When it comes to truly prolific bands, examples abound. From The Rolling Stones to Radiohead, we all know and love groups with deep catalogs and decades-long careers. But few veteran bands have flown so gracefully under the radar and for so very long as CAKE. How fitting is a name that means to collect and stick, to “cake onto” something, for a band that has managed to cling to massive notoriety while just barely dipping into the mainstream of radio rock for over more than 20 years?
In that time, the Sacramento band has managed to trudge the rocky road of a music industry in flux. They’ve stayed the course without ever compromising their unique and utterly quirky aesthetic—a poppy amalgam of hip-hop beats, rough-hewn indie-rock, Jonathan Richmond-esque absurdist lyricism, and a sprinkling of no-nonsense country sensibility, which they will bring with them when they play the City National Civic this New Year’s Eve.
It hasn’t always been easy. CAKE first hit it big in the mid-’90s, just a few years before Napster and iTunes flipped the recording industry on its head. In the ensuing years, the band found that many labels were wary of taking a chance on them, despite the successes of massive early hits like “I Will Survive” and “The Distance.”
“They barely knew that we existed,” says John McCrea, CAKE’s frontman and maestro. “It’s just a corporate culture. People come and go and there’s not a real relationship between people.”
The band finally got tired of the dance and decided to start their own label, Upbeat Records, in 2007.
“We didn’t want to sign to a label and then have them close down or be bought by another label,” McCrea says. “There’s been just so much upheaval over the last 10 years.”
While some bands are excited to operate their own label and relish the creative control it affords, McCrea sees it as just another necessity to survive.
“I’d rather—to be honest—not have to (form a label), but in the current precipitous decline of the music business, I think it’s the only responsible thing to do,” McCrea says.
This responsibility is perhaps a lesser known trait on the list of what makes CAKE unique. While the group distinguishes itself musically with an eclectic mix of horns and country western influence—still somehow managing to qualify as alt rock in the process—a social- and eco-conscious identity certainly sets them apart as well.
Building a solar-powered recording studio, using their website to promote voter registration and community banking, and passing out sequoia trees at shows may seem strange for a band that doesn’t sound very political. And McCrea admits it might not be the smartest move for bands out to become household names.
“I’m sure it hurts us commercially,” he says. McCrea confessed they suppressed the urge to assert themselves on issues they cared about for years before deciding it was too important.
“We know that we’re just musicians and the prime directive of our band is to play music and entertain people.” McCrea says. “But a certain amount of our biases are going to slip through no matter how hard we try.”
Agendas aside, CAKE is currently recording their latest album since 2011’s Showroom of Compassion. While this undertaking is still in the very early and rough stages, McCrea still has plenty details with which to tease us.
“I think there will be some things (on the new album) that will be surprising to people,” he says. “Certainly things that have never happened before with CAKE will happen.”
If one thing is true of CAKE, they have a formula—the country western and alt rock with trumpet chaser—and they generally stick to it. But it may be going out the window this time around.
“I just thought some of these songs needed, well, strings,” McCrea reveals. “It just kind of happened. I’ve always been stalwartly opposed to that for this band but I want to do the right thing for each song. What I hate is what happens with concept albums where people try to bend a song to the will of some over-arching, intellectual narrative when the song doesn’t want to do that.”
Whichever direction CAKE is headed musically, it clearly isn’t a means with which to break through into super stardom. It’s safe to assume they are content with where they are and what they are—a band many seem to know but rarely talk about.
As with everything else, McCrea has an eloquent answer for this, too.
“Maybe something that gets too popular has a very short shelf life,” he says. “Perhaps the fact that we were never hugely, explosively popular has actually allowed us to survive.”
CAKE play the City National Civic Auditorium in San Jose on Dec. 31. More info.