EQ Interview Extras:
Further thoughts from the dark side of Cake’s pop pigeonhole
By Ken Micallef
The February issue profiles Cake's Showroom of Compassion; here, read interview outtakes with band members Xan McCurdy, Gabe Nelson, and John McCrea, and engineer Pat Olguin.
EQ: Is Cake the final anti-establishment band?
Xan McCurdy:We’re more poking holes in the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of society. But there are lots of establishment things that we use to our advantage.We’re all kind of multi-tasking, you have to use what you can. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. We’re not using solar power to say “fuck you to the man.” We’re using solar power because it makes sense. Solar panels are cheap these days, relatively. If you have been able to save enough capital and can afford to look towards a long term goal, you should do that. We get a check from the City of Sacramento if we don’t use all our power for one day.
EQ: So why solar power?
Xan: It’s the responsible thing to do. As a band we end up using more natural resources than the average five people. We have to get in a bus, there’s pollution, etc. Being off the grid doesn’t make any difference in the sound quality of our recordings. The panels are on the west-facing side of our roof. It was John’s idea.
EQ: You played a Guild guitar and a Jordan amp for Showcase of Compassion?
Xan: Yes, I don’t know the model of the amp. I bought it at a church sale. I am going to Hell because I haggled with the 85 year old lady who was selling it. I paid 15 dollars for it. I am forever guilty. The guitar is a Guild X170 Manhattan an electric hollowbody. I got it in 1997. Back when Guild was being generous so they gave it to me. It’s got a cool sound. Lots of guys use pedals to get sounds, but I’ve found that the range of tones you can get with just a volume knob and a three-pickup selector switch is a lot, more than enough.“Sick Of You” is a good example, all the rhythm parts are on the bass pickup, and I used the other positions often, too.It’s all in the hands, really. Anyone can do it. It’s how you play the guitar. I grew up listening to mostly '60s and '70s records. While my friends were influenced by The Edge, The Police, and metal bands, all those bands which used a lot of effects, whether it was simple levels of distortion or chorus and flange, I never did that.And all those '60s and '70s bands, they didn’t do much of that either.It’s all in the guitar, amp, and your hands.
EQ: Some of the songs on the new album here use plug-ins?
Xan: Yes, and we do like to edit in Pro Tools. The days of having to physically take a razor to tape are over. We don’t know how our first drafts will be to totally commit them to tape and say, “that’s it”; that’s impossible. We can’t help but try as many avenues as we can. We’re not on a big record label anymore and we do have our own studio. That frees us enormously from any creative-hindering pressure. But we do want to finish as soon as possible. We don’t have a lot of money, we have to earn.
EQ: Why five years to record a follow-up to Pressure Chief?
Xan: We spent some time regrouping. There was an attempt to not be on a major label. Being on Sony was not a good fit.That took a lot of energy, getting out of that deal. Once that pressure was off, we exhaled, then thought about how we wanted to do a new album, as opposed to leaping into it.We did our last album, Pressure Chief, in the same studio, but then it was all new to us. We had no idea what we were really doing being the sole engineers or using Pro Tools and really setting up mics. We didn’t know what we were doing. I was not terribly pleased how we did on the last album,on the finished product. There was a lot of determination about creating a better final product this time around. And meaning doing pre-production in the sense of, “How are we going to do this?”Gabe and I have Pro Tools setups at home, me and him went to our studios to prepare.And we thought about how to save and maximize time, how to get the best sounds we could get, and I think John spent a lot of time working on his own songsand we always played gigs the whole time.We were never lazy. It was just preparation.
EQ: Can you describe your solar power setup?
Gabe: The roof of the house gets quite a bit of sun exposure. The panels are on the western side of the pitch of the roof, they are facing west and get a lot of southern exposure. The panels are 2’x4’, and we have thirteen of them. The pragmatism of it is what sold the idea.It still gets power even when it rains. We never had a day where it shut off on us. If it does go into that, then it draws from the grid automatically.You can use batteries, and a generator, but they take up a lot of space. The excess power that is generated in the summer is sent to the power company and then you have power credits. In the winter, if you turn it off, you have credits you can use from the power company.
EQ: What is the interface between the panels on the roof and the instruments?
Gabe: There is an electrical box installed on the wall that comes from the solar panels. It’s got its own box.That box feeds the standard electrical box.We built the studio in 2002 when we bought the house. Nobody had lived in it from the band, it’s a dedicated studio. We threw some scrap carpet down on the floors, it was very echoey with hardwood floors.Then we began recording. We didn’t change the floor plan. We deal with the small rooms.We haven’t put the drums in a separate room, often we do the drums last. We use a drum machine and record bass and guitar. Most of the rhythm ideas go down first with drum machine, then we record real drums replacing the drum machine.
EQ: What gear did you use?
Gabe: A Fender Precision and a Jazz bass, and a Huff bass; GK800 head and 4x4 cabinet.
EQ: How did you record bass?
Gabe: It’s a little live and direct. Mostly live. “The Winter” is with the Huff bass. That was fun to come up with, a real amalgam of bass takes. The bass line, if you listen to the solo section, there is a certain bass line there, and that bass line is through the whole song, and we decided to change it, but keep part of it. We kept chunks of the old one and as we were coming up with the new ideas, all us developed the bass line as we recorded takes and edited them together. I don’t actually know how to play it yet because it was an editing experience. You know how with the Pro Tools, you’re recording and composing at the same time? Because you can edit so quickly, you can change a bass note and a phrase anytime. It’s liberating.
EQ: How did you create the opening vocal loop in “Long Time?”
Gabe: That’s just Mikrokorg.We came up with that chord progression. We are into the compression patches on Pro Tools plug-ins, we have a compressor, the UA6176, we use that too, and the plug-ins and the Pro Tools EQ. Sometimes we use the SansAmp in Pro Tools for distortion.
EQ: Do you see Cake as a radical band?
Gabe: Well, being on Sony felt weird. It was scary signing on cause we didn’t know how much control they were going to demand.But they didn’t really bother us.They let us do our thing, and we were still going to professional studios back then.When you want to experiment with an engineer, they know what they are doing, and they often say “no, you are not supposed to record with a mic that’s distorting because you will ruin the mic or you will get digital distortion.” They know what they are doing so they are not as flexible. Because we don’t have much of an idea how to do things beyond plugging in a microphone, things get jacked up but then we end up liking what happens by accident.And we have freedom to try things. We’re just seizing control of the process more.
EQ: Are you surprised that Cake has already had a hit single?
Gabe: We were afraid no one would remember us. But when we tour we sell out every show. We’ve stayed out there, we just didn’t do it on radio, we did the live circuit.I think our record is organic. Except for our engineer, there wasn’t anyone from the outside involved, we didn’t deal with another engineer. We didn’t have any record company people asking us what we were doing. It was so homemade.
EQ: It’s my pitch that Cake is the last anti-establishment band. You play folk music like “Bound Away,” weird, nearly operatic things like “Teenage Pregnancy,” the band uses funny synth tones for instrumental irony, yet it fully embraces the editing possibilities of Pro Tools. Cake is totally unique.
John: I don’t like the establishment very much, but it’s not so much a rough-and-tumble leather jacket thing, it’s more the lack of pragmatism in the conventional structures. That’s the only reason to be anti establishment, if it’s not working. Not just the music business, but the whole Kleptocracy of the United States. We are in danger of becoming a failed state.
EQ: Most artists these days don’t speak to that. They don’t speak to much of anything.
John: There’s been a lot of retaliation against us taking that stance. It is scary. We get threats. There’s politics mixed with other things. It’s pretty veiled. They go to our website and threaten to only steal our album if we don’t stop posting our views. On our website we make it interesting for ourselves as well as others. We post things that we find interesting, and some it is political, some is life in general. But people having water to drink that is free of jet fuel shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s an issue about pragmatism. It should be corruption vs. non corruption.
EQ: Why did you want to record, mix, and master the album entirely using solar power?
John:We touredGermany, which is the number one solar electricity producer in the world. It’s not a sunny place.It’s very cloudy. But if Germany can be number one in the world, we should be ashamed of ourselves. We’re not taking practical advantage of an abundant resource. It’s not that expensive. The price for solar has dropped 40%, and there are companies like Solar City where you pay a normal utility bill, but eventually you own the machinery. It’s cheaper and carbon-neutral. And there’s www.onebog.org, where they aggregate leverage. They get thousands of people together, and go to a company and strike a deal for the best price. We use Sharp panels. It cost between 7,000 and 10,000 dollars to outfit our approximately 1,500-square-foot house/studio.
EQ: Even though Cake can sound primitive instrumentally, you actually spend hours editing tracks in Pro Tools. What is your recording philosophy now?
John: It’s an intuitive philosophy; whatever it takes to get the sound we want and to realize the song in a way that is organic to the mood of the song. These are unexplainable criteria. They differ from song to song. Some songs, like “Bound Away,” are very organic. And the process was very organic. Within the context of an album, I don’t want to hear all the same process of recording from song to song. A lot of people disagree with that, they think there should be uniformity from songs to song. But I get bored with that, I want to hear different stylistic and production approaches on an album. I like albums where the songs are different from song to song. But we don’t have a process about the process itself.
EQ: Gabe chose the mics and preamps based on the tour setup. Your recording setup is very DIY. He said you believe all mics are the same?
John: Not necessarily. We just want a different sound. When everybody is striving for this perfect microphone sound, then you get a lot of sameness from album to album. You get trends. People all doing the same thing because it is the “best thing.” And I just feel like it’s better to not pay attention to that.Instead, really ask your ears what they want and listen to things. A lot of times there is not room in the mix for all those frequencies, especially in our music. I want space between things and often there is not enough room in the mix for what that expensive mic is offering. It’s less to do with somebody else’s music and more to do with the way our music is.
Maybe all this focus on expensive microphones is using totems and fetishism; maybe what it really is is psychological. It makes people believe in the power and magic of technology. I admit that a lot of the music recorded on old gear now sounds great. But it doesn’t sound great in every single context.
EQ: Cheesy synths is a Cake trademark.
John:We don’t think music should be people vying for status with fancy equipment. We think music should be communicating emotions. It should be about other subjects. And sometimes it changes the meaning of the song to have the sound of really expensive equipment. We do use a real Moog, but it’s an old crappy one. We also use a Moog sample here and there.The Theremin sound comes from the Yamaha Motif 6.We used the Tri Solo sound in that too.
EQ: The vocals in “The Winter” sound kind of glassy. Is that a particular plug-in?
John: I don’t know what I am doing in the studio; I just listen and choose a sound, and steamroll through.It’s very intuitive. That’s why I can’t remember names of gear. We use our ineptitude as a color on our palette.It’s frustrating not knowing what you’re doing, but sometimes you hit things that you wouldn’t have done had you actually known better.
EQ: Do you favor an EQ setting for your vocal?
John: Depends on the song. Depends less on my voice and more on the other instruments in the song. If the guitar player wants to use some of those frequencies I am happy to get the voice out of the way EQ wise. Generally I want everything in the song to have the luxury of being heard, all the frequencies to be audible. I don’t want them blending with other things too much going on.
EQ: Your music has always been economical.
John: It can be about the technology, but it’s also about the songs and the arrangements. That is something that is accessible to regular musicians. I like that aspect, that somebody without a lot of money has access to the same kinds of expression. That is very democratic.Democracy is not such a bad thing.
EQ: What do you think of John’s anti-expensive mic stance?
Pat: You can’t grab a Telefunken 251 and cruise around the studio while you’re doing your vocals like you can an SM57. I think John does that, because sometimes we have to edit out the sound of the mic dropping on the floor. If you notice, his “heys” and “hos” and “whoas,” we don’t effect those up; it’s just him throwing the mic on the floor or backing off the mic and doing this thing in the room and dancing around. For what he does, John has a great vocal tone already. I can see where his opinion comes; you can throw him in front of any mic and he will sound like John. He has an upper-range presence that a Telefunken 251 would normally add.They take a simplistic approach to things, and we put in the work to get things sounding the way he wants. Is a Telefunken required for every singer?
EQ: They’re really DIY.
Pat: They’re definitely DIY types, they like that flexibility to do things when they feel like they are inspired. The studio is setup to where they all engineer, they can go in. Xan can redo the guitar, engineer it, and have it ready. Most of what I do with Cake is basically muting parts or special editing, I will do all that. But they are all very hands on which is great, and not so great. Obviously they are self taught and sometimes I have to fix stuff that wasn’t engineered well.John might go in and do vocals and then decide he can do it better. He will redo the track, and the vocals won’t be matched up so well as far as EQ and compression, they will want to use elements from each take. We will do comp tracks and I will have to EQ each performance to sound like the other so they will match.We use stock Digidesign plug-ins to do that. And their UA channel strip is setup so it has markings for when they track. For the most part they record with that, and things are laid down with that.
EQ: How do you master in such a primitive environment?
Pat: We setup the mastering gear in a rack then move it to the right place in the room, to where I can hear the low end. I do that by generally referencing a lot of prerecorded material and playing it back and moving around the room til it sounds right in my ears. That spot ended up being the corner of one room. Once it was there it was a matter of mastering. That corner gave me a balanced sound.It was wild for me; I am in this untreated room. When you go into Bernie Grundman or Doug Sax’s mastering room, they have their equipment setup in a room that’s been tuned and treated and just dialed in to the hilt to hear everything as balanced as it can be. It was a creepy sensation mastering in that environment.