Out of Northern California’s flat, dry central valley, CAKE formed in the early nineties as a somewhat antagonistic answer to grunge, which members saw as just another form of big, dumb American rock. The band intentionally made their sound as small as possible, thumbing their collective musical noses at the very idea that in the USA something so incredibly wide-load and excessive could be perceived "alternative."
CAKE wondered, how could music that is the aural equivalent of Amazonian rainforest deforestation be in any way subversive? Weren't these really just the sounds of the strong overcoming the weak, Exxon overwhelming indigenous Columbians, or huge banks bribing our elected officials to rig our political system beyond all functionality? And weren't many of these supposedly groundbreaking bands just Rush or Ted Nugent in different clothing? And how could so much purported low self-esteem be broadcast so loudly, so proudly, from up on a stage no less, and with such strident rock pomp and ritual? Something just didn’t make sense.
So CAKE wanted to be dinky. Dubbed "one hit wonder" in response to every single album they have ever released, within this larger cultural context, their small sound was mostly just mistaken for weakness and their embracing of non-rock sonic elements was mostly mistaken for humor. Get it? It’s not powerful, surging, straining Anglo-rock, so it must be a joke. Luckily there were a few people who understood CAKE, and for the St. Louis Dispatch CAKE’s music was "an utterly fresh sound, especially given today's preponderance of overblown "alternative" bands." And the San Francisco Bay Guardian even noticed that “CAKE doesn’t ask you to suck it’s angst.” Somehow a copy of CAKE's first demo made it all the way to France, where it was understood and well-received – “The drug dealers do not thank CAKE,” astutely observed French music magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, So true.
CAKE thrived in the unglamorous central valley of northern California, an area where country meets mariachi meets post punk and classic rock, a place where Sly and the Family Stone played on the same AM radio stations as Credence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin and Chic. CAKE didn't choose sides, and felt mostly sorry for those who did. The idea of using genre as a badge seemed at its core wasteful. CAKE’s belief that “everything is useful, and no entire genre of music can be all bad” underpins their unusual sound, a sound that is hard to classify, yet somehow instantly familiar. When everything is useful, no entire genre of music can be wrong or right, and those who know who they are don't need to cling fearfully to just one thing, let alone to just one band.
As a result of this basically utilitarian approach, CAKE would eventually collaborate with not only the Brazilian cultural hero Tom Ze, but also with rapper Jay-Z. Legendary country music artist, Buck Owens, even allowed CAKE to be one of the only non-country artists to play at his Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, CA. Very early on, when CAKE opened for legendary minimalist songwriter, Jonathan Richman, Jonathan pulled CAKE singer John McCrea aside and asked him when was the last time he actually enjoyed listening to live music. McCrea responded that usually it was a bit of a chore, and that his ears couldn't actually decipher that much musical information because of the super powerful volume. That's because, according to Jonathan, sound systems often create a live music experience that is too loud, too precise, and not actually viscerally enjoyable. For many years CAKE baffled sound engineers by insisting that microphones be used on vocals only – no more amplified high hats and amplifiers. Audiences, however, would frequently remark that they could actually understand the words in the songs -- this only bolstered CAKE’s growing suspicion at the time that less is usually more.