Cake | Nothin' Fancy

HOW CAKE RECORDED THEIR NEW HIT ALBUM IN A SOLAR-POWERED HOME STUDIO WITH SOME SURPRISINGLY MODEST GEAR
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Cake is from left: Vincent Di Fiore, Paulo Baldi, John McCrea, Xan McCurdy, and Gabriel Nelson

Photo: Robert McKnight

Cake has one of the more distinctive and original sounds in the rock world. Typically categorized as “alternative” by the music press, the band''s music is easily recognizable for its catchy melodies, solo trumpet lines, sporadic but memorable synth parts, intelligent and entertaining lyrics, melodic guitar riffs, and occasional vibroslap hits. The recently released Showroom of Compassion is Cake''s first new studio album since Pressure Chief (2004). This is Cake''s sixth album of new material (the band also released a B-sides album in 2007), most of which were recorded in commercial facilities. But starting with Pressure Chief, Cake has eschewed the commercial studio for a Pro Tools LE-based home setup in Sacramento, Calif.

In the years between the release of Pressure Chief and the new album, a lot more has changed for the band. They left their label, switched to solar power for their studio, and stepped up their game as recordists. Despite a very modest gear setup, Showroom of Compassion is sonically more akin to their older albums than to the more electronic-sounding Pressure Chief.

Cake has always had a very loyal following, but the new album has gained traction surprisingly quickly. It debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and has received critical acclaim. The band currently comprises lead singer/ guitarist John McCrea, lead guitarist Xan McCurdy, trumpeter/keyboardist Vince DiFiore, bassist Gabriel Nelson, and drummer Paulo Baldi. I spoke to McCrea recently about the band and the production of the album.

We did a story on you guys back when Pressure Chief came out in 2004. I can''t believe that was your last studio album, that''s crazy.
We had to take a little time to re-evaluate what we do and how we wanted to do it, and we rebuilt our studio and made it solar. We also reconfigured our business model. We got off of a major-label deal, and we just thought it was more realistic for today''s climate, where increasingly the thing we''re selling, recorded music, is, for a lot of people, free. So it''s weird to have so much overhead, so many expensive dinners, and the fanciness of a record label. I''m not sure if it''s sustainable in today''s scenario.

So you''re independently releasing your music now?
Through a distributor, ILG. It''s our own label, and we''re pretty much doing it ourselves, and it''s all on our schedule, which is great. One of the things that frustrated us and a lot of other bands is having to work so hard on recording your album and then handing it over to somebody and being really at their mercy, being at the mercy of things that we''re not related to at all, to their business model, or their hiring and firing of employees—just random corporate hi-jinks. The stupidity of corporate culture sometimes affects something that you''ve worked on your whole life. You put everything you have into an album, and then as you''re releasing the album, everyone is getting fired because there''s a corporate takeover going on.

That must be really frustrating. So now that you''re doing it yourself, you guys get to keep everything.
Well, we get to keep most of it.

Minus overhead, I guess.
Yeah, absolutely. We have to pay for everything. We have to write a check for everything that happens. I think people are more careful with their own resources. I''ve certainly seen bigger record companies being not very careful.

Right, and then they charge it to you. Having your own studio is obviously a way to control costs.
It was definitely another step in the right direction. We had decided that we needed to have our own studio back then when we were still on the label deal. And then, I think the next step was for us to get off the label. So who knows what''s next.

Talk about the changes in your studio since Pressure Chief.
We really haven''t done a lot. We''re still using Pro Tools. We brought in an old acoustic piano. I decided that something that I had resisted for years was piano because I thought it sounded too classy, and I didn''t want us to sound classy. But I found this old junker up in Portland and I brought it down. Actually, I feel pretty good about it— about the piano on the album—and probably will have more of it in the future.

So on the album it is a miked acoustic piano?
Yeah. I just sort of stuck the mic in there and found the right place, and kind of a little percussive sound.

What kind of a mic did you use on it?
It''s a 58.

Really?
I know, it''s crazy. I wanted kind of a crappy sound. I didn''t need all of the richness of the piano. That''s really why I had avoided piano for so many years—I didn''t want it to use up all that space, that sonic space. So much of the time, I think I had discussed this with you in the past, so much time is spent sometimes setting up mics for instruments, like drums especially, you end up carving out all the work you''ve done and you never needed it. And maybe you didn''t know in advance that you didn''t need it, or maybe there''s just an assumption that you should always just get everything you possibly can, every frequency that exists, put it in there in case you need it. But so many times we didn''t need it and it was just a waste. With the piano, we just realized we''re not going for a super-rich sound. With my guitar, we''re definitely not going for a rich, generous kind of sound. We really don''t have the room for it when you factor in all the other instruments.

The band in their studio; McCrea is at right on the phone.

Do you record with that little acoustic you use onstage?
Yeah, it''s a Goya [nylon string] with a Barcus-Berry inside it. It''s put through the practice amp that Fender would give people—they''d give it for free when you bought a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster; I think they still sell them for $70. The reason for that is not because we''re trying to be cheap or use toy instruments, it''s that all the other really nicer amps would create a lot of feedback with an acoustic guitar. So I thought, how about just using an amp that isn''t capable of reproducing those feedback sounds. So that''s what worked. So we used that same amp-and-guitar setup for most of the time when I play.

You guys have a pretty iconic sound. Sonically, this album reminds me of your old albums. The guitars are big and fat. The drums are mostly live, right?
Yes, almost 90 percent.

On Pressure Chief, there were more programmed drums mixed in.
Yeah, which really upset a lot of people. I think in some ways, it was our responding to the way we felt. It''s hard to explain it. It seemed like things were increasingly mechanized in our culture and life experiences, and it seemed appropriate to include those kinds of sounds. So much time is spent on a cell phone. We wanted to sound like cell phones existed. We weren''t trying to re-create what it sounded like to be in a garage band in 1968.

Miking drums is definitely not an easy thing.
Oh, I know, and really, we''re not that great at it, but what we''re getting is what we want. And it fits in geometrically with the other shapes and sounds within the recording.

Showroom of Compassion is the band''s second home-recorded album.

Do you recall what you did, roughly how many mics you used?
We miked the kick. We used basically a kick, a snare, and an overhead [mic].

Just a single overhead?
Yeah, a single overhead. Crazy. If you listen to the mix, the drums are so diminished in a lot of ways; they''re not out front. And texturally, they''re pretty far back. The overhead doubled as a hi-hat mic. It was on the right and the snare was over on the other side, and then there was a kick. But if you think about it, that''s more than what people did back in the 1940s. People enjoyed music back then. A lot of the recordings back then I like better than some of the recordings now. I think the assumption that you automatically need more—that more is better—is a flawed assumption.

You''ve done two self-recorded albums and four before that in commercial studios. When you compare the processes, aside from the money thing, do you like working at home more? Does it give you guys more of a relaxed feel?
It''s a two-edged sword. There''s something to be said for the adrenaline of feeling like this is it, we''ve got to make this work. We have a week to figure this whole thing out, and sometimes it can really work, especially if you''re on crystal meth or something. You can really push yourself. No, we don''t do crystal meth. What I''m saying is that you can rise to the occasion of the conventional, traditional studio pressure. Knowing this is costing thousands of dollars, I better be completely prepared.

Right.
And the other side of it is, and don''t get me wrong, it still costs us money to record, we still have to pay everybody to be in the studio, and we did have an engineer help us mix and master, so it''s not like it''s free, but it''s certainly not as tense as it would be if we were paying $300 an hour. The downside of that, of not having that pressure, it''s easier to make mistakes. So that''s a good thing and a bad thing. Sometimes it''s great to feel like you can afford to make a mistake, so a lot of times that mistake won''t be a mistake, it''ll be great. At the same time, sometimes it''s just going to be a mistake. The other thing—it''s not a technical thing, but it''s certainly about our process—this album was a lot more of a democratic process, which, as we all know, is an inefficient device.

Talk about your double-edged swords.
Exactly. That''s a lot of the reason why we had to throw songs out. We couldn''t come to consensus on things. Eventually, maybe we''ll figure those songs out for another album. I guess what I''m saying is that we chose to do it more democratically because, number one, people can get more sense of investment in the process and in the end product when they feel like they are really part of it. I think we got that with this album. What we didn''t get is a really fast, efficient process.

So it took two-and-a-half years?
Yes, sort of. One of the other things is we don''t use an outside producer. We produce ourselves. So that also, whether or not we had democracy, would be making things take a long time because you get really invested in everything you do in the studio. It''s very subjective. You dig down deep into whatever it is you''re doing. You spend five hours getting the guitar tone just right, or changing the guitar part, until you''re able to stand back far enough from that guitar part and realize that it sucks and the song sounds better without it. That''s going to take you a good week away from that guitar part, after having put so much energy into it. The great thing about having an outside producer is an outside producer doesn''t have as much sense of investment in every little detail and can be more honest and objective about what works and what doesn''t. So doing it ourselves, it''s a tall order and it takes a long time.

This studio is in one of your houses?
We''ve got this old junker house in south Sacramento, and we kind of gutted it and made it into a studio back during Pressure Chief, when we were getting ready to record Pressure Chief. We put carpet all over the place and made things dead and made things live and made different rooms for different things. With this album, we made it 100 percent solar so we can say that this album was recorded with 100 percent solar energy, which makes a lot of sense in California. I don''t know where you''re calling from.

I''m on the East Coast.
There, I think it actually makes more sense than people realize. We have toured in Germany a lot, and it''s a kind of gloomy place. It''s not a sunny, solar-energy kind of place you''d think, but it''s actually the number one producer of solar electricity. It''s because the government provided a lot of incentives there. They basically forced the market to purchase solar electricity, so everybody is motivated to put solar panels on their businesses and their homes. Realizing that Germany is number one, and realizing that our studio is in California, it just seemed wrong not to use solar electricity when there''s just such an abundance of it. It ended up being a really easy conversion. We don''t think about it. The only thing we think about is, because we are lucky enough to have a public utility and not a private utility in Sacramento, we actually get a check in the mail for our extra electricity.

Back to the recording. There were strings in “Italian Guy,” were those synth strings or were they sampled?
Those are samples. We used the [Yamaha] Motif sampler keyboard for that. Sorry, they weren''t real.

What did you use mic-wise for your vocals?
This is not an interesting interview for you.

Well, it would be if you used something not that great because it sounded good.
Yeah, it''s [usually] just an SM58.

Wow, I think that is very interesting.
Well, again, I don''t know if you can hear, my voice isn''t this big, rich, sonorous Robert Goulet kind of sound. It''s got a little bit of roughness to it, but it''s not really big. It kind of works with the 58.

It seems like there aren''t as many synth parts on this album as on past ones. Is that true?
Not quite as much. I think it sounds like there''s not as much because there''s no synthesized drones. Overall, it''s weird how that''s the one clinching thing that makes it feel more electric. Past that point, it''s in another territory. Ultimately, fewer [synth parts], yes, but not that much fewer. I do think this album is a little warmer. There was just something about 2004 that just made me want to—I just thought there was just so much crap in the air. I thought, “Okay, it''s not realistic unless we put some of that in our music.” With this album, I''m just like, “Okay, enough crap. I miss the sound of guitars.”

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.