‘I just can’t spend all day talking about music’ An interview with David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven
As the leader of two influential alternative-rock bands of the ’80s and ’90s, David Lowery has spent over 25 years in the music business.
Originally fronting Camper Van Beethoven, a staple on the ’80s college rock scene, the band fused elements of pop, ska, punk, folk, country and world music into an eclectic mix. As the ’90s began and his band fell apart, Lowery formed Cracker with his childhood friend Johnny Hickman for a more mainstream rock sound scoring hits with “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now),” “Low” and “Euro Trash Girl.”
Yesterday, I spoke to Lowery by phone to discuss the current status of both bands and his thoughts on his personal business model for the music industry. As noted in the interview, he personally tends to shy away from the spotlight and continues to stay busy with various musical and non-musical pursuits — including a stint as a lecturer in the University of Georgia’s music business program.
On Friday, Lowery brings both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven back to St. Louis for a KDHX-sponsored double bill at the Pageant.
Scott Allen: It seems that you perform in St. Louis once a year, sometimes more. What’s been your impression of St. Louis over the years? Are there any memories that stand out?
David Lowery: Well, there’s the history with Camper Van Beethoven. St. Louis was always a fairly strong town for that band. Not everywhere got Camper Van Beethoven so it was a good place. In particular, with Cracker, it started on our first album. We literally had singles from that album and had this little EP ["Tucson"] that followed it. In St. Louis, “Euro Trash Girl” became a hit about two years before it became a hit in the rest of the country. I don’t know if you remember that?
Actually I do. I saw Cracker perform at Mississippi Nights back then.
So we sort of had this string of hits in St. Louis on the radio before we did in the rest of the country. I mean it was weird. We were going and playing little 100-seat venues all over the country. Then we’d come and sell out shows at Mississippi Nights. That’s one of the main parts of the history. For whatever reason Cracker caught on with radio in St. Louis in a big way before the rest of the country.
Speaking of touring, how many dates do you average in a year?
For the last two years we’ve really scaled back on the touring. I’m actually not sure that’s where the money is anymore. I think it was for a long time in that Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker were touring, grass roots, live phenomena. That was fantastic for us and we had that for about 25 years. But, about a year-and-a-half to two years ago, I noticed that everybody else tours now. Think about it. If you’re in St. Louis and you look at the paper on a weekend night there are a lot of shows to go to. It didn’t used to be like that. You used to have a few each month. Now, I can come to a city like Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas or any of the major markets and roll into town and look at the paper to see who is playing. There might be sometimes four or five other shows that I’d be interested in going to.
So, actually what is going on is that we’ve decided with all of our projects we’re just going to make a lot more recorded music right now. This sort of thing flies in the face of conventional wisdom right now. But the deal is record a lot of music. Again, I’m hoping it’s going to work out. Really what we’re doing in the last two years is instead of playing 150 shows we’re playing more like 45-50. We’re trying to make the shows special so we’re doing Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven together. We’ve had a long history with St. Louis, and people seem to love that show. So we’re coming to do that again.
Right. I saw you guys come through two years ago at the Pageant and really enjoyed the double bill.
Last year Jonathan Segel, your bandmate in Camper Van Beethoven, announced that work would begin on a new record, the first since “New Roman Times” in 2004. Are you still in the writing process or are there finished songs ready to record?
It’s more or less written and we have about half that are recorded, and the Monday after the St. Louis show we’re going to go back in the studio down in Athens and work on a little more of it. That’s kind of one of the things we’re doing. There are not many new songs we’re playing just because … Here’s the weird thing — there are no surprises anymore if you play your new songs live. (Laughs) The papers have them, they’re on YouTube and the songs are just sort of out there. People are critiquing them and it’s sort of bizarre. You want to say, “You know we’re not really kind of done with that.” There is a whole sort of process when you’re first playing the song you might play it a few times and rearrange it and play it again. We’ve got a handful of them that we’re doing that with. Maybe four or five that we’re playing to get a better feel of them and then we’ll go record them next week.
They’re very much in the vein of Camper Van Beethoven. This is exactly what I’m talking about. We’re trying to make a record from one of the projects — solo, Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven — we’re trying to make them every year now. We were trying to finish it by January, but it’ll probably be more like May or something when we actually get it finished.
Are you planning to start recording new Cracker material this year too?
No, I’ll probably start doing the writing for that this year.
As far as the recording you’re doing for the new Camper Van Beethoven, who are you working with in Athens?
We basically produce our own records, but when we’re working in Athens we’re working with an engineer named Drew Vandenberg [Drive-By Truckers, Deerhunter, the Whigs] who’s actually recorded a lot of interesting stuff — everything from Futurebirds to Toro Y Moi. He’s also working on some of the new Band of Horses album. He’s a young engineer and he was actually the second engineer on the last Cracker record, and we liked him so much. He’s not the only person we’re working with. We’re also working with Myles Boisen who’s in Oakland. We’ve worked with Jason Carmer who’s out of the Bay Area also. We don’t really use names that civilians have heard of. We generally use people who musicians know about.
When you said the name Drew Vandenberg it sounded familiar.
He’s actually been recording a lot of stuff. He was a second engineer on a lot of projects, but he’s recorded his own stuff out of Athens for many years now. His stuff is getting really popular now so it’s cool.
Do you still record analog during the recording process or do you record digital these days?
We track to analog and mix to analog a lot of times. We’ll probably mix to analog with the new Camper Van Beethoven record. There are some really good things about analog. I was really pro-analog for a long time. Frankly, the digital stuff has gotten so good. UAD, Universal Audio, which made a lot of the old analog recording equipment, their digital stuff is really incredible with the modeling that they do. The digital stuff has just gotten better. IAD out of Canada is another one. It just sounds so good now.
A lot of times we’ll track to the tape and then immediately transfer it into ProTools or Radar and then we will immediately erase that take and record another take over top of it. The thing that people like about analog is that it’s easier to record in analog and get it to sound good because it doesn’t do impossible things. That’s why for a long time I really liked analog. Truthfully, having engineers who’ve grown up only with digital they’re so good at it that it’s just better to do that.
I wanted to ask you a couple of personal questions. You mentioned on your website that the music thing isn’t always your thing.
I just can’t spend all day talking about music. Every musician started out as more or less a part-time musician and they had another life. This is where they got their inspiration and life experiences. That’s really my thing to always keep David Lowery the performer/writer/recording artist strictly part-time.
On the site you also mentioned enjoying military history. Tell me a bit about that.
I’ve read a lot of history. I like the Dark Ages to the Ancient stuff. When we went to Iraq, I got really fascinated with the region. I started reading histories of these different wars and conflicts. There are literally 30 different empires in that region. I got really fascinated with it, and so I was reading a lot of that material. My personal favorite right now is the Mongols. That’s the history of all Central Asian tribes loosely grouped under the Mongols. I find it fascinating.
Do you find that stuff colors your songwriting over time?
Not really. There is a song called “We All Shine a Light” on the last Cracker album. It’s about a kid growing up in Peshawar who’s a really big cricket fan. Peshawar, in Pakistan, it was sort of this beacon of multiculturalism, thinking, science, trade and art for a really long time. Now, it’s at the heart of this extremely conservative, militant Islam extremism. I ended up reading about that and how fanatical that area of the world is for cricket and mixed those two things together.
Amateur radio is another interest for you. Is that something you actively participate in?
Since I was twelve. I’m a little dormant lately, but I’ve been thinking about doing some stuff again. It goes in waves with me. Through the ’90s and mid-’00s there was a really great underground of all these amateur radio, computer geek and audio DSP geeks who were hooking soundcards to amateur radios. Basically they were creating these other non-corporate modes of communicating to each other with computers. It was really fascinating.
I kind of got to the point where I went all the way through that so I haven’t been doing much with that lately. I was just reading something that made me want to go back and hook my computers back up to my amateur radios again and get back on the air. It’s this strange sort of geek underground. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s pretty interesting. I kind of moved away from it in the last five or six years because a lot of the people involved in this are such extreme right-wing people. I like the real libertarian branch of that — I think there’s always interesting people in that branch. I don’t like it when it gets mixed up with what to me is anti-American and anti-United States bullshit.
There were always people in that movement like Barry Goldwater. I assume if he were alive today he would be experimenting hooking computers to amateur radio and basically creating these open source communication networks. A sort of non-corporate, free communication. But, it kind of got taken over by this hard right wing.
Funny you mention Goldwater. I read a very prophetic quote by him recently where he said that if evangelicals ever got control of the Republican Party things in this country would go to hell.
Barry Goldwater, in retrospect, I don’t know how it happened, but Victor Krummenacher [bass player in Camper Van Beethoven] and I ended up reading a lot about him. We were kind of fascinated by him. There were good and bad things about him, but he was pretty cool. That’s the part of conservative, libertarian movement that I like — the Barry Goldwater part. Which has nothing to do with social conservatism. It has nothing to do with the modern conservative movement. It’s all purely about liberty and a somewhat radical interpretation of that.
KDHX welcomes Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven to the Pageant on January 6.