Rock

'Excess Ain't Rebellion': How Cake Has Made Moderation Sound Fun For the Past 30 Years

Cake
Robert McKnight*

Cake

Talk to enough people who have been part of the band Cake over the years, and you’ll start to encounter some recurring themes — or, as former manager Bonnie Simmons calls them, “Cake words.”

When they were most popular, critics struggled to characterize the band’s center of gravity, its raison d’etre, tying them to everyone from pop jazz innovator Herb Alpert to cult favorite alternative rockers Soul Coughing to surf rock to ska. But the explanations of  the group ring truest through some words that rarely get used to describe musicians, much less ‘90s rock musicians with massive radio singles. Simmons’ is “economy.” Drummer Todd Roper’s is “efficient.” Trumpeter Vince DiFiore, the only founding member besides frontman John McCrea remaining as Cake celebrates its 30th birthday this year, calls it “sensible.” Ask him about Cake’s legacy, and he says, “Sanity, maybe. Good, reasonable, well-thought-out music. But with soul.”

The moderation they describe, though, reflects neither the broad scope of their influences nor their success. Fashion Nugget, released 25 years ago this week on September 17, 1996, took the Sacramento band from nearly anonymous to platinum in eight months, thanks to the monumental success of propulsive anti-jock jam “The Distance.” They remained a fixture of alternative rock radio for the next decade and a half, with four top 10 hits on the Alternative chart (though no two from the same album) and one, the 1998 single “Never There,’ that also reached the Hot 100. “We've been a ‘one-hit wonder’ every single time, so I've started to get used to it,” quips McCrea. 

Today, the band is made up of McCrea, DiFiore, Roper, guitarist Xan McCurdy and bassist Daniel McCallum, who joined in 2016. As two of their biggest albums turn 25 and 20 -- Comfort Eagle was released July 24, 2001 -- respectively, the way that Cake carved out their own little quiet, anti-rock corner of the then-massive alt rock zeitgeist seems at risk of fading into obscurity. The consistency of their intimate, bright, familiar but not hackneyed sound and McCrea’s funny/sad lyrics allowed them to continue finding new audiences from the end of the grunge era through pop punk’s heyday. But they remained staunchly trend-averse enough that tying them into any broader narrative of ‘90s and early-aughts music is a challenge. 

For McCrea, that’s absolutely fine. In fact, it’s what he wanted: to make each song not just genre-less, but “its own sort of solar system.”

He remembers first feeling compelled to write songs as a Sacramento high schooler in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, tinkering with verses he describes as “inane” and eventually learning enough guitar and bass to flesh out his ideas. At that point, McCrea had recently come across two artists that he describes as transformative: country legend Hank Williams, Sr. (“Talking about minimalism, that shit is is just like a bullet”) and big band titan Benny Goodman. “In a way, they got me through a period of music that was wrong for me pretty unscathed,” he explains.

Country, in particular, shaped McCrea’s sensibilities. “Nobody that I take seriously as an artist can just discount country music,” he says. “I really loved archetypal, moving melodies that sometimes aren't all about originality, but about just communication of feeling -- I just fall for that sort of raw emotion.” 

McCrea sees the tension between that and his self-professed cynical, curmudgeonly, sarcastic tendencies; later, critics would sometimes only seem to hear the latter when they listened to Cake’s music. To him, though, finding ways to include both of those leanings in one song is how he found his voice as a songwriter. “For a lot of years, those things were kind of irreconcilable,” he says. “I sort of started finding a way to push them together, and allow them to coexist.”

As he put it in 1996, “A good song is like a teardrop in the eye of a prize-winning poodle at a world-class dog show. It doesn’t matter what mood it is, as long as there’s that tension, the pulling of opposites.”

He moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as a songwriter, an effort that proved futile. “I realized my songs weren't really one-size-fits-all enough,” says McCrea. “They were kind of weird and self-indulgent.” When he eventually returned to Sacramento, he started waiting tables three days a week and writing songs during the other four, building up some of the library that would eventually become Cake’s songbook. 

Sacramento was a small enough city at that point that future bandmates crossed paths years before the genesis of Cake. Drummer Todd Roper was in a high school band with eventual Cake bassist Victor Damiani and original guitarist Greg Brown. Roper’s drum teacher had negotiated a jam session for the high schooler with McCrea, then in his early twenties, that produced little besides a cassette tape. Roper brought the cassette to school and played it for his fellow music nerd friends; Brown, as he told the drummer later, was intrigued. “That’s when his attraction to John started,” says Roper. “It was just like, ‘Whoa, there’s this songwriter in town…’”

Brown and McCrea formed the creative core of Cake when the first iteration of the band came together in 1991. “When I was working with [McCrea], I really felt the forward momentum,” Brown recalls. “I felt like, ‘Something very creative is happening here.’” The rest of the group coalesced around their partnership. “Greg and John have — still, to this day —  a very powerful chemistry together,” says Roper. “I basked in the warmth that came off of that.” 

Getting together to listen to classic country and soul records, they brainstormed the concept for the band. “We were definitely very conceptual about it, for some reason,” Brown says. “We were just like, ‘Okay, we're not going with our gut -- we're gonna make something, and we're going to be intentional about it.’” 

McCrea explained that he felt the common threads between those country and soul records should form the cornerstone of their sound, and he and Brown took notes on what specific elements they could pull from those vintage albums to support McCrea’s forcefully eclectic songs. “A lot of times, it would sort of be filtered through Greg's ear,” says McCrea. “He would do things with his guitar that would sort of square things up rhythmically, in a way that I think was really, really, really smart.”

“It was mostly great. Sometimes difficult.” Brown pauses. “But I'm not going to talk about that. Mostly just a wonderful, creative kind of explosion of ideas, like a fountain that just never stopped flowing.”

What Cake’s members credit Brown for today, over two decades after he left the group, is helping consolidate that efficient, economical template that’s made it’s music so recognizable. “Every instrument was deliberately tinkered with,” says Brown, as they searched for “something that would be rhythmically compelling.”   

“The arrangements that Greg created with John's songs stand to this day, almost note for note,” says Roper. The sound was small, groovy and deliberate. “Our aesthetic was one of limitations,” as Brown puts it. And of course there was the trumpet, courtesy of DiFiore — a particular rarity in a pre-ska-revival '90s alternative scene.

“I happened to have been writing melodies for some of the songs that just sounded kind of bulbously heroic on the electric lead guitar,” says McCrea. “There's an emotional baggage to like, guy guitar hero stuff. I felt very strongly that we couldn't do that. But somehow when you put those same melodies on the trumpet, it cut through in the same way -- without taking up a lot of space.”

Thus, Cake was born. Cake as in, to cake onto something — not the tasty bakery staple, as they made clear from the start. ("It's just the sound of the word [that's appealing]," Brown told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat in 1997. "And it's a short word that's easy to remember.") By the time they were ready to record their first single, “Jolene” (not a Dolly Parton cover) backed with “Rock and Roll Lifestyle,” in 1993, the group had established itself on the local scene, sharing bills with an array of nascent California acts including the Deftones and, memorably, Korn. Translating the sound they had refined over hours and hours of working on arrangement and then in small Sacramento clubs to disc, though, presented a new challenge. 

Brown and McCrea wanted to recreate the warm sounds of the vinyl that had inspired them, almost as a reaction to the crystalline aesthetic of the CD era. “They just had this cold glassy sound that we were turned off by,” says Brown. “With CDs, you would turn it up, and I would feel oppressed by it. With records, on the other hand, for the most part, I could turn the volume up all the way to 100 and still feel like I had space to think. Like it had breathing room.” 

Besides planning to literally release the single on vinyl as well as cassette, which was fairly unorthodox at the time, Brown pulled from Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions to find “sounds that were just sort of supple and inviting, yielding as opposed to aggressive” — a task that required he and McCrea to “really work against the grain of the studio environment in the early ‘90s.”

“Part of it was by resisting the urge toward bigness and rock bluster, and having a drier approach to production and songwriting values,” says McCrea. “It was very difficult, in the beginning, to get sound engineers — whether in the studio or live — to turn things down, for Christ's sake.”

That kind of scaling back and search for an intimacy of an older vintage was a self-conscious reaction to the excesses of rock to that point. “It felt a little punk rock in the context of what was coming out of Seattle,” says Roper. “There was just a lot of really muscular grunge music sort of being foisted in people's heads,” McCrea adds. “What we did, within that context, felt pretty subversive. It was not without a little bit of hostility that we delivered our music product. People thought we were a joke, because we sounded small.”

The initial impression of unseriousness might have been helped by their first taste of radio success with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle,” which made its way to college stations after their self-released debut, Motorcade of Generosity, was picked up by Capricorn Records in 1995. The track features McCrea’s spoken word indicting essentially all of his musical peers over a sinister riff, clarifying the band’s aforementioned position as something of an alternative to the alternative. “Excess ain’t rebellion,” McCrea intones. “Your self-destruction doesn’t hurt them.” It was certainly a fair critique, and one that resonated -- the song reached No. 31 on the Alternative Airplay chart.

“It was really the first time anybody had noticed us,” says McCrea. “It set a sort of precedent, and I'm not sure if it was the right one -- the right first impression. But at the same time, I love the fact that I was able to communicate a critique of culture.” 

Though it didn’t necessarily suggest the group’s potential, those who listened to Motorcade in full heard a band that was already secure in its sound. “If you listen to their first album, it is very much 'Cake,'” says Simmons, who signed the band as a client after hearing the album. “I think John McCrea is just an unbelievably wonderful songwriter. His songs are so simple and yet, they have this mysterious quality for me.”

By the time the group went into the studio to record Fashion Nugget, they were veterans of the road, with a large catalog of songs that they had already refined. The group was characteristically methodical in the studio, and the band produced all its own music. “Nobody was there to have a good time,” says DiFiore, “Everybody was there to make a good album. There was no yukking it up at all.” But most of the trickiest decisions had already been made. The meat of “The Distance,” for example, was recorded in one take. 

“We played it once, and headed back to the control room to listen to the playback,” says Roper. “Greg's kind of bobbing his head, and he turns and he's like, ‘Do you like the sound of the drums?’ I said, ‘No, not really. Do you?’ He's like, ‘Yeah, I totally did.’ I was like, ‘You mean for keeps?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, it's your song. You can fucking keep it.’ And then I went to the coffee shop and got a bagel.”

The song is one of very few Cake originals that McCrea didn’t write himself. “He took to it right away, and I didn't really understand what he saw in it so much,” says Brown, who wrote the song, of McCrea. “I liked the way it sounded and everything, but I thought ‘Frank Sinatra’ was a much stronger choice for the single. But the record label chose it and it worked out.”

Worked out might be an understatement. The surrealist Office Space-meets-vision quest video went into heavy rotation on MTV, and the song reached no. 4 on the Alternative Airplay chart, behind Bush, Sublime and No Doubt. Suddenly the band’s DIY bona fides faded into the background as it moved from the college radio fringe to the epicenter of rock on the heels of another unorthodox track -- one that doesn’t really begin to reflect the range uptempo funk, melancholy balladry and country twang on Fashion Nugget

Critics were neither overwhelmingly positive nor disparaging, but words like “ironic,” “goofy” and “detached” were attached to the band’s music with increasing frequency, especially when it came to the follow-up single, a cover of “I Will Survive.” It was broadly understood as what can only be described as a bit. 

“I don't think there's any irony in the way I deliver that song at all,” says McCrea. “The ‘disco sucks’ movement was weirdly white supremacist, I think that's partially why everybody just assumed it must be a joke song. That's part of the damage of living in this country. We've got some baggage.” (Fashion Nugget’s other covers, Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs And Waltzes” and the pop vocal standard “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” got less attention.)

“They all fit in with the country and soul aesthetic that was kind of undergirding our overall sound,” says Brown. “If it was on our record, it was because [McCrea] just thought the song was the greatest thing in the world. Nothing we were ever doing was supposed to be that cute.”

The band won sincere fans too, though -- fans that made it a very successful touring act not only in the wake of “The Distance” and the radio hits that followed, but right up to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost a decade after their most recent album. But in the immediate wake of their evolution into an MTV-approved act, the pressure of their grueling schedule on the road took a toll on the band. McCrea was diagnosed with exhaustion; tour dates were cancelled. 

“It becomes really taxing,” he says. “You're mining for something that there's not very much of, and when you hit a vein of the gold and the quartz or whatever, you just keep going. ‘Let's just rip up the mountain and get all this while we can.’ I did say no, as much as I could, but it was really an incredible amount of pressure from everybody.”

There’s nothing particularly original about the story of fame and fortune putting a strain on creative and personal relationships. But as McCrea would say of the melodies of country songs, it can hit just as hard every time -- and the rapid transformation of Cake from Sacramento upstarts to international touring artists did just that. 

“The success of that song put such a strain on us personally,” says Roper. “We weren't strong enough between the five of us in a personal sense to hold it together, to survive the weight that was thrust onto us once the success began to arrive.”

Brown and bassist Damiani left the band in 1997. “I might have told you one thing back when I was 27 years old, and I left hot headed and mad about what I considered to be irreconcilable personality problems or whatever,” says Brown. “As 51-year-old me, I see a much larger context of what was going on in my life. Rather than get into all of it, I would just say there was a lot of turmoil at the time, and I felt like leaving Cake would be a decision that would be good for my health.”

Because the band was in the middle of such a hot streak they were compelled to regroup almost immediately, bringing back bassist Gabe Nelson and hiring another local guitarist: Xan McCurdy, who is still in the band today. “There's still a kind of kernel of Greg Brownness that I bring, whether it's intentional or not,” says McCurdy. “But there will never be anybody like Greg Brown. He is a total authentic original and a hardcore talent, and really built that group.”

There are unintended consequences to becoming Cake’s guitarist, though: “I make jokes to my friends all the time,” McCurdy adds. “Like if I play in another band as a side thing I'm like, ‘Look at this, I'm playing a chord! I haven't played a chord in six years.’”

In spite of the upheaval, Cake topped their initial burst of success with 1998’s Prolonging The Magic and its lead single “Never There” -- both their biggest song to date (it was No. 1 on the Alternative Airplay chart), and probably the only major Cake single that allegations of unseriousness couldn’t really stick to, given it’s a fairly straightforward song about longing. “It was really a huge relief for me that the album didn't suck, that I could do it,” says McCrea. Having established themselves as hitmakers, the group was signed by Columbia, a decision that came with more money and even more pressure.

“There was some record company meddling in some of the decision making,” McCrea says. “It was a difficult interface between very New York, East Coast, sort of corporate culture and some weirdo home crafts project from Northern California. I think we could have used translators or something.” 

But it worked, again: 2001’s Comfort Eagle, their first major label album, produced yet another Adult Top 40 and alternative radio hit with offbeat, call-and-response ode “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” and another collection of upbeat, deadpan, hyper-polished, genre-agnostic songs. “It surprised me that it took off,” says McCurdy of the single. “It still does, honestly. I hear the ‘na na nas,’ and I guess some people like the lyrics? They mostly just seem to like it in sort of a wacky way.”

The crux of Cake’s legacy lies in that paradox. Their most successful songs almost all fall at one end of their catalog’s wide spectrum, the end with the most deadpan spoken word and lyrics that range from poetic to seeming almost free-associated. “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” probably the least serious of all of them, helped cement that trend. “I mean John keeps a tight grip on the creative side of things, so I'm sure he would have said, ‘Absolutely not,’ if he didn't want ‘Short Skirt’ to be the song that represented the group at that point,” says McCurdy. “But to me, it seemed a little like, ‘Let's not f--k with the formula.’”

“We didn't necessarily choose which songs got attention,” says McCrea, “but everything happened perfectly if that's what you wanted: to be misunderstood by baby boomers.” 

Cake released another album with Columbia, Pressure Chief, in 2004, whose prescient Luddite single “No Phone” reached no. 13 on the Alternative Airplay charts. Then they went dormant, leaving Columbia and relying on their draw as a touring act for the next half-decade. “I felt like the whole music industry was somewhat wasteful, like a cruise ship or something,” says McCrea. “There was a lot of money being thrown at this industry selling a product that for most 19-year-olds was now free. So I just thought, ‘Holy shit, we have to get off of this giant boat.’”

Going independent didn’t hurt the band, though. Showroom of Compassion, recorded in their own solar-powered studio in Sacramento and released in 2011, was also their first no. 1 album on the Billboard 200 — the lowest-selling No. 1 album in SoundScan history to that point, moving just 44,000 units, but No. 1 nevertheless -- and spawned one more alternative radio hit in the No. 4-peaking “Sick of You.” The realities of today’s recorded music industry make releasing another Cake project less than appetizing, though they’ve been writing and recording plenty in the decade since Showroom was released.

“I just don't know if I'm willing to do all the hard work of making an album unless there's an equitable way of distributing it,” McCrea says. “I've been sort of curmudgeonly about my output. I still want to play music for my friends, but if we're talking about the economic situation, there's just something f--ked up about distribution right now.”

But beyond their singles, which seem primed for a second life in TikTok challenges in the best way possible, Cake created an enviable, rich body of meaty songs and creative arrangements that stretched out what the alt ‘90s scene sounded like. If their stated ambition was a kind of reactive smallness, making music that sounded right on a well-worn record or a cozy club show, the scope of their aesthetic and topical curiosity — and willingness to underpin almost all of their work with a critique of consumption — was big. “I don't know if we've influenced anybody,” Brown says -- but the self-conscious rejection of genre and its attendant hierarchies have made Cake’s early music sound, if not ahead of its time, than at least ageless.

They are still working together, albeit remotely, after being compelled to cancel tour dates at the beginning of the pandemic last year. McCurdy is in Portland; Roper, who returned to the band in 2016 after over a decade away, has moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama; DiFiore is still in Sacramento. So is Brown, whose relationship with McCrea has long since been repaired. “He's been actually helping me out on my projects,” says Brown, who played with Damiani in the band Deathray until 2007, and still works on music as a soloist. “We share ideas, and we have a really good relationship. I feel good about that, because I missed that creative energy that he and I had back in the day. I get a bit of that creative spark back.”

McCrea lives with his family in Portland. When he’s not writing more songs, he “surreptitiously plants” Western red cedar trees around Oregon — a gesture towards environmental activism that he approaches with characteristic self-deprecation. 

“It's all self-indulgent,” McCrea says. “It's not going to lead to anything good. But it just feels good to do it, and so that's what I'm doing.” If nothing else, it sounds like fuel for another great Cake song.