If Cake singer John McCrea wasn’t such a smug bastard, his band wouldn’t be half as brilliant. McCrea’s banter takes cracks at the weak and vulnerable, while his smarmy songs are sung half-assed into the hearts of adoring fans. “The muscular cyborg German dudes dance with sexy French Canadians/While the overweight Americans wear their patriotic jumpsuits,” sings McCrea on “Wheels.” McCrea looks like your uncle who lives “up north.” A moderately kept beard and trucker hat complete his generic blue-collar look. He’s just a straight-up dude with an impeccable talent for storytelling, and he’s why Cake is on top of the world.
“In Europe, there’s a language barrier and sometimes people don’t know what the hell John’s talking about. Sometimes they don’t get the nuance of comedy,” says Cake lead guitarist Xan McCurdy, who has toured the world with the band. Xan disclosed a few of the band’s secrets to their signature sound. Here’s one:
Cake plays really crappy guitars–like those pre-packaged starter guitar packs you get your kid for Christmas. The ones that you save Benjamins on because there’s a slim chance he or she will still be playing in six months. As one of the most distinctive sounds in rock, you’d be surprised that Cake’s famed guitar tone comes easy…and cheap.
“[McCrea’s guitar is] a shitty old starter guitar from the 60’s. They probably made a million of them off an assembly line,” says McCurdy, who claims that McCrea scored the perfectly imperfect model of GOYA guitars. “We never seem to get the exact same tone twice.”
Cake has never been a band of normalcy, as McCrea speaks more than sings, laying words over grooves as funky as a James Brown shimmy. Each Cake album name rolls off the tongue. From Fashion Nugget to Comfort Eagle to Pressure Chief, they all sound like action figures in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles echelon of coolness. Every record has an iconic stamp; the font, the aesthetic, and the songs all build off a funkified rock formula that has proven timeless. With Cake, the listener knows exactly what they’re getting, and that’s why they have such a dedicated following. There are no filler tracks, minimal slow jams, and you can play your Cake playlist at a party without the iPod Nazi switching it out for something more “grindable.”
If you arrive to the Orpheum early enough on May 13, you might hear the Rocky soundtrack blaring from Cake’s green room. It’s a pregame ritual the band summons before every show.
“It’s really bad, great triumphant music. You want to punch the air with your fist. Montage music,” explains McCurdy. “It’s seven minutes long.”
Xan McCurdy is a man who cherishes his craft, joining Cake on lead guitar in 98’ after working odd jobs in order to afford his next tour.
“I’d work jobs out of necessity. I’d go tour three months with a band, come home and hang out until the money ran out. Then do it again.” While McCurdy can play any lick you throw in his mitts, Xan keeps it simple. He is an unselfish guitar player in an unselfish band. Cake understands that “less is more”; layering six instruments in one song without cluttering the canvas. No one steps on each other’s toes, and that’s why they’ve been a band for 20 years.
“There are no members with addiction problems. No sex addicts. We’re all fairly well adjusted. No matter how stressful things can get, we’ve always had sanity to fall back on,” says McCurdy.
Cake’s new album, Showroom of Compassion, plans to take the band all over the world, including Europe, South America, “possibly” Asia, and definitely Madison.
Grab your tickets to catch Cake’s self-coined genre of “High Impact Easy Listening” at the Orpheum Theatre Friday, May 13.