The Bay Area. For those of you not familiar with Northern California nicknames, the Bay Area represents a number of prominent cities in the Golden State. From the historic hills of San Francisco, to the college-town of Berkeley, all the way out to the farthest reaches of the east, otherwise known as Oakland. Within the cities surrounding this one massive body of water, comes a large, thriving musical community, and many of those bands have gone on to achieve great success. On this past Earth Day, guitarist Xan McCurdy of Sacramento’s own Cake spoke with Consequence of Sound and shared a story about just that.
“My first music was the children’s records my mom used to play me,” McCurdy fondly recalls of his upbringing in Oakland. “It was an easy transition to the Beatles records. But I don’t think anything drove me being a player myself until watching my older brother play air guitar with a broom to Ted Nugent and AC/DC records.” Naturally, McCurdy wanted to do what most younger siblings do, and impress his older brother. “He made it look like it was somehow possible to do that,” he says. “I don’t know why that worked for me, but I wanted to make him think I was cool.” Luckily, McCurdy’s wanting to show off turned out to be the greatest decision he ever made, and on his musical quest, he had family to guide him. “I was about 12 years old when I started playing, in 1982. This was right in the height of some really awful music. My brothers listened to a lot of ’70s rock, so I kind of missed out on the whole ’80s thing.”
While McCurdy admits a love for bands like AC/DC, his tastes and influence run deeper than just rock. This might explain his unique and quirky style of playing a bit, but that’s merely just the tip of the iceberg. “If I could have a mix of James Brown and AC/DC, I’d be really happy,” he explains. “But black music from the mid ’50s to the early ’70s is probably the number one influence for me.” He goes on to cite Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles. He pauses for a moment before adding, “And I like some disco…. but not much.”
This all explains where McCurdy and the rest of Cake get some of their influence, but it certainly does not explain where they get their odd, and very unique, style. Cake has always been one of those bands that, as soon as you hear the opening notes, you know who it is. Between vocalist John McCrae’s distinct lyrics and voice, as well as McCurdy’s funky guitar playing, and the band’s noticeable rhythm section, it’s understandable as to why they stand out. But how do they do it?
“Meticulously,” he answers almost immediately. “We spend a lot of time trying to put these bits together. That’s the bulk of our time spent in the studio, working every edge of every little part to fit, and to write parts that stack together well. And it’s fun when it works, but we write lots and lots of parts, and lots of good stuff that gets thrown away.” Despite this bravado, he doesn’t come off as cocky: “We probably do it the same way you would do it. It’s just we don’t have conventional day jobs, so we have no excuse not to get it right. But we throw ourselves lots of challenges, no strumming on one chord in a typical fashion.”
As time has gone on, McCurdy doesn’t seem the least bit surprised that they are always still learning. “We just take forever,” he says. “We try everything, but it works out. I think we’re pretty good at it, but the better we get, it’s not much quicker.” It may not be any faster, but Cake has remained an interesting band, with a very loyal fan base, which means they are clearly doing something right. Even during the seven-year span between Pressure Chief and their new effort, Showroom of Compassion, they went on tour and managed to rock every show they played.
Some things, though, have certainly changed. The world around them has become different since they released Motorcade of Generosity almost 20 years ago. For example, Cake spent their time for Showroom working in a solar-powered studio. “I like the process, but ultimately I think it’s great when artists have such control over their products,” he says. “Making records is totally different. Hell, I can produce an album on my own. That’s ridiculous. Fifteen years ago, I’d have thought that was crazy.” As crazy as it may seem, Cake still controls everything, all with the backing power of a full studio. There is something to be said about that in the modern age.
As the years go on, McCurdy states he wants to keep up a sense of “musical synchronicity” with the rest of his well-established band. “I want to be part of a group that is much greater than the sum of its parts,” he explains. “I just want to please my ears really. It’s pretty selfish actually.” He stops for a moment before adding, “I just want to make myself dance.” Whatever Cake’s motives may be, they definitely do not come off as selfish. They have given America the gift of their music. They have made the Bay Area proud to rise out and conquer the world. And, of course, anybody who listens to them knows they spread their seeds around the globe, and give away trees to their concertgoers. “We like to put some human responsibility out there and say, ‘Here’s this tree, check out the process, let’s take some time to nurture something,’” he says. It seems that the way Cake feels about their trees is the same way they feel about their music. Somebody needs to nurture the trees, and somebody needs to nurture rock and roll.
If you’re in Chicago this weekend, don’t miss Cake, when they perform at The Riviera Theatre this Saturday, May 14th. Tickets are still available!