Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Smirking alt-rock troupe CAKE haven’t always used music as a platform for political change. When they initially broke out in the ’90s with the sardonic “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle,” the Sacramento-based band mainly sought to address things they regarded as inherently shallow and insincere, like, oh, the music industry itself (“How much did you spend on your black leather jacket?” lead singer John McCrea sniffed at the time).
But that’s yesterday’s CAKE. Today, McCrea is far more interested in raising awareness about causes he cares about, like world poverty and global warming. The band has recorded in a solar-powered recording studio since 2011, and McCrea serves on the board of directors for HeadCount, a non-partisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy.
The singer is also funneling his energy into the band’s first new music since 2011, beginning with the unambiguous protest anthem “Sinking Ship,” the profits of which will go to Doctors Without Borders. Though the single sounds inspired by our current polarized landscape, McCrea reveals that he’d actually been sitting on “Sinking Ship” for more than a decade. But releasing it now feels like part of his “civic duty,” which also includes performing at benefit concerts for grassroots politicians like Andrew Janz and Beto O’Rourke.
“I’ve never really wanted to get my hands icky with direct support on candidates, but I’ve made an exception this time,” McCrea says in a phone call. [Ed. note: We spoke to McCrea one week prior to the midterm election.] “Truly terrifying things can happen even in the United States when you don’t have checks and balances. If Democrats are not able to take the House [Of Representatives], the truly horrific events have only just begun.”
Happily, Democrats have recovered the House, but there’s a lot more work left to do. Below, McCrea elaborates on CAKE’s more overtly political voice, when he expects they’ll release more new music (their next song will be a cover of the 5th Dimension classic “Age Of Aquarius”), and why it benefits workers in every industry to unionize.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about your new song, “Sinking Ship”? It sounds like it could address any number of things. What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
MCCREA: Well, “Sinking Ship” is a song I worked on a long time ago. It always felt hyperbolic and too negative, but it somehow it feels appropriate now. I think for that reason it spurred me into action after a period of not feeling particularly compelled to put out recorded music. I’m still playing music all the time, but I’m not sure what it was we’re supposed to do. Like [are] we supposed to release albums or singles or just maybe play live? I thought maybe we’d just play new songs and do it that way.
It occurred to me that there are all these songs that we have that we should probably formalize in sound recording. I have a better studio situation now, so it’s a lot easier for me to record.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, at what point did you start writing this collection of songs? Was it over the period of six or seven years since the last CAKE album?
MCCREA: Yeah, some of them before. For instance, “Sinking Ship” I wrote probably 10 or 15 years ago. The way I write, I work on a song, and I don’t really force myself to finish it. I finish it when I feel like finishing it. I’ve got dozens of songs going at once. That’s the way I preserve my happiness in writing: by doing it because I want to do it, not because I’m trying to finish a job. If I hit a wall, I just move on to a different song. For some reason, this song worked out rather easily. I think probably because of current events. I’m not disconnected from what’s going on.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, and “Sinking Ship” has a real evergreen quality, thematically speaking. I’m curious, how have you been spending your time in the last few years when you weren’t touring with CAKE?
MCCREA: To be really honest, I had kids. My wife and I had kids. That just kicks the wind out of you physically and psychologically. There’s sleep deprivation. There’s all kinds of like weird rites of passage that they don’t warn you about beforehand that can actually just really impact all kinds of things in your life. Everything’s beautiful, but it’s also challenging.
I think what’s really unsettling for me is that for most artists, especially artists that are not pop artists, they can’t stop touring. Literally, they don’t have food if they stop touring. I think most artists wouldn’t mind recorded music being free as long as no one was getting paid for that music. As it turns out, everyone is monetizing it. Everybody in the supply chain gets paid except for the artist. That’s particularly difficult if you’re playing non-commercial music like bluegrass or all kinds of valuable genres of music.
You have to have a job that’ll let you tour all the time. The touring doesn’t pay if you’re not a big enough artist. It’s like, you’re in this van, and you get paid a few hundred bucks. Then, you drive to the next town. Writers have the same issues. People need to understand that it’s work.
STEREOGUM: It’s so true. With the massive success of CAKE’s ’90s singles, to what extent have you seen some extra income via streaming services?
MCCREA: I think you read these news stories once in a while, like, “Oh, the Korean pop star had four billion plays of their song and got maybe a couple thousand dollars.” It’s like that. Not very many artists can get billions of streams, so it’s a math thing.
Artists haven’t really been able to organize, but I think ultimately we should be able to say, “Altogether, we’d like to say that .0006, whatever it is, of a penny … Maybe we’d like .005.” We can’t do that. We can individually say, “We’re gonna try to extricate ourselves from this system,” but it would be better if we had [unions].
It’s true of all workers right now. Everybody needs to organize. We need to create institutions of organized labor. Maybe there’s some innovation that can occur that can make that easier, especially if we used some of the tools of the internet and the kind of interconnectivity that could occur. There could be an organized labor app. I’m just saying.
STEREOGUM: As a band that got its start pre-internet, how else do you see technology as beneficial to the music industry? Or even just beneficial to CAKE itself?
MCCREA: The elephant in the room is it’s nice to get paid for something that you’ve worked on for a year or two. When that doesn’t happen, you have to be in the van more. Aside from that, I think it’s very cool to be able to have a musical idea and put it out there quickly. We were able to release “Sinking Ship” rather quickly in that way. Once the video was done, we were able to just pop it up. I think that’s amazing.
There’s also more two-way communication between musicians and listeners. There’s more of a feedback loop. It’s mostly just made things more smoother in terms of announcing shows and things like that.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, you have a little more control instead of having to funnel messaging through, say, your label.
MCCREA: Oh, yeah. It was horrible. The gatekeepers of the label, we can go around them now. It used to be impossible. But we have new gatekeepers: the giant multi-billion dollar companies that rule the internet. You can’t ignore them just because they’re more invisible. They’re Wall Street.
STEREOGUM: Right. Well, I noticed that all of the profits for “Sinking Ship” are slated to go toward Doctors Without Borders. What made you decide to donate to that particular organization?
MCCREA: You know, holy shit. I was just thinking about Yemen and Saudi Arabia and all the culpability of the United States in that situation and just how much worse things will probably get and how humans are going to be killed. Doctors Without Borders is just such an amazing organization, so much bravery. It seemed like the right thing to do.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, definitely. It’s a great organization. Well, I don’t know if you’re permitted to say, but I’d love to know what else you talk about in the songs you plan to roll out this year.
MCCREA: Well, the B-side or the A-side — I don’t know which side is which — of the vinyl single “Sinking Ship,” we do a cover of the old “Age Of Aquarius” song from the early ’70s. [Ed. note: “Age Of Aquarius” was released in 1969.]
That’s a rather hopeful song with a very unhopeful song on the other side. I’m thinking what’s happening is we’re gonna be releasing singles. When we release enough, we’ll put them all on an album. It will be like that first single of creating a balance between the abyss and hopeful utopia. I’m feeling that way myself. I’ve never felt so much positive possibility as I do now. At the same time, literally the whole thing could be flushed down the toilet.
STEREOGUM: I think you’re right. I think a lot of us are kind of just pinballing from processing horrible news cycles to feeling emboldened by small moments of redemption.
MCCREA: I think no matter what happens, we have to keep our eye on the ball for a while. I don’t feel like it’s hopeless completely, but it could be very easily. It’s a high-stakes adventure right now.
STEREOGUM: Do you have an album release date in mind at the moment?
MCCREA: “Age Of Aquarius” will come out in January, probably like March or something for another single. Probably every month or so there will be another single, then probably in a year we’ll release the whole album. I keep thinking September for some reason.
STEREOGUM: Cool. You know, as long as we’re talking politics, I’d love to know at what point you decided to use CAKE as a platform to raise awareness? I just know that this isn’t something you always did with the band.
MCCREA: I think I resisted it for a long time, just because I thought music can subliminally get through to people who may overtly disagree with you. It’s like a stealth way to influence people’s attitudes. I think as things have become more of an emergency, I’ve realized that that was a luxury that I don’t feel like we can afford anymore. I think we need to be just straight-out blunt about what’s happening.
The part that I really love is musical, but also part of it is cultural. That’s just a fact. The culture that usually surrounds me, I’ve always found it very vain, narcissistic, and immature. There’s just nothing rebellious, as far as I’m concerned, about a leather jacket. Mostly, I just think about discarded leather jackets in a landfill that are no longer in style. I just think that the Earth can’t support popular culture in the way that we’ve come to expect. What has passed for gritty rebellion is really just like fucking foam on a cappuccino.
STEREOGUM: That’s very well said.
MCCREA: That’s the way I really feel. From the very beginning, we had a song called “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle” that was a little angry. It was just looking around me and feeling like I [would] vomit a little bit.
I understand what it’s like. I know high school is hard for people. They try to work it out into their early adulthood to find a more secure emotional space for themselves, but ultimately I think that’s a fucking luxury right now. We need to fucking wake up and pay attention.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I identify as a liberal, but I’ll be the first to say that I think it’s way too easy for liberals to get caught up in rhetoric and fail to see the bigger picture.
MCCREA: Rebecca Solnit, a feminist writer who I enjoy, said back in 2016, “Voting is a chess move, not a Valentine.” I think that’s really key for the left to understand that it’s not about your individuality or your self-expression. It’s a collective thing that we do together. We have to put some of our agenda aside in order to do what’s best for the group. Sometimes you have to vote for somebody who is not a perfect expression of your inner self in order to do the right thing for the highest number of people. It’s an altruistic and adult thing to do. I think it’s time we stop strategizing individuality at the expense of humans.