4:59pm

Thu March 3, 2011
Music Interviews

Cake: Flying High After A Record Low

In January, the California rock band Cake unveiled its sixth album, Showroom of Compassion. Released on the band's own independent label, Upbeat Records, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. However, it did so after selling just 44,000 copies — the lowest No. 1 in the 20-year history of calculating record sales.

That revelation reflects a music industry deeply changed since Cake's last new release about seven years ago. As lead singer John McCrea tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block, he knew the band needed to proceed with caution.

"We had to sort of re-evaluate our whole business model," says McCrea. "We knew that it probably wasn't a good idea to be on a big label right now — but we also thought that we could be crushed like a bug releasing an album on our own label. Thankfully we were wrong, but we didn't have high hopes."

Though he's happy the new album is doing well by today's standards, McCrea says he's skeptical about the future of music as a vocation. "I see music as a really great hobby for most people in five or 10 years," he says. "I see everybody I know, some of them really important artists, studying how to do other jobs."

The anxiety of the working musician is on full view in a track from Showroom Of Compassion, the lilting "Bound Away." The song sounds a bit like a sea chantey, but it takes place mostly on an airplane and describes the interminable waiting a musician does when traveling on tour. "I'm circling, I'm swiveling, I'm waiting just to land / I'm trying to come home, but I'm here with the band," goes one couplet.

The new album also features a familiar sound from Cake's catalog: the buzzy percussion instrument called the vibraslap. Descended from an African instrument made out of the jawbone of a large mammal, the vibraslap isn't a natural fit for a rock band — but McCrae has always found ways to incorporate it. "It really can't be heard very well over the usual bombast of rock," he says. "I have to find places where the rock sort of recedes."

After two decades with Cake, McCrea has started to think about his life after the band — which might mean taking his interest in farming and gardening more seriously. "I think I want to live a little closer to the ground," he says. "There's something pretty healthy about working every day outdoors, and not being on an airplane all the time."

But for the moment, McCrea says he's content to keep playing. As for the dubious honor of making the lowest-selling No. 1 album ever, McCrea says that kind of contradiction is "perfect" for a band like Cake. "Optimism and pessimism are actually buddies sitting together on the same sofa," he says. "I mean, that's sort of what we're about." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Welcoming the return of Cake.

(Soundbite of music)

CAKE (Music Group): (Singing) It's been a long time since I've seen your smiling face. It's been a long time...

BLOCK: The band started out in Sacramento 20 years ago and has built up a fanatically devoted following, fans who've been wondering where Cake has been since it released its last album seven years ago. Well, here's Cake again with a new CD titled "Showroom of Compassion."

(Soundbite of music)

CAKE: (Singing) It's been a long time since we drove your Pontiac.

BLOCK: Cake co-founder and lead singer John McCrea talked with me about the challenges of keeping the band going while the music industry is in such decline.

Mr. JOHN McCREA (Musician): We had to sort of re-evaluate our whole sort of business model. And we knew that it probably wasn't a good idea to be on a big label right now. But we also thought that we could be crushed like a bug releasing an album on our own label. Thankfully, we were wrong, but it was -you know, we didn't have high hopes.

(Soundbite of music)

CAKE: (Singing) I'm so sick of you, so sick of me. I don't want to be with you. I'm so sick of you, so sick of me. I don't want to be with you.

BLOCK: Well, here's the interesting thing. So the new CD comes out. It debuts at number one on the Billboard 200. But here's the catch: It debuts at number one with - the lowest-selling number-one record in 20 years, 44,000 copies, which is just a blip on the radar, really.

Mr. McCREA: And I think that's perfect for a band like Cake, you know, the sort of opposites co-existing together. Optimism and pessimism are actually buddies sitting together on the same sofa. I mean, that's sort of what we're about.

(Soundbite of music)

CAKE: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. McCREA: Another way of looking at it is that we sold the same, basically, as our album seven years ago did in our first week then. During a period of seven years of precipitous decline in the music industry, I think that was a pretty salutary feeling for us.

BLOCK: Yeah, what does that tell you about where the music industry is right now and what the, you know, what the future of recorded music is?

Mr. McCREA: Oh, I'm very pessimistic about it. You know, can you put food on your table with music? Probably not. I think I see music as a really great hobby for most people in five or 10 years.

I think there will always be a level of, like, Lady Gaga and, you know, that sort of celebrity artist. But I don't know, like, the middle class of music. I see everybody I know, who I think, you know, some of them really important artists, are studying how to do other jobs.

BLOCK: Well, what does that mean for Cake as a band after 20 years of being together and a pretty loyal fan base? Does it mean a whole lot more touring to keep the momentum going or what?

Mr. McCREA: Yeah, I mean, at a certain point, I'll probably go on strike and say I don't want to tour anymore.

BLOCK: It hasn't happened yet.

Mr. McCREA: Yeah, you know, it probably will. I don't think we're going to be touring forever. But for the time being, it's fine. And I would like to find a way to make a living without having to leave town and, you know, leave my family behind.

And recording music was that way of earning a living. So yeah, I mean, I'm probably going to close up shop within a few years.

BLOCK: With the touring?

Mr. McCREA: Yeah, with the touring. I mean, it's hard to be in motion, you know, for two years.

BLOCK: You know, I can tell that the touring has taken a toll on you through one of the songs on the new CD, "Bound Away," which is - it sounds to me almost like sort of a takeoff of a sea shanty. But you're up in an airplane, and you kind of - you can't get down, and when you get down, things are still bad.

(Soundbite of song, "Bound Away")

CAKE: (Singing) I'm circling, I'm swiveling, I'm waiting just to land. I'm trying to come home, but I'm here with the band. Traveling, unraveling, I'm staying on track. My plastic utensil has broken in half. Away, away, away...

BLOCK: That song, "Bound Away," was it born on an airplane when you were just going: I just can't believe I'm doing this again out on the road?

Mr. McCREA: Yeah, part of it was written on an airplane. Part of it was written waiting in line for an airplane, you know. Yeah, lots of waiting around when you're touring. You know, it's one or two hours a day of activity, and the rest of the day is waiting in line.

(Soundbite of song, "Bound Away")

CAKE: (Singing) There's low visibility, got speed, wind and rain. My carry-on luggage is still on the plane. Seconds turn to minutes. Minutes turn to hours. Hours give you a lifetime and a grave with pink flowers.

BLOCK: I wanted to ask you about a signature sound that's been on Cake albums all through the years, and our producers put together a little montage here of an instrument that's become your trademark, among others.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: John McCrea, that rattling, percussive sound we're hearing there?

Mr. McCREA: Yeah, that's called a vibraslap.

BLOCK: A vibraslap.

Mr. McCREA: And it's descended from an old African instrument that was made from the jawbone of a large mammal that, when held by the chin and hit against the other hand, the teeth without gums to secure them tightly within the sockets, the teeth would rattle. So that's how bad-ass humans have always been.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McCREA: I have to finesse it into a rock music context. It really can't be heard very well over the usual bombast of rock. So I have to find places where the rock sort of recedes to sort of put the vibraslap in.

(Soundbite of music)

CAKE: (Singing) He is like a politician who is practicing his speech. He is racing. He is pacing. He is sleeping on his feet. As the sky begins to darken, and the waves begin to roll, you can feel the oceans rising as you're losing your control...

BLOCK: I'm talking with John McCrea, one of the founders of the group Cake. And John, what's the life you see for yourself after, when the band is done?

Mr. McCREA: I think I want to live a little closer to the ground. I'm actually quite interested in farming and gardening. And I just think that maybe some subsistence farming might be the ticket.

BLOCK: You know, I bet a farmer, though, would be listening to, saying, John, you're crazy. I want to be where you are. I want to be up on that stage.

Mr. McCREA: Yeah, everybody wants something they don't have. That said, I think you have to do what's healthy, you know. And there's something pretty healthy about working every day outdoors and, you know, not being on an airplane all the time.

BLOCK: Well, John McCrea of Cake, great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. McCREA: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you can hear full songs from Cake's new CD, "Showroom of Compassion," at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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