What became of them?
by Pete Crigler
It was the mid '90's, and I was in sixth grade. My friends and I were already obsessed with music. We watched MTV constantly and bought cassettes and CDs with our allowance money. One band we all became completely obsessed with was Cake. "The Distance" was all over the radio, and I in particular couldn't get enough. It was weird, quirky, and just strange enough that it captured our attention as few songs or bands had at the moment. By 2002, Cake was out of the public consciousness and had seemingly eradicated themselves. What the hell happened?
The band formed in Sacramento in 1991 with John McCrea, Vince DiFiore, Greg Brown, Shon Meckfessel (soon to be replaced by Gabe Nelson), and Frank French. They set themselves apart with McCrea's dry, deadpan delivery and DiFiore's sparkling trumpet. The band began gigging, and by 1993 had enough material ready for a full-length album. They began recording what became Motorcade of Generosity at a local studio. After only a few tracks, French and Nelson departed, to be replaced by Todd Roper and Victor Damiani, respectively. With their classic lineup solidified, the band finished recording. The album was released independently in early 1994, and the band began touring. Not long afterwards, the band was picked up by the newly reactivated Capricorn Records, now home to Widespread Panic and 311 among others. The album was rereleased that fall, and the band even got a fancy video for the single "Rock 'N Roll Lifestyle." The song, which mocked the still growing wave of alternative rock, became a minor alternative radio hit, and the band built up enough hype off the lo-fi tendencies of Motorcade that they were able to take those strengths and create a dynamic sophomore record.
In the fall of 1996, Fashion Nugget was unleashed on the world and began selling slowly. To me and many other devotees of '90s alt rock, this is one of the best albums of the era. Almost every song is a classic in its own right, with very little filler. For an album to have three cover songs back then was considered extreme and different, but the versions of Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes," Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," and the nostalgic "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps" help give life to the album and make it rise out of alt rock mediocrity, where it would have resided with the likes of Spacehog, Solution A.D., and many others. The first single was "I Will Survive," but it didn't gain much traction. My friends and I never really heard it on the radio, and as a cover it seemed like a strange choice to promote a tour de force. But someone at the Capricorn promotions department realized they had a smash on their hands and scheduled "The Distance" to be the album's second single.
The song, written by guitarist Greg Brown, talks of a man losing in terms of his relationship but still willing to go as far as it took to get his love back. The song is amazingly great and still holds up 25 years later as one of the best representations of what alternative rock meant in 1996. The song quickly became a smash, rising up the modern rock charts. It only reached number four, which seems so strange, but that's how Billboard works sometimes. The band appeared on "Conan" and "120 Minutes" among other opportunities. The album's opening track, "Frank Sinatra," one of the best album openers of the '90s, was the third single and did okay but failed to reach the same heights as "The Distance."
By spring of 1997, my friends and I had discovered the band and fallen in love with the album. It was one of those albums we constantly talked about and were listening to. Meanwhile, the band was imploding.
After touring for most of 1997, bassist Victor Damiani decided to leave the band. Guitarist Greg Brown had become good friends with the bassist and decided that if Damiani wasn't going to join the band in the studio for the third album, then he wasn't either. In late January 1998, it was announced that Brown would be leaving as well. A cloud of uncertainty hung over the remaining three. But by that spring, they announced that original bassist Gabe Nelson had rejoined the fold and they would be working with different guitarists to make the next album. Working with friends, including Chuck Prophet (formerly of Green on Red) and Tyler Pope (!!!) among others, gave the band a little more room to experiment.
When the album's first single, "Never There," was released in September 1998, the song became a massive smash, reaching number one on the modern rock charts and briefly crossing over to the Hot 100. Prolonging the Magic, the title a sly nod to keeping their career going, was released in October and quickly went platinum even as Capricorn was beginning to go under due to mismanagement. After a great animated video was made for the fantastic second single, "Sheep Go to Heaven," there was a severe lack of further promotion for the disc. "Sheep" became a favorite of my friends and me because of the chorus, "sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell," which we found hilarious at the time, before we realized the religious connotations. The album's third and last single, the rather lackluster "Let Me Go," didn't really register with the public. Overall, this record is nearly as good as its predecessor, with songs like "Satan Is My Motor," "Cool Blue Reason," and "Where Would I Be?" but has lost a bit of its lofty status over the last few years.
By the time the band made the video for "Never There," Xan McCurdy had been announced as their new guitarist. He had been a guest playing on one track on the album, and the band was seemingly excited by the injection of new and old blood into the music. The band toured for the better part of a year before settling down in late 1999 to begin their next move.
By this point, Capricorn was no more, its name had been changed to Velocette, and it operated as a freeform independent. They had lost 311 to Volcano, Widespread Panic to Sanctuary, and Cake to Columbia. In the fall of 2000, it was announced that a Cake greatest hits record would be released, which struck some as odd because the band had released only three albums up to that point. Ultimately the album was never released, and the band began prepping their Columbia debut.
By the summer of 2001, we began hearing a new single on MTV. "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" carried on the band's unique style and introduced a new emphasis on trumpet. The music video, directed by McCrea, was unique as well as it just showed people on the street listening to the song on a Walkman and letting McCrea know what they thought about it. It was a novel idea for 2001 and made the song as big a hit as their previous ones. When the new album, Comfort Eagle, was released in August, it was greeted with news that longtime drummer Todd Roper had quit the band and was being replaced by Pete McNeal. The album was a modest success, peaking at number 13 and eventually going gold, but was seen as a disappointment. A lot of rock records released during this period ended up not performing as well as they could've, possibly as a result of 9/11 but who knows. The album's second single, "Love You Madly," featured another great video, this time with McNeal and DiFore cooking for a panel including Rick James, Phyllis Diller, and The Frugal Gourmet. I remember getting this record for Christmas in 2001 and absolutely detesting it. I can't for the life of me remember why I hated it. It just didn't have any really great songs that stuck out to me or anything to keep my interest. Listening to it again 20 years later, several tracks stood out, including the opening track, "Opera Singer." Maybe at the time, I just felt it was too bland and uninteresting; it just took time for the album to grow on me. It was around this point that I stopped really paying attention to what the band was up to.
During this time, Greg Brown and Victor Damiani had formed a new band called Deathray and signed with Capricorn, but due to record label failings, their album wasn't released until the spring of 2000, by which time all of their momentum had been lost. The record failed, and the band never really recovered, effectively disbanding a few years later.
Cake hit the road on the Unlimited Sunshine festival in 2002, bringing along such diverse acts as De La Soul, Kinky, Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, and the Hackensaw Boys. The tour was a big success, and they brought it back the next year with Cheap Trick, the Detroit Cobras, and Charlie Louvin! But the band was starting to struggle. It would be 2004 before the next album came out, and by that time my friends and I were in college. The album's first single, "No Phone," is one of the most boring songs in the band's catalogue and didn't get very high on the modern rock charts, and as a result, the album, Pressure Chief, faded from view extremely quickly. I don't even remember feigning interest in purchasing it when it came out in the fall of 2004. I had no frame of reference for this album for years except for one song that was under two minutes, "End of the Movie," which I discovered in college and fell in love with. That was it. Nothing more. It wasn't until years later that I learned that two tracks are actually outtakes recorded during the Prolonging sessions with Todd Roper on drums. Of course, I had to hear them out of curiosity, and I didn't care for them at all. Throw in an unnecessary cover of Bread's "The Guitar Man," and it seems like my ignorance of this record was justified.
The band then underwent more shifting as Pete McNeal ended up leaving, to be replaced for a time by Paulo Baldi, but he seemed more like a touring drummer than anything else. Then the band took an extended break. Too extended for some.
Years went by, the band continued playing shows, but there was nothing in terms of new music. Around 2007 or so the band announced they'd split from Columbia and had gone independent. They made this announcement with the release of B-Sides and Rarities, rounding up covers and other oddities the band had floating around. Around 2009 they set up a Twitter account, with other social media to come. The band declared itself incredibly political with a lot of sharing of political rhetoric and memes. Over time this development would prove frustrating for their fanbase.
Finally, around 2010, it was announced that a brand-new album, Showroom of Compassion, would be released in January 2011, almost seven years since the release of Pressure Chief. The album's release was preceded by the release of "Sick of You," one of their catchiest singles since 2001. The band helped along promotion by seemingly appearing on every late-night talk show conceivable, from "Conan" to "Letterman" to freakin' George Lopez. Everything helped when the album was released and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, although this achievement was tempered by the news that the album had sold the least number of units of any album to land at number one. This record was broken very swiftly afterward, but it still was one of the most newsworthy things that had happened to the band in years. The album was a return to form and probably their best disc since Prolonging. Even Greg Brown returned to the fold to contribute a guitar solo! Containing two of their best songs ever, in "Long Time" and "The Winter," along with great tracks like "Easy to Crash" and "Sick of You," the album was enough to give fans a sigh of relief after having waited for so long to hear something this powerful and great.
The band continued their TV bonanza throughout the year and toured heavily, making sure their fans hadn't forgotten them. But then silence arose again. This time more ominously; the band played a few shows here and there, but rather than updating their Twitter in a traditional sense with news about new shows and songs coming along, the band began retweeting about politics. Taking memes and other tweets and retweeting them constantly, the band turned into a small political action committee of sorts. It's fine to be political and musical at the same time, but when that becomes the main focus instead of letting your fans know why it's been so long since new music has come out, then it gets to be a bit of a sore spot with certain fans.
This carried on for years, even as the band's live shows decreased and people began wondering what the hell was really going on. Finally, around 2015, Gabe Nelson and Paulo Baldi quit the band, and new recruits were auditioned. Eventually, former drummer Todd Roper returned, bassist Daniel McCallum joined, and they pressed on trying to make something new.
During this time, former drummer Pete McNeal was arrested and charged with child molestation. The descriptions were sickening and after a trial with a lot of evidence, McNeal was sentenced in 2014 to fifteen years in prison. The band offered no comment about their former drummer.
In the fall of 2018, a new single and a new record deal were announced. "Sinking Ship" was released digitally through a new partnership with BMG, coming complete with a spiffy new music video that didn't contain the band, of course. Earlier in the year the band had contributed a song to a Roger Miller tribute album, but that track wasn't given much attention. "Sinking Ship" is a good song, something like a throwback to their early days; unfortunately, the band did no real promotion for it, and the song died, never charting anywhere. Not long afterwards, there came a cover of "Age of Aquarius" from the Broadway smash Hair, supposedly the title track of an upcoming studio album.
Guess what? It's spring 2021, and there hasn't been a new studio album. It's been ten years since Showroom was released, and at this point one has to wonder if the band is even interested in releasing new music anymore. They put up a demo of a new track on Instagram around January, but still there has been no word on a new record. Ever since Trump's election in 2016, the band has seemingly turned its socials over to politics, sharing memes and information about the rightwing and Trump and all that nonsense. On Facebook they have over 600,000 followers, and for most of March 2021, they just posted political-action-related items and nothing else. As I said, it's great for a band to be political, but if politics takes the place of musical output, then I think a band has gone a bit too far.
Don't get me wrong--I still really love Cake. But after not putting out anything in a decade, they've started to lose their luster. When they might be known by a whole generation for political action and not great alt-rock, it might not be something they can come back from. Whether they can release a new studio album that can make people remember them in this TikTok day and age remains to be seen; maybe they'll be able to stay off the revival circuit that's been overrun by Sugar Ray, Lit, Smash Mouth, and Everclear.
Also see Pete Crigler's blog
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