If you've lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years, the music of Cake is an unavoidable entity. Their songs are staples of alternative rock radio and AOR, a laudable achievement for any band, especially one that hasn't noticeably messed with the formula in all that time. Each one of their most beloved songs features frontman John McCrea's speak-singing, a loping bassline, trumpet melodies, shouted vocal parts, and surf/rockabilly-style guitar leads. Even if you're not a fan, you can't deny that their tunes are fun as hell to listen to. Songs like "The Distance" or "Never There" are of a stripe that provide that extra kick to your workout or encourage you to press on the gas pedal a little heavier.
The band comes to Portland this week to play two sold out shows - one at the Doug Fir on Thursday the 15th, and a show at Edgefield on the 16th. For this edition of Videosyncrasy, I caught up with Cake's chatterbox of a guitarist Xan McCurdy who, before we even got to talking about the videos, blindsided me with a bit of personal information.
McCurdy: I live in Portland, did you know that?
WW: I did not. Are you here right now?
McCurdy: I am. I moved here...I lived in Oakland my whole life, for 36 years. But in October of this year it will be five years that I've lived here. I flew the coop. I had a girlfriend who I was with for a very long time, she had relatives up here. We would make yearly visits, and I would come up and I completely fell in love with the city.
How does that work then for you writing music and working with the band?
A shit load of flying, that's for sure. When we made our last record, I basically was in Sacramento just trapped for long periods of time. I would come back and be here for short stretches. It almost still feels like my small apartment here is a vacation home. I live in a tiny place, but the rent is affordable and the neighborhood is fantastic. With the magic of music technology, I can do a lot of music work here and deliver it to the band in that way which I've done a lot. We don't really get together and rehearse too often. We know our songs.
Where are you living here?
I live very close in SE. You know where Tiny's is on 12th & Hawthorne. A block and a half from Jolly Roger. Everything is so accessible. Bike or walk east and its all beautiful neighborhoods with trees or I can go west and jump across the bridge and be downtown in minutes. It's just perfect. We're playing at the Doug Fir soon and I think I'm going to walk there. I'm dying to play there. I've seen so many great gigs there. I love that room. There's not a bad spot. When they built that spot they put a lot of effort in to making sure that it was enjoyable situation. The room is great. The room sounds great. Anywhere you stand is good. They bought a lot of good gear for a place five times the size. I think things are getting better as a live musician in the world of that. I've been doing this my whole life. 2 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, gear was terrible. Club owners just didn't care. When things are set up for musicians and audiences in a good way, it just makes you happy. So I'm excited about playing there. Who did I see last time...I saw Sallie Ford the last time. She's so great. Fuck...what a voice. Incredible and a great band too.
Promotional video for "Sick Of You" (from Cake's latest album Showroom of Compassion)
Who came up with the idea for this one?
That was John. John doesn't want to be in any of his videos. We don't have a lot of photos either. His idea, I know it sounds cheesy, is to just let it be about the music. Don't make it about any idolatry, let's not fetishize the people. Let's just enjoy the music and that's it. I was leaning on, "Man, we should probably do something where people can see us." We'd been away for a long time. We didn't release an album for almost seven years. I was like "We should probably put our faces on this thing." [laughs] Let me put it this way: show people that we didn't get fat. So we did that. John bought these bunny suits years ago. Not like I'm a fan of furry suits or anything but these are really fucking cool bunny suits. He's had them in his house for years and he really wanted to do something with them. So, he said, "okay but we need some bunny suit dancer people." Some of the footage is John, but the dancing footage and the athletic footage are these two male cheerleaders from a college in Sacramento. We're in a parking lot of a car place that's defunct at five in the morning doing these dances. The thing is: it's a female and a male bunny suit, and they're these macho dudes. We had them act like they were boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife bunnies and they were a little humiliated. They had a hard time. We were like, "Hug! Hold hands! Skip down the street!" and they were like "[grumble] I can't believe we're doing this." They were good sports int he long run. At one point we had them sitting at a bus stop and people are walking by and driving by. We wanted them to be boyfriend/girlfriend and have one put his arm around the other. But you can clearly tell it's two dudes just by the way that they're sitting. With their legs totally spread like they're sitting on the couch in front of their Xbox.
Do you like filming videos like this?
There's an artistic enjoyableness to it. We didn't really have a director. Obviously we had someone filming it, but it was very low budget. But you can make up ideas on the spot, which is fun. That stuff is enjoyable in the creative department. But standing around all day waiting to get your picture taken...I don't think anybody enjoys that. Especially when it's 5:30 in the morning. One of those things I wouldn't call fun but I would call rewarding.
How long have you been in the band?
Coming on this October it will be 13 years. The guy before me, Greg Brown, he is a genius player and a really wonderful guy. I think he had a huge part in building what is the Cake sound. I came in when they were already established. "The Distance" had already been a big charting hit. I kind of walked in on the path he created. I've been here for 13 fucking years too. So I don't know. I have a great job in huge part thanks to him.
How is it when you're writing songs together? Is it all John coming up with the stuff or are you chiming in as well? And in that, how much do you feel you have to stick to the template that John helped create for the Cake sound or how much can you stray from it?
I feel like I can stray from it as far as I want. The way the songs get written is that John comes up to us with a song. Basically he's got three or four chords, a melody, and a lyric. He comes in with his shitty acoustic guitar and strums the thing, sings and then goes, "Okay. Now what?" He doesn't really push parts on us. We all sit there and tinker with it. We really go through a lot of ideas. Is it going to be a heavy funk beat or a straight rock beat or is it going to be a Latin thing? What John wants is lots and lots of ideas. I'm not so sure he doesn't have any idea what he wants or if he just wants to come with any ideas we have no matter how crazy. There's a lot of freedom. It's almost like there's no bad ideas, there's just ones that might not work for the song. When I first started I thought I had to play into the Greg Brown world of things, but now I just rip off anyone I want to.
Fan video made by students at the Art Institute of California for the song "Short Skirt/Long Jacket"
What do you think of what they came up with here?
I think it's wonderful. They've got a vital young imagination. Very robust in their youth.
You guys have a lot of fans that have stuck with you over the years. Do you get a lot of people handing you their versions of your songs or videos or fan art and things like that?
That happens sometimes. It's real nice. It's so nice you almost don't know how to react. It's a little surreal is what it is. One time we played in Austin at Stubb's. We got off stage and we walked down the street, all five of us. We're walking down 6th Street and we overheard a band playing "Short Skirt/Long Jacket". It was just this weird thing. It's hard to explain when someone covers your material. It's flattering for sure. But it's a strange thing to watch people...okay, how about this? When I joined, I had to learn a lot of songs. Greg Brown is a very unusual guitar player. He's not very traditional. For me to learn their catalog, I had to really feel like I had to get inside his brain. I sat there and watched tons of live videos, listened to their albums...I felt like I was being invasive to him even though he didn't know it. It was getting too much into his person and his world. It's funny about someone covering your material because it's like they've thought about you a lot more than you're comfortable with. But then again, most people put their own spin on it, and there's a way they're kind of ignoring you too.
Cake performing their version of "I Will Survive" live in San Francisco in 2004
I wanted to use that to jump to the video of you covering "I Will Survive". You guys do a lot of cover songs. Have you had the experience of having the original artist comment on your version of a song?
Not that I'm aware of. We've been doing the song "Sad Songs & Waltzes" - the Willie Nelson song - and I wasn't with the band when that song was arranged the way it was, but I'm very curious. Because I think it's a loving rendition. There's a lot of affection in Cake's version in how the band performed it. I'm real curious about what Willie Nelson would have to say. That was a big record - Fashion Nugget. There was some point where Willie got a check and went, "Who the fuck...? Why am I getting this check?" I can only imagine that he's aware of Cake and that we performed his song. I feel like I have an in. If we ever perform at a concert together, I can walk up to him and not just talk about marijuana and biofuel. We did do a version of a song by Buck Owens, "Excuse Me, I Think I've Got A Heartache," and we got a chance to play at his club in Bakersfield. We played twice there, and we got to play that song with him. He was very gracious and told us that he loved our version. So, I was wrong. Buck Owens did hear our version and told us he loved it. He gave John one of his red, white, and blue Telecasters. It's pretty awesome.
How do you go about choosing cover songs to tackle?
We try to pick covers that are a challenge. We want to learn songs...it's all kind of a learning experience. I think a lot of people do this. Let's try to find the formula. Is it a chord progression? Is it honesty in a lyric? Country songs have a visceral directness to them, getting to the point. "I Will Survive" is a lament like that. It's a folk song although it has this goofy disco beat. Also it's a little bit of showing off and take this and here is your perception of this song. We can take it and change your perception a little bit. A good example of this is: we toured with the Flaming Lips for a while, and they did "Can't Get You Out Of My Head", the Kylie Minogue song. They did a version of it night after night that they did super super slow. It became super romantic and beautiful. It was this agonizing love for somebody. That is the funnest thing you can do with a cover is twist it somehow.
Video for the song "Love You Madly" (song found on Cake's 2001 LP Comfort Eagle)
Did you guys in the band come up with this idea as well?
Yes. At the time, we were burgeoning foodies. I think we were of the age, we were all starting to be old enough that we were becoming responsible cooks. We all seemed to be talking on the bus about food all the time and how to cook things. Food Network was just getting big in the cable world. I think it seemed like a funny idea. We're also not fans of literal translations of our songs and our lyrics. And also not do something like the "Sick Of You" where we're just playing. Let's do something fucking weird. Luckily we got the really bizarre celebrity cast that we did.
Did you get to meet all three of the judges?
I didn't! I was nowhere near the place. They said it was great. I would have loved to have met Rick James.
Footage of John giving away a tree to a fan in Florida on stage
Is John giving away a tree every night on stage?
Almost every night. Sometimes if we do a festival and our set time is only 45 minutes or an hour, we don't do it. It takes a while because sometimes there's a trivia contest to earn the tree with your knowledge. But if we have a full two hour set, then we usually give away a tree. 'Cause trees are cool and people should plant trees.
When did you start to give away trees on stage?
A few years ago. Not sure how long. We have something on our website that shows where we've given trees away. A map of the world and there's a tree showing in what cities we've given away trees. We always try to get something local, a tree that's going to work for the climate. And something food-bearing, if possible.
There's another part of this clip where John is poking fun at the VIP section at this venue. Do you remember what prompted that?
Not specifically but I'm aware of poking fun of people in the VIP section. That's something that we do all the time also. The idea of the VIP section just seems wrong. Generally what happens is that the people who are in the VIP section tend to be the least interested. One time we played in Aspen, Colorado - home of the privileged. It was a huge concert, tons of Cake fans there. There was this big chunk of VIP section right in front of us and it probably would have seated 100 people, and there were probably six people there looking bored as shit. So there was this huge crowd, totally enthusiastic and singing, but there was this roped off section that they couldn't get to. These people are our real fans but they can't get close because they didn't spend $100 more for their fucking wine and cheese plate.