It’s been over two decades since guitarist and songwriter David Lowery first gained notoriety in underground rock circles as the frontman for California slackers Camper Van Beethoven. Critics’ darlings and cult phenoms (back when that truly meant something) for their faux-world beat punk rave-ups and granola-skewering absurdist rants, that brainy, unpredictable group of merry pranksters virtually defined North American psychedelic music in an era when such things simply could not have been less fashionable.
CVB —along with fellow foot soldiers like The Replacements, R.E.M., The Minutemen, Swimming Pool Q’s, Pylon and others— literally carved what is now known as the “college rock” circuit out of a maze of community centers, rec rooms, pizza parlors and dive bars. By the time that band split up in 1990 amid bickering, lackluster promotion and a creeping malaise, “alternative rock” was big business, and they had risen from pressing their own albums on the tiny indie label Pitch-A-Tent to signing with the massive Virgin Records, gaining no small amount of MTV exposure through videos for off-kilter singles like “Eye of Fatima, pt.1” and their faithful cover of the Status Quo nugget “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”
Not long after Camper disbanded, Virgin exercised their option on Lowery, keeping him on while severing ties with the rest of the CVB family, many of whom continued (in an even headier and less commercial direction) as Monks of Doom. Lowery reconnected with old friend and bandmate Johnny Hickman, and together they formed the songwriting duo known as Cracker — a leaner, meaner, more rootsy, classic-rock group (which still boasts a healthy dose of the Pink Floyd-ian drone and pomp of Camper, but adds a side of Led Zep blooze bombast).
Over the years, they’ve gone through several rhythm sections, but for some time now, the band (on record and on the road) has included CVB bassist Victor Krummenacher, former Del Lords drummer Frank Funaro, and veteran journeyman keyboardist Kenny Margolis. Together, this is perhaps the most versatile and dynamic version of the band yet, and the familiarity and musical telepathy they share is evident on their just-released indie CD Greenland, the band’s first all-new collection of studio material in almost half a decade.
This comes hot on the heels of Greatest Hits Redux, a meticulously re-recorded anthology of the band’s singles and fan favorites, newly cut (with this lineup) and —in true Lowery/Hickman/CVB spirit— released independently on the very same day as Virgin’s own “best of” compilation, an album devised without input from the band, and which they saw as superfluous and ill-conceived.
It’s that sort of headstrong, nose-thumbing approach that many folks both admire and adore about Lowery and his associates — and that shines through in Cracker’s lyrical bent and delivery.
Thursday, June 22, local fans will have a rare opportunity to catch these sardonic rock legends up close when they play an intimate show in the Grand Ballroom of American Legion Post #135 on the Southern end of Forsyth Park (an event co-sponsored by Connect Savannah). The mere fact that a band of their stature would appear at a 275-seat Legion Post on an international tour that finds them playing major outdoor festivals and 1,000-seat venues is a testament to how deeply their DIY roots run.
As an avowed fan who’s followed the band faithfully since catching their official debut at Austin’s South By Southwest Festival, it was a treat for me to speak to Lowery about the evolution of this group, his days in the trenches at the forefront of the indie-rock revolution, and the fervent and loyal fans his group attracts. Here are highlights.
Connect Savannah: You and your dad used to hang a lot at a Legion post near your house, and now you’re playing one here.
David Lowery: My dad’s a veteran. He joined the Army Air Corps. I’ve spent a lot of time drinking in American Legion Post... I think it’s 106. I know Camper played a VFW Hall or Legion Post in Fresno or Clovis, Ca. with a bunch of SST bands years ago, and we played another one recently in Bismarck, N.D., but membership had gotten really low, and so the downstairs was just some regular bar, and the Legion used the upstairs for their post.
Connect Savannah: Does it feel strange at all to be pushing a new album on a long tour?
David Lowery: It’s actually kind of comforting. We did some strange, specialized projects in the last couple years, like the country covers album and the record we did with Leftover Salmon, and of course the CVB reunion record which was fun. So, this is not that different, but it is nice to be back with Cracker and playing a whole buncha dates at once. When we don’t have a record out, we still play almost every weekend, but now we’re doing the whole country and then Europe as well.
Connect Savannah: How’s Europe for you?
David Lowery: It varies from territory to territory. When we go to London, we always sell out multiple nights at The Borderline. In Glasgow, they absolutely love us, and I don’t know what the fuck is up with that! (Laughs) It’s pretty cool, though. We really haven’t toured extensively there, but now we’re on (overseas label) Cooking Vinyl, so things are better. It’s not like you’d see us on the cover of NME or Q or anything. We’re not trendy over there, but we do have a strong following. It’s weird, but our biggest territory in the world (per capita wise), is actually Spain. Go figure! (Laughs) Last time we played in Majorca it was for, like, 5,000 people. I’m at a loss.
Connect Savannah: Why would that be?
David Lowery: Well, we get our due in the press over there as being one of the pioneers of indie-rock, I guess, as well as alternative rock. We also were involved in the whole “alternative country” thing way before most anybody else was really doing it. Over here, we don’t necessarily get credit for that. It wasn’t until last year I think that No Depression wrote an article about Cracker and Camper Van.
Connect Savannah: Did you feel vindicated, or was it just bemusing?
David Lowery: Well, it was a nice, long article, but kind of bemusing in a way. Actually, I really like No Depression because I think the editor or publisher or whatever just made a magazine about what he was into, and there’s very few of those out there anymore. That’s a great mag to be in. That said, Cracker isn’t really strict about playing any of that stuff. We see ourselves as just a rock band in the tradition of The Rolling Stones or maybe The Kinks, you know? I don’t think —especially with this record Greenland— we’re that different from a lot of CMJ-type bands are doing right now. It’s funny that a lot of critics are calling this our “indie-rock record” now. (Laughs)
Connect Savannah: That’s bizarre, and overly obvious. (Laughs)
David Lowery: Yeah. It’s funny that we’d be considered that, as well as somebody like Death Cab For Cutie. I’m just trying to think of an “indie-rock” band that’s actually major label. There’s a bunch of ‘em. See, when we first started in Camper, to be an indie-rock band meant you weren’t punk rock and you weren’t mainstream rock. That’s all it meant! You were just independent rock. The Meat Puppets, The Minutemen, HÜsker DÜ —‘cause to a certain extent they dumped their punk thing for a more generalized rock sound with Zen Arcade— we were lumped into that along with Sonic Youth, The Feelies and a bunch of other good bands. It wasn’t art music. It was rock, and it was supposed to be palatable, though not unchallenging. More accessible. Not experimental. It was drawing upon the traditions of rock. And I mean, these are conversations I had with Curt Kirkwood, with d. boon, you know, with Bob Mould back in ‘85. I know what they were thinking. (Laughs) I was there, and that’s what we all were talking about. Punk was dead and we felt we had to make our own style of rock for ourselves.
Connect Savannah: Are you at all surprised by how devoted Cracker’s following is?
David Lowery: Not really. See, we tend to play with a lot of those bands that don’t quite fit in categories. Like Lucero, or the Drive-By Truckers, or The Grateful Dead — people forget we played with them. We tend to be in that circle. I’m working now with Jason Molina who records under different names like Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Music Company. He doesn’t fit in, either. Punk bands open for us, but we’ve opened some shows for Lynyrd Skynyrd! It’s sort of nutty how we jump around as a band. But, I think we accurately reflect the majority of people’s record collections. How eclectic they truly are. And what any musician’s record collection looks like. And what any musician who’s just sitting around playing guitar with his friends will try to cover! We have that kind of range.
Cracker plays American Legion Post #135 (1108 Bull St.) Thursday, June 22 at 9 pm. Doors open at 8 pm. There is no opening band. $20 cash Advance Tickets sold at Primary Art Supply, Angel’s BBQ, Silly Mad CDs, Annie’s Guitars & Drums and Marigold Beauty Concepts, or charged online at www.tinyteamconcerts.info. Any remaining tickets will be sold at the door for $23 cash. 21+ only, proper ID required. Net bar proceeds benefit local charities.