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interview: Hanging Out With Cake

The Tech Talks With Trumpet Player Vince DiFouri

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The May 5 Arts section interview with Cake trumpet player Vince DiFouri included incorrect information about the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The DMCA does not forbid the recording of covers of existing songs.

By Benjamin Gleitzman

Cake, formed in Sacramento, California in 1991, blends witty lyrics and distorted guitars with syncopation and brassy trumpet licks. This weekend The Tech sat down with Vince DiFiore, the modestly dressed trumpet player, keyboardist, and harmony vocalist who provides the classic trumpet solos that have come to personify the Cake sound. (Look for The Tech’s review of the Cake concert next week!) We talked about life on the road, touring abroad, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

TT: Between Atari, classic Nintendo, Xbox, or Frisbee, what’s your pick?

DiFouri: Frisbee, definitely. I missed most of the video generation. My first game was Pong in junior high school and it was sort of like a first love. All the other video games seem pretty cool to me but there’s a lot going on in them and it makes me feel sort of nauseous [sic]. I’ve seen some of those games and I appreciate the technology of them, but I really got my nut with Pong.

You can’t beat Frisbee because you can use a yogurt lid. I’ve played Frisbee very effectively on a tour bus before with a yogurt lid.

TT: How do you tour? What’s your favorite mode of transport?

DiFouri: We’ve been taking a lot of plane trips recently. The tour bus is nice but it’s a little bit like living in a bowling alley. You’ve always got your bunk; you’ve always got your space. There’s a microwave oven if you feel creative.

TT: A few years ago your song “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” was featured in a clever Snapple ad. How do you decide who to license your music to?

DiFouri: The Snapple ad was actually unauthorized. They used that song and it was not even us. They made it to sound just like us.

TT: How do you feel about that?

DiFouri: Well, it is stealing. They shouldn’t have done that. Maybe it was good publicity for us anyways.

TT: I know you like to cover songs such as “I Will Survive” by Aretha Franklin and Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” How do you feel about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [which makes it illegal to cover songs by certain artists, such as the Beatles]?

DiFouri: It’s always a compliment to a band when you cover their songs. The one Beatles song that we’ve done is “And Your Bird Can Sing.” We didn’t record it or anything but we practiced it. It was something we did before “Pressure Chief” as a way of getting our chops together and suggesting certain styles of playing.

There was an ethic [for cover songs] that was created. For rock bands you were supposed to be saying something original and I think it started with Bob Dylan. He was saying something that was revolutionary and eye-opening. People expect that from musicians; that they’re going to say something new and open a can of worms. I think it’s sort of unreasonable to expect that sometimes. In more sane traditions like country and western, you have covers. Like Frank Sinatra — his whole career was covering songs. He’s one of the most notable music acts ever. Elvis Presley sang a lot of cover songs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

TT: What’s more important to Cake, the lyrics or the sound?

DiFouri: It all starts from the lyrics. What the sound does is support the lyrics. It gives the people something to dance to so that they have the patience to listen to the lyrics.

TT: Do you think people listen to the lyrics anymore?

DiFouri: On the records they do. That’s one thing that this band is based on — the ridiculousness of going to live shows and not hearing any of the words. We try to make the arrangements such that the words can be picked out like a hot potato of sound where everybody takes a turn doing something. When the vocals are going, that’s central, and it’s not about the surge of guitar supporting the vocals because all that does is squash it.

TT: You recently toured Spain and Japan. How do you develop fans abroad?

DiFouri: It’s a great process. We’ve been lucky because we’ve had the support of a major label. The song gets out there on the radio so people know about us. They listen to the album. We go to countries where English is not the main language and they’re singing all the lyrics to the songs.

People in France sometimes understand the lyrics more than people do in the United States. They understand the humorous angle a little bit more exactly as it was meant to be. The same goes for Japan. We went to Jakarta and people were singing along in English.

TT: Is it true that you don’t use set lists?

DiFouri: We don’t use set lists. We play the songs that come over well live. We have a big set of songs in our head that we know we can play.

TT: What is your favorite song live?

DiFouri: My favorite song is probably “Frank Sinatra,” which we play almost every time. It always goes over well with the audience. “The Distance” is a lot of fun to play.

TT: Does it ever get old playing these songs?

DiFouri: I recently went to this concert, a guy called Ramadas, and he does music called Kirtan with very repetitive chanting. I went with my wife and we’re sitting in there and it’s just the same words over and over. At first I was really bored and then you get into it and even though it’s the same thing over and over again it just gets deeper and deeper every time. So that’s what it’s like performing these songs live. You know them like the back of your hand but you try to get inside of it even more and be more comfortable playing it. Put a little more force into it without distorting it.

TT: What was the inspiration to use the vibraslap? Why is that in so many songs?

DiFouri: It’s descended from the jawbone of a large mammal, like a yak. It’s evocative of the ’70s cop show sound. It’s a little suspenseful and it packs a lot of punch for [the] small instrument that it is. It evokes a lot of action imagery.

TT: You met George Clinton [of Parliament Funkadelic] in Australia, how was that?

DiFouri: It was great. He was just backstage and seemed to be dealing with being on tour, basically. He didn’t bare his soul to us or anything. But we did get to meet him and he was totally mellow.

TT: What do you do to stay busy when you’re on the road?

DiFouri: We read. I sightsee. I probably sightsee more than anyone in the group. The rest of the guys I don’t really see that much. We really give ourselves space. We don’t hang out that much because we’ve been together for so long.

We recently did this Unlimited Sunshine Tour and we had a comedian on our bus. That was really good to break things up because he talked so much. Having this other guy take up all the sound space was nice.

TT: How often do you get noticed on the street?

DiFouri: I never do. John [McCrea] does because he looks like a rock star. When I’m with John I see he gets noticed, especially after a show.

TT: If you could play live with anyone who would it be?

DiFouri: We recently did an Unlimited Sunshine show with The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, De La Soul, and Kinky. If we could play with anybody it would probably be a tour with Jethro Tull or Elvis Costello.

TT: If you could play with any historical trumpet player who would it be? Who do you look to for inspiration?

DiFouri: I look to Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis. Lee Morgan is my favorite right now. He was in Dizzy Gillespie’s band and then went out on his own and made some really bluesy records. I listen to music that I aspire to play like. If I really want to be inspired by something it can be anywhere from Radiohead to a cheesy country song.

TT: What’s your favorite thing about rock and roll?

DiFouri: It didn’t blow out completely. It didn’t burn itself out and it still exists. It wasn’t something that was so out of control and got away from itself. [Rock and roll has] gone through different periods and people have accepted it as part of the life experience without it destroying the world. Well … it has destroyed some people’s lives, I guess, but that gets to the fact that it’s stayed around and proven itself as folk music instead of just the seeds of destruction.