MUSIC : Cracker Songs Take a Look at the Serious Side of Funny : The band, an outgrowth of Camper Van Beethoven, takes ‘different styles from different eras’ and mixes them up.
Dave Lowery from Cracker says he’s serious. About as serious as Kurt Vonnegut, maybe. He’s serious about writing goofy songs and frowning his way up the college charts. Lowery will be bringing his bent sense of humor and rockin’ band to the Red Dog Saloon in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, a traditionally dead night rock ‘n’ roll-wise.
Lowery’s first band, Camper Van Beethoven, had songs called “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac.” The song that put Cracker on the map, “Teen Angst,” features a chorus of: “What the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in my head.” Another tune on that album was the seemingly NRA-friendly, “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven?”
The first single off the new album, “Kerosene Hat,” is called “Low.” The video, looking like an outtake from the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, features a boxing match between Lowery and Sandra Bernhard.
Lowery grew up in Redlands, in the Inland Empire, a part of California that apparently was founded by those who got lost looking for Bakersfield. The Inland Empire and its thousand-degree heat once hosted the U.S. Festivals; there used to be rock shows at the Swing Auditorium, and parties disguised as motorcycle races, “the only reason for Wednesday nights.” Currently the area serves as a repository for L.A.'s excess smog, of which there is much.
Lowery left all this to move to Santa Cruz in the mid-80s. There he formed Camper Van Beethoven, a critically acclaimed college band that put out half a dozen albums. Now he’s based in Virginia, still writing funny songs, seriously. Lowery talked it all over during a recent phoner.
Hey, man; Dave or David?
Well, people call me both, either.
Right, Dave; you can’t be David in a band called Cracker. Anyway, it beats “Hey, you!” So, the tour’s OK?
Yeah, it is. If I wanted to be rich, I’d be a CPA. I went to UC Santa Cruz and studied math, but then Camper started to get popular.
When you lived in Redlands, did you used to go to the speedway races on Wednesday nights?
Yeah, I did. That definitely sums up the whole Inland Empire.
Did John Hiatt steal two of your musicians?
He’s doing a clean and sober tour, so he took the clean and sober part of our band. Now we have a dirty and dim rhythm section--bass player Bruce Hughes from the Pixies and drummer David Lovering from Poi Dog Pondering. And, of course, my high school buddy, Johnny Hickman plays guitar.
So you’re doing this for the beer and the babes?
No. Making albums is fun but the only real thing about all this is playing live. When the audience gets off, the band gets off. It’s that feedback thing, plus a bit of musician’s bravado. I think pretty much anyone with the right engineer and producer can record a pretty good song, but everyone can’t pull it off live.
What’s the secret to survival on the road?
Drink lots of water. Actually there’s a hangover cure that I heard from Clint Black or somebody like that. It’s drink a quart of Gatorade and take an Alka Seltzer Plus. It works.
When you write a song, what comes first, the lyric or the lick?
The music, I guess, the lick. Then I come up with a line and get it going from there. You can write a song about anything but there’s really only two kinds of songs--love songs and songs about being pissed off.
Why are most rock stars so serious?
I feel I’m really serious, but there’s a stylized serious and a real serious. I’m real serious. What I try to do is speak the way people do in real life. There’s the narrative style that you learn in sixth grade for the “What Did You Do Last Summer” essay; but no one talks like that. I use a little humor, a little sarcasm, a little irony; but it’s the way people really speak. But really, the only person I really understand is myself, and that can get pretty fuzzy around the edges sometimes.
Where did you get your name?
We’re living in Richmond and a lot of our friends thought we were a bunch of peckerwoods playing cracker soul music. It just got shortened to Cracker. Also, when I moved to Santa Cruz from the Inland Empire, the band was all college kids. You know what the Inland Empire is like--so I was known as the peckerwood of the band or the cracker in Camper.
What’s the difference between Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker?
Our message is kind of the same. But Cracker is not limited to a sub-sub genre of rock music. Our influences don’t go back just five years, but 20 years. We take different styles from different eras and just mix them up. I could subliminally write a song influenced by Neil Young and the Pixies. We always do a couple of Camper songs when we play, but not the obvious ones. I’m not one to deny my past.
What’s up with this video with Sandra Bernhard?
I just had this vision of Sandra Bernhard, one of my chick heroes. She’s my feminine other--it’s serious and bizarre all at once. I’m also totally into Frank Sinatra. We were going to tail him once until we got beaten up by his bodyguards. Then we tried to rent his house in the mountains overlooking Palm Springs to record “Kerosene Hat,” but we couldn’t.
So instead of Frank’s place, you ended up in Pioneertown?
Yeah. It’s a small desert community out near Yucca Valley--a retirement community for ex-Hells Angels.
What’s so alternative about alternative music?
Good question. It seems like it’s bigger than mainstream music. Being one of the ones that founded it inadvertently--it was bands like Camper, Husker Du, the Replacements, R.E.M. that had that do-it-yourself punk rock attitude, but it wasn’t punk rock. It’s really strange because now “alternative” seems to be all about marketing and the right look. I don’t understand it anymore. I think someone needs to invent a new term.
What advice would you give to rock-stars-to-be?
If you live in L.A., move out of L.A. Don’t move to L.A., New York or one of the big media centers. It’s much harder to be in a band and get noticed in the big media centers. As Camper, we started our own label; we even stuffed all the insides in the albums before we shipped them to the independent retailer. We did it ourselves and then A&M;, Warner Brothers and Virgin were coming to see us.
This tour’s going pretty well; most of the shows have been sold out. The album has sold more than the last one and because of a weirder song; so I like that. Everyone seems to be exhilarated.
Bill Locey, who writes regularly on rock ‘n’ roll, has survived the mosh pit and the local music scene for many years.
* WHAT: Cracker, Counting Crows and Popsicko.
* WHERE: Red Dog Saloon, 110 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara.
* WHEN: Tuesday, about 9 p.m.
* COST: $10.
* FYI: 965-2231.