photo by Bryan Sutter

AUCW 2011: Bo and the Locomotive… A Beginner’s Guide to CAKE

by Justin Price

MOTH continues it’s coverage of AUCW with a discussion of one of the most enigmatic bands in recent memory, CAKE. As a fan of their music, I always found the band to be a spiritual cousin to another that I view as one of my all-time favorites…Spoon. They share a quality of melodic elasticity, and a minimal, paired-down craft to the instrumentation that shape catchy, sharp-as-knives pop songs that many find oddly danceable. It’s the same blood I also feel coursing the veins of one of Saint Louis’ finest, Bo and the Locomotive. I find it highly ironic that they’re playing back-to-back nights with CAKE, with Bo’s set on Friday, and Cake playing the throwback line-up of Pointfest on Saturday. Either way, I’m happy that it reintroduced the band to my current listening rotation, and I’m happy to present my conversation with BATL namesake, Bo Bulwasky, and he even takes the time to make MOTH a mixtape for the novice CAKE fan. Don’t miss their set on Friday for An Under Cover Weekend, and head over to www.undercoverweekend.com for more details!

It blows my mind that CAKE have been around for 20 years. What was your introduction to the band?

My introduction was the radio. 105.7 the Point probably. It was also my good friend (and now BATL bass player) Andy and his older brother. We would listen to CAKE on the way home from school when Andy and I were in middle school… that was ’96/’97 right when Fashion Nugget came out, which is pretty much when everyone was introduced to them, as far as I know. But our interest in the band went a little further than most I suppose. I remember my mom taking Andy and I to see them at the American Theater for their Prolonging the Magic tour in ’98. That’s when I realized that A LOT of people knew their songs just as well as I did… kind of a revelation to learn it wasn’t just me and my friend.

Truthfully, I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Frank Sinatra”. Do you have a specific memory tied to one of their songs?

That’s awesome. Where were you?

I was at a stoplight at  Harvester Road and 94. My friend’s older sister had the record, it was actually raining that day, and I heard “Frank Sinatra” for the first time… It was absolutely fantastic.

I don’t know if I have a memory tied to a single song. It’s mostly just memories tied to when their albums came out. I do remember working out the harmonies to “Alpha Beta Parking Lot” in my room when I was like 13 though…

How do you feel your perception of their work has changed alongside, not only your progression into adulthood, but development as a songwriter?

I listened to a lot of Cake when I was a kid. As I got older I kind of grew out of them, even when I started writing songs at around 17 or 18 I didn’t return to them as an influence. It took me a while to appreciate them for their actual songwriting. They are always perceived as a schticky band, but so many of their songs are totally unique and very well-written. It gets overlooked because of this absurd quality to McCrea’s voice and subject matter. But I think their longevity can only be attributed to great songwriting. As of late, I have been rediscovering their catalog, learning all the parts (for AUCW) and now, more than ever, I listen to their music as a songwriter, and I’m just impressed. I can’t say that I am going to or want to start writing songs that sound like them, but I definitely want to write songs that are as good as theirs.

One parallel that I found between both bands is a mutual love for concise detail. There aren’t a million moving parts at play, but the individual elements in the songs are pronounced and undeniably memorable. It feels like you both take your time in writing, arranging, and snipping loose ends until the songs are at peak presentation quality. Was their a conscious decision on your part to build time into your songwriting process?

I’m not sure. Some of the songs from On My Way were written years ago and I’ve been playing them live for years and changing them slightly and perfecting them over time. But some of them were written in an afternoon, or an hour. Some of the simpler songs on the album, like “My Only Concern,” are the songs I have been toying with for years, structurally and lyrically. But then the songs people seem to like the most from the album are the ones I spat out in a single songwriting session. I can say that I am very conscious of not over-complicating songs, though. My favorite songs are simple and powerful… the songs that you love. Everyone has songs like that, and usually they’re the ones that get right to the point – not attempting to blow you away with a spectacle, they just grab you and hold on.

My apologies to all the good people at AUCW, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask a question about On My Way. I found it to be a staggeringly gorgeous, relaxed, and expansive work of striking depth. Since the record goes down easier than a 1811 Chateau d’Yquem, what did you find inherently difficult about the creation of the record, and how did you reconcile it?

Wow, thank you. Creating the record was really fun. I had all the songs done, and visions for how I wanted them to sound. My biggest difficulty was getting them to sound in the monitors the way they did in my head. In some cases I succeeded, and in others I failed. I recorded it myself at home using lots of borrowed recording equipment, which attributed to the relaxed feel of the recording process. I was able to wake up whenever, get out of bed, and go about my business at home. I could work all hours, on my own time, and take breaks whenever I wanted. That being said, I also treated it as if I was in a studio at the same time, and I worked as if I was trying to make a client happy. In the end there are always things you wish you’d done differently, but overall, I feel good about how it turned out.

After recording and releasing an LP, and investing so much time in creating original material, how does it feel to wrap your collective creative energy around this set for AUCW?

It’s quite different. I’ve only played like 3 covers in front of people in the whole time I’ve been playing shows. It’s good for us, though. It gets boring and monotonous to play the same songs and practice the same songs over and over for any band, no matter what the songs are. So it’s nice for us to be able to play, practice, and learn some new songs without the added pressure of them being originals. We haven’t had much time to work on new material for BATL lately, but I think when we start doing that again, after having dissected these Cake songs, will prove to be beneficial for the new material. It forces you to play outside your boundaries, [which is] always a good thing.

“A Beginner’s Guide to Cake”

“Frank Sinatra” Cake put it first on their album for a reason, it’s instantly weird and catchy and beautiful.

Stickshifts and Safetybelts” Classic Cake. Signature twangy guitar sound at the forefront. They are good a switching genres without you noticing.

“Mexico” Premium songwriting… and that trumpet. Let’s not forget to mention how crucial the trumpet parts are in the entire Cake catalog. [AGREED. JP]

“The Distance”/”Never There”/”I Will Survive” These are all grouped together because they’re the ones that everyone knows, and for a good reason. They’re timeless, and Cake conquers covers better than anyone out there.

“Pentagram” One of those songs that no one knows the meaning of, but it doesn’t matter. Super weird lyrics, shit-kicking guitar, off-kilter trumpet, organ, everything.

“Mr. Mastadon Farm” Strangely catchy. But a song actually worth thinking about and listening hard to.

“Sheep Go To Heaven “ Another classic Cake song, one of their shtickier songs, but you can’t help liking it.

“Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle” Simple and creative. Cake’s first radio hit. It’s an instant classic.

“Nugget”  McCrea lets the rage out a little bit. He even sounds pissed off  in the recording of this song, and it’s awesome.

“Haze of Love” Cake writes great love songs. This is one of my favorites.

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