Q&A with Cake lead singer John McCrea

Illustration by Jason Malmberg

To paraphrase one of Cake’s songs, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen their smiling faces. But the hometown hiatus is about to come to an end with the alt-rock band—which formed in Sacramento in 1991 and still records its music here at a solar-powered studio near the Tower Theatre—set to perform at Golden 1 Center on Sept. 11 for its first full local concert in nearly a decade. We catch up with frontman John McCrea about Cake’s new tour, the group’s upcoming album, and how politics makes strange stage-fellows.

For the second summer in a row, Cake is touring with singer-songwriter Ben Folds. How did the idea of co-headlining concerts with him come to be?

We played a show I think in Kansas City with him a long time ago, and the audiences were weirdly friendly with each other. There was a sense of nobody’s making a huge compromise to attend. So that’s something, right? Also, I think that there are musical similarities, but not too many. It’s horrible going to these rock festivals sometimes with the skateboards and the tattoos, and it’s like the same beat for hours and hours and hours. I don’t think that happens at all with a Ben Folds-Cake evening. That’s something I feel strongly about. Whether it’s electronic music or any kind of genre, I just want there to be different beats. My brain sort of shuts down a little bit if it’s duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh the whole time. That’s something a lot of rock bands are guilty of not changing up enough.

You live in Portland now. Have you been to the Golden 1 Center?

No, but I’ve heard good things about it.

What are the largest venues Cake has played?

We’ve played these improvised locations. The biggest thing I think we ever played is the Music Midtown festival in Atlanta. I guess there were 90,000 people. It’s a little bit terrifying. No self-respecting individual mammal would face off with that many other mammals. It just doesn’t happen in the natural world.

Have you ever performed in an arena before?

I think we played Arco Arena once. Wasn’t my favorite. Certain genres are at a natural disadvantage, whereas other kinds of music, like stadium rock, are perfect. You want to hear the echo of the snare trailing off into the sunset if it’s AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. I’m sure you’ve talked about this millions of times, but you noticed the way R.E.M. changed from somewhat intricate jangly rhythms, college-rock rhythms, to basically into a form of stadium rock as they got huge? The slabs of guitar got meatier and bigger, you know.

The band’s lineup has changed over the years. Who’s in the group currently?

Actually, it’s weird. We always end up with quite a few original members. As people leave, other people come back. We have our original drummer, Todd Roper. Vincent DiFiore has been there obviously since the beginning on trumpet. Xan McCurdy, our guitar player, has now been in the band quite a while. And Dan McCallum has been with us quite a while playing bass. It sounds to me on stage as solid as, or maybe more solid than, it’s ever been.

Is this leading to a new full-length album then? [The last Cake LP, Showroom of Compassion, came out in 2011 and debuted at the top of the Billboard charts.]

Yeah, it is. We’re taking our time. We’re releasing some singles first and then eventually just releasing a full-length out of those singles. We released “Sinking Ship” [a politically charged song whose video featured a claymation depiction of nuclear war] late last year. The other side of that is a version of “Age of Aquarius.” We’re going to release that vinyl single soon-ish. I’ve got another song that’s ready to go. So, as soon as our manager lets us release it, we’ll release it. [Laughs]

When “Sinking Ship” came out, you played a Beto O’Rourke rally. With the presidential election season getting going, do you have an agenda? An itinerary? A political plan?

I always have wanted to distance myself from political candidates. We’ve played benefits for political causes, plenty of them. But you just never know what a candidate is going to do. You don’t know who they are, really. They say one thing and sometimes do another. But with Trump, I mean, I have to do what I can. I have kids, and that strategy is a luxury that I just can’t afford anymore. Things are different now. We’ve been playing benefits for candidates here and there. We can’t let one political party control everything. So, it’s not that we necessarily love a particular candidate; it’s just that we don’t want things to get crazy.

“Sinking Ship” seemed well timed, but it’s actually an older song, right?

It’s a guitar riff I wrote when I was maybe 15 or something. And then gradually I started singing, just every once in a while I played that riff, various melodies over it. I had a chorus that went, “We are on a sinking ship.” It always felt hyperbolic to me, not really appropriate. It didn’t make sense emotionally, and then suddenly it did.

How did “Age of Aquarius” become the other side of “Sinking Ship”?

We’d been playing it in the studio just for fun for a long time, without taking it seriously. But the recording worked out, so I thought it’s worth releasing. Spiritually, it’s a bit optimistic for… I mean, I’m not generally that optimistic. But I thought it counterbalanced the pessimism of “Sinking Ship” quite well. “Crisis is opportunity,” as [they] say. I have never felt so simultaneously like, “Sh-t could literally hit the fan,” or “We could have things that we’ve wanted for decades.” So it’s really an interesting moment.