Comfort Food

Artscape Headliners Cake Aren't All That Interested In Mixing Things Up, And That's Just Fine By Fans

July 16, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

After a few albums, most bands like to mix things up.

They'll write songs in a different setting or bring in a new producer to help find a fresh perspective.

Not so for Cake. After almost 20 years together, the alt-rock group behind such '90s hits as "The Distance," and "Never There" stubbornly refuses to change for change's sake.

John McCrea, Cake's founder and lead singer/songwriter, hates the idea of trying something different just to get new fans on board or make a media splash. He even has a fancy name for it: strident rejection of gratuitous innovation. He's pretty passionate about the subject.

"There's a lot of pressure on musicians to reinvent themselves every album because of the fickle, overfed whimsy of the American media culture," he said. "I think it's something wrong with the culture when you can't enjoy something that is subtly different - it has to be a complete reinvention. Trying to reinvent everything each time creates a lot of waste."

As a result, Cake's music sounds, well, largely the same as it did when the band released its breakthrough album Fashion Nugget in 1996: heavy guitar riffs, trumpet lines and McCrea's foreboding blend of half-singing, half speaking.

That's the sound the band will bring to Baltimore Saturday when it performs on Artscape's main stage. Cake is co-headlining the free arts festival, along with R&B legend Dionne Warwick, soul group Robert Randolph and the Family Band and pop crooner Robin Thicke.

Kathy Hornig, Artscape's director, is a huge Cake fan who saw the band the past few times it's come to town. Since organizers announced the lineup in early June, they've gotten a lot of buzz for bringing Cake, she said.

"We're expecting a huge crowd," Hornig said. "It seems like Cake fans haven't diminished since the Fashion Nugget years. We've gotten a lot of interest in Dionne Warwick and Robin Thicke and Robert Randolph, but Cake's probably in the lead."

Though Cake hasn't had a mainstream hit since 2001's "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," the group knows how to connect with its fans.

When they're on the road, they keep a detailed tour diary on their Web site, with historical facts about the cities they play and quirky asides.

For example, when they played Pier Six Pavilion in 2007, drummer Paulo Baldi got trapped in a backstage bathroom. The rest of the band went on stage to perform an encore, looked around, and noticed he was missing. Then they remembered the bathroom door handle was busted and had been giving them trouble all day. They ran backstage, freed Baldi, and finished the show.

"I don't know how that happened," McCrea said. "Holy cow. Can you imagine how frightening that would be?"

Cake also gives free life/relationship advice on its site. Fans send in their questions, and the band posts answers online.

All of this interaction has helped Cake build a wide fan base. They sold out that 2007 show at Pier Six, which holds 4,200. And in late May, they sold out a two-night stand at the 9:30 Club in Washington.

"They had some monster hits, and they got a lot of radio play," said Mark Mangold, a promoter for Rams Head Live, which books Pier Six. "They haven't really gone away. I think it's a testament to how good a live band they are that they're still selling tickets."

After the 2004 album Pressure Chief, Cake left Columbia Records and formed its own label, Upbeat Records. They recorded a live album in 2005 called Live at the Crystal Palace, but it never surfaced. Then they released B-Sides and Rarities, which featured a buzzed-about cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" in 2007. Since then, the band has been working on a new studio album - their first since parting ways with Columbia five years ago.

McCrea doesn't have a name picked out for the new album, or, for that matter, a release date. But he thinks it will include 13 tracks and could see the light of day in the next few months. This album has taken longer to write and record than any of the previous ones because, for a change, all of the band members have had a say in how it sounds, McCrea said. And unlike with past albums, there is no major label breathing down the band's neck.

"There's been plenty of give and take over the years," McCrea said. "I'm building a lot more of it into the process. I think, so far, it's served the album well, but it takes forever. But we're not in a hurry."

Should fans expect the new album to sound drastically different than anything Cake did before it? McCrea scoffs at that question.

"I always think each album sounds completely different than the one before," McCrea said. "Then I read about them, and apparently to other people they sound exactly the same. So I'm not going to say this is a departure. I've been foiled before trying to think that we are capable of departure."

Cake has always been hands-on when it comes to recording albums. The band has produced its own music, put together its own album artwork and directed its own music videos.

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