By Liz Tracy
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In a five-year span between 1996 and 2001, the eclectic hip-hop and rock act Cake experienced a massive breakout. Led by frontman John McCrea's deadpan vocals, the crew scored hits "The Distance," "Never There," and "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" and kept up a consistent touring schedule and a seemingly ever-widening following. But in the late aughts, things seemed to get quiet for Cake.
"It went by in a flash," says trumpet player Vince DiFiore of the band's faux hiatus. "It didn't feel like a lull, like we were taking time off. Because it was a process [nearly three years] of touring for [2004's] Pressure Chief, and that tour in support of that album seemed to go on.
"There was a period of limbo for about a year," he admits, "where we kept up the website, took shows here and there, kept things going, kept communication within the band, and performed together. And then about three years ago, we started working in earnest on the new material."
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And still, there are those who may be under the impression Cake disappeared. There are even those who may respond to mention of the Sacramento alt-rock band's name with a blank pause before a revelatory moment when they say, "Oh, the guy who talks when he sings!"
It's not totally undeserved. The band hasn't dropped a studio album in seven years, and particularly over the past year or so, even its steady diet of eating asphalt has become, well, unsteady.
Still, the decade-old "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" continues to make relevant rounds in pop culture, thanks to theme-song features in NBC's Chuck and Apple's recent iPod Nano commercial, and the band has maintained constant contact with diehard fans.
"Anybody who cared about us knew we hadn't disappeared," says DiFiore, whose brass is as much part of Cake's distinctive voice and unique tonal signature as lead singer McCrea's syncopated wordplay, rife with wit and irony; Xan McCurdy's bright and punchy guitar lines; the bobbing and weaving rhythm section that drummer Paulo Baldi and bassist Gabe Nelson provide; or noodling, playful synth and Moog sounds.
Distinguishing so many instrumental voices and far-flung styles without band members talking over one another isn't easy. But Cake's intricate yet unassuming style does just that.
DiFiore says the band has always been keen on "staying low to the ground," starting with 1994's independent debut, Motorcade of Generosity. But in 1996, Fashion Nugget made Cake's crouch difficult when it reached platinum due to the hit single "The Distance" and a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Plus, a number of tracks were used in animated cult classics ("Italian Leather Sofa" in Mission Hill and both "Daria" and "Friend Is a Four Letter Word" in MTV's Daria). Beyond that, Cake's quirky songwriting and a penchant for covering unexpected gems has solidified its following.
"If there's ever a song that's a standard, or destined to become a standard, and we believe that we could do it well, we'll definitely pick it up," says DiFiore regarding the band's ever-lengthening list of covers performed, including songs by Black Sabbath, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and even "Manha Manha." "If it's a song that can be done in any musical style, if it could be a hip-hop song or a country-western song or soul or rock, then we usually do it.
"It's also interesting if there's some sort of juxtaposition, some sort of surprise that we as a rock band would do a song like that. That really is what all started with 'I Will Survive.' It was such an interesting thing to hear a man singing that song instead of a woman. We can pull that off because we have a trumpet and other band members who don't necessarily need to make every song sound like AC/DC."
Several of the covers found homes on Cake's B-Sides and Rarities record, which DiFiore describes as an experiment for the band's newly minted indie label, Upbeat Records. "Our contract was up with Columbia, and we just decided the way things were, maybe we should have a go of it on our own," he explains.
Meanwhile, the band members toiled away on new material in their Sacramento studio, which they're proud to say is completely green thanks to 13 solar panels they had installed on the roof of the residential-commercial-zoned house, which has made the workspace 100 percent solar-powered.
"We're a touring band," he says of the group's environmental effort. "We have a carbon footprint. So we do what we can to offset that and offset our conscience. We're taking some sort of personal responsibility, I suppose."
DiFiore also says that the good deed created a nice climate and a positive social atmosphere for the recording of the aptly titled Showroom of Compassion. The brass lines are more formidable, the electric guitar lines are more present than ever, and McCrea has some very melodic lines that he sings, according to DiFiore.
"It was a big chunk of time working on this album," he admits. "It was just one of those things where time flies, and all of a sudden you realize you're in a different era. But now we've made an appearance, and it feels good."