By Ryan O’Connell
Cake is a rock band, one that is best found through Google searches when you include “the band” after their name.
They’re from Sacramento, California, use a trumpet, and employ group vocals. If you are over twenty years old, they are the musical equivalent of your college loans: always around, consistent, and a reminder of good times. Their new album is Showroom of Compassion and like their previous albums – it is a solid and steady batch of country western-tinged funk rock jams.
Unlike those albums however, this is the band’s first album to be solar-powered.
It’s also the band’s first new album of original material since 2004’s Pressure Chief. They released an album of b-sides and rarities in 2007, but have since immersed themselves in solar powering and fine-tuning their new album. With this release there is a feeling amongst the band that in some sense, they are entering the ring once again – still not exactly mainstream, still not really under the radar, and still not quite like the other bands out there today.
“It’s good to have some traction again,” says Vince DiFiore, the band’s multi-instrumentalist and founding member. “It feels like rejuvenation.”
Switching over to solar power has also help make the band feel a little less guilty about their chosen profession. The green lifestyle, while environmentally sound and good for the conscience – doesn’t leave much in regards to traveling music shows. One would be hard pressed to find a profession more wasteful and detrimental to our planet’s well being that that of a touring band. The buses, the trucks, and the jets, it gets harder and harder for a band to strive to be green the bigger and more popular they get. For your neighbor’s band, playing a show every couple of months at the dive bar down the street, it might be pretty easy. For Cake, it’s pretty hard.
“If we really wanted to do what was best for the planet,” says DiFiore,” I guess we would just stop music completely and dig a hole somewhere and live on fruits and berries.”
Cake is a well-read band and a band that has always had the environment on their mind. In 2010 they were named one of the top 5 greenest bands by Billboard magazine. In addition to their solar-powered studio, all of their albums and merchandise are produced with non-bleached recycle stock and non-toxic vegetable dyes. They’ve also replaced the standard CD jewel case with cardboard-coated Re-Pak digipacks. Yet over the years, the band grew increasingly aware of the damage being in a band does to the environment and how they were much more of a cause (despite their best efforts) than a solution to our planet’s longevity issues.
“We felt guilty. We’re very aware of the news, all the climate change news,” DiFiore says. “Out on the road in a tour bus, taking jets all over the place, it’s not the same as building a hut somewhere and living low to the ground and having a small impact on the environment.”
Cake wanted to remain a band, but if possible, didn’t want to turn their backs entirely on their conscience. They were faced with the question: how do we keep doing what we love, without killing the planet we live on?
DiFiore puts it simply: “Solar panels were a step in the right direction.”
Cake teamed up with Borrego Solar Systems, a California solar energy systems company, in early 2008 to look into transforming the band’s home studio and rehearsal space in Sacramento into one that was solar powered.
“The band stipulated that the system had to be able to power their recording studio and home energy use,” says Phillip Hall, Director of Marketing for Borrego. “So we needed to install a solar energy system that would adequately address their fluctuating energy needs, based on the historical energy usage they provided to us for the past twelve months.”
Once the studies and preparation work was done, the physical work began. Borrego spent eighty hours lining Cake’s studio’s roof with thirteen silicon-coated panels that use the sunlight of Northern California to create a direct current, which is then inverted to an alternating current. This new current is sent into the studio as good, old usable electricity. Work was finished three years ago in late June of 2008, shortly before the release of their last album, B Sides and Rarities. Since then and prior to working on Showroom of Compassion, the studio was used for remixing and the occasional soundtrack contribution. Showroom of Compassion was the first real test for the band, the studio, and all thirteen of those solar panels. According to DiFiore, the panels provided all the necessary power for all of their recording and rehearsal needs, in addition to keeping their electric bills down.
“Cake actually has a negative balance on their SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) bill,” says Hall. “Meaning they produce more energy through the solar installation than they can use. The added benefit is they can sell their excess energy back to the utility district.”
Another bonus is that the new solar power system is actually quieter than traditional electrical power, which is nice when fine-tuning all of those well-placed group vocals.
As for hitting the road and keeping it clean, the solutions to make it a green operation isn’t nearly as simple. Cake try and request bio-diesel buses, using one whenever one’s available. Cake also have a car pool section on their website, a place where concert-goers can go and link up with their neighbors and hitch rides to shows. Some of these shows are part of Cake’s Unlimited Sunshine Tour, meant to promote awareness about the environment and education regarding green solutions. The band invites a collection of organizations to come along with them and set up information booths. Earth Justice, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Arbor Day Society and Headcount have joined them at various shows on the tours.
“We’re not trying to be self-righteous or smug or anything,” says DiFiore. “It does provide something good to talk about.”
And just in case you think talk is cheap, Cake try and literally give back to the environment at every show. Shows on their last couple tours have included giving away a tree to a lucky audience member.
And frankly, that should count for something.
Giving away things at shows goes back to Cake’s beginning, although back at those shows, they gave out t-shirts. As they got bigger, the free giveaways became harder to do and slightly more challenging. As one tour was wrapping up they decided to give out a houseplant that had been with them throughout the tour; making their bus seem a little bit more like home. With the tour about to wrap and airport security to still go through, they decided to give it out at the last show. It went to the oldest member of the audience that night, a dude almost 76 years old. A few tours later, a lucky audience member received a well-traveled crock-pot Cake had brought along with them to do some cooking on the road.
“Now we giveaway a tree,” DiFiore says.
The band connects with either a local nursery or department store that sells plants in the town of every concert. The tree they are looking for is native to the area or would at least do well in that particular environment. DiFiore says the tree-giving ceremony, conducted by front man and other founding member John McCrea, has become “quite ceremonious” and is done with a fair amount of pomp and circumstance. For every winner, a “non-litigious” agreement is made between them and the band that states that the winner will plant it and take care of it, keeping the band updated and informed about it’s life.
Once you start giving trees out at every show, though, it makes it hard to think of something new to give away. DiFiore, when asked, harkened back to Monty Python- saying that a nice shrubbery and white picket fence might work.
Adam Flaherty is a filmmaker and musician living in New Hampshire. He first got into Cake when they released their first big hit, “The Distance.” Flaherty remembers “loving it so much that I called the radio station to request it so that I could tape it the next time it was played – ;on a cassette.”
At one Cake show, at the Merrill Auditorium in sunny Portland, Maine, Flaherty was called upon by McCrea to answer a trivia question.
“Upon supplying the correct answer (a fact which I had previously learned from their very own website), I shook hands with John and was presented with a small tree to plant.” Flaherty did his best to maintain the tree, keeping Cake’s management posted in regards to its progress with pictures and emails. Unfortunately the tree grew spoiled inside and died when Flaherty brought it outside.
Flaherty’s appreciation of Cake has never wavered and he has seen them five times over the years – the first time in 1997 and most recently in 2008 when he was given the tree. He has always been partial to “Mexico,” a song off of 1998’s Prolonging the Magic. In 2006, Flaherty enlisted a group of friends to shoot a video for Cake’s cover of the Black Sabbath classic anti-war song “War Pigs.” The tune was to be included on B Sides and Rarities and Cake, a band that has always enjoyed a good fan contest, asked fans to submit their own videos for the song. The contest winner’s video would then serve as the official video for the song. Flaherty dreamed up a different concept for his video, a concept skewing the idea of war in which the war was with technology and media. The warmongers were still there- just as Ozzy had intended. But instead they were hiding behind Myspace and cell phones instead of rocket launchers and machine guns. The video didn’t win, but that didn’t faze Flaherty. Nor did it diminish his devotion to the band he loves, and not only for their music, but also because of the causes they champion.
“I think it’s particularly cool and worth mentioning that they have issues that they publicly stand up for,” he says. “They don’t cram their opinions down your throat, but they use the medium of their lyrics, live concert banter, and their website to inform their fans about what’s going on in the USA and in the world and what we can do about it.”
As for their cover of “War Pigs,” a truly Cake version of the song, no one in Cake is an especially devoted Black Sabbath fan. Bassist Gabriel Nelson came up with an arrangement for the tune and the band ran with it. It’s indicative of the collaborative and democratic nature of the band, except it’s usually McCrea coming up with the ideas for songs. McCrea usually approaches the band with vocals and guitar, a bare-bones arrangement of a song.
“Then we jump on it,” says DiFiore. “Make hooks, lines, rhythms, you know, different sounds. That’s how it’s worked from the very beginning.”
From the very beginning, Cake has been a different kind of band. A band that when they first hit the scene, countered the big rock ‘n roll guitars of grunge with stomping funk lines and blaring trumpet. Their sound over the past twenty years has remained remarkably consistent, despite various members (besides DiFiore and McCrea) shuttling in and out. Exactly how to describe that sound might end up being the most complex part of Cake. One publication described it as “country meets mariachi meets post punk and classic rock.” DiFiore’s favorite description is “Cake is like if Hank Williams Sr. and Sly Stone were at a party and they played AC/DC records backwards.” DiFiore says that he feels Cake is a band whose style is simply “country western, funk, heavy metal, and hard rock.”
The band’s new album Showroom of Compassion is a smooth extension of this mash-up collection of musical styles, a collection that could just as easily be called the sound of Cake. There is the first single, “Sick of You,” with it’s marching funk beat of the drums, McCrea’s monotone, yet melodic lead vocals, the distant ring of DiFiore’s trumpet and the fun guitar lines, coming out of the gates that is there to remind you that you’re listening to none other than Cake. The guitar sound has become a signature to Cake’s sound tracing back to their previous singles “Short Skirt, Long Jacket,” “Comfort Eagle” and “Never There” all the way up to songs from the new album like “Moustache Man,” “Federal Funding,” and “What’s Now is Now.”
“The music is guitar driven, because we like the guitar,” says DiFiore. “It is at center of the sound. But it’s not an overly oppressive electric guitar.”
The band’s love of the guitar is conveniently what serves as an avenue for all of their delicious group vocals, whether they are harmonies, chants, group shout-outs or call-and-response hooks. Go back and listen to some of the old Cake records (as well as the new one) and their penchant for group vocals are obvious. DiFiore says it comes from building their songs around the guitar lines and the room it creates for other sounds.
“There is basically room for background vocals. It grew because there was room for it.”
DiFiore’s role in the band also grew as the years went on. He joined the band initially as a trumpet player, but unlike the bass or even the guitar, you can’t really wail away on a trumpet for an entire song. He simply needed something to do on stage in between parts. So he started singing along and harmonizing with McCrea whenever possible.
“I had a lot of time on stage to do harmonies,” he says. In addition to harmonies, DiFiore started playing keyboards and percussion. But the harmonies grew and he says, “Now all of us are doing harmonies and group vocal shout-outs.”
DiFiore and his band mates are excited to get back on the road and share their new songs with both their devoted audience and the new fans they have acquired along the way. Through their website, they’ve been able to connect more with their fans and break down that wall that used to exist between a band and their fans.
“It makes the experience that much more present,” DiFiore says.
So the tree giveaways continue. The group shout-outs continue. The well-placed handclaps continue. Cake is charting their own course now having started their own record label, Upbeat Records, and relying on the power of the sun to get them through. Solar-powered buses are probably too far away to strive for now, but the vegetable oil will do. It isn’t easy being green, but neither is trying to sustain success, popularity and relevance in music.
Cake has already managed to get the music part down and do so rather convincingly.