ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 3, 1998
A lot of today’s rockers love to go on at length about how their latest album is a huge departure from previous ones, how their current music signifies arrival at a whole new level of artistry, and other such bunk. David Lowery is not your typical rocker, however. When Cracker’s lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter calls the Straight from Toronto to talk about his band’s new CD, Gentleman’s Blues, his promotional chitchat takes a refreshing turn.
“I think the story is actually that it’s not really that different,” he affirms. “It sums up a lot of the little tangents and side trips we took on the previous three records, and sort of draws it into one. I mean, a lot of people are saying that this is the classic Cracker record. I’m not really sure if it is. It may be.”
Along with lead guitarist, sometime vocalist, and fellow songwriter Johnny Hickman, Lowery has assembled a splendid and sprawling batch of tunes that ranges from gutsy foot-stompers to desolate, slow-burning ballads. Cracker received assistance from the likes of ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell (both of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), and percussionists Steve Jordan and Charlie Drayton (from Keith Richards’s solo albums). According to the liner notes for Gentleman’s Blues, Jordan and Drayton do the drum damage on 10 tracks, leading me to wonder whether regular Cracker drummer Frankie Funaro got jealous at all.
“Well, I’m sure he was, a little bit,” says Lowery, “but, I mean, that’s our whole thing—everybody knows that what me and Johnny do when we record is we reserve the right to play with other people, just to make the songs happen. And basically to kinda kick us in the ass, too.”
There is some serious toe-to-tush action on Gentleman’s Blues, although the CD’s title is somewhat misleading: there isn’t any real blues to be found here at all. “It’s mainly called that from the [title] song,” explains Lowery, “which wasn’t really like a blues song, either—when I wrote it I was just playing piano and singing it, and in a weird way it’s almost sort of classical when you do it that way. The words are fairly wordy, I guess, and Johnny said, ‘This is cool, it’s like some gentleman singing the blues.’ So that’s sort of where it came from. No real good reason.”
Lyrically, the Don Smith–produced album often concerns itself with day-to-day life in a working band. “Benmont Tench pointed out that a lot of the songs are about being a band,” notes Lowery, “but after 14 years you’ve gotta kinda figure that.”
It was back in ’84 that Lowery first caught people’s attention when he formed Camper Van Beethoven, the SoCal indie-rock warriors who brought a much-needed dose of eclecticism to the staid ’80s pop scene. The group set off playing folked-up versions of hardcore classics (Black Flag’s “Wasted”) and tongue-in-cheek originals (“The Day Lassie Went to the Moon”), utilizing typically nonrock instruments such as Jonathan Segal’s violin in tunes that encompassed polka, metal, country, reggae, and ska. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe gave the band’s fledgling career a kick-start when he included its humorous 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, in his top 10 albums of the year in Rolling Stone.
Apart from significant careers in CVB and Cracker, Lowery has also dabbled in acting over the years, with roles in director Eric Drilling’s River Red (for which Hickman composed the score) and Matt Leutwyler’s This Space Between Us. And when he’s not playing in a band or showing up on-screen, you’ll find Lowery in the studio getting the most out of other bands. His production credits include Magnet, Fighting Gravity, Joan Osborne, and Counting Crows.
“I’ve been doing this for about eight years,” he says of producing. “It’s just that now a lot of the artists I’m working with are more famous, so people notice it more. I think a lot of these projects come from the Sparklehorse record I did; a lot of people really like the way that record sounds and the way it was put together. It’s been very popular among musicians.”
Although he enjoys working with other bands, Lowery is content to be concentrating on the Cracker tour that brings the band to the Palladium on Sunday (September 6), with Seattle’s Pete Droge opening. “There’s certain rewards to producing that you don’t get from doing your own band,” he notes, “but the most important thing for me is not even making our own records, but playing the live show. There’s nothing like getting out and playing your own songs in front of an audience. That’s the main reason I got into music.
“But it all just kinda works together,” he adds, “so that I’m never doing anything but playing music, or working on music, or putting songs together. It just keeps me really involved.”
These days, with such unorthodox bands as Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion causing ripples in the ocean of rock, the time could be right for a band as peculiar and open-minded as Camper Van Beethoven to re-form and make a big splash. Lowery still hangs out with some of his former bandmates, but doesn’t foresee the erstwhile college-radio faves hitting the comeback trail
“I’m the biggest Camper fan in the world,” he says, “and I think one of the ways we could sort of ruin our legacy is to do a bad reunion tour, when we’ve all been doing such different stuff for a while. I mean, Cracker always tries to play at least one Camper song every show. Sometimes we don’t, but we try to, you know.”