By Christian Schaeffer
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By Joseph Hess
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A struggling musician is lucky to strike gold one time in the music industry, a place where there are multiple failures for every success story. However, David Lowery has been fortunate enough to experience the latter twice — first as a part of '80s underground alternative rockers Camper Van Beethoven, and then again in the '90s with his Americana-leaning alternative rock band, Cracker.
Before he was even out of high school, the 49-year-old singer-songwriter nabbed his own college radio show on KUOR (89.1 FM), a university-affiliated radio station in California. (Lowery went to the campus orientation meeting despite not being a student; the school never bothered to verify his enrollment status.) He would spend the early '80s playing music from the same bands (e.g., the Ramones, the Clash) that would later influence his own work with Camper Van Beethoven.
With Camper, Lowery churned out five albums in barely five years. These revealed his already well-developed, sarcastically dry wit — and an ability to write lyrics and riffs that burrowed deep into the subconscious. Perhaps the band's unique song titles had something to do with this: It's hard to forget phrases such as "The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon," "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" and, of course, "Take the Skinheads Bowling." By the time Camper Van Beethoven dissolved in 1990, while touring to support the critically acclaimed Key Lime Pie, Lowery was already looking ahead for a new project that would have fewer members (read: not as many cooks in the kitchen) and offer more creative control.
Enter Cracker, a straight-up rock & roll band. Formed in 1991 with guitarist Johnny Hickman, a Lowery childhood friend, the group has released ten studio albums. Three of its best-known radio hits — "Get Off This," "Low" and "Euro-Trash Girl" — came from 1994's Kerosene Hat, its best-selling album to date. In 2009, Cracker released Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, a raucous, loud and very welcome return to form that reaches back to Lowery's earliest, punk-leaning recordings. (Witness the glorious, 90-second blast "Hand Me My Inhaler.")
Sunrise proves that while the band has mellowed out a bit on its past few releases, it can still be blisteringly loud when it wants to be. The new year brings Lowery full-circle yet again: He's on the road with the semi-annual Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Traveling Apothecary Tour, a winter trek that will bring both bands to the Pageant this weekend.
Matt Wardlaw: It seems like you've been very fortunate that Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven have been touring consistently over the past few years.
David Lowery: Today that's kind of how a band makes money. There's not really CD sales or downloads, [because] they pay you pennies on what albums [formerly] paid you. I think there are a lot of bands that are out on the road now for that reason, but this is what we've done for a long time. Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven have always been about touring, going around the country. We're a very grass-roots, fan-oriented set of bands, and that's how we do things. It's not really any different than what we've been doing for 25 years.
[For] some bands in your league, though, it doesn't seem like there's as much demand for them to play shows. Meanwhile, it seems like there's consistent demand for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven to play.
The great story about Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven is not that we had hits in the '80s and '90s, it's that people still give a shit about us. People still come out to see us 25 years after we started, ya know?
Absolutely. The latest Cracker album [Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey] came out last year, and as I understand it, you guys worked on it for about a year in between tours.
The Cracker record came out in May, and we recorded it in 2008, mostly. We mixed some of it later. The cool thing about that record is that this record actually charted the highest out of anything we've put out in a while. "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me" got to No. 13 on the triple-A radio charts, and it's been a long time since Cracker has charted that high with anything. I think even the Billboard sales were pretty high. It's been a little boost for Cracker right now, and it's been helpful for raising our profile. We did a USO-type tour in the Middle East, and we were in Europe before that, so there's a lot of stuff going on in Cracker's world as a result of that record.
With the state of radio and the music business, do you feel like you have to reintroduce Cracker as a band when you put out a new album?
Yes and no. I really feel like we have a lot of loyal fans, and they're very good at introducing [us to] new people every year. To other people, yeah, I think there are a lot of people that know our songs but don't really know what we're about. They don't realize how diverse and eclectic both bands are and don't realize that they know a bunch of our songs. But yeah, sometimes — that's the whole point of why you have to keep putting out new records. Even if new records were free, as a band, you [still] have to put out new records. It's what you have to do — you have to make new music to be relevant. We're not like an oldies circuit band. There are plenty of bands that go out there and play their hits from the '80s and '90s, and we don't.
To contrast, what do you think about the bands who are saying they no longer want to record albums because the album is dead?
We'll see. I guess people that say the album is dead just want to release singles, and I guess you can do that. I just think it's better to put out a whole body of work — they used to do that back in the '60s, you know, bands did that. There's kind of a reason that we moved towards a band putting out a whole collection of songs. Maybe it doesn't have to be the twelve-song album, maybe it needs to be the four- or five-song vignette. Think about it from your perspective as a journalist — if artists are releasing singles every six months, you've suddenly got a lot more stuff to cover. I wonder how that works and what happens to your fans that you're just barraging. They like your band, but they also like fifteen other bands, and you continually barrage them with single after single, I think it gets a little bit exhausting for the listener. I may be wrong. We haven't gone that way yet, but I'm sure that we would. We'll let other people work that out first. We want to be groundbreaking musically; we're not necessarily trying to be groundbreaking in some sort of commercial-marketing way.
You did record the album with the same band that you're out on the road with. How did that change the process, since you and Johnny Hickman have usually been the core in the past?
In some ways, it went a lot faster, because there were more hands on deck. It's interesting, Johnny and I have done this process where I write songs differently, and he write songs differently, and then we get together, and also write songs together and teach them to the band. We use different people on different songs, and that's kind of the way we've done Cracker, because it manages the personal dynamics of the band better. We were both in bands that had, like, six people, before we were in Cracker, with a lot of people making decisions. So when we came to Cracker, we're like, "We're going to make all of the decisions and write the songs, and that's going to be it." So this is us sort of stepping away and going, "OK, Frank [Funaro, drummer], Sal [Maida, bassist], me, Johnny, we're going to be the band, and we're going to write this record together." That's what we did, so it was a little bit different.