It has been 21 years since Cake first baked their genre-bending recipe of funk, country, rock hip-hop and mariachi music. Ahead of the Californian group's return to Australia for the Harvest Festival, singer John McCrea asserts to Nick Milligan that Cake's lack of widespread popularity has insulated them from oblivion.
You've been touring your new record, Showroom of Compassion, since 2011. Have you noticed a fresh generation of fans in the crowd?
I'm not sure why, but yes. It's always been a mixture of ages, which I take pride in - in that [the music]'s not so tribal and ageist. A lot of music seems to be about defining boundaries. So yes, there's some kids that are quite young [at the shows] and there's adults. There's old people, even.
Because Cake's sound was so unique, do you think it was ahead of its time? Is that why young people are also appreciating it? Has Cake enjoyed its previous shows in Australia?
Oh yes, always. We have not enjoyed our plane flights to Australia. If there's any hard feelings that we're not visiting Australia enough, it doesn't have anything to do with Australia. We love Australia. We just wish we could move it a little bit closer.
Australia feels almost familiar to us and really odd at the same time. There's a lot of similarities between Australia and California. Similar pleasures and similar fears. Similar bouillant prosperity and sometimes over-friendliness.
Cake have been together for over two decades. When you formed in 1991 did you have desires on longevity?
I really didn't think about that... well, maybe I did. It's hard to remember. I didn't set out to become explosively successful. It was more about 'can we have a job [where we] play music?' We did for quite some time, before we even got a record deal. We were selling our own records on our own record label, and sort of earning enough money to eat food and pay rent. So it was very do-it-yourself in the beginning. We were so busy in the beginning that I never really had any grandiose thought about looking way into the future.
We were travelling so much on the West Coast [of America]. We would be up and down, up and down the coast within two week periods. We drove this fan that used to catch on fire all the time. I'm really glad that we've been able to exist this long. It's definitely been no picnic, but I feel greatful at the same time. A lot of the bands that we started out with - all the other bands were really huge. We were this weird oddity and didn't seem as important. Then three years later all of those bands would be gone and a new set of bands would be a big deal. It's like that feeling you have when you work at a fast food place too long and all the people who were there when you started working are gone. It's kind of a creepy feeling, but it's a point of pride too.
It seems Cake's career has come full circle - you're now an independent band again. Do aspects of your career in 2012 feel familiar to those early days?
Yes, actually. It feels more comfortable than letting people make aesthetic decisions who don't really understand your aesthetic. That's what it means to be on a label that is located in some other city with people who maybe don't even like your kind of music. They're the ones making decisions on how to market you. I was always uncomfortable with that. I lost so much time trying to explain various ideas to these people that didn't really understand.
I don't know if you remember the video for our song Short Skirt/Long Jacket, but we were trying to find a way to avoid making a video with five white guys lip-synching in an urban decay setting. Our having animators animate us - any of the other short list of things that have to happen when a band makes a music video. So we thought okay, let's do it like an infomercial and go around with cameras on the street with headphones and have people give their honest opinion of what they think of the song. I worked really hard editing this video. It was very difficult because we had the sound of the people criticising the song over the song itself. It had subtitles - it took a long time to edit it together and have it make sense. When I was finally finished I got a call from the record company and said, "Oh we love this video! It is so great. It is really going to work great for advertising... now go make a real video." I just closed down. I didn't answer my phone for a week. It was so frustrating. Then someone from MTV saw it and I got a call a week later from the record company and they said, "Oh we love this video! MTV are going to play it." The same people who told me to go make a real video were suddenly saying it was innovative. That's a good example of what happened all the time [with a record label]. Almost every day of the week there was a frustrated effort on our part - so much energy wasted that could have been used creatively. We feel very comfortable now investing in ourselves rather than begging other people to understand us.
Do you feel you've been drawn to particular subjects in your lyrics since the band started or have you approached different subjects as you age?
I'm still pretty negative in my assessment of human prospects. I tend to take a plaintive voice to my writing. In the tradition of the blues, and country [music] to a certain degree, it's not celebratory music by any means. But there's a certain amount of celebration in some of the rhythms of our music. But lyrically and melodically it's somewhat more pessimisstic and sometimes mournful. Hopefully that creates a cognitive dissonance for people that can take them somewhere else.
Cake perform at the Harvest Festival in Sydney, alongside Beck, Sigur Ros, The Dandy Warhols, Mike Patton's Mondo Cane, Silversun Pickups and Ben Folds Five, on Saturday, November 17 at Parramatta Park.