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Use Your Delusions

Cake takes a wide-legged stance on the ridiculousness of modern rock and the viability of uniqueness

By Peter Koht

Cake is an enigmatic monster. Simultaneously hip as all hell, yet perennially seeped in a Central Valley working class ethos, the group has crafted a stable niche in the otherwise topsy-turvy world of modern rock. They have a trumpet, they like Willie Nelson and they ain't changing for nobody.

Describing the work ethic of the project that he has seen through Sacramento bar gigs, world tours and even an appearance on the Jenny McCarthy show, founding band member and trumpeter Vince DiFiore figures "a lot of our image is our reaction to hard rock. Rock music has this kind of myth around it. It's kind of corny but it's also inspiring. The irony of it is that rock & roll is supposed to be about sticking it to the man, but it totally plays into overconsumption. We are more grounded in reality."

Working out of a "modest" studio that the band now owns in Sacramento, Cake has released five albums worth of quirky, indie-orchestrated pop whose tongue-in-cheek antics perfectly complement both the band's visual presentation and its low-key attitude. It's unlikely that Coldplay will ever change their band logo to a giant silk-screen pig.

Breaking into mainstream consciousness with "The Distance," a catchy song about escaping a failed relationship whose superslinky bass line is now a staple of ESPN highlight reels, the band was initially written off as a novelty act. But Cake reacted to stardom in a more constructive manner than Kurt Cobain, opting to deadpan their way through both the bad press and the Buzz Bin. They didn't move to L.A., they didn't date models and they didn't abandon their love of Dickies and country waltzes. Back in the halcyon era of Alanis Morissette, thesaurus-challenged rock scribes were quick to throw the word "irony" out when describing Cake.

"[Singer] John [McCrea] often says that the word irony comes up a lot for him in interviews, but what people call irony is really not irony, it's just humor. It's not like we have a heavily involved emotional path in our songs."

With such crowd pleasers as "Sheep Go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell" and "Symphony in C," protagonists and perspectives in Cake songs aren't to be taken too seriously. Even the semiemotional "Never There" features intentionally flat harmony singing that deflates the potential for overstatement that lies in every breakup song.

"The arrangements are a musical reflection on our lyrics' philosophy, so economy is valued," DiFiore says. "We don't try to drown the songs in a wall of sound. There is always a tendency to floor it and get really excited about the song, but most of the time we end up stripping it all back. We tend to go more for a teeter-totter approach than a bulldozer."

This path toward composition has served the band well. Their tunes are instantly recognizable among the static that is modern rock radio. No one else besides Cake is willing to release Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" as a single, dub in mariachi horn calls or base the group's sound on a half-broken Goya nylon string guitar. "We've had some success in the arena of popular music," DiFiore continues, "but we're trying to keep it all in perspective. It's a great gig, but it will be over one day, so we will appreciate it while we can."

Following up on this objective, DiFiore is appreciating performing onstage more and more these days. Now out on the road behind the group's 2004 release, Pressure Chief, he's comfortable with the makeup of the group, which has been stable for over a year (a mean feat for an outfit that's had more bassists than the Dead has had keyboardists), and he's more settled in his role as both keyboardist and trumpeter.

"I learned a lot for Jack Black's School of Rock," DiFiore says with a laugh. "It amazes me how self-conscious I used to be. Now I'm aware of the fact that we are putting on a rock show."

By the night of their performance at the Catalyst, the band will have finished tracking their first live record over two nights in Bakersfield. It's a first for the group, but less of a worry than DiFiore's new side project: he and his wife just welcomed their first child, Luca, into the world. No doubt he'll be taught early and often that "music is not all rock & roll posturing."

Cake performs with Tegan and Sara Friday, Oct. 14, at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; tickets $33/advance, $38/door. (831.423.7970; www.pulseproductions.net)

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From the October 12-19, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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