John McCrea isn't one for celebrating New Year's Eve, which is ironic considering that his band Cake will be headlining a show that night at the Warfield. "I'm not into it," he admits. "I'll play on New Year's, but if it just seems like filling the empty void, I'll generally not do it. But we've got all sorts of surprises." Revelers can also expect opening act the Lovemakers' self-described sound of "Led Zeppelin covering Prince," and Bay Area writer Beth Lisick doing spoken-word between sets.
Really, Cake has never taken a conventional approach throughout its fifteen-year existence. Between McCrea's spoken style of singing, arrangements that regularly enlist trumpeter Vince DiFiore as the lead instrumentalist, and its penchant for odd covers, Cake has carved out a distinct niche for itself. The quirky quartet scored hits like the stadium anthem "The Distance" and alt-pop smash "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" with a sound that draws from pop, country, funk, new wave, and hip-hop, and McCrea's disdain for being pigeonholed. "I'm anti-genre. I don't really believe in tightly clinging to labels; it's boring as hell," he said. "I really don't see the point of people using music as a tribal identifier and, in doing so, draining a lot of the life out of music. Making it about signaling to other people which tribe you belong to is certainly unstoppable, but I think when you get to be older than 22 years old and you're still doing it, there's probably something else in your life that you should be looking at."
If there's one thing McCrea can appreciate, it's a good song, whether he had a hand in writing it or not. Which explains the various artists whose songs have been given the Cake touch over the span of five albums: Gloria Gaynor, Willie Nelson, and Bread, among others. And the fact that this year's B-Sides and Rarities, its first self-release since debut Motorcade of Generosity, finds the band — including bassist Gabriel Nelson, guitarist Xan McCurdy, and DiFiore — visiting the disparate songbooks of Buck Owens, Black Sabbath, and Bert Kaempfert. Of course, with McCrea's deadpan style of singing, more than a few people have decided that any "serious" musician covering a disco song like "Never Gonna Give You Up" must be doing it as an act of wink-wink, nudge-nudge hipster irony — an observation that McCrea is quick to dismiss. "I don't know what it is that's helped us be so misinterpreted, but there's something in our culture that thinks a band like Cake must be joking [when we cover certain songs]. But believe it or not, we're really serious about it. We like 'Excuse Me, I Think I've Got a Heartache' in the same way that we like 'I Will Survive' by Gloria Gaynor. For me, it's really about the song. I don't care what genre of music it is."
There's no further proof of this mindset than the Unlimited Sunshine Tours the band organized and headlined, beginning in 2002. McCrea felt the need to shake up the festival tour template for simple reasons. "I get bored by just rock band, rock band, rock band. The idea behind Unlimited Sunshine was to create enough variation to allow people to actually hear each new thing that came up during the night," he explained. This year's lineup included the Brazilian Girls, San Francisco's King City, Oakley Hall, and the Detroit Cobras. Prior years have found Cake hitting the road with Cheap Trick, Gogol Bordello, De La Soul, the Hackensaw Boys, Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, and Charlie Louvin.
The band's popularity has ebbed and flowed throughout its career, which is just fine with McCrea as long as he can cling to his uncompromising approach toward making music. "There's music that does its job versus music that does other jobs that are perhaps about style and the fickle whimsy of popular culture that's not necessarily long-lasting," he explained. "I don't want to make CDs that have to be thrown in to the landfill after six months." Now there's something to celebrate.
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