DATE February 3, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robert O'Harrow Jr. discusses his book, "No Place to
Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
New digital technology is helping companies keep track of how you spend your
money, where you drive, what you read, what you eat. The revolution in
electronic data collection has made it easier for the US government to get
information about terrorists. It's also given the government the potential to
gather information on law-abiding citizens. My guest, Robert O'Harrow Jr., is
the author of the new book "No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our
Emerging Surveillance Society." It describes the new data and surveillance
technologies, the companies that are creating them and how these companies are
now working as private contractors on homeland security. He describes the
relationship between these data management companies and the government as the
security industrial complex. O'Harrow is a reporter for The Washington Post
and an associate of the Center of Investigative Reporting. I asked him to
describe the origins of this relationship between data companies and the
Mr. ROBERT O'HARROW Jr. (Author): After the attacks on 9/11, the government
was anxious to prevent any future attacks. At the time, we didn't know if
there was going to be follow-ups across the world or here in the States. And
so they reached out to these information companies that had grown quite
dramatically in the 1990s, and they said, `Can you help us? We need to find
people, we need to find folks who are related to the terrorists on those
planes, and we need to do it now.' And that began the marriage that I write
GROSS: Some of the information and technology that's being used for
intelligence gathering was developed for commercial marketing. And one
example is a system was devised by the company Axiom. And this is a system
called TeleSource that developed through telemarketing. Can you tell us about
the system and how it is used in telemarketing?
Mr. O'HARROW: Well, Axiom's one of the world's largest data managers, so they
get information and maintain it for many or most of the major banks,
retailers. They manage information for the credit bureau that we know as
Trans Union. Many people probably have heard of that. It's one of the large
three credit bureaus. And for years and years, they collected all sorts of
information about regular folks: the value of your house, the kind of car you
drive, the kind of job you have, your estimated income, the number of kids in
your house. They can tell what kind of magazines you read and sometimes where
you go on vacation or the books that you've bought over the phone or online.
One of the things that Axiom became very good at with some of its partners was
collecting not only regular listed phone numbers but unlisted phone numbers.
And they get those through, you know, a whole array of means, but one of them
is just getting them directly from individuals through surveys and warranty
cards and such. So they have one of the largest collections of listed and
unlisted phone systems in the world so that they can resell this information.
And that's what TeleSource does.
So I'll give you an example, Terry. You make a phone call to an (800) line
and you want to order a sweater. If you're ordering from a company that works
with Axiom, they can know, even before they answer your phone call, who's
calling and they can know information about you so that you fit into perhaps a
profitable profile, you have such-and-such kind of car, you drive a Mercedes
and all the rest. And so they can pitch this product to you in a way that's
different than they would pitch it to me. And all of it happens
instantaneously. And they use this sort of derived information, which they
sometimes themselves call intelligence, to target people that are going to be
GROSS: OK. And is this information being shared with intelligence agencies?
And if so, how are the intelligence agencies using it?
Mr. O'HARROW: Well, let's move away from Axiom because, of course, it's only
just one of many of these companies. The industry, in general, shares much of
the same information. And the way that they distinguish themselves in the
marketplace is that they provide special services. So there are some
companies, like Seisint, which is short for seismic intelligence, that focus
on law enforcement and fraud detection. And they'll have, say, 20 billion
records--that's billion with a B--about every adult in the United States or
virtually every adult. And their service is to law enforcement who says, `I
want to know about Terry Gross or Robert O'Harrow.' And they type your name
in and maybe your phone number or the license plate number on your car and up
will pop a dossier that includes lots of these identifying details or where
you live, the kinds of licenses you have, if you have a criminal record,
former roommates and all the rest.
And so the answer to your question is that not just with Axiom but with these
other companies as well, they're providing this information as contractors in
the war on terror to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as well
as the intelligence community.
GROSS: Are the information service corporations actually selling their data,
their portfolios of information on us to intelligence agencies? Or are they
just selling their systems that collect and analyze data?
Mr. O'HARROW: They're selling the information and they're selling more of it
than we can really imagine. And they're selling access to more of it than we
can imagine. But they're not just selling the information. More and more,
they're selling intelligence.
One of the companies that I've looked at named ChoicePoint, which is based
in the Atlanta suburbs, in effect, operates as a private intelligence service
for the government. Now what does that mean? It means that they're not just
providing mailing lists or lists of people or even just the dossiers but more
and more, they're providing the tools, these super-smart computer tools, the
software, that looks at all the information and finds the patterns and the
links among people in the way that an intelligence analyst would do, except it
might take a single intelligence analyst 10 years to find the same information
and the derived intelligence information that Choice Point can provide or
Seisint, for that matter, or Lexis/Nexis in maybe five minutes.
GROSS: It's hard to figure out whether this is reason to rejoice or to be
scared. You know...
Mr. O'HARROW: Well...
GROSS: ...the good part is that there's information that can help
intelligence agencies track terrorists or catch terrorists. That's good news.
On the other hand, there is a very big Big Brother factor here.
Mr. O'HARROW: Well, I think of it sort of this way. The first thought is
there's absolutely no way to deny the potential utility of all this
information. It makes the job of being a cop and an intelligence analyst and
the, you know, national security official much easier because you have more
information and more intelligence at your fingertips.
Here's the problem, and it's a big problem. In America, we have a real
tradition of wanting some space and some control over our own lives. This is
nothing new. This is what they said in The Federalist Papers. And Thomas
Jefferson was a big proponent, as everybody probably recalls. One of our
Supreme Court justices a hundred years ago referred to it as the right to be
left alone or the right to be let alone. It's something that's very important
to us. And what we're creating here is a system that enables both businesses
and government officials to look into our lives in a way that simply was
impossible a generation ago. And they're using it not just to sell us soap
and widgets and such, but to decide if we pose a risk or if we ought to be
talked to. And it becomes a very different thing when the government has
access to this.
Now there's another layer. If this were all happening in the government, we
might find that objectionable or not. But in any case, there are laws and
rules that guide how the government uses information. The government can't
create databases willy-nilly, it has to say what the reason is; it has to sort
of publicize this at some level, with of course restrictions on the
intelligence world. Well, guess what? The private sector is doing for the
government things the government can't do for itself. The government can't
maintain records on 215 million people and use them whenever it chooses, but
it can go to these companies and say, `We'd like your help.' And that's
what's happened since 9/11.
GROSS: So the government can basically overstep civil liberties restrictions
by just asking private corporations to do the work?
Mr. O'HARROW: There are those who argue that the government, by outsourcing
this work, is really sidestepping the spirit of rules that were put into place
30 years ago to limit what the government could do. I bet a lot of people
will recall hearing about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI's domestic surveillance.
The Army had a surveillance unit and intelligence work that was looking at
regular people--in many cases, moms and dads, religious people, certainly
folks in the civil rights movement--who were doing things that were perfectly
reasonable and now we find, in fact, quite laudable. They were speaking their
voice about women's rights, about civil rights. They were opposing the war.
And they were doing it in a way that was perfectly legal. And yet the
government was compiling files and, in some cases, actually using those files
to undermine people personally.
The laws that followed said you can't do that, you have to limit how we use
databases, you have to limit how you use computer systems. Well, those laws
don't really apply in the same way to the private companies. And so here we
have all this wonderful utility that could help protect us, and yet we're also
stepping into a world where there are suddenly huge gaps between our values,
the traditions that we have of autonomy and privacy, and these amazing uses
of information and technology.
GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow. His new book
is called "No Place to Hide." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert O'Harrow, and he is a
reporter for The Washington Post. And his new book is called "No Place to
Hide." And it's about the coming together of the government and intelligence
agencies with private corporations that collect data.
You know, we talked a little bit about some of the companies that collect data
on us. And in your book, you make it clear that a lot of transactions that we
just do every day allow companies to be collecting data on us: the use of ATM
cards, your E-ZPass. When you drive through a toll booth on the turnpike,
it's collecting information on you. Can you run through some of those and
what the implications are?
Mr. O'HARROW: Yes, I sort of think of us now as, like, comets, leaving behind
a long trail of data about our everyday lives. And this is really becoming
the stuff of what I think of as a surveillance society. And it's all very
mundane, but together, it can be very telling. So that when you use your ATM
card on the way to work, that says you were there and this is what you bought.
When you drive through the E-ZPass, it records, in exchange for the
convenience it's offering you, that you drove through there or that somebody
driving your car drove through at a particular time and place. If you sign on
at work to a particular Web site where you've sort of said, `This is me,' in
order to get special conveniences and services or news, it records that over
and over again in our lives. When we get prescription records, a lot of us
have drug cards. Well, that information is being sent to a pharmacy benefit
manager which records when you were there, the kind of drug you bought. It
measures it against other drugs that you've bought, and it knows what ailment
you have, in effect.
So let's see, some of the other lists: when you use your credit card, where
you go out to dinner, when you make a phone call for a book, if you want to
order over the telephone. If you order from a company like Amazon, all of
this is being recorded. And it's very banal, in many cases, and we certainly
get lots of conveniences and benefits out of it. What we don't generally
think of is how much information is being created about our lives. The people
that are thinking of it, of course, are the commercial services that are
finding ways to traffic in this detail, and the law enforcement folks which
are finding ways through the Patriot Act and other existing laws to sweep this
up when they think it's appropriate.
GROSS: Say you're a consumer who shops online, uses the E-ZPass, uses the
Money Access Card, credit card and all of that, but you're not doing
anything wrong, you're not a criminal, nobody's--the police aren't looking for
you, you're not a terrorist, might this collection of information hurt you in
any way, or are you pretty safe if you're not, you know, a criminal or a
Mr. O'HARROW: I think the benefits we get from these marvelous and
interesting advances is pretty clear. We like the conveniences. We love
them. We're, in many ways, addicted to them and the discounts we get using
our shopper card and so on. The problem here is when you take a system that
has exploded and become, in effect, the data revolution, and you put it into
the hands, not of marketers who are trying to pitch you a product, but into
the hands of law enforcement and intelligence folks whose only mission is to
stop terrorism, that becomes a problems, and here's why.
The information is filled with mistakes, OK? And you can only derive so much
information that's accurate even when the information, itself, is accurate.
There's limits, and yet they're really pushing on those limits. And that
means that more and more people are going to be questioned. They're going to
be, you know, detained. We've seen, for example, that there are plenty of
innocent people, liberals and conservatives alike, who are stopped at the
airports now and put through the wringer. And it's a scary thing to be
stopped and questioned and, in some cases, taken to a back room and treated as
though you may be a terrorist. That's going to happen more and more, and it's
going to be because of mistakes, and it's going to be because of mistaken uses
of all this information.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about biometrics, and this is digital
information that identifies our fingerprints and can match it with other
fingerprints. It identifies our eyes through imaging of the iris. What else
does biometrics do?
Mr. O'HARROW: Well, biometrics are the immutable characteristics in
somebody's body. So yes, the eyes are one, fingerprint. Voice is a biometric
that's being used more and more. There's a company on Long Island that sells
voice biometric analysis tools to everybody from call centers that you call to
order goods to, believe it or not, the IRS. And they think of it as a
customer service tool, so it can recognize who you are instantly, and they can
go back and review these recordings in a way, once again, they couldn't not
too long ago.
Biometrics are fascinating, because they're fast becoming a part of our lives,
and that's interesting, because, again, when we were children, Terry, the idea
of a fingerprint was something that you saw in a movie about the FBI or on the
most--you know, those `10 Most Wanted' posters that you saw at the post
office. There were a lot of people who would never ever think of giving a
fingerprint because of what it implied. Now we are quickly getting to the
point where we're going to have to share our fingerprints to get a passport.
A lot of people use fingerprints to get into their offices. Some of these
companies we're talking about are starting to create special services to
collect and maintain fingerprints. So it's really spreading, and then
biometrics are going to be the thing that we have to share to prove who we
claim to be.
GROSS: What's the best framework you've come up with or that you've heard for
figuring through how much information is worth giving up about ourselves with
all the implications of possible violations of civil liberties somewhere down
the line? How much of that is worth, you know, giving to the authorities in
return for more security from terrorism?
Mr. O'HARROW: Well, if I may correct you gently, it's not down the line. The
mistakes and the violations occurring now, the FBI arrested somebody in
Oregon, a lawyer who had become Muslim, because of a mistake over a
fingerprint. And people are being stopped and detained at airports mistakenly
left and right, and it's not a casual thing. I've talked to people who are
shaken by these detentions. So it's not a future thing. I can see the
problem becoming greater in the future.
Secondly, not to be coy, I'm not going to recommend framework, but I can say
something, I think, with absolute certainty, which is we have got to
understand the scope of the data revolution that's taking place and taking
place in the private sector, and we've got to have clearer reports from the
CIA, the FBI and the other branches of the governments on how they're using
this data revolution as a starting point, and that's going to take a long
time, because it's all happened so fast. The companies and the government
have not been as forthcoming as I'd like to see, and for different reasons.
And so before we can really come up with a framework, we've got to have a
clear understanding of just what's happening here. And it's the rare person
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. O'HARROW: Thank you.
GROSS: Robert O'Harrow is the author of the new book, "No Place to Hide."
He's a reporter for The Washington Post and an associate of the Center of
Investigative Reporting. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Music from the band Cake. Coming up, we meet John McCrea, the band's
singer, guitarist and songwriter.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: John McCrea of Cake discusses his music and career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
They've been called the current kings of bedpan rock, and although the band
Cake is best known for its well-written, ironic songs, they also do some
terrific ballads and covers. My guest, John McCrea, is Cake's lead singer and
songwriter and plays guitar, keyboard and percussion. Cake has been recording
since 1994. Their first album had a song called "How do You Afford Your Rock
& Roll Lifestyle?", which became a hit on college radio. Their second album,
"Fashion Nugget," went platinum. Yet they've preserved their idiosyncratic
sound and continue to live in Sacramento, California. Cake's latest album,
their fifth, is called "Pressure Chief." Here's a song from it, called
"Wheels," sung and co-written by my guest, John McCrea.
(Soundbite of "Wheels")
Mr. JOHN McCREA: (Singing) In a wooden boat in the shipping lanes with the
freighters towering over me, I can hear the jets flying overhead, making lines
across the darkening sky. And when the sun is going down, I can take a taxi
into town. And the waiter asks for us to run. Set the table just for one.
Wheels keep on spinning 'round, spinning 'round, spinning 'round. Wheels
keep on spinning 'round, spinning 'round and 'round.
OK. So I had a plane to...
GROSS: You've said that there were times when you've been afraid that people
would see your songs as a quick palate cleanser in between those real serious
songs of yearning and white male anger. Can you describe what the potential
problem is here?
Mr. McCREA: Well, for a lot of years--and I think it's just about to become
that way again, but for a lot of years radio was certainly, you know, kind of
like the oral equivalent of a really large SUV. In other words, it was sort
of a power trip, and the music that they played was all really big and
bold--kind of boldness and fat-sounding. And our music has always been more
economical and low to the ground--intentionally--not because we were weak but
because we favor that aesthetic. So we a lot of times felt like the court
jester coming in to dance around before the king, you know, in the
GROSS: One of the songs on your new CD, "Pressure Chief," is called "End of
the Movie." Do you want to describe what the song is about?
Mr. McCREA: Well, I think it's a song about accepting limitation and
accepting imperfection. And, you know, there's a freedom that comes with
accepting the triviality and uselessness that is life. You're sort of off the
hook in a lot of ways. And I don't it's necessarily depressing.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it. This is "End of the Movie," written and sung by
my guest, John McCrea, of the band Cake.
(Soundbite of "End of the Movie")
Mr. McCREA: (Singing) Two, three, four.
People you love will turn their backs on you. You'll lose your hair, your
teeth, your knife will fall out of its sheath. But you still don't like to
leave before the end of the movie.
People you hate will get their hooks into you. They'll pull you down. You'll
frown. They'll tie you and drag you through town. But you still don't like
to leave before the end of the movie. No, you still don't like to leave
before the end of the show.
GROSS: That's "End of the Movie" from Cake's new CD "Pressure Chief." And my
guest, John McCrea, is co-founder of the band and its lead songwriter and
singer. You know, I really do like your songwriting. I'm wondering if you
ever consciously sat down and studied other people's songs, or studied, you
know, the body of work of one songwriter to just see, `How does this work?
How do their songs work? How are they put together?'
Mr. McCREA: Yeah. Early on I was fascinated with Hank Williams Sr. songs,
not to be confused with Jr. And I think the almost skeletal simplicity of his
writing, I was just taken aback. I think this was around 18 or 19 years old.
And I went ahead and learned a lot of his songs and sort of felt empowered by
the simplicity of his songs, and I think discovered that it's easier to write
a complicated song than it is to write a very simple song.
GROSS: So you were studying songs like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"?
Mr. McCREA: Yeah. These songs are, you know, just incredibly archetypal,
and yet, you know, not really many people can write them, you know, well.
GROSS: Did you feel like you could sing that kind of material? That this
song was suited for who you are as a person and for your voice?
Mr. McCREA: Yeah. Certainly, I mean, I think it influenced me in terms of,
you know, the plaintive-voice tradition of blues and country. You know, Hank
Williams is always complaining about something in his songs. And, you know,
there's a howling quality to it that I, you know, quite like. So, you know,
and at the same time I was also very fascinated by the arranging of big band
music, especially Benny Goodman. And what I was mostly interested in that
music was--and of course, I couldn't play that on acoustic guitar--the
interaction between contrapuntal parts, where one instrument would be chugging
along in one direction, and another instrument would seemingly just come out
of nowhere and go in a different direction, and somehow it all worked together
like a clock, almost. And, you know, Benny Goodman did that especially well
in the 1940s. So this was sort of a very formative time, this sort of going
back and forth between Hank Williams Sr. and Benny Goodman. It was a great
thing for me to do, to just get out of the rock of my teen-age years.
GROSS: My guest is John McCrea, the lead singer and songwriter with the band
Cake. Their latest CD is called "Pressure Chief." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John McCrea. He's the lead singer and songwriter with the
band Cake. Their latest CD is called "Pressure Chief."
Now in addition to writing your own songs, you also occasionally do covers.
You've covered the Willie Nelson song "Sad Songs and Waltzes." On the new CD
you do the Bread song "The Guitar Man." I want to play what is probably
your most classic cover, which is "I Will Survive," the Gloria Gainem--Gaynor
anthem. And, you know, when she sings this--it's like black woman's anthem of
survival and self-empowerment. And when you sing it, you're singing it as,
you know--it's like, you know, a white guy who's been hurt and he's taken it.
I mean, he's coming--you know, he's getting through it.
Mr. McCREA: Yeah. Well...
GROSS: It has a different sound. You sing it completely differently.
Mr. McCREA: Yeah.
GROSS: It's arranged differently. Your phrasing is completely different than
Gloria Gaynor's. I really love your recording of it. Why did you decide to
do it in the first place?
Mr. McCREA: We did the song because, you know, we thought it was a good
song. And, you know, we don't really care much about genre. A lot of people
took the song to be sort of a joke, like we were saying, `Oh, isn't it funny
that, you know, disco sucks, but we're doing a disco song. Oh, ha-ha.' But
that was completely wrong. We really like the song. We like the notes in
the song. We like the words in the song. You know, the line, you know, `and
so you're back from outer space' I just think is really great. You know,
that's a funny line but there's a lot of really, really poignant, emotional
lines in the song, and the song is such an anthemic kind of song. You know,
it's been used for--you know, as a gay rights anthem. It's been used by jocks
in Europe as like a soccer anthem. It--obviously, black women and white women
alike have taken a lot of power from that song. You know, and I sang the song
from the point of view, obviously, of a white male. And thus, it's a lot
angrier and less, you know, perhaps, emotionally vulnerable. But I think the
same emotional vulnerability is in there somewhere.
GROSS: Well, time to hear it. So this is "I Will Survive," as sung by John
McCrea on the Cake album "Fashion Nugget."
(Soundbite of "I Will Survive")
Mr. McCREA: (Singing) Well, it took all the strength I had just not to fall
apart. I'm trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart. And I spent
oh-so-many nights just feeling sorry for myself. I used to cry. But now I
hold my head up high.
And if you see me with somebody new, I'm not that stupid, little person still
in love with you. And so you thought you'd just drop by and you expect me to
be free, but now I'm saving all my loving for someone who's loving me.
Oh, now go; walk out the door. Just turn around now; you're not welcome
anymore. Weren't you the one who tried to break me with goodbye? Did you
think I'd crumble? Did you think I'd lay down and die?
Oh, no, now I--I will survive. Yeah, as long as I know how to love I know
I'll be all right. I've got all my life to live; I've got all my love to
give. I will survive. I will survive. Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: That's my guest, John McCrea, singing "I Will Survive" from the Cake
CD "Fashion Nugget." And they have a new CD called "Pressure Chief."
What--when you started performing, how old were you?
Mr. McCREA: Well, I'd been playing music in my room and writing songs for a
long time, but I think the first time that I went out--oh God, I think it
would--had to have been--I don't think it was until I was about 25. But I
GROSS: That's old.
Mr. McCREA: ...Yeah, but I had been writing songs for, at that point, about
10 years or so. So I had...
GROSS: Isn't there--throughout those 10 years you weren't in a high school
band, you weren't playing, you weren't in a garage band, you weren't...
Mr. McCREA: I was in garage bands and then I would--they would kick me out.
GROSS: They'd kick you out? Why?
Mr. McCREA: Because I didn't play butt rock very well. I mean, basically...
Mr. McCREA: ...what was going on then was like, kind of like Camaro music or
something,you know, like sort of what's coming back right now in a sort of
self-conscious way. But, you know, sort of, you know, guitar rock, sort of
white-male-guitar-rock stuff, and I didn't do it that well. You know, that
was good, in retrospect, because of what it made me do was, you know, go back
to my room and write more songs. And during the period I wrote tons of songs.
I wrote probably, you know, three or four songs a week for years. So I--by
the time I started playing out, I had hundreds and hundreds of songs to choose
from. I still have hundreds of songs just in a backlog, which sometimes makes
GROSS: One of your first records to catch on was called "Rock & Roll
Lifestyle," and it's kind of about the poses that a lot of rock fans put on.
And I think it's more about rock fans than it is about rock musicians.
Mr. McCREA: Yeah.
GROSS: What--how old were you when you wrote this? And what was on your mind
when you were writing it?
Mr. McCREA: I had to have been maybe 24 or 25 when I wrote that. And...
GROSS: So shortly before you were performing.
Mr. McCREA: Yeah. Not to long before I started performing. And, you know,
I was partially just marveling at the incredible prosperity that would allow
the mercurially changing fashions of music, and how music just got discarded,
you know, every few months; consumed, discarded, consumed, discarded. And
just thinking about all of these leather jackets that were no longer in style,
that were just rotting in a landfill, you know. And all the cows whose skin,
you know, that were--you know, was being consumed so quickly, so desperately
almost. There was something desperate about that that I wanted to write
about. You know, I like the idea of things being out of style, believe it or
not, especially from an environmental perspective. I love the idea of things
being out of style.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Rock & Roll Lifestyle"? And this is from the
first Cake CD. Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Rock & Roll Lifestyle")
Mr. McCREA: (Singing) Well, your CD collection looks shiny and costly. How
much did you pay for your bad moto-goozie? And how much did you spend on your
black leather jacket? Is it you or your parents in this income tax bracket?
Now tickets to concerts and drinking at clubs, sometimes for music that you
haven't even heard of. And how much did you pay for your rock 'n' roll
T-shirt that proves you were there--that you heard of them first?
Now how do you afford your rock 'n' roll lifestyle? How do afford your rock
'n' roll lifestyle? How do you afford your rock 'n' roll lifestyle? Oh, tell
GROSS: That's "Rock & Roll Lifestyle," written and sung by my guest, John
McCrea. It's from the first Cake CD. And Cake has a new CD now, which is
called "Pressure Chief."
Now, you know, you do a lot of concerts. And what are some of your
impressions of the way fans react to you as a band? And what I'm thinking of
specifically is that I read in a concert review that at one concert somebody
threw a bottle at the band. And you got the guy who did it on stage and
started questioning him on stage and talking to him.
Mr. McCREA: You know, sometimes people forget that you're humans up there,
and they just want to connect with the center of the energy. And, you know,
if they throw something, maybe it touches it somehow. But I think sometimes
I'll--yeah, I think I did. I think I had a conversation with him on stage and
asked him why he felt it was necessary to throw the thing. And actually, you
know, when given the microphone, he became very sheepish and wasn't, you
know--I actually felt sorry for him and wasn't angry at him at all. So, you
know, I just think people get caught up in the moment. And you know, if
you're a good thrower, maybe that's the way you feel like you can participate
in the cultural event or ritual.
GROSS: That's a very interesting and, I must say, very generous way of
looking at it.
Mr. McCREA: Well, I honestly think that it's, in some ways, unfair to just
put all the focus on the performers. And sometimes, people just want to be
part of it somehow. And I think that's why, you know, sometimes people, you
know, in the '60s, would lift up their tops and show their boobies and stuff.
You know, I think that that's just like wanting to connect to the center of
the fire. And it's not--although it seems sort of silly in a lot of ways,
maybe it's not silly, because it's ritual, and somehow, people want to be part
of that ritual, and they want to be a part of that event. In some ways, you
know, it's actually really sick, but, you know, it's all we have, I think, as
GROSS: My guest is John McCrea, the lead singer and songwriter with the band
Cake. Their latest CD is called "Pressure Chief." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John McCrea, lead singer and songwriter with the band
Cake. Their latest CD is called "Pressure Chief." When we left off, we were
talking about what it's like to be on stage.
The microphone, the stage, that's the power spot, and some people thrive being
there, and other people find it very hard to go from backstage to on stage
Mr. McCREA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you know, without passing out, so...
Mr. McCREA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...where do--like, how do you like being in the power spot?
Mr. McCREA: Well, I like it, and I don't like it. I think it's really silly,
on one hand. And on the other hand, I think it's a, you know, fairly profound
place to be. But, you know, if you want to be in the middle of that fire, you
know, there's a price that you pay for that, and you--it uses you up. And so
I think that, you know, I couldn't say that I love it, but I could say that I
really am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be there. And sometimes
I love it for fleeting moments, but it's also, you know--I'm also juggling a
lot of things, and I really have to pay attention and do my job well in order
to deserve that job.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about the price you feel you pay for
being on stage and being in the center of the fire, as you put it?
Mr. McCREA: Well, I mean, you know, it goes from, you know, every day, you
know, a lot of really nothing time, like a lot of waiting around for things to
happen. And then suddenly, you're dancing in the middle of the fire. And
then afterwards, you go backstage and you listen to the sound of ice melting
in the cooler, and it's a very, very stark contrast. It's like when you're
trying to go to bed, somebody, your brother flicking the light switch on and
off. It's kind of violating in a lot of ways. It's not that either state of
being is wrong. It's just that when it goes back and forth so quickly, I
think it has certain sort of schizophrenic effects on the human psyche, you
And I'm playing different roles that are maybe sort of intense roles and going
back and forth between those roles. I think everyone can understand what
that's like, and everyone plays a lot of different roles in their lives from
mother to, you know, worker to sister, brother. And you sort of, hopefully,
seamlessly, you know, glide between all these different roles. And, you know,
those roles are less sort of contrasted, I think, from each other than
perhaps, you know, getting on a stage in front of 80,000 people and then going
and sitting in your bunk alone with your book. It's a very, very, you know,
very, very intense contrast.
GROSS: After your first record that went platinum, you had, like, a nervous
Mr. McCREA: Yeah.
GROSS: Or so I read. What was that moment like for you? Like, what are some
of the things that reached the state where you just had to stop?
Mr. McCREA: Yeah, well, it was--mostly, it was physical. I had been through,
I think, a lot of time zones in a very, very small amount of time. And
apparently, you can have exhaustion just from flying from, you know, New York
to Los Angeles. But I had been from New York to Los Angeles and back, you
know, a whole bunch of times. I'd been to Japan, Australia, Europe and back,
and back to the East Coast and West Coast all within a very small amount of
time. Plus, the band was arguing about things, and there was a lot of
seething sort of emotions. And I think I'd just been through a breakup, and
it was just a big mess, and I didn't have time to do anything or to clean up
And so I just kind of--I got into this state where I couldn't sleep, and there
was no dramatic point where I fell over on stage, but I was at a point where I
wasn't--I couldn't fall asleep, and I couldn't eat and, you know, I just felt
really messed up. And a lot of people said it was because I was using heroin,
which I find totally funny, because I'm very anti-heroin. But at any rate,
you know, it was something that I just needed a couple weeks off, and I was
But that's what happens, I think, with music, because, you know, it's so rare
that there is any, you know, success in music. And I think that the
imperative of the music business is to just put the pedal to the metal and
make--you know, fully capitalize on this fleeting opportunity. And, you know,
I didn't really know much about the music industry at that point. I know a
lot more now. And as much as I understand the imperatives of this business, I
think, you know, there needs to be balance.
GROSS: Well, I have chose--I've been the one choosing all of the records so
far, so I'd like to end by asking you to choose one of your favorite tracks
from the new CD "Pressure Chief."
Mr. McCREA: Well, I like the song "Take It All Away"...
GROSS: Me, too. OK, good.
Mr. McCREA: ...because it's sort of sad and also funny at the same time. And
I think what's important is that the fact that there's sadness and humor in
the same room doesn't necessarily mean that it's ironic. It's just that
they're sort of co-existing and getting along and, you know, drinking a beer
GROSS: Well, John McCrea, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.
Mr. McCREA: Thank you very much.
GROSS: John McCrea is the lead singer and songwriter of the band Cake. Their
latest CD is called "Pressure Chief."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Here's Cake's recording "Take It All Away."
(Soundbite of "Take It All Away")
CAKE: (Singing) Ahh. You keep pushing me away in spite of what you say. I
found out yesterday that I've been wasting all my time trying to make you
smile, trying to make this seem worthwhile. You've been pushing me around in
spite of what I do, trying to make things good for you. Take your economy car
and your suitcase, take your psycho little dolls, take it all away. You've
been racing through my mind. You're picking up in speed. You're driving
recklessly, like a car crash...
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