He is the vocalist and primary lyricist for the band, in addition to playing rhythm acoustic guitar, vibraslap, and piano. He also programs drums and does mixing work while he and the rest of the band have produced all of their albums. Prior to Cake, McCrea spent most of the 1980s playing in various bands or performing solo.
His mid-1980s band John McCrea and the Roughousers recorded the songs "Love You Madly" and "Shadow Stabbing," which were later re-recorded by Cake (both featured on 2001"s Comfort Eagle).
This band included Michael Urbano (drums), Pete Costello (bass), and Robert Kuhlmann (guitar). In the late 1980s, McCrea moved to Los Angeles and began playing acoustically in local coffee shops.
His first solo release was a double-sided single on vinyl only called Rancho Seco. One side was electric and the other acoustic.
The LP was a protest song against the now-decommissioned nuclear power plant Rancho Seco built southeast of Sacramento.
McCrea"s voice has a very distinctive "rough-around-the-edges" quality, which is especially evident when he sings in the lower part of his vocal range. He is also known for half-singing, half-speaking lyrics in many of his songs, sometimes in a kind of energetic monotone, such as the hits "The Distance" and "Never There." He is also known for "back-singing" some of his lyrics as he does in Cake"s cover of Gloria Gaynor"s, "I Will Survive" from Fashion Nugget. McCrea also commonly sings with off-beat rhythms and emphasizes the consonants in words instead of the vowels.
The single "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," is a good example of this.
McCrea is a vocal activist for various causes, notably global warming and world poverty. He frequently uses the band"s website and concerts as a platform to increase awareness about these and other issues.
He has collaborated with Ben Folds, singing on the track "Fred Jones, Participant 2" from 2001"s Rockin" the Suburbs and performing the song live with Folds and on Folds" 2002 album Ben Folds Live. John McCrea contributed vocals to "The Headphonist," a track from Mexican rock band Kinky"s 2003 Atlas album.