“Bartender, is this place really gonna close and be replaced by a Borders?”
“Dude, no! That must’ve been printed in the Onion or something.”
(Thanks, Malcolm M.)
Last week, the Bay Area print edition of The Onion published my interview with Cake‘s John McCrea, in advance of their big NYE show at the Warfield. Following is the unpublished full-length version of our talk, in which we delve a little deeper into things San Francisco:
Cake is a consistent band. Despite hitting fairly big during the alterna-boom of the mid-’90s, they stayed true to themselves and their sound. Fans stayed true too, and Cake has been going strong ever since. In October, they put out “B-Sides and Rarities”, their first self-released effort since parting ways with Columbia Records. In November, they embarked on their Unlimited Sunshine Tour, a rock anti-festival of sorts, featuring an eclectic lineup and a strict no-wait policy between acts. On New Year’s Eve, they bring their show to the Warfield, with Oakland’s the Lovemakers in tow. Frontman John McCrea keeps a tight leash on everything Cake-related (during shows he operates the venue’s disco ball with a foot pedal), but it’s all a part of delivering a quality product.
A.V. Club: How has the Unlimited Sunshine Tour been?
John McCrea: Musically, it’s the most cohesive tour that we’ve put together. The different sounds fit together in a way that’s not repetitive but is also not gratuitously jarring, though I prefer that jarring quality to the repetitious quality of most festival concerts wherein you have basically the same rock drumbeat every song for five hours. The human ear turns off after a certain point. That’s the value of variety, that the human body can stay engaged.
AVC: What’s Cake doing lately to keep bodies engaged?
JM: We’re playing a subtly anti-war Kenny Rogers song called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” about a guy who comes back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down, and his relationship problems after that. Probably the saddest song about war I’ve ever heard. It’s on our album, B-Sides and Rarities, that we released in October on our own label.
AVC: Right, so having ditched the majors, do you feel like you’re right where you want to be?
JM: We’re not where we don’t want to be. It’s good not to be on a sinking ship. It’s better to be on a little raft, I suppose. There are still a lot of confusing aspects to the situation right now that will be pretty challenging, but it’s certainly easier to do this without the incredible waste of the major label industry system. By the same token, if music sales continue plummeting and the rate that they’ve been plummeting, we won’t be immune to that either. Just separating ourselves from a major label isn’t enough to insulate us from the stark reality of all recorded music being free. I want music to be free, but I also would love sandwiches to be free, and rent to be free.
AVC: Still, despite industry ups and downs, your fans have stuck by you for more than a decade. Does that surprise you?
JM: I think what you’re doing, and we all do it somewhat, it taking for granted the idea that it’s a use-and-discard culture. In this fearful frenzy of not wanting to be associated with a band that’s over six months old, people use music as a badge to wear instead of something to listen to. There’s something self-hating about our culture that suspects anything that is too widely embraced. In other words, if the groundlings like the Shakespeare play too much, maybe the people up in the fancy seats think maybe this isn’t his best play. Regardless of the quality of the music, if too many people like it, there’s this distancing process that has to happen.
AVC: On a related note, Cake’s sound doesn’t change much from album to album. Why don’t fans get tired of it?
JM: I guess I would ask someone to listen to the variance between songs on a single record, and then ask that same question. I don’t believe in gratuitous progression or evolution of a band. The prime directive should be to the individual song. I don’t want to sacrifice a song for some sort of theoretical, overarching narrative. That’s my problem with that. I like to be able to go a lot of different places on one album. Also, I’m glad that certain bands have a certain sound that they don’t try to reinvent because they feel like they’re supposed to reinvent it. For instance, AC/DC. They’re providing a quality service by making that sound, and if they totally reinvented it, no one would be making that sound. I would feel sad.
AVC: How are fans reacting to your cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”? Any stage diving?
JM: As far as I’m concerned, we play easy-listening music. There’s no hormonal, veins-bulging-from-the-neck thing going on. I’m always taken aback when people start crowd surfing or moshing to an easy-listening song. It tends to happen when we’re playing for a college crowd.
AVC: I saw your friend Jonathan Richman at the Great American Music Hall the other night. Lots of fans were requesting older material, and he ranted a bit about how, to him, those songs were like day-old bread.
JM: I respect him tremendously, but I have a different view about it. Music being sort of a service occupation — now more than ever — i think it’s honorable to play a song that people want to hear even if you’ve played it a lot. I think it’s honorable to reinvent it and find a way to be thrilled with it again. There’s a real nobility to what I saw when I saw Frank Sinatra live. I saw it as really honorable, him playing songs to regular people. Maybe those people weren’t in the music industry, or didn’t realize that was “day-old bread”. They just loved that song. They wanted to hear “Mac the Knife” by Frank Sinatra. Is that perspective so wrong?
AVC: So on New Year’s Eve, will you surprise the audience with some oft-requested favorites?
JM: I don’t know if it’s a surprise if I say what’s gonna happen, but yeah there are surprises. And there are some surprises that are non-musical. There will be all kinds of stimulation. We’re giving away a tree every time we play for the rest of our career — however long that lasts. We’ll ask some question like “How long did the Civil War last?” Last night somebody answered “four years”, and they were right, and we gave them a Colorado Blue Spruce. We’re asking them to send a picture of themselves standing next to the tree every year or two, and we’ll watch the tree grow as the person shrinks.
AVC: Speaking of things green, what’s your take on local San Francisco politics as of late?
JM: There are some things that happened in San Francisco politics that could happen nowhere else in country. I’m grateful things are as progressive as they are. Compared to all the other cities that we visit in the United States, it’s pretty remarkable. People lambast us using catch phrases like “San Francisco values”, but i just think values are shitty everywhere else, so… live it up. That said, all my friends have moved to Portland, and I’m not sure if San Francisco’s gonna be as livable without any musicians or degenerates. Sure there are lots of great musicians and bands, but they’re musicians that happen to have jobs at Yahoo! or something.
[I did this feature for the Bay Area print edition of The Onion. They ran a trimmed version in their summer double issue last month, but since they don't put anything online, here it is. --Allan]
If your best friends live in Oakland, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in the East Bay this summer. Today, the A.V. Club presents a guide to making the best of it.
First, try to think of every trip to Oaktown as a mini-vacay to a bustling mini-metropolis. Stroll Lake Merritt’s shoreline and you’ll swear you’ve landed in some tiny little bastard version of Chicago or something. Enjoy the view for a bit, then walk a couple blocks down East 18th Street and finally see a movie at the Parkway Speakeasy (1834 Park Blvd., 510-814-2400, www.picturepubpizza.com). As you’ve surely been hearing for years, it’s an historic movie house full of couches and beer and pizza, and it is every bit as fun as it sounds.
For slices and pints sans cinema, head over to Lanesplitter (4799 Telegraph Ave., 510-527-8375, www.lanesplitterpizza.com). It’s somewhat less polished than your beloved Little Star, but it has a longer draught list and equally mouth-watering pies.
Speaking of long lists of beer, on August 11th you can all take a mini-road trip down to Hayward for the Bistro’s 10th Annual IPA Festival (1001 B St., 510-886-8525, www.the-bistro.com). India Pale Ales will be ferried in from microbreweries all over the world, so designate a driver and drink up.
On your way back north, go to an A’s game. A’s games are great because you can enjoy the Great American Pastime without all the Bonds-related drama and T-Third-related transit confusion. Plus, the Coliseum is doing that cool thing where instead of sending you tickets, they just text you an image of a barcode.
Now that you’re back in Oakland, if you’re not familiar with the Oaklandish organization (www.oaklandish.org), read up. They sponsor subcultural events throughout the year, including this week’s shadow-puppet production of Sinbad the Sailor by Teatro Penumbra at the Parkway.
Suppose one of your friends just graduated from Mills and is in need of a place to host a celebratory barbecue. Redwood Bowl in Redwood Regional Park (10570 Skyline Blvd., 888-EB-PARKS) is an ideal place to grill up some bockwurst and toss around the ol’ Frisbee. The meadow’s uneven terrain means barefoot Ultimate can be hazardous, so be careful.
In the evening, check out one of those fabled warehouse shows, perhaps at a place like Ghost Town Gallery (2519 San Pablo Ave., 510-393-1876, www.myspace.com/ghosttowngallery). They’re cheap and laid back and charmingly sketchy – welcome respite from the too-familiar routines at the city’s proper rock clubs. You might meet local superstars like Brian Glaze and they might regale you with advice about how to get rid of clingy groupies (tell them you have AIDS) and how to pick up girls you actually like (tell them you’re friends with the Time Flys).
If local superstars aren’t enough, plenty of international ones play in the East Bay too. Canada’s Fucked Up will grace the stage at Gilman (924 Gilman St. in Berkeley, 510-525-9926, www.924gilman.org) on June 30th, and Daft Punk and the Rapture will rock UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre on July 30th. Either of these would be a great sendoff for your friend that’s moving to Germany or somewhere the following week.
Lastly, if one of your friends tries to drag you to Ikea, there might be a sick view of the melted 580 connector from the parking structure, but other than that, leave your wallet at home and resist, resist, resist.
Whatever you end up doing, the looming question all damn night will of course be how the hell to get back to the city. Inevitably, we all end up sprinting toward a BART station at 12:26. That sucks, because you find yourselves sweaty and winded, and half the time you don’t even make the train. Alternatively, you can search the cryptic maze of schedules on 511.org for info on the All Nighter bus, but you’re drunk for goodness’ sake.
Instead, just opt for a sleepover. This way, you can drink ’til the bars close, stumble over to Taqueria Sinaloa (2138 International Blvd., 510-535-1206) for some carnitas, and then go home, watch Moonwalker again and pass out. In the morning, maybe you can all go to the city together…
East Bay kids are perfectly adept at coming to the city an Amoeba run and a show at the Fillmore, so be sure to turn your friends on to something new this summer! Show them Thrillhouse (3422 Mission St.) and Force of Habit (3565 20th St., 415-255-PUNK, www.forceofhabit.com) in lieu of Amoeba, and then drop into Rite Spot Cafe (2099 Folsom St., 415-552-6066, www.myspace.com/ritespotcafe) for a much more intimate concert experience (The A.V. Club recommends Ash Reiter‘s girl-with-a-big-electric-guitar crooning on June 25th or Toshio Hirano‘s little-Japanese-man country twang on June 30th).
By the way: Since your friends have nothing but a tape deck in their ’92 Acura Legend, be sure to have a few choice cassettes (think NPG-era Prince or the Ghostbusters soundtrack) ready to go for their ride back to Oakland. They’ll appreciate it.