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Cake's John McCrea Talks Solar, Songwriting & Swinging Through Davis

Cake will play at Freeborn Hall on October 6 and 7.

Cake has covered a lot of ground since propelling themselves beyond the Sacramento music scene in the 90s. But they’ll only have to venture across the causeway on October 6 and 7, when they play two shows at UC Davis’s Freeborn Hall. Tickets are $37 in advance and $42 at the door. Buy them here

I spoke with lead singer John McCrea on the phone while he was in Las Vegas early last week. Our conversation touched on everything from politics and solar panels to the Kings arena debate and the band’s songwriting process.

Here are some snippets from that conversation. Disclaimer: I love Cake. Love Davis Patch on Facebook for more music coverage.

Have you guys played Davis much?

Well, we plan to play there more often because there are not an abundance of venues in the Sacramento area. That’s why we chose the Davis campus. There are plenty of venues in the area, just not a lot of choices for the size we would want to play.

Being from Sacramento, did you guys venture into town much in your formative years?

Sure, it’s a great bikeable city and we have plenty of friends who live there. I’ve spent a lot of time there, personally. I had a lot of friends there who were students and teachers at the university.

I read that you guys built a solar-powered studio.

Yeah, we’ve been wanting to do it for a long time, but were always too busy touring. We were never home long enough to do the things we’d intended to do. Extricating ourselves from our label deal, we found ourselves sort of off deadline. We were able to create our own schedule. Without having to deliver an album anytime soon, we were able to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

You recorded your latest album, Showroom of Compassion, in that studio. What did the conversion process entail?

We rehabbed our entire studio. Included in that was switching over to solar. We had just gotten back from Germany. Whenever we go there, it’s always cloudy or rainy. It’s not particularly sunny, and yet we read that they’re the number-one producer in the world of solar electricity.

It sort of shamed us as Californians into taking action and getting ourselves off the old infrastructure and onto the new.

Was it an easy modification?

It’s not that complicated, and now with the recession, it’s actually really cheap compared to how it was a few years ago when the economy was alive. The price of panels has dropped 40 or 50 percent. It’s partially a result of China’s commitment to the production of panels. It’s created more supply than demand. It’s actually a really good moment to make the move.

There are also programs that give you the money up front and then lock you in at a lower energy payment. So even somebody who’s not well-to-do could go ahead and do the right thing. And we all know the price of electricity is going to go up in the future; not down. I think it’s a fairly smart move. It seems to me like it’s a pretty good time to opt out.

Is there a political element at play?

Regulation seems to be a big boogeyman with a lot of people saying that you shouldn’t regulate markets and you should let everything be free. I think a lot of people are waking up to the fact that regulation can be good. I think the little guy is still very vulnerable. And we still haven’t tackled the too-big-to-fail issue with banks.

Shall we attempt to tackle it here?

It’s just really difficult for politicians to do the right thing. There’s so much influence in Washington from Wall Street. It’s always been this way. Without fundamental campaign finance reform, our lawmakers are not really going to be working for us. They’re going to be working for money.

There is a fix, but it’s not a very positive one. I don’t like the idea of having to pay for politicians’ elections, but it seems to be that publically financed elections might save us billions of dollars when you see the kind of money that politicians have to spend once they get into office, once they have to pay off their debts.

I’m certainly not under any illusions that I’m a politician or a businessman, but there are some basic things that are wrong with the structure of our system. There are ways that it seems very rigged. And when it’s that way, it makes it very hard for everybody to believe in the dream, so it might be worth a little bit of energy.

I’ve read about Cake’s efforts to help fund music programs.

It’s very interesting that music programs are in so much jeopardy in terms of funding. I think music is something that’s worth spending money on. It develops the brain in ways that I think help in all kinds of other facets of life.

In some ways, you can actually calculate the difference between someone who has studied music and somebody who hasn’t. It seeps into all types of other occupations. A lot of schools where I live are also cutting PE. These things should be fairly primary, but they’re becoming secondary.

Can you explain your songwriting process?

I just write songs all the time. I have a notepad in my back pocket right now, and a pen. I just take notes and when sentence fragments come into my head, I write them down. Later, I’ll sort of expand upon them, maybe with an acoustic guitar or piano or bass. I’ll sort of work things out and eventually I’ll get something that doesn’t suck and I’ll bring it to the band.

We’ll flesh out an arrangement. Sometimes it happens instantaneously and sometimes it takes years. We don’t rush the process.

It took us about two-and-a-half years to write and record our last album, Showroom of Compassion, which we recorded in our solar-powered studio.  We produce ourselves, so sometimes there are disagreements, so we just have to leave a song and move on to something else. We like that process because we’re all really invested into it. It’s not just some guy flying up from Hollywood to manufacture an album. It’s very organic and tedious.

Shadow Stabbing is a song that took forever. I wrote it along time ago, but couldn’t figure out the bass line or drum beat. We had that song from the beginning of the band actually. It took me forever to get the right arrangement. That’s a good example of one that took a while.

I like that song. We’ll probably play it in Davis.

Elizabeth Stanley September 30, 2011 at 05:59 PM
great article! i've already got my ticket to both nights :)
Jennifer Mason Wolfe October 01, 2011 at 06:40 AM
Nice interview, Justin! Sounds like it'll be a great show.

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