I like to write words and songs.
Sun: Considering what happened recently at the VMA’s with Justin Timberlake giving the network flack about not playing enough videos, do you think the music video is dead since MTV isn’t playing them anymore? And do you think that is a good or bad thing?
J.M.: Well MTV’s a business, so here we go again with the wisdom of the markets. Apparently, it’s more profitable for them to not play videos. I mean, are you gonna ask them to do something that’s not profitable because Justin Timberlake wants them to?
Sun: Probably not.
J.M.: Maybe the problem is with our culture. If there’s a problem with the death of the video — which I’m not saying there is a problem or there’s not a problem — but if there is a problem with the death of the video, that problem is with our culture, and with, perhaps, there are people not wanting to watch videos. Justin Timberlake has to try to get people to want to watch a video.
Sun: How can you take mundane things like cars and sofas and write songs about them? Also, if you had to write a song about a toaster, what would that song be like?
J.M.: Well, first of all, there are no mundane things. You know what I mean? There’s nothing that’s mundane. If you think of how short your life is, the small percentage the length of your lifespan is compared to the length of time this Earth has existed. Every second of your life need be more than mundane because even getting a flat tire on the freeway is a special experience because that’s your flat tire on the free way experience and you’re dead in 30 years. This is it. There’s no such thing as mundane because BAM you’re gone. You’re here for a second. You better not think anything is mundane because you’re about to die.
Sun: That definitely gives me a new perspective about sitting in this room right now.
J.M.: It should give you a new perspective because it gives me a new perspective. There’s just nothing that’s mundane because it’s just so fleeting, this whole thing. You should sink your fangs into it as deeply as you can and savor it.
And so, I think I did write a song about a toaster oven. I think it was my first protest song actually, about a nuclear power plant, that I wrote a long time ago. There’s a famous writer from France whom I happened to meet when I was a kid who gave me a piece of advice afer hearing one of my songs. She said, I think it was “Short Skirt/ Long Jacket” where I describe the shoes of the woman in the song. She’s like, “Shoes that cut! You should say that again!” Just like your English teacher says to you “don’t tell people; show people.” So there’s nothing mundane. The mundane is what everything is made of, but it’s not mundane. It’s the fabric of life.
I hope I haven’t made too many run-on sentences.
CAKE just released a record called B-Sides and Rarities, which conveniently offers a collection of their b-sides and rarities, including The Sun’s favorite “Mahna Mahna.” You know the one. The cover is scratch and sniff with five different scents. The album can be purchased directly from www.cakemusic.com as well as from iTunes and Amazon.