Piece of Cake
DENIS SEMCHENKO interviews CAKE’s delightfully droll frontman JOHN MCCREA ahead of the Sacramento, CA band’s Harvest 2012 stint — and even though he’s in “I can’t believe I’m talking to the singer I first saw on MTV in 1996!” awe, he cannot resist wondering about the proverbial girl in a short skirt and a long jacket.
Hi — it’s Denis, is it?
So… what time is it there? Daytime?
It’s another sunny, subtropical morning here.
Okay, good. So you’re in Queensland?
Yes — Brisbane. I presume you and fellow Cake members are looking forward to playing shows in Australia again?
Of course — we’re very much looking forward to it. We’re not looking forward to flights [laughs], but we’re looking forward to being there.
Speaking of being here, do you have any particularly outstanding memories from Cake’s previous Australian tours?
Yes — I remember the festivals we played were generally very civilised and in a way, seemed friendly and very communal, I guess. I also remember the wildlife: the birds with long bills in the city park in Sydney who made very strange noises [laughs].
You’d be pleased to learn that the festival you’re playing here in Brisbane is held in a city park with native wildlife and plants — and it’s also a civilised, music fan-friendly event.
Yeah — that’s very good. It’s a different kind of festival — a different experience for the performer, I think.
When it comes to Cake’s current festival set lists, what’s the old/new songs ratio?
It’s hard to predict accurately because we don’t use a set list — we make it up on the night as we go. Sometimes we either play a lot of songs from the new album [Showroom Of Compassion] or very few. Generally if we mathematically average it out, I’d say that our six albums are fairly evenly represented — it tends to end up representative of our entire catalogue.
From observation, which SOC songs go exceptionally well with the crowd?
The ones that have been played on the radio — for obvious reasons. Sick Of You goes over quite well, as does Mustache Man. For some reason, the first song on the album, Federal Funding, works well live — it seems to engage listeners. Long Time as well; I forgot about that one.
[Former Cake guitarist] Greg Brown has appeared on one song from the album — what was it like working with him again after all those years?
It was actually fairly similar to working with him in the past. Greg is an incredibly creative guitar player — one of my favourites — and I took pleasure working with him. He doesn’t disappoint.
I’ll ask you a burning question: did you ever find the girl in a short skirt/long jacket?
[laughs] Not really — the song is sort of a metaphor for something else. It’s about the economics of a relationship, but not actually about my personal one — although I was inspired by seeing a woman in a short skirt and a long jacket, I never spoke to her. It was an interesting display: conflicting, imperative.
On the same note, what present-day topics inspire you to write?
Everyday life, actually. I carry a notebook in my back pocket where I write when something strikes me as unusual or maybe… usual at the same time and I need to be attracted to those kinds of topics — how bizarre everyday life is. It’s a compulsion: sometimes I feel like a space alien visiting and taking notes.
Another burning question – this time on behalf of all Cake fans: is Live at Crystal Palace ever going to be officially released?
[laughs] Probably yes — it’s just a matter of finding the right moment. It would end up taking a long time to mix when we were about to release it and we wound up having a lot of problems. A lot of the time, we’ll think of taking this energy and putting it into a studio album — but before too long, we’ll release it. It will have a glow-in-the-dark cover: that was my dream.
From your recollection, what was it actually like being there?
Crystal Palace is a venue that belonged to Buck Owens – they usually don’t allow rock bands to play there, but we were the only rock band he allowed to play at his country music venue in Bakersfield, California. He used to play there every Friday and Saturday night, but he’s passed away recently. It was a big honour for us to be allowed into that… subculture and to have a songwriter that we respect make allowances for us — based on quality and not cultural identity, which is what this band is sort of about.
After touring and driving — or flying — the proverbial distance, what do Cake members do to get away from each other?
We now live in different cities, so that certainly helps. We don’t live far apart, but it certainly makes a difference: sometimes we want to and sometimes we don’t want to. The other thing is, when we’re on the road together, we spend time together, but we also spend time apart. We’re not a co-dependent tribe — that’s how we’ve managed to exist this long.
We love Frank Sinatra — I personally love the songwriting in some of the songs he covered. I think it’s entirely likely, although I haven’t chosen the song and it’s nothing that we’ve talked about.
I’m wary of covering Frank Sinatra because he did his songs as well as they could be done, so it’s a difficult task to take on without ruining it. Some of his songs are so well-written they’ve lasted years and stood the test of time; he’s worked with the best songwriters. We may do a song Frank did a version of — or maybe other people did versions off as well; that will take some of the pressure off.
I wish I could keep asking you questions, John, but we’re unfortunately running out of time. Thank you for chatting with us — it’s been a pleasure!
Thank you, Denis — I’m looking forward to the visit!