Whether playing Camper Van Beethoven’s lysergic brand of cheerfully insane indie rock or prying Cracker’s bourbon-stained mother lode from roots rock, David Lowery has always been an American storyteller. Cracker was twice anthologized in 2006: Once by its former label, Virgin, in the form of Get On With It: The Best Of Cracker; and the other courtesy of the band itself, which re-recorded its songs for Greatest Hits Redux. Cracker also has a new studio album, Greenland (Cooking Vinyl), which weaves gritty blues, country folk and even Indian raga into its dusty, grand design. Corey duBrowa caught up with Lowery to get his take on the group’s warring best-ofs.
So how old are your kids now?
Almost four and almost seven.
They’re probably old enough to have sorted out what it means to have a working musician for a father.
Well, sort of. One guy was a friend of mine before I moved into this neighborhood—it’s a neighborhood in Richmond, Va., that’s pretty square, doctors, engineers, lawyers, people like that—this one neighbor across the street was an environmental lawyer. One day we were hanging out and one of my sons looks up at him and says, “Hey Mr. Raine, what song do you sing?”
And what was his answer?
He named a song from Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü—something to sing in the shower, but I can’t remember which one.
Not to insert the obvious lawyer joke, but that’s pretty damned cool, for an attorney, anyway.
[Laughs] Well, if you’re a hipster, eventually you have to get a job.
I’d like to get your take on the whole Virgin vs. Cracker greatest-hits fiasco. We’ve been having a debate here at the magazine about which best-ofs are truly the best, and which are dross.
Our original greatest-hits package was (2000’s) Garage d’Or. That fulfilled our contractual obligation (with Virgin). At that time, the guy who babysat us at Virgin was this great guy, who was like, “Let’s do two CDs! Let’s do some odds and sods!” So we did the greatest hits, put a couple new tracks on it so we’d have something to work to radio, and then we had a whole disc of b-sides, live tracks and oddities. It was cool. The packaging was nice, the photo was this throwaway thing that Danny Clinch did on the cover. It had a good vibe to it. Anyway, we found out through the grapevine that Virgin was going to put out another greatest-hits CD and DVD (titled Get On With It). So the first thing we tried to do was intercept the DVD footage before Virgin could get to it and buy the rights. [Laughs] But we were too late. Originally what happened, I think us and Virgin Records … [trails off] I mean, there can’t really be any personal animosity between a band and a corporation, especially a corporation that changes all of its key personnel every two years or so, right? So there’s no real animosity. When we found out they were putting out this greatest-hits record that we didn’t really want them to do… we first tried to reason with them. They said, “We can do whatever the fuck we want” to one of our managers. He’s not really the kind of guy you say that to. He’s been a promoter for many years, and those guys are all like being one step away from the mob, basically. And also he’s Southern, and felt like they were treating him like he was out on the porch in his overalls, drinking moonshine and playing a banjo. Anyway, he got it stuck in his craw, so to speak, and really wanted to fuck with them. Oh, and they wanted to put it out a month ahead of our new record, Greenland, so our release schedule was screwed, and we were kind of bummed about that. So he essentially put the whole thing into a question that has long been a Camper and Cracker tradition: “What would Andy Kaufman do?” [Laughs] So, that’s essentially what we’ve been doing with Virgin for the past year. Now we’re on another label—an English one we like a lot—so it’s as if we created this Andy Kaufman the wrestler versus …
Jerry Lawler, his supposed foe?
Exactly, Jerry Lawler. The great thing about that whole thing is that they secretly conspired on all of it, you know? Except that no one at Virgin was quick enough to realize that this could be a lot of fun.
So rather than an absurd battle that no one would ever figure out was scripted or not, it became a mud-wrestling match with you guys flying the middle finger loudly and often at Virgin.
We put a new song on [Greatest Hits Redux], and our thing became more forward-looking than backward-looking, which is what your fans want to see. And we just piggybacked on all their promotion for free. We actually decided that our goal was to get a cease-and-desist letter from Virgin—we got it! We almost put it up on the Web site but our lawyers counseled us against doing that. [Affects Andy Griffith-like Southern accent]: “As your lawyah, I’d suggest you don’t do that.” So anyway, we made some money from doing it and subsequently sold the whole concept to our English record label, who loved it, of course. And we outsold Virgin’s version 10 to one. I feel funny talking about the next part of this, because when you’re a musician in a band, if you get dumped on by the record label or ripped off by the record label, the only response you can generate is something like, “Oh, you poor artist.” If you actually manipulate the system to your advantage, you’re seen as being conniving and somehow false. And fake. Which gives me some insight into what it must be like to be a woman, really. If you put out, then you’re quickly labeled a “whore.” And if you don’t, you’re “frigid.” Jeez, that’s a great analogy, isn’t it? So the real part about this whole thing that’s interesting is that we’re now close to recouping all of our publishing deal for our biggest hits, our old catalog. And now that we’ve re-recorded the songs, the next time someone comes to us with some big offer—Toyota wants to license “Low” or something like that—all the money comes to us. Which is kind of amazing, because most bands never get out of that fake record-company debt. It’s like shares in a dot-com or something. Enron stock.
It lives on into perpetuity, or until Ken Lay dies. Whichever comes first.
Yeah, you know, it makes you wonder whether he really died. It’s like a William Casey thing.
Although the black-helicopter crowd seems to think he offed himself almost entirely for arcane legal purposes. There’s no one left to prosecute and his sentence hadn’t been handed down, so his heirs may not have to pay whatever fines he had coming. It’s genius, really, when you think about it.
Right, right. And William Casey, the former CIA director who supposedly masterminded the whole Iran-Contra thing, supposedly couldn’t testify during the trial because of a brain tumor, which always struck me as pretty suspicious, you know? So it’s fun to look at all the conspiracy theories out there on the Internet now about the Bush family and their illuminati-like behavior. As days go by, the conspiracy theorists look more and more sensible to me. Like journalists!
Meanwhile, the paid media in the U.S. have given the current administration such a free pass they’re starting to resemble Pravda, the government’s paid propaganda arm.
When Bush’s inaugural speech came out, The Onion’s headline was “America: Your Long Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over.” [Laughs] How could they nail that better than any journalist out there?
Which is a good segue to the next question: It’s interesting that Camper Van Beethoven came back “organically” a few years ago with New Roman Times. That album’s absurdist, pseudo-anarchist viewpoint seems more on point now than it did back in the ’80s when you guys were first doing it. The Pixies came back for dough; you guys seem to have regenerated for the sole purpose of telling everyone, again, how fucked up we are.
Well, that’s totally true. We fed off of having a bunch of political stuff in our songs as not really the actual subject of the songs, but rather the setting into which the songs were placed. And we got back together, and lo and behold, our natural setting reappeared. As we got into it, New Roman Times—those songs in 2002, it ended up being a little bit like The Onion, you know? We imagined this world where Texas had seceded, formed its own country. It’s the Christian Fundamentalist’s Republic of Texas, which is very large. It goes from Veracruz to Edmonton, Canada, and includes a lot of those grape Kool-Aid drinkers in the Midwest. And they invade the Secular Republic of California, and space aliens are involved, because you can’t really make a record without space aliens. And hallucinogenic drugs, which are brought in by the space aliens and traded for weapons by Los Tigres del Norte. But then we got afraid since they’re an adjunct to a real drug gang, and we thought if we mentioned their name in the song, we might get killed. So we changed them to Los Tigres Traficantes, because we actually thought we would be killed. Humor can be a very dangerous thing. Like using irony in America. My English aunt said that’s the most dangerous thing we do. Not driving around while drinking, not taking drugs, but using irony in America.
She might actually be more right than she knows.
Anyway, that’s cool that we did that record, and it’s reinvigorated a lot of things. And it’s led to quite a bit of cross-pollination between the two bands, Camper and Cracker.
So maybe we should look for an album by Cracker Van Beethoven, then? Looking back on 20-plus years’ worth of your music, it doesn’t seem that the two bands are actually all that different. Both have an affection for classic rock but filter it in different, weird ways.
You know what it is? The methodology is actually the same between the bands, to take a little of this kind of music and a little of that kind of music and blend it in with rock. Two or three elements plus rock. Or different periods of rock blended together. Johnny (Hickman’s) and my songwriting strengths come from Americana, folk music and country music, as well as a different period of classic rock than Camper draws upon. And we overlap somewhere around psychedelia feeding into blues rock and prog rock. And we overlap in some elements of country. But they’re distinct things. Secondly, Camper does more of the tradition of “majesty of rock”/prog-rock bands, where there’s singing, but it’s not going on all the time. And there’s three elements: singing, instrumental passages, but also countermelody that goes along with the singing, all the time, and pretty heavily. Whereas Cracker uses the “two” form—the third order of infinity, or something like that. Aleph two, Aleph being the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I was a mathematician; sorry, I talk fast.
I’m sort of following you. Plus, I get to transcribe all of this later, so I’m sure I’ll catch up sometime. Maybe a few days from now, anyway.
[Laughs] Cracker has been rightly categorized as simpler; not that there’s anything wrong with that. Aleph “one” might be the model of the Rolling Stones as opposed to the Beatles, if you want to break it down to competing bands of the ’60s. Basically, Mick sang, and then Keith played something on his guitar; it’s sort of back and forth on those two different things. That’s the model Cracker uses more, and I’m not ashamed, it’s good. It’s the dialogue between the guitarist and singer, the faux-redneck and the real redneck. The wannabe and the guy who has the more authentic claim on the title. [Laughs] Johnny went to Bakersfield and played country music; Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics, and Keith played guitar and took drugs. You know, there you go. I’m the inauthentic part of Cracker, Johnny’s where the authenticity is.
That’s certainly the most detailed explanation I’ve ever heard of the differences between the bands. Frankly, my simple way of breaking it down over the years has been “Camper’s for taking drugs, and Cracker’s a drinking person’s band.”
Um, that’s entirely possible, it’s close to that. Cracker’s bar tabs are quite high; we’ve broken records at a number of the clubs we’ve played at. We’re actually kind of pissed because Drive-By Truckers fans have since toppled some of those, so we need to go back on the road and get back in the bars. Especially for someone who doesn’t drink. It’s like, “What’s the bar total tonight? Goddamnit, let’s fire everyone and break the Drive-By Truckers’ record!” Actually, Guided By Voices would be the all-time drinking favorite. I’m actually sitting next to someone who would know this very well. [Mumbled voices, off mic, between Lowery and woman at the bar with him.] The bartender here at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia, she’s saying that it’s Guided By Voices, Drive-By Truckers, and then us.
I guess that’s some pretty decent company.
Well, Camper’s crowd drinks, too, but there is a little more pot-smoking in that crowd. I’ll accept your theory, though.
Greenland seems like the place where the streams cross, finally. If Cracker is coming from a more primal, rock ’n’ roll place, then the song “Sidi Ifni” (an Eastern-sounding thrum that forms the centerpiece of the new record) is the place where Cracker meets Camper in the middle of the road and almost gets run over trying to shake hands.
That is exactly right. Robin Trower, oddly, crosses over into both camps. I know this seems totally absurd, but I do really like the record Bridge Of Sighs; it’s just a brilliant rock record. And Camper guys like that, too. If you were to ask [Camper guitarist] Greg Lisher, “What’s the best thing about that record?” he’d say, “The effects he uses on the guitar, it’s just beautiful from end to end.” And Johnny Hickman would say, “The mix, a cross between blues and some kind of weirder thing.” Well, and also: Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, that’s crossing into that territory. And Pink Floyd.
Obscured By Clouds is maybe where the divide is crossed.
Yep. Or it could also be Ummagumma.
I’ve read some reviews of Greenland that didn’t quite jibe with what I’d heard; some said it was your break-up record, others said that you were coming to grips with middle age. I heard it as a set of thematically connected songs that all seemed to be searching for something. I’m not sure you guys have collected a stronger set of songs in one place since Kerosene Hat.
First of all, you’re right. And when somebody says, “This is their coming-of-age record” or “The band is maturing,” do you know what I read? “This is a boring-ass record.” I’d never want to do a record like that. But because we started this record after doing a Camper Van Beethoven record, we got together and recorded all the songs we had left in the bag. And then a bunch of terrible things happened to me. And this isn’t my “Oh, woe is me” statement—when you’re 45, things start happening that you just have to deal with. You get divorced. My father got sick. I lost a good friend in a horrible murder, along with his wife and two small children. It’s actually become sort of semi-famous; it’s Brian Harvey from House Of Freaks, he played with Steve Wynn a lot. He lived just down the road from where I do in Richmond, actually. A senseless, unspeakable event. I had to write a letter to Cormac McCarthy: “This is incomprehensible, what did you think of it?” That kind of thing. I’m not saying that’s what influenced the record. I got to the point where I decided that I wasn’t going to lose this spacy, psychedelic narrative, but I was going to tie it all together by pulling out the ones that, if they weren’t autobiographical, at least they were metaphorical about what I’d gone through over the past year. I was like, “Sorry Johnny, but this one’s my record.” He was like, “I completely understand.” That’s the great thing about the genuine person versus the person pretending to be something. The genuine one understands stuff like that. When I pulled the other songs out, it was like you could finally see the record in there. It’s a collection of songs about losing things. It can be funny, like “Everyone Gets One For Free,” which is basically four years in the life of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Our gear getting ripped off; striking out with the girl you like; or just drunk after a show and striking out period; getting arrested by the police. “You lost! You do not win! Do not pass Go!” [Laughs]
In this context, your choice to cover American Minor’s “Something You Ain’t Got” is particularly inspired. I’m sure people will mistake it for one of your own.
The original version was a lot different, but that’s always one of those things … We actually pushed out a few songs that were equally as good, but we’ll just save ’em for another record. There were more than 30 songs … it was a prolific time. I think I write better songs and more of them when I’m happy. That way I can torture the characters, let them speak and go through all the pain and stuff like that. But it’s true sometimes that when you go through a bunch of shit—I stopped drinking, I stopped doings drugs, I just had to stop it all because I was simply killing myself—and I didn’t want my kids to be old enough to see the Spin magazine photo with me passed out under the publisher’s desk. I think it’s funny, but I don’t need them seeing it.
So how long ago did you pull the ripcord on that part of your lifestyle?
Well … I’m not going to say. Because I think that’s fairly private, like my kids’ names. It was sometime in the last couple of years.
Despite all the bullshit about certain artists needing pain in order to do their best work, maybe the clarity afforded by stripping away all the outside influences exposed the nerve required to really dig into the emotions you’ve put out on display in Greenland.
Well, I’m actually disputing that very issue. I think I’m more prolific and do better songs when I’m not really fucked up, burned out, sad and tortured and all that. I can write about all that stuff later when I’m better. It’s sad but it’s true. There’s a little bit of that thing where artists seem to think they need to go through all that, and in part it’s more due to their lifestyle than anything else. But you know what? We should never fucking complain about that because otherwise I could be sitting in some office in Moffetsfield, Calif., crunching numbers of a supercomputer, trying to analyze phone-call patterns for the NSA. I was a mathematician, so that would make sense to me. Or digging ditches. Painting houses, like most musicians.
So back to this argument we have going at MAGNET: If you had to pick a favorite best-of, from all the records you have lying around at home, what would it be?
Hot Rocks. That’s kind of mid-period Stones, or what would you call that?
If I remember correctly, isn’t that the one that goes from Out Of Our Heads through Exile, or so?
I think that’s the one I’m thinking of. Even though I love all those albums individually, somehow when you hear all those songs together, they become even more powerful.
When you factor in Keith’s various drug impairments, it gives you that much more appreciation for what they accomplished—that it will truly be Keith, the cockroaches and some Twinkies remaining after the nuclear holocaust.
Exactly. And, as Hunter S. Thompson once said, “I’m not recommending drug and alcohol abuse. But it worked for me.”