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Solar Panels, Songwriting and Too Big to Fail With Cake's John McCrea

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John McCrea of the band Cake writes songs about small things that would otherwise seem borderline meaningless.

He doesn't need to fall in and out of love to write a song about a girl. He just needs to hone in on a short skirt and a long jacket. The poetry gets assembled atop that simple foundation.

I've always been fascinated by Cake's lyrics, which is why I enjoyed chatting with McCrea over the phone last week. Our conversation touched on everything from solar panels and government regulation to, of course, his songwriting process.

You can read the full, unedited version here, or the abridged version below.

I read recently that you guys built a solar-powered studio.

Yeah, we've been wanting to do it for a long time, but were always too busy touring. We were never home long enough to do the things we'd intended to do. Extricating ourselves from our label deal, we found ourselves sort of off deadline. We were able to create our own schedule. Without having to deliver an album anytime soon, we were able to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

You recorded your latest album, Showroom of Compassion, in that studio. What did the conversion process entail?

We rehabbed our entire studio. Included in that was switching over to solar. We had just gotten back from Germany. Whenever we go there, it's always cloudy or rainy. It's not particularly sunny, and yet we read that they're the number-one producer in the world of solar electricity.

It sort of shamed us as Californians into taking action and getting ourselves off the old infrastructure and onto the new.

Was it an easy modification?

It's not that complicated, and now with the recession, it's actually really cheap compared to how it was a few years ago when the economy was alive. The price of panels has dropped 40 or 50 percent. It's partially a result of China's commitment to the production of panels. It's created more supply than demand. It's actually a really good moment to make the move.

There are also programs that give you the money up front and then lock you in at a lower energy payment. So even somebody who's not well-to-do could go ahead and do the right thing. And we all know the price of electricity is going to go up in the future; not down. I think it's a fairly smart move. It seems to me like it's a pretty good time to opt out.

Is there a political element to this situation?

Regulation seems to be a big boogeyman with a lot of people saying that you shouldn't regulate markets and you should let everything be free. I think a lot of people are waking up to the fact that regulation can be good. I think the little guy is still very vulnerable. And we still haven't tackled the too-big-to-fail issue with banks.

Shall we attempt to tackle it in this interview?

It's just really difficult for politicians to do the right thing. There's so much influence in Washington from Wall Street. It's always been this way. Without fundamental campaign finance reform, our lawmakers are not really going to be working for us. They're going to be working for money.

There is a fix, but it's not a very positive one. I don't like the idea of having to pay for politicians' elections, but it seems to be that publically financed elections might save us billions of dollars when you see the kind of money that politicians have to spend once they get into office, once they have to pay off their debts.

I'm certainly not under any illusions that I'm a politician or a businessman, but there are some basic things that are wrong with the structure of our system. There are ways that it seems very rigged. And when it's that way, it makes it very hard for everybody to believe in the dream, so it might be worth a little bit of energy.

Can you explain your songwriting process?

I just write songs all the time. I have a notepad in my back pocket right now, and a pen. I just take notes and when sentence fragments come into my head, I write them down. Later, I'll sort of expand upon them, maybe with an acoustic guitar or piano or bass. I'll sort of work things out and eventually I'll get something that doesn't suck and I'll bring it to the band.

We'll flesh out an arrangement. Sometimes it happens instantaneously and sometimes it takes years. We don't rush the process.

It took us about two-and-a-half years to write and record our last album, Showroom of Compassion, which we recorded in our solar-powered studio. We produce ourselves, so sometimes there are disagreements, so we just have to leave a song and move on to something else. We like that process because we're all really invested into it. It's not just some guy flying up from Hollywood to manufacture an album. It's very organic and tedious.

Read the full interview on Patch.

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