Cake's John McCrea talks optimism, pessimism and the future of music
Even after more than 25 years in the industry, there are still few voices like Cake lead singer John McCrea's droll deadpan, the oddly magnetic monotone providing the storytelling on hits like "The Distance," "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" and the band's cover of "I Will Survive."
Don't let the unemotional voice fool you, though. McCrea has no lack of feeling and passion when it comes to his music – he's called himself a perfectionist in several interviews over the years, and the band's seven-year distance since its last album, 2011's "Showroom of Compassion," reflects that – the state of the industry and the state of politics today.
In fact, the band's most recent venture, a vinyl LP release, is all about his current mixed emotions, a musical yin-and-yang featuring a optimistic side (a cover of The 5th Dimension's "Age of Aquarius") and a pessimistic side (an original song called "Sinking Ship," just released as a single on Aug. 3).
McCrea and Cake will bring that flurry of emotions, as well as a flurry of hits, to its upcoming joint show with Ben Folds on Thursday, Aug. 23 at the BMO Harris Pavilion. (Which, psst, for a chance at front row seats, visit the concert's Facebook page and post the song you're most excited to hear now through 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 10.) Before he hits the stage, however, we hit McCrea with some questions about the positive-negative energy of Cake's new release, the state of politics, the state of the music industry and what he likes about Milwaukeeans.
OnMilwaukee: I follow Cake on Facebook, and a lot of your page is about finding news stories and, even though your stance is evident, proposing questions about them and stirring conversation about them. Do you like how those conversations turn out?
John McCrea: Yes and no. Sometimes it's great. Sometimes you get people actually listening to each other. But a lot of times it's people shouting over each other. There's a lot of all-caps dialogues that occur that don't seem to get anybody anywhere. I think America is coming to the realization that we're sort of in a propaganda war going on for our soul, and it should be interesting at least to see where it goes.
What inspired that approach to social media?
Wanting to have a presence that we ourselves weren't bored with was part of it. A lot of bands seem so afraid to talk about anything other than their own music that I think it just doesn't seem like an interesting thing anymore. But also to not be overly didactic about it. To actually have a place for an argument is a good thing. People discover things that they didn't know, which I think is good.
Was the concept of your upcoming vinyl LP – this two sides of optimism and pessimism – something you went in with into the project, or did it just turn out that way?
It just sort of happened that way, and when it happened that way, I didn't fight it. It seemed appropriate for this particular junction in history – and certainly in my life. I've never felt before so much on the fence between, on one side, total oblivion and, on the other side, actual positive change. I've never felt like major positive change was ever possible; I always felt like things were rigged to the point of dysfunction. But I also never felt like we could actually all be living in a chaotic dystopian situation within months.
It does feel like a tipping point – and it feels hyperbolic to say, but that's how it feels.
It does feel hyperbolic, only because the United States exists within a sense of imperviousness and exceptionalism. We've watched all these other countries around us be taken over by authoritarians; we've just never had to happen here, so it seems like crazy talk to us. I mean, our parents would never even think of that possibility. But what comes around goes around. I'm not saying necessarily that we deserve it, but we should've realized that if this is something that can happen in other countries, we're not qualitatively better people than them. It's a thing that happens if you're not super careful.
The optimistic side of the record – "The Age of Aquarius" – why that song and why take a swing at that song?
We were just throwing that song around for fun years ago, and we were arguing about how we wanted to finish it. Half of the band wanted to do one thing, and I wanted to do another, so we just kind of left it there. So I dug it up and realized that it sounded pretty good and figured out how to finish it. So we had that.
Then, there was this guitar riff that I wrote when I was a kid – literally, when I was a kid – for a song called "Sinking Ship." And everyone said that it was too depressing, that it seemed too hyperbolically depressing. And now somehow it kind of seemed normal. (laughs) So we thought that's perfect; we'll put these two songs together on two sides of a vinyl single.
What was it like revisiting a song from your childhood like that?
It's great because, I don't know how many songwriters you've talked to, but a lot of times you'll write a couple of verses and a chorus and a guitar riff, and you'll like it a lot. But you just get stuck, though, and you just can't write that third or fourth verse. Because, for me at least, you don't want to ruin it all. So it's harder to write the last couple verses of a song than the first couple verses because, if you like what you've done so far, it becomes almost like that game of Operation.
There's that buzzer sound, and you know when you're doing something sloppy and that disrespects what you've done so far. But I think, over a long period of time, your subconscious mind can figure out a puzzle – and that's what it was like for me.
In past interviews, you said "Sinking Ship" was a much different song from anything you've done before. How so?
The beat is kind of a shuffle, which I don't think we have any other beats like that. It's kind of like a '70s, driving across the desert in a Camaro kind of beat. Which is perfect for a super-depressing song.
Is there more or less pressure to release new work and new albums these days? You've got stuff like Spotify keeping things feeling constant, but you've also got artists releasing albums out of nowhere and surprising fans.
I don't know, honestly. I don't feel any pressure, but I'm different from anyone else. I'm not saying that in a good or bad way. But I don't care very much.
I don't approve of the structure of the distribution system currently. I think that people who have zero investment in the creation of music and content generally are helping themselves to the monetization of that content from advertising and just sort of not paying the people who actually make the stuff adequately. And the people who make the stuff have zero bargaining power. So I sort of dissociated from that a long time ago. I don't think about it, and I certainly don't feel pressure to complete in that context.
Do you think that pendulum will swing back to the artists at some point, or do you think that this is a bridge that's been crossed and burned?
I don't think anything will get better for artists unless artists can aggregate their power, and currently we're not allowed to organize. The legal structure and the labels are such that it would be illegal for artists to all together say to Spotify, "We think .00065 of a penny is not enough. We would like .004," or something. So there's nothing we can do in the current configuration unless artists are able to organize. And that's something artists probably should have done 65 years ago, and there's a whole story about why that never happened. But capitalists are not going to be nice to us just because we're musicians. It's gonna take actual artists standing up for their right to eat food as a result of the value they create.
You'll be touring with Ben Folds. How do you think your two styles of music will mesh together?
We haven't gone out on the road just yet, but I anticipate that it will be great. And musically, most importantly, I think it'll be a good combination of different styles. Sometimes you go to a concert and you're just wrecked afterwards because the different kinds of music don't really have an aesthetic thought process.
Kind of a genre whiplash.
Yeah. Or, even worse, too much similarity. It's horrible when you go to some of these festivals, and all the bands have the same drum beats for literally hours and hours and hours.
You want to be in the same ballpark but not the same position.
Yeah, the human ear requires novelty to hear stuff. It requires changes, and yet if it's too drastic a swing, I think something just short circuits.
You've definitely been to Milwaukee before, so do you have any favorite memories from playing here or favorite places to play or see when you're here?
I like just walking around the Downtown area and looking in the shops and restaurants. And I also like the theaters. We played a New Year's show, and it was a really beautiful theater. And I like how friendly Milwaukeeans are. There just seems to be a no bullsh*t approach to human interaction that I find refreshing.
As long as you're not a Bears fan.
Then it gets weird.
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