It’s been a long time for CAKE: since the members founded the band in 1991, since “The Distance” ruled the alternative charts (1996), and since they last released an album (2004’s Pressure Chief). In January, they released a new album, Showroom of Compassion, to mostly warm reviews, with fans praising the return of their signature wordplay and talk-singing by lead singer John McCrea. On Tuesday, they played a sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and tonight, they’ll play a sold-out show at Terminal 5. On the album’s second track, “Long Time,” McCrea sings rather presciently, “It’s been a long time / since I’ve seen your smiling face.” CAKE’s lead guitarist, Xan McCurdy, chatted with us from his home in Portland about what they’ve been doing all this time—and where they want to go next.
A lot of reviews of the new album say that it’s “vintage CAKE.” But musically and in terms of production, this album was very different from how you’ve recorded in the past, right?
I’m not really sure how much different it is musically. I think one thing is that we’ve learned to be much better studio engineers. We’ve always produced our albums, but we’ve always had engineers helping us. And now we’re kind of taking the reins with our own engineers, keeping it as self-contained as possible—being in the studio with just the five of us is a little different. Then, musically, maybe it’s a bit more riff-rock-y? The way I see it, it’s pretty heavy guitar work. Maybe being the guitar player, I was a little more forceful in my role.
What do you mean, in terms of songwriting? Was it a pretty collaborative process?
Absolutely, it was very collaborative. ... But maybe I was a bit more pushy when I was pushing my heavy rock guitar bit.
You also recorded in your own solar-powered studio, and on your own label. You’ve sort of held onto the DIY aesthetic of the ’90s. Why is DIY so important to you guys?
For us, it’s hard to trust people with our stuff as much. You can hire outside help, but no one’s going to care about CAKE as much as we care about CAKE. I think if we can have our hands on every aspect of it, we can push it in the direction that’s the best way we feel for it to go.
Also, this way, if things work out well, then we really get to pat ourselves on the back, and just ourselves. If it’s a failure, then we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves. I think it’s cleaner that way. And besides, it’s fun. We learn stuff. You don’t want your brain to get lazy. You want to know as much as you can about the whole process. It keeps life interesting.
Do you feel like you have peers from the early ’90s who are also holding on to the DIY aesthetic?
I don’t know! There must be some. Can you think of any people still doing the DIY thing?
I’m not really sure either.
Maybe Pearl Jam? Are they still doing the DIY thing? Are Fugazi still playing?
No clue. Anyway. Most freshmen at Columbia this year were not born—or even conceived—when CAKE was founded in 1991. It’s funny, because CAKE is sometimes described as “college radio” music. What do you think of that classification?
I’m not sure, really. I think John’s lyrics are kind of open to interpretation—they’re not just saying, “Oh, yeah, baby.” He’s got an interesting way around words—maybe that sells to a person seeking higher education. Musically, I think we’re less appealing to a large part of the record-buying public, which is kind of an angry, visceral ... you know, like Creed, or something like that. We never subscribed to that wide-load anger stuff. We’re a little more delicate, a little more geeky than that, a little more articulate. And maybe that coincides with people seeking higher education. Less brute force, more structured math.
How does it feel to play a very political song like “Federal Funding” next to a fun one like “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”?
It makes every show a lot more exciting. I’m extremely lucky in my job, especially as guitar player, because variation is always a challenge in the best way. Switching gears, going from something very heavy, to something very light, something very funky, something kind of Latin-tinged, to something very country—it’s a blast. It’s great. I would hate to have to be sawing away on huge rock power chords every gig, all gig. No offense to people who play that. But for me, it’s a blast. I have a very good job in that respect.
The lyrics sometimes contrast with the musical tone of the songs on this album—like “Mustache Man,” which has hand claps and trumpets and really catchy riffs, but the heavy refrain of “I’ve wasted so much time.” Is that intentional?
Absolutely. We all write different parts for each other, so we’ve got four or five guys who can write a great bassline, [and] four or five guys who can write a really good guitar part, and accompanying melodies. I think getting a groove first is really key. John will write a song, and he’ll have some chords, and a melody, and a lyric, and then the first thing we generally go to is: “What is the best groove for this?” And sometimes, the best groove is a waltz. If we can give a song, one that John just brings in and strums on a guitar, as much forward motion as necessary, then we’re happy. Then get a good drum beat and a good bassline, and we’re there.
What are you guys up to right now? Are you in California?
I live in Portland, Oregon, but the rest of the guys live in California. We were in Amsterdam two days ago—we did a very short European trip, and it was really go-go-go, no time for sightseeing. There was a lot of jet lag experienced. I haven’t even done my laundry from that trip.
What do you think of Portland?
I love Portland. It’s an awesome place. I want to stay here. I grew up in the Bay Area, but I moved four years ago, and I want to stay here. We could possibly record an album up here. It’s very calm, and it’s filled with lots of artistic people, lots of musicians, lots of great recording studios.
Have you seen the show Portlandia?
Of course. I don’t think there’s any prissiness. No one’s upset. It’s all in good laughs.