In 1991, John McCrea formed Cake. Little could he have know what the next 20 years would lead to-- being repetitively on the Modern Rock Tracks music chart, band members leaving and making way for new musicians, and going from being independent artists to being on a big label back to doing things on their own.
While you may remember Cake for their earlier singles (Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle, The Distance, Short Skirt/Long Jacket), they aren’t slowing down one bit. The band released Showroom of Compassion in January, which debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 charts, something they’ve never done before.
We had the privilege of talking to the infinitely talented, if not a bit drowsy, guitarist Xan McCurdy about the band: interests outside of music, how things have changed over the past two decades, and what it’s like to go from a big label to starting your own.
Without further ado, here’s the interview you’ve been waiting for your entire life (or, at least, since you started reading this a couple of minutes ago).
How are you doing?
I’m doing really great because I woke up 5 minutes ago from the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. And all I’ve been doing for the past five minutes is going over what formula of events and food and drink items that I had yesterday that could add up to such a lovely slumber.
That sounds fantastic. Have you come to any conclusions yet?
No, no. I mean, I can’t think of anything. I think I had a pretty good exercise day, I walked a lot and ate healthy food.
That is always a good. You recently toured in Europe, and right before you left you appeared on Letterman, how was that experience?
It was fun, we hadn’t been on Letterman in a while, so it was great to do it again. We felt really lucky because now that we’re not on a major label anymore we don’t have those ties to the big media outlets as much. There’s no relationship we have with the people who book those things. It’s just sort of like,we say, “Hey...you think maybe, because we did it before..?” and hope they’re cool enough about it to let us come back.
Once you were there, was there anything really exciting that happened?
The guests on the show were really great. It was Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. And Julia Roberts, when she was on air, she said nice stuff about us. We were just watching from the back room going, “Wow, this is crazy.” I think Cake is not really, for some people and critics, all that “safe” to like.
Right. There are always critics. Some of them critiqued your cover of “I Will Survive,” calling it a put-down to the original.
Well, everything is open to interpretation, and they misinterpreted it. There’s not a lot you can do. It’s not a put down, and anytime John did an interview around that time he was really vehement saying that it wasn’t a put down. You know, I think people have an issue with the timbre of his voice, really. He is singing a lot of that stuff. Of course there are songs, like “Short Skirt” and “The Distance,” for example, where he is speaking those words. He’s adding tonal inflection, for sure, but there’s no real distinct melody. But a huge majority of the songs he is singing. He just has a type of voice that’s not like (sing-songy) “I’m siiiinging!” It’s just the nature of it, and I think it’s cool.
But that’s also why Cake’s fans like them so much, because it’s so different from everything else that’s put in front of them. Speaking of which, your music is so diverse in terms of genre. To what do you attribute the unique blend?
We’re all different. James is a trumpet player, and he spent a lot of time in school learning classical pieces and apparently listened to punk rock outside of that. I mean, we all have a lot of varied taste. You know what I think it is? I think in this day in age, you have access to so much music that everyone listens to more than one type. We’ve all listened to a lot of music, and we’re up for anything. Bring it.
And then you don’t have to worry so much about being pigeon-holed.
Exactly. John writes these songs, primarily. He could enforce some sort of limits, but instead he encourages us to write parts. Because that’s what he does with us. He’s got his four chords and his melody and a lyric and he goes, “Now what?” And from there each of us will try anything. We’re all coming from different directions, so you can get some weird stuff. It’s a free kind of approach to music, which I think we all want.
Do you feel like anything has changed over the past 20 years in how you work together?
We’re always getting better and more comfortable doing what we do together. We’re better at working at our studio, which really helps in being able to convey each other’s ideas more efficiently. It’s becoming a little more seamless of a working relationship now that we know the rhythm of things.
When you were working on Showroom of Compassion, where there many outside parties involved?
There was no one else involved. It was just us. And then we had mastering engineers the last two days.
How did you like the recording environment with just the band?
It’s great. We weren’t “on the clock” so much. Once you’re done with the album, and you’ve all decided that you done, you feel like you did it. Then if it fails miserably, you can blame yourself. And if it does OK, you can pat yourself on the back, which we don’t do very often. But we did this time.
How long were you in the studio?
About two years.
Wow. That’s long time.
Yeah, we treated it like a day job. We went to work at 9 or 10 am and left at 6 or 7 at night. We spent eight hours a day there everyday Monday through Friday. We got to try lots of options and play with it. We weren’t on a major label that was telling us we had to have a release out soon, so we got to learn how to explore different ways to work in the studio. Plus, we got to work on a lot of other things that weren’t in the album that we can use later.
When you spend eight hours a day with the same five people, does it ever feel a little claustrophobic?
Oh, yeah. Of course. But we’re all really polite to each other. So if anyone is starting to feel like that, you go take a walk. Our little studio was just a bunch of gear thrown into a tiny house in the Bay area. So you can take a walk, go grab a coffee, and come back refreshed.
It’s understandable. You were there enough that you might as well have lived there.
I actually did live there. This house is in Sacramento, and everyone else lives there or in the area, but I lived in Portland, Oregon. So I flew down and I stayed there five days a week and then usually I would stay two days with friends and family in the area.
Wow! So you spent eight hours a week working there, and then you would just go upstairs?
Well, it was a one story house. So I would walk twelve feet to the bed. Everyone else would go home and I’d be pretty much stuck there. I would actually continue working because I was bored.
Well, that’s really gas efficient.
Yeah, my carbon footprint was pretty much nonexistent. And the studio is even solar-powered.
How did it feel to get back into the swing of normal life after two years in the studio?
Well, you go from being in the house working on songs at arm’s length everyday, to then getting on an airplane with everybody, and then getting into the van with everybody, and then into the dressing room with everybody, and then onto the stage with everybody, and then back into the dressing room...I think it’s just a different job all of the sudden. You get into the flow of writing and producing everyday. And then suddenly you aren’t making music anymore, you’re performing it. You’re playing with everyone with precision on a stage every night and not screwing up while people are yelling and stuff. It’s a completely different gig. One day you’re sitting in chairs in a room, and the next you’re in this loud chaos. People are telling you they really think you’re great, and then they’re also throwing bottles at you. Then you have to be a little bit of a personality. We have to put on some sort of face. I think it’s an interesting switch of jobs, going from the job that’s totally private to the one that’s totally public.
Do you prefer one, or do you just like that you get to switch it up?
I definitely like switching it up, but if i had to pick one, performing music on stage with other people is really enjoyable. And then you get to see people who appreciate your work... there’s nothing better, it’s really fantastic. Especially when you’ve been working in the studio for two years. Then, when you’re done, eight months later people are listening to it. You don’t know how it’s going to be received. You know you like it and you think it’s great. But then you see people like it, because they’re clapping or dancing or smiling or whatever, it’s a really big perk of the job. A lot of people don’t get that-- they work in a toy shop and make toys, and then they get shipped off somewhere else. We get the satisfaction of seeing people receive what we’ve made.
Well, you just got to see people’s reaction in Europe. How were you received?
Europe was great. We were nervous. You know, we hadn’t been to Europe in a long time. So, we have no idea what our musical currency is at this point. You know, it fades if you don’t kind of keep it up and keep coming back. But it was a great reaction. We had a great time.
What was the most memorable thing that happened, music related or not?
We had some time off to site-see. We got to see the Acropolis in Greece. Me and James, the bass player, hiked up the hill to see it, and it was beautiful and ancient. We also all went to rent a bike, for free, in Zurich. And we rode around the lake there and swam in it. What was very cool, is the last night we were there, we were in Liege, in Belgium, and we opened for Snoop Dog at a festival. Can you believe that?
Yeah, it was really fun. I had a good time with this guy named Carl Barât, who used to play in a band called the Libertines. And we watched Snoop Dog, which was a lot of fun to see up close. And then seeing him backstage with this amazing line of photo-ops, which I think he was somewhat obligated to give. He’s such a pop-culture icon, getting a picture with him is a big deal.
That would go right up on your Facebook.
That’s your Facebook for the rest of your life, are you kidding? People would get, like, a tattoo on their chest of that picture, “This is me and Snoop Dog. What?”
Would you get a tattoo on your chest of you and Snoop Dog?
I didn’t do it. I’m not the type of person to go up to people and hassle them with... well, not anything really.
That’s such an odd mix, you guys and Snoop Dog.
Yeah, it’s a European thing I think. Before us was a pretty heavy rock band.
Aside from playing, do you guys do much together?
You know, not really, we’re all getting older. A lot of it’s family-oriented. Everyone in the band besides the drummer Paulo and myself have kids. But, I mean, when we’re on the road we like to go see concerts together. Last time we were all in Australia we went to dinner and went to go see George Clinton, which was really fun. And then we all like to go bike ride sometimes.
Is everyone in the band really active?
You know, being in vans and hotel rooms, you just wear yourself out. I always think that if I get some exercise during the day, I come to the show really feeling sharp. If you just sleep through the day, you never really wake up.
Do you do things outside besides exercise?
Vince is mostly the site-seer. He does something for our website called the Road Journal. He films things that happen to us, and that’s really cool.
Do you ever use the gyms at the hotels?
You know, I prefer to be outside, but I always find out if there’s a gym at the hotel. But, you know, sometimes the gyms are great, but a lot of times you go to their “fitness center” and they have a exercise bike from like 1984 and one dumbbell that weighs nine lbs and one that weighs 40 lbs. It’s ridiculous.
Well, then you can all five go to the gym and share the nine lbs dumbbell, right?
Yeah, “spot me, John, spot me!”
But sometimes the gyms are OK, right?
Yeah. And we’ll use them. It’s good for your head. And it also keeps you from getting fat. But, really, mainly for your head.
So when you go out on the road, do you bring anything that you’re really attached to?
You know, I try not to take anything really special with me. Things on the road so often get lost or broken. Except, of course, my guitar.
Yeah, that’s probably a requirement.
Definitely. But anything super special, like if I had a talisman or a vial of my great-grandmother’s ashes... I would never take anything I couldn’t live without. Too many things could happen.
What about when you’re at home. Do you have anything that you feel like you couldn’t live without?
Hmmm... a favorite thing that I own, that is so special to me. I mean, I’m a guitar player. I have a guitar that I absolutely adore. Sometimes people ask if they can borrow it at a gig and I say, “not that one.” It’s this beautiful Gibson SG that’s exactly like the one that Angus Young would play. And it’s from 1968 and it’s really fantastic and it’s beautiful. It’s the best guitar in the world for me. I wish I could play it on the road, but it’s too easy for it to be lost, or stolen, or broken. So I only play that when we’re close to Portland. It’s too valuable for me to take far from home.