Jon McCrea

Cake; Jon McCrea is second from the right. 

On Aug. 3, California-based alternative-rock band Cake released its first original single since 2011. With popular Cake songs like “The Distance” from 1996 and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” from 2001 still permeating the radio waves, it was impossible to forget about the band, although fans will agree that new music has been highly anticipated for quite some time now.

“Sinking Ships” demonstrates how the band has returned to form —the familiar simplified production and minimalist song structure is present, and vocalist Jon McCrea’s droning vocals express a pessimistic concern for what appears to be a metaphor for today’s political climate.

Cake is gearing up to embark on a tour with Ben Folds and will come to Milwaukee on Aug. 23 to perform at the BMO Harris Pavilion. The Wisconsin Gazette had the opportunity to speak with McCrea over the phone before the tour about the band’s upcoming  untitled album, his take on environmentalism and his distaste for traveling.

Wisconsin Gazette: How did this relationship with Ben Folds come about? I know you collaborated with Ben Folds in the early 2000s.

Jon McCrea: I think he reached out to us with the idea early in the year. We have played shows with Ben Folds Five years ago when that band still existed, and it seemed like back then, aesthetically, it made sense. Sometimes a segue between one band and another band depletes your energy as a listener. It’s not about either band being bad, there’s just this thing that doesn’t work in the segue between the two. What we learned back then was that it was a positive segue so for years we meant to do it again.

WiG: What about the band’s connection made sense?

JM: Both bands are very song based and sort of unapologetically melodic. There’s a lot of melody shame (in the music industry), especially for people who approach music with a “fine wine connoisseur” approach. A lot of things become a lot of suspect if they are melodic, and that’s for good reason. There’s a lot of cynical misuse of melody, but I think it is ultimately throwing the baby out with the bath water to be skeptical of the very idea of song.

WiG: Can you tell me a little bit about your seventh album that is set to release later this year? Does it have a title?

JM: No name yet. The whole music business has been eviscerated and there’s no conventional truth about procedure. So, we’re just releasing stuff whenever we feel like it now. And we know that there’s no money in recorded music, and we’re just doing it out of habit and an appreciation out of recorded music. The ability for musicians to eat food is being carved out unless you do something on the side. For most artists, touring is not supportive of life, unless you’re a huge artist. I think we’re going to release singles for a while, and we’ll get some together and maybe put it on an album.

WiG: Why such a long period between albums? Last album released in 2011?

JM: We’ve been playing shows and I’ve been writing songs and working on arrangements for songs and doing some recording. It’s mostly for Cake — every once in while I’ll do something else, but I won’t let it take much of my energy because I don’t have any left.

WiG: Can you tell me about the band’s solar powered recording studio?

JM: The idea for it came — oddly enough — after visiting Germany, which is one of the biggest producers of solar energy. Every time we went to Germany it was always cloudy and rainy and I thought, “Wow, we have a studio in California where its sunny most of the time and we don’t have solar panels on this thing.” We were sort of shamed by Germany into converting our studio into solar. And as a value of recording music, that ends in nothingness, we still have some free electricity.

WiG: Would you consider yourself an environmentalist?

JM: I think things become tribal, and it should be more about the process. I probably am an environmentalist but I’m certainly not perfect and what musicians have to do now in order to eat food is definitely not environmentally friendly — we have to do the opposite of that. I don’t take the moniker of environmentalist that seriously, just taking it more as pragmatist, because it is truly pragmatic to number one: not destroy thousands of eco systems that you depend on, but environmentalist has this sort of social cultural context. I just think if you’re a practical person you don’t shit where you eat.

WiG: The band gives away a tree at every concert. You’ve been doing it for 12 years — what do you hope people take away from this aspect of your concerts?

JM: We try to make sure it’s a tree that will grow in the area. One time a local promoter got the tree for us in Washington D.C. and he got a freaking tangerine tree. The point of it is that we give away trees that can maybe outlive the people who won the tree, and the best way to do that is to put it in the ground. So, sometimes we’ll ask a question at a concert and whoever can answer it gets to take the tree and plant it somewhere —maybe in their backyard or the backyard of a school — but the deal is that they have to photograph themselves standing next to the planted tree and over the years as they age and get fat we can watch them get older and the tree get hopefully taller and more impressive. And the idea for that came when I happened to plant a tree when the band was starting out and I lived in an apartment. I planted it in the median by the sidewalk and the street illegally, and nobody pulled it out. I ended up moving away and traveling a lot and about ten years later I happened to be walking by and the tree was 25 feet tall and it was pretty humbling. There’s something about that that’s pretty valuable as a fundamental human experience.

WiG: You’ve been tracking where each tree ends up with a map on the band’s website. Where on that map would you like to see a tree icon where there isn’t already one?

JM: Well, I’m conflicted about that because I don’t like traveling and to do that I have to travel to a place I’ve never bee. If I had to travel, I would like to put some trees in New Zealand, and maybe I’ll just stay there to make sure the trees survive that we plant — not because I’m afraid of living in America.

WiG: It’s interesting that you don’t like traveling yet are in a nationally and internationally touring band.

JM: What I really enjoy is figuring out songs and I have less time to do that because I’m not paid for doing that anymore — I’m only paid for being in a bus, and that’s to me sort of a drag. I enjoy being creative, I don’t really enjoy being a performer as much. I enjoy performing my songs because that’s part of the creative thing, but I don’t really enjoy traveling in a bus— I can’t write songs very well on the road because it’s exhausting and it’s not private.

WiG: Can you tell me a about your minimalist approach to songwriting? What do you see as being “too much?”

JM: I think less is more. For me, that’s my opinion I guess. It’s a lot of people’s opinion. I feel like the human ear can only interpret and process information until it starts to blur and blunt. So, I’m all for coming up with every single idea and then taking 99 percent of them away. And that’s a brutal process, but I think that’s probably one of the most important ones. It’s basically like killing your babies.

WiG: So how do you whittle down these songs?

JM: As a band, we produce our own records and I think that makes the whole process really slow. (It comes down to) sort of becoming objective about a maybe part that took 20 hours to perfect, and objective about the fact that it’s not serving the song and being objective enough to throw it away — and that takes a lot of time. A lot of times when I’m stuck about a question of whether something is very good within the context of a song, I try to get away from it for a while and not to care for it so much. Our process is really slow because of that, and we have to step away. There’s a song we’re releasing — a vinyl single where one side is the Age of Aquarius, an old 70s song from a musical that I liked from when I was little — we worked on that song six or seven years ago and got a really good recording of it, and then we argued about what the guitar should be and then we just stopped everything. We couldn’t move on it. And then last year, I dug it up and I was like, “Woah, maybe there’s something we can do,” but that’s what happens frequently — we just stop. And if we have a big, sort of fancy confident professional producer, everything would just happen very quickly. Cake is sort of like a home crafts project that went too far — it’s very much that approach.

WiG: Have you ever released a song where you listen to and wish you could’ve gone back and changed a part?

JM: Oh, that’s the worst. If you release something before you figure everything out — there’s nothing more painful. Every time you hear that song you’re like, “Ugh!” It’s just so permanent — it’s like dying with a bunch of regrets in your mind as you pass away. It hasn’t happened in a way where it’s like, “Oh, that sucks, this recording is horrible.” It’s more like, “This song would be viscerally compelling if the high hat was 4 decibels louder.” Just simple things.

WiG: What can fans expect of Cake on Aug. 23?

JM: I think it’s going to be an interesting evening. I’m not sure what to expect but I do think that the night of music will be a good — sort of as it were a mixtape — and there might be some collaboration between the two artists.

WiG: Do you have a tree picked out for Milwaukee?

JM: I don’t think I could tell you that — I’d have to kill you.

Cake performs with Ben Folds at the BMO Harris Pavilion, 639 E. Summerfest Pl., on Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $52 to $96 and can be purchased here. "Sinking Ships" had previously been available for streaming, although it now appears that the song is only available by signing up for the band's mailing list. 

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