Cake: John McCrea sees a future without music

(Above: Cake’s newest video is called “Sick of You.” They definitely seem tired of the lifestyle.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It won’t be hard to spot John McCrea on Friday night. The lead singer and chief songwriter for the alt-rock band Cake will hold center stage in a night of music in the City Market.

Seeing him in the future, however, may be more problematic.

Concerned with the direction of the music industry and unwilling to make a living by touring alone, McCrea is seriously considering a second career as a farmer.

“When I look five to 10 years in the future, I don’t see myself able to afford to make a living as a musician,” McCrea said. “We just spent 2½ years on an album, which is a significant investment. I’m not willing to do that again if people are just going to take it against our will, play it a few times then move on to the next thing to consume.”

Although celebrity musicians will always exist, McCrea said, midlevel, working-class bands like Cake may cease to be if there’s not reciprocity between fans and artists.

“Touring is a grueling thing to do, and if that’s a musician’s only source of income it means they can never come home,” he continued. “I have a family. I hate touring, and if there’s no other option I’ll get out.”

Fans can rest easy for now, however.

When Cake’s sixth album, “Showroom of Compassion,” debuted at No. 1 last January, much was made about the fact that it had sold fewer copies than any previous chart-topper.

What people missed, McCrea said, was that it sold roughly the same number of copies in its first week as Cake’s previous release, “Pressure Chief.”

This consistency is even more remarkable considering seven years had passed between those albums, years marked by turmoil in the record industry.

“We watched everyone stop paying for music during those years (between albums),” McCrea said. “The joke in the studio was that by the time we were finished nobody would be buying music anymore.”

Cake had a solid run of Top 40 hits in the 1990s, including “The Distance,” a cover of “I Will Survive,” “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s sardonic spoken/sung lyrics became the band’s calling card. Radio airplay combined with constant touring earned the band a cult following.

“So far I’m happy with what’s happened with this album,” McCrea said. “It tells me we have a relationship with our fans, and they trust us to go out on a limb and buy something without hearing it.

“I know when I was a kid I didn’t have that much money, and sometimes you’d buy an album and there’d only be one good song on it. I learned to be careful, but at the same time I learned that other artists always seemed to put out good records and knew I could trust them. We try very hard not to waste our fans’ time or money.”

The California-based quintet still toured during their recording hiatus — they stopped in Kansas City several times — but for the main part the group’s focus was on extricating themselves from their contract with Columbia Records and setting up their own shop.

“I don’t think a major label is a good place for a band like us,” McCrea said. “Since music is now free, the industry needs to economize and go out to dinner less. We didn’t want to have to pay for all the waste at a label.”

After testing the waters with a 2005 rarities and B-sides collection, Cake decided to self-release “Showroom of Compassion.” Liberation and success instilled a newfound sense of confidence, and for the first time in a while all of the band’s members were excited to contribute.

“Democracy is a slow process,” McCrea said. “There were a lot of disagreements, but we found our way through. Unlike past albums, everyone is completely happy with how this one turned out.”

A band at a crossroads, Cake is considering setting up an annual summer event similar to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival or Cracker’s campouts. Cake tested the concept several years ago with its own multi-artist Unlimited Sunshine Tour, but the idea of staying in one place appeals to McCrea.

“I guess by definition fewer people would be able to see it,” McCrea said, “but I travel enough as it is.”

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Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

(Above: The reconfigured Smashing Pumpkins incinerate the old country with “As Rome Burns,” a yet-unreleased track.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Billy Corgan has learned to compromise. After frustrating and confounding fans with obscure songs and indulgent jams on the Smashing Pumpkins’ 20th anniversary tour just two years ago, he has struck a balance between the old (and beloved) and the new.

The unspoken agreement of Saturday’s show at Sandstone Amphitheater was one for you, one for me. Fans seemed thrilled to meet Corgan and his reconstituted Pumpkins halfway. Opening with the drum roll into “Cherub Rock,” the quartet alternated between favorites like “Zero” and “Drown” with newer numbers such as “Song for a Sun” and unreleased material like “As Rome Burns.”
“We’ve found the songs you know tend to get the biggest cheers,” Corgan told the audience before launching into “Tonight, Tonight” and he was right. “Today” provided the first big sing-along moment of the night, turned the chorus of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” over to the very vocal throng. Even “Stand Inside Your Love,” an underrated single from the original configuration’s final retail album, drew a big response.

The 80-minute setlist ignored “Gish” but drew from every other album in the band’s catalog and a couple soundtrack contributions. Most of the songs sounded pretty much like they were recorded. The only exceptions were new arrangements of “Adore”-era material. The new version of “Adore” rode Nicole Fiorentino’s bass, and discarded the drum programming for a full band sound. “Eye” was given a trippy intro full of shimmering guitars and big, echoing drums.

Smashpumpkins_fyi_ spf_09252010_135FNewer material dovetailed nicely with the familiar. “Tarantula,” from 2007’s forgotten “Zeitgeist,” emerged seamlessly from “Cherub Rock” just as “Drown” gave way to “As Rome Burns.” “Song for a Son” had a progressive feel and guitar lick similar to “Stairway to Heaven.” It was one of several of the night’s numbers to feature Corgan and Jeff Schroeder harmonizing on twin guitar solos.

Before breaking up at the dawn of the millennium, the Smashing Pumpkins were one of the most successful bands to come from the grunge era. Corgan and founding drummer Jimmy Chamberlain reconvened for “Zeitgeist,” recruiting supporting musicians for the subsequent tour, before Chamberlain left again last year.

Corgan may be the only founding member left in the band, but the new cast proved more than capable. Twenty-year-old Mike Byrne was a monster on the drums, having no trouble replicating the complex rolls and fills that are so much a part of the Pumpkin’s sound. The band was amazingly tight and precise, slithering across the changing dynamics and textures and following Corgan’s every move.

The stage set-up was basic, but impressive. The only effects were banks of lights set up above and behind the band, constantly strobing and changing. Two large metal fans were perched atop metal towers in the back at either side of the stage. The visual arrangement kept anyone from receiving the spotlight. The band was lit as a whole and the emphasis was placed on the music.

The band exited shortly before midnight against a wall of lights pointing into the audience. They were visible only as vague silhouettes, but had long established their identity.

Cake’s one-hour set preceding the Pumpkins couldn’t have been more different. Singer John McCrea chatted with the crowd between nearly every number, espousing his views on religion, American society and the gradual disappearance of three-four time. Along the way, the five-piece college rockers delivered audience favorites “Comfort Eagle” and “Frank Sinatra” and songs from their upcoming new album.

Although most of Cake’s songs ride a slow funk groove and McCrea’s tongue-in-cheek spoken/sung lyrics, two of evening’s best numbers veered from that formula. “Mexico” sounded like a lost Decemberists track, while new song “Bound Away” was a travelogue in the form of an Irish drinking song.

Smashing Pumpkins setlist: Cherub Rock, Tarantula, Adore, Song for a Son, Today, Drown, As Rome Burns, Freak, Tonight Tonight, Stand Inside Your Love, Eye, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, United States (including the Star-Spangled Banner and Moby Dick). Encore: Zero.

Cake setlist: Comfort Eagle, Rock and Roll Lifestyle, Sick of Me, War Pigs (Black Sabbath cover), Frank Sinatra, Wheels, Stickshfits and Safetybelts, Love You Madly, Guitar, Arco Arena, Mexico, Bound Away, Never There, The Distance.

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Review: Cake

(Above: An early live performance of “Jolene” for San Francisco’s Fog Town Network in 1994.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Cake’s sold-out performance to open the third season of shows at Crossroads KC was less a concert than an extra-large backyard party.

The Sacramento-based college rock quintet so blurred the line between band and audience that a lot of fans must have felt like they were part of the performance, even if they weren’t all necessarily onstage.The night opened with “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” an easy crowd-pleaser, though to be fair every number aired was greeted with an immediate and visceral response. It’s easy to see why. Every song is built on a surf, country or funk guitar line, bolstered by a serpentine bassline and steady drumming, accented with keyboards or trumpet — the band’s defining instrument — and secured by singer John McCrea’s mesmerizing monotone delivery.

“Frank Sinatra” employed one of the band’s best tricks. After the song’s natural crescendo, the band brought it back down, brought the audience in and built it up again. The move was just as effective when they repeated it later for the rarely played “Satan Is My Motor.”

After closing an hour-long opening set with a great version of “Jolene” (not the Dolly Parton song), the band took a 10-minute break and then returned for another hour of music. They kicked off that set with the instrumental “Arco Arena” and treated the multitude to an extended version of “Italian Leather Sofa.”

Although McCrea had no trouble coaxing the audience to sing, he still worked the crowd hard, prowling the front of the stage and encouraging singing or clapping in nearly every number. The results were frequently impressive. The crowd chimed in so loudly at their cue in “Rock N Roll Lifestyle” that the band repeated the verse, letting the audience carry it, a capella.

McCrea also took time to talk with the audience between every song. He cherished the band’s freedom from major labels, lamented the lack of3/4 time in modern pop music and even gave away the potted tree prominently placed near the front of the stage. Since the band operated sans setlist, they frequently huddled to figure out what to play next (and so they could hear each other over the barrage of requests shouted from the crowd).

The first encore was a bass-propelled cover of “War Pigs,” which the band thoroughly made their own. While Cake’s reading may have been less menacing that Black Sabbath’s, it was more fun, with a trumpet solo and sea of hands raised clapping along at the end.

The night ended as everyone wanted it to, with Cake’s biggest hit “The Distance.” There wasn’t much further anyone could go after all that anyhow.

Setlist: Short Skirt/Long Jacket, Comfort Eagle, Stickshifts and Safetybelts, Frank Sinatra, Wheels, Shadow Stabbing, It’s Been A Long Time (new song), Satan Is My Motor, Jolene. Intermission. Arco Arena, Pentagram, Italian Leather Sofa, Mexico, Opera Singer, Rock N Roll Lifestyle, Daria, Guitar, Never There. Encore: War Pigs (Black Sabbath cover), Sick of Me (unsure if this title is right), The Distance