Being the lone trumpet player in an alt-rock band seems to be a willful act of irony. Sure, the Rolling Stones often tour with a horn section, but Cake is about as far from cocky blues-rock as you can get. Guitarist Xan McCurdy refuses to use reverb; drummer Paulo Baldi’s kit attack is as arid as Death Valley; bassist Gabe Nelson plods along like a sure-footed dinosaur; and frontman John McCrea’s voice can best be described as a vivacious bari-monotone.
Talking via phone with Vince DiFiore, who has blown trumpet for the band since its inception in 1991, even he seemed unsure at first how a quirky style could result in radio-friendly hits. “It was a bit of a high-wire act initially,” he admits. “Whenever I stepped up to play the trumpet, I felt odd, out of place. It took some time to get used to. I’m confident that I’m a really solid part of the band now.”
Who can forget the fluttering trumpet line in “The Distance,” a song that defined the year 1996? Or DiFiore’s suave interplay with the guitar in “Frank Sinatra?” More recently, Cake released instant-classic, return-to-form Showroom of Compassion. DiFiore’s mastery marks every song, particularly on “Sick of You,” a darkly clever song about U.S. imperialism that boasts an elegant trumpet part.
But DiFiore doesn’t necessarily bear the burden of writing his own arrangements. “John [McCrea] writes horn parts, and if there’s a solo spot then I’ll come up with a second part to continue the trumpet’s role in the music,” he says. “I can get behind a part more confidently if someone else writes it, and I tend to trust my band’s judgment more than my own.”
As you might gather, Cake takes its music seriously despite cultivating a geek-rock image. “It’s a major debate at this moment in our nation’s history, whether to fund bombs or schools. But here we are tackling a weighty issue in a pop song [‘Federal Funding’].”
If there’s an issue that’s weighed heavily on the band, it’s music piracy. It explains why Showroom of Compassion, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200, was self-released on Cake’s own label, Upbeat Records. “That’s why it took so long for an album to come out,” he says. “Our momentum flagged because of it. But you have to put it in perspective; artists have only made money off studio albums for a few decades. We were lucky to get into the recording industry when we did and gained enough listeners to keep this going.”