Who Doesn't Like CAKE! An Interview with Xan McCurdy
It was 1996 and Cake had gone the distance, into the loving arms of alternative rock stardom. They were beloved by the college crowd and widely accepted as a brilliant minded alternative to the monotonous pop music of the day. But even the most adoring Cake fans would have admitted back then that it would be a cold day in hell before the band would ever have a number one album. The albums that followed never quite reached the same heights of mainstream success but were none the less, great albums and ensured a solid following of loyal fans. Cake receded from the spotlight of mainstream success, accepting even critical scourge with a quiet cool.
Now, seven years since the release of their last studio album Cake is back, sporting the same casual swagger that won us over in the 90’s and this time, the album debuted at number one on the Billboard Charts. And why not, who the hell doesn’t like Cake? They’ve brought a touch of elegance and class that the Billboard Charts haven’t seen in a long time. So what changed? Guitar.com finds out in an exclusive interview with Cake’s guitar man, Xan McCurdy.
Guitar.com: Let’s do a quick rundown of the gear that you normally use on stage.
Xan McCurdy: The guitar is a Gibson Chet Atkins Tennessean. It’s a guitar that I first liked the look of because it looks like your favorite British band’s first guitar – the big shitty mid-60’s hollowbody things. I have a nice little Harmony and a nice Kay. I don’t dare bring those on tour because far too many times, I’ve gotten off of the plane and gotten to the gig, opened up the guitar case and found the neck separated from the body. So I thought I’d buy a guitar that I could tour with without caring too much about it so I bought this and fell in love with it. It’s a pretty cool guitar. I like where the knobs and the pickup selector are situated. I put a Bigsby on it which is awesome. It’s a real pain in the ass to change strings.
It’s a really versatile guitar. I don’t have a back up guitar; it’s the only one I play on stage. I thought about getting another one just like it to bring on tour as a backup but they don’t make them anymore. I bought a Chet Atkins County Gentleman thinking that it was going to be very similar but it turned out to be not very similar at all.
For an amp I have a Fender Blues Deville and I bought that in 1998. I had used Fender Twins and Bassmans prior to that. I really thought it would be a nice amp that I could beat up a bit on the road and I think it’s turned out to be much more than that. Sometimes we rent backline and I would pick a Fender amp with a similar sounding name and the Blues Deville is far and away much better than all of them. I play through a Rat Distortion Pedal that I keep on top of the amp and I don’t use on and off, I just dial it in and leave it like that. I like the Rat Pedal and I don’t know how to explain in distortion terms but the rate of the buzz, I like to have a lot of that. There’s something about the Rat is that it seems to make your tone very cold. So on the Blues DeVille amp I have the Bass set to 12 and the Treble is on 1. So the sound doesn’t come out particularly bass-y after going thru that pedal.
Guitar.com: The Rat is the only pedal you use?
McCurdy: Well, I use a tuner on stage and I keep the Rat turned on all the time. I never stomp on anything on stage. I use the Rat in conjunction with the Blues DeVille and I dial it in to where I can change the tone to fit a certain part of a certain song by changing the volume on the guitar or depending on where you pick on the guitar, closer to the neck or closer to the bridge, and depending on how hard you play. If you play softly you get a mellow tone and if you play harder you get a raunchy tone. Also I think the pickup selector switch for a lot of guitar players goes woefully underused. Its something that’s a good substitute for a pedal. I think that those pickup selector switches are there for a reason and they do a lot from song to song and part to part.
Guitar.com: Do you find yourself switching the pickup selection up a lot in the midst of a song?
McCurdy:Yes, all night. I go through switches a lot because they’ll go bad. Sometimes you’ve got to switch really quickly and it’s not very delicate.
Guitar.com: Did you use any instruments or pedals that you wouldn’t normally use on this last record?
McCurdy: Yeah, I have another amp that I bought for like 15 dollars at a church sale. It’s a Jordan Amp. At the time I got it I happened to be reading while we were recording this last album, the Warren Zevon book “Ill Sleep When I’m Dead” and in the book, Warren’s son said that he was named Jordan because his dad was using a Jordan Amp at the time. But I used that for the entire record.
And for a guitar, I keep my Chet Atkins in storage when I’m not touring so for this record I mostly used a Guild X170 Manhattan which is slightly more particular in its sound.
Guitar.com: Did you choose the Guild specifically for its sound or did you just happen to come across the guitar and liked the sound?
McCurdy: It was just something that I had always liked. I like to use it for country.
Guitar.com: Is there any gear that you don’t have anymore that you wish you had back?
McCurdy: I used to have a very strange amp – it had almost no names on it. It was an old tweed combo amp and all it said on the back was something like Earth Sound Research. It was a 115 and it had a little bit of a crackling problem. I took it into the shop and asked them to fix it numerous times and it never got fixed so it would sometimes make crackling noises in the middle of a song. I sold that amp and I wish I hadn’t because it was awesome and I’d like to find something like that to use in the future, something with one big 15 inch speaker.
Guitar.com: I’m told that you recorded Showroom of Compassion all on your own.
McCurdy: That is correct. We bought a little two bedroom house in Sacramento and we turned it into a studio and that’s where we recorded it.
Guitar.com: I was also told that this album was recorded on 100 percent solar power. Were there any complications?
McCurdy: That’s true. There were no complications at all, we never get blackouts or anything like that. Its pretty great.
Guitar.com: When you write the guitar parts for the songs, do you write them on an acoustic and then adapt them to electric?
McCurdy: Sometimes, the parts I do are mainly done all on electric. John, our singer, plays guitar and sometimes he writes guitar parts on his Godin Guitar from the 60s. I mostly just play electric but it’s a hollowbody so there are some acoustic properties that come through.
Guitar.com: Showroom of Compassion debut at number one on the Billboard charts, did that surprise you at all?
McCurdy: Of course, it’s very un-Cake-like. It was very much a surprise. We’re very happy to have made that little slice of history. For at least 10 minuets we had the best selling album in America.
Guitar.com: How did you receive the news? Did you have a little celebration?
McCurdy: Not really, we were playing a gig in Atlanta. CAKE’s not a band to pat ourselves on the back very much. There wasn’t a lot of hoopala about that. But we had a bottle of Champaign after the show and we toasted to the album. We were very surprised and very lucky. It had been a long time since we put out our last record before this one and we thought that maybe people had forgotten about us. But quite the opposite happened.
Guitar.com: Attached to this interview will be a tab for “Sick of You”. Do you remember anything specific about writing or recording that song?
McCurdy: I remember I was up late at night after the rest of the band went home from recording. The rest of the guys in the band live around Sacramento but when I go there, I sleep in the studio. So after we’re done recording and working on songs for the day and everyone goes home, I stay and continue to work on them. I have that time to myself where I’m away from prying eyes or feeling like I’m wasting anyone’s time. I was just playing along to what we’d done that day and that when I came up with those guitar riffs.
Guitar.com: A friend of mine said something with regards to your guitar playing the other day. He said that you let the songs breath and allow the guitar parts to be brilliant without seeming self-indulgent.
McCurdy: That’s the trick with Cake is that there’s lots of parts. And it becomes tricky to find where to make your mark without stepping on anyone else’s feet. There are a lot of different melodies going on at the same time so you’ve got to make sure you’re in sync.
Guitar.com: Indeed, well I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I’ll see you next month on the road.
McCurdy:Thank you; looking forward to it.