Published June 1996, The Aquarian Weekly
Critical respect hasn't come easy for guitarist/vocalist/songwriter David Lowery and Cracker.
While reviews of Cracker's third Virgin Records release, The Golden Age, have been generally positive; the accolades often seem to come at the expense of the group's previous records, and Lowery's new material is frequently, and unflatteringly, compared to his earlier work with Camper Van Beethoven.
When the delightfully-quirky CVB self-destructed in 1990 after five albums, two EP's and a few minor hits, rock critics who'd finally begun championing the group in the wake of 1989's very accessible Key Lime Pie seemed unable, or unwilling, to forgive Lowery for the rootsier pop music Cracker explored on their self-titled 1992 debut and 1993's platinum-selling, Kerosene Hat.
Formed in 1991 by Lowery and long-time friend and pre-Camper bandmate, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Johnny Hickman; Cracker has seen a succession of drummers (Rick Jaeger, Michael Urbano, David Lovering, Charlie Quintana and - currently - Johnny Hott) come and go, while The Golden Age marked the debut of bassist/vocalist Bob Rupe (ex-Silos, Gutterball, The Bobs). Keyboardist/percussionist Kenny Margolis has also joined the band for the ongoing tour.
Despite the numerous personnel changes, the vision and direction of Cracker has been firmly guided by Lowery and Hickman since it's inception and, while hits such as "I See The Light," "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," "Happy Birthday," "Get Off This," "Eurotrash Girl" and "Low" may not have brought the group the critical acceptance it clearly deserves, they have caused a dramatic increase in the band's large, cult-like fan base.
With Cracker shows selling out across North America and a recent announcement that the group will open for The Cranberries on their July-August jaunt across the continent - sales for The Golden Age continue to be respectable, if not earth-shattering (it took almost eight months for "Low" to become a hit) and the singles, "I Hate My Generation" and "Nothing To Believe In" (which features Joan Osborne on backing vocals) are both beginning to make an impact on the Billboard charts.
Calling from Thunder Bay, Ontario, during the first week of an exhausting tour that will eventually bring Cracker back to the New York area [Thursday, June 6] for the second time in two months, Lowery was in a talkative mood during his recent conversation with The Aquarian Weekly.
Most of what you've done with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, in retrospect, runs somewhat counter to what's musically popular at that moment. Do you deliberately set out to go against the grain, or does it just happen?
"It's mostly an accident. Johnny and I think - and this is one of the reasons we've remained friends for so long - that, ever since the punk rock days, everybody tends to get on a certain trip and suddenly that's all you hear. Johnny and I always wind up sitting there going, 'Well okay. But, I'm still kind of missing this and I'm kind of missing that. What else is missing from our musical diets?'
I think that aspect tends to pop up a lot in our songs. Whatever we think, or feel, is missing [from music] we add to our songs. You know, we sort of end up being a compliment, in a certain way, to whatever is going on or is popular at that moment. At least we like to see it as a compliment. You can also look at it as us just being sort of ornery and going against the grain. I think that a lot of it, however, comes from the fact that we both want what's missing from our musical diets, so we naturally go in what's perceived as an 'opposite' direction."
In other words, you do what feels right for you. Instead of being a one-hit wonder you're gradually building a fan base.
"which means that we'll still have an audience and we'll still be able to play in 10 years. It means that people will still actually give a shit about us."
Was hooking up with Johnny and playing together again sort of a destiny thing?
"Yeah. I think so. I really think so. Me and John had played together, off and on, or just sort of fucked around working on songs, playing cover songs and stuff like that years before we put this band together.
When I first met him in like, 1977 or whatever, everybody said he was the best guitarist in Redlands County. But, you know, there was only, like, 25,000 or so people living there at the time. [laughs] It's great that, years later, we would start working together and have a band and actually get sort of famous."
Has the addition of Bob Rupe increased the dynamics and song writing potential of the band?
"Well, there's already a bit of collaboration on this record. Bob really helped us out on '100 Flower Power Maximum' and 'Nothing To Believe In.' But, you know, Bob kind of has his own thing that he does - I mean, I don't really know what his whole thing is, he just doesn't make a big deal out of it.
Bob really doesn't say much. And that's what's great about Bob. He doesn't say much, or, he'll say things like, 'That sucked,' or, 'That had no groove at all,' or, 'That was great.' You know, just two or three well-placed words every four or five songs."
How did you get Joan Osborne into the studio for "Nothing To Believe In?"
"Well, Charlie (Quintana, who played drums on most of The Golden Age) was playing with her way back when and our sound man used to play with her. A whole bunch of people that I knew, knew her - and all my New York connections knew her. So, it was like, "You've just gotta meet Joan, man. She really likes Cracker. You've gotta hang out with her."
I remember when I finally saw her play, I was like, "Whoa!" Oh man, she was just so totally great! Anyway, one day while she was in town [Richmond, Va.] for a show we dragged her over to the studio and got her to sing on the record. Two weeks later, she was a star."
Is "Useless Stuff" your reaction to the sudden influx of fans and star-type friends that seemed to come out of the woodwork in the wake of "Low" and "Eurotrash Girl?"
"Actually, that song is told by sort of a character I made up, but it's really a friend of mine talking and it's about false modesty. I just love it when people are falsely modest because it's like a whole rooster kind of display thing fluffing up the feathers, jumping up on the top of the fence it's much more effective than actual arrogance, right? [laughs] I love false modesty. I always find it to be a fascinating display of human behavior. And yeah, some of that song is about me but, it's mostly based on this friend of mine."
What's the story behind "Sweet Thistle Pie?"
"'Sweet Thistle Pie' is kind of like a five-minute song. We always have a good mix of five-minute songs and, like, six-month songs on our records, you know? Meaning, that's how long they took to write.
We were actually calling that song, 'For Those About To Break The Levee We Salute You' before we were finished with it. [laughs] To us, it sounded more like 'When The Levee Breaks' and an old AC/DC song than a Cracker song. And then it sort of turned into a Creedence Clearwater sort of thing. It's fun, though.
I'm not even sure what that song is all about. It's just sort of funny like one of those old bluesisms. You know, 'Sweet Thistle Pie' as 'The Lemon Song?' Just a bluesism. It's no secret that the song is about uhm, uhh pussy. Somebody in the Cracker [America On Line] folder, one of the women I think, asked, 'What, exactly, do you put in a "Sweet Thistle Pie?" ' It was kind of funny. [long pause] You know that's actually a very good question, a fascinating question."
"The Golden Age" feels like Avalon by Roxy Music or Ray Davies on "Celluloid Heroes." It's got a classic sort of sound.
"Mmmm, good. Avalon especially on the backing vocals. Actually, that song is really sort of funny. David Immergluck from Camper Van Beethoven plays pedal steel on 'The Golden Age,' right? So he's playing along and he asks me, 'What do you think of that?' and I go, 'Well, I know you're trying to do the Byrds, but I'm trying to do Roxy Music.' He just laughed. He keeps calling me up and repeating that line to me. I guess it was really significant to him but, I'm not sure why, exactly, that amused him so much."
You're what, 35 now? Do you really hate your generation?
"I don't really. It's kind of an overstatement and kind of an outrageous thing to say. I don't really but, I think that maybe I hate my generation for its self-loathing, its negativity and its pointless anger.
A lot of people who are my peers only seem to be able to define themselves negatively - by what they hate. They sort of delight in the failure of others rather than in their own success and I think that's kind of sick, actually. That's what I was so pissed off about on 'I Hate My Generation.' The whole point of the song is, 'I hate my generation.' Now that I've said it, I feel liberated. To me, it's a very liberating song. It's really fun to play and it's actually a happy song.
Sometimes I just feel that rock lyrics are taken too literally. But, I like the fact that it [the song] kind of stirred up something. You know people are, like, going, 'Shit, man! "I Hate My Generation." Man, that Cracker!' "
You just signed on to tour in support of The Cranberries this fall - do your fans complain that you've sold out when you play sheds and arenas?
"I don't know we haven't really played sheds and arenas on our own. I mean, we did that package tour [with the Gin Blossoms and the Spin Doctors] a few years back, but, we haven't really gone out on our own."
Cracker could probably sell out a tour without releasing a new record. To what do you attribute your popularity?
"I think that one of the reasons we're popular is that we speak for that great silent majority of rock that doesn't really want mainstream music. They're not really interested in the mainstream, but, they also think a lot of that underground, alternative, indie street-cred stuff is just crap.
We're popular because we're in, like, this middle. That's who we speak to, this middle ground. We love and speak to all these people who love rock music and love a good rock show - but, don't care about all those fucking political issues that have nothing to do with the music."
It's been said that your music speaks to that great white trash element that hides deep inside us all.
"Some guy at the show last night said something similar to that. He said, 'Of course, I'm not really poor white trash, I'm more of a middle white trash.' That set off this whole argument with all these people who were going, 'You know, I think I'm upper middle Oh? Well, I'm more of a lower middle white trash.' I don't what the deal was - they were Canadians, too - so I don't know what that was all about. It was actually frightening to me.
Did you know that the new album debuted on the Canadian sales charts at like, No. 30? That's really pretty amazing for a band like us. I mean, we debuted in the states at No. 60, which the record company, I guess, was really happy with. What's really sort of freaky is that we debuted so much higher in Canada. It's scary in a certain sort of way IT IS it's actually very scary. Johnny's whole take on it is, "Oh well, Canada is just a nation of semi-hip people"; and that's exactly who we play for, that's exactly who our audience is, so it all makes perfect sense to Johnny.
We do fine up here. Although we probably do, ultimately, a bit better in the states. I guess it's just sort of a surprise to have the record start out so much better up here [in Canada]."
What have the crowds on the tour been like so far? What kind of reaction is the new material getting live?
"We were playing in Winnipeg last night [4/11/96] and I mean, the crowd was great. It was really an amazing, quiet, attentive audience. We started out with 'Big Dipper' and then went into 'The Golden Age' - which, I figured, was perfect for that crowd. You know, start out slow and then get into the rock stuff later. I got hit in the head with a bottle on the second song!
It was amazing because the crowd was really friendly. I was like you know I stopped and I went, 'Wow that's the kind of behavior I expect in the States, eh?' Oh man, [laughs] that's like a total insult to the Canadians! If you tell Canadians that they're acting like Yankees, it's a real big insult to them.
Anyway, I was kind'a pissed off, so I said, 'Okay, I know what I'm gonna do. That was probably someone who came to hear us play "Low" or "Eurotrash Girl" - well, I'm gonna play every fucking song we have before I play "Eurotrash Girl." ' And we did it! It took us, like, two and a half hours and the bar was closed by the time we got done playing, but, we did it."
You've been at this, in one form or another, since 1983, do you still enjoy touring, do you enjoy being out on the road?
"Pretty much. This is pretty rough, what we're doing now these next two months. I mean, we're flying around the fucking country. We'll be in, like, Atlanta on May 4, Dallas on May 6 and Phoenix on May 10. It's fast. This is a very fast tour. It's all fucking driving and riding on the bus.
There's absolutely not a minute of time left over. I get 15 minutes to get a shower each day before we go to sound check and then I do radio interviews. So, that part of it is pretty rough. But, I really do love playing live shows and, wellif that's what I have to go through to do it "
Do you get recognized a lot on the streets?
"No, not really. [laughs] Sunglasses do wonders!"
-- AL MUZER