David Lowery has, for the past decade or so, maintained a healthy career as a split musical personality. When he isn’t playing laconic, country-tinged pop with his band of 25 years, Camper Van Beethoven, he’s thrashing away at his guitar as the frontman for Cracker, the rock outfit that’s releasing its 10th studio album, Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey, this week. MAGNET chatted with Lowery about the new album, his advice for any wannabe musicians and his take on the state of the music industry. Lowery will add another line to his resume this week as he guest edits magnetmagazine.com.
“Tune In Turn On Drop Out”:
MAGNET: The new Cracker album feels a lot more aggressive than previous efforts. What was the inspiration behind writing these more in-your-face songs?
Lowery: A lot of people are calling it our punk-rock record. A couple songs are probably real retro punk rock (“Hand Me My Inhaler”). I think the reason this record is more aggressive and more loud is because that is how the band naturally plays. Every once in a while I try to get the band to play quieter. For the sake of my ears, for the sake of the audience’s ears. This causes them to play like they are reading sheet music. It’s awful. Frank Funaro beats the heck out of his drums. It’s not like his forte is being subtle. Johnny (Hickman, guitarist) and Sal (Maida, bassist) are versatile players, but all of them grew up playing music in the late ’70s/early ’80s: punk rock and power pop. This is the common language between the four of us. This is our shared musical heritage.
Several of the songs do sound like vintage punk rock. Were you a big fan of the punk scene in California in the early ’80s?
In the early ’80s, Johnny and I spent a lot of time listening to country music driving from the Inland Empire into Hollywood to see punk shows: Black Flag, Fear, an occasional English outfit. This pretty much explains our sound, our entire catalog.
Who is the Brett that you are singing to in “Hey Brett (You Know What Time It Is)”? Anyone specific?
Brett is my friend in Built To Spill, Brett Netson (not to be confused with Brett Nelson). BTS and Camper Van Beethoven went on tour a few times in the last couple years. It’s more of an inside joke, but Brett walked into the CVB dressing room one day. He was staring at his phone like he was reading a text message. Without looking up he says, “Will we know when it’s time to start dragging the rich people from their cars?” I said, “Yes, you will get a text from us.” Months later, Cracker was working on a new piece of music. It seemed very natural to sing, “Hey Brett, you know what time it is?” over the chorus. It’s a sort of a post-WTO riot working man’s blues.
How do you decide which songs end up as Cracker tunes and which end up as Camper Van Beethoven songs?
Usually, I have a pretty good idea when I start the songs. But I am not always right. More than once a tune has started its life as a Cracker tune but ended up being recorded and performed by CVB or vice versa. “Brides Of Neptune” was first played by CVB but ended up on a Cracker record. “That Gum You Like Is Back In Style” was written by me and Johnny but ended up on a CVB record. This record was easy. The idea was that this time we were just gonna write the songs between the four of us. Whatever we came up with was gonna be the record. We weren’t really gonna bring in anything that we wrote separately on our own. In the end, we cheated on two songs: “Darling One” and “Friends” existed long before this record was conceived.
I know that you’ve worked with Adam Duritz before, but how did you end up pulling in Patterson Hood and John Doe to help out on the new record?
We recorded the record in Athens, Ga., with David Barbe. David works with Drive-By Truckers. We were thinking of guests and thought Patterson would be perfect for the song “Friends.” We sent Patterson the song, and he loved it. A few weeks later when he got home from tour, he came in and sang it. We have, of course, known Patterson for years. Our good friend from Richmond, Wes Freed, has been doing the Drive-By Truckers’ artwork and promoting their Richmond shows since the very beginning of the band. John Doe has played at our Campout, and CVB and Cracker have shared the bill with X many times. After writing “We All Shine A Light,” I thought John would be perfect to sing the song with me. I mean, all those X songs with John and Exene; the long held notes with the static harmony against it. Similar approach. Plus John is the kind of guy that gets it when I say, “I want to do a song celebrating tolerance and multiculturalism, and I want to do it by singing about the Peshawar Panthers Cricket Team.”
I know you’ve got a new Campout coming up this year. Any surprises in store? Any bands that you are trying to get in the lineup?
This is our fifth year, which I still find hard to believe. We actually made money on the festival for the first time last year. 2009—we are definitely doing longer sets with Cracker and CVB. The fans have requested that. That will scale back some of the side projects this year. For guests, we are hoping for something crazy like Danielson Famile. I think they would blow people’s minds. I think we will have more of the local scene bands again this year. The Joshua Tree scene is really growing up fast.
Is it hard to play those shows where you’re doing sets with both Cracker and CVB? Does that get exhausting after a while?
Well, CVB has a lot of instrumentals, so that saves my voice a bit. But yes, it is physically draining but not that bad. It’s harder just being able to keep one’s head clear enough to be able to remember the words to 120-plus songs. More mentally exhausting than anything.
You’ve been making music and working on music for at least 25 years now. Any life lessons you want to impart on young up-and-comers in the music business?
Ultimately, all my useful advice about music is about the business and economics of music. I’m working on a book about my experience in the music business, and one of the themes is that bands generally have good business sense. It’s the other people who surround them that do all the stupid stuff. Here are a few simple rules:
1. Only record what you like. If the record is not successful and the band breaks up in a few years, at least the record you did make is something of which you are proud.
2. Keep your overhead very, very low. Absurdly low. Never tour with more than two crew people.
3. Never hire anyone who makes a percentage of gross (as opposed to net).
4. If you have to hire someone who makes a percentage of gross, try not to let them make decisions about how your money is spent. Get rid of them as soon as you don’t need them.
5. Success is partially or largely due to luck. The longer you can remain in the game, the more likely you are to be lucky, the more likely you are to be successful.
6. Never sell your long-term upside. Specifically, don’t sell your publishing, and make sure recording contracts have sunset provisions.
How does it feel to still be playing music and maintaining a healthy career in this business after 25 years?
Well, the healthy career part … I don’t know about that. But yes, we are surviving, even thriving in some ways. We go to more places, that is, different countries now. We find people all over the world who know our music. Longevity has always been the true measure of an artist’s worth, not CD sales. So I’d say it feels good.
What do you make of the state of the music industry, with the shift toward online media? Do you think the current model of doing business in the music industry stands a chance?
Well, my bands have always made a living by touring. As much as people in bands bitch and moan, that hasn’t really changed. If you are a viable band, you should be able to make an OK living driving around in a van playing shows. If you sell a few CDs along the way, that’s just a nice bonus. Put it away for a rainy day. So in some ways you are asking the wrong person. I think the music business went through a relatively brief golden age: from the early ’80s to about 2000. When the album (as opposed to the single) ruled. I think the shrinking of the label part of the business has as much to do with people just buying one song now, a single as opposed to spending 15 bucks on an album. With or without illegal downloading, the business would have ended up where it is today. And what’s wrong with where the business is today? There is more good music around. The barriers to getting your music out and heard are very low now. Sure, that means there’s a lot of crap out there, but there is also a lot of great stuff. The music business has never been more vital in my lifetime. And I don’t think it’s smaller, either. I think there are more participants on every level: artists, songwriters, labels, venues, magazines and websites. I bet just about the same amount of people are employed playing music. The “business” is just not concentrated in a few monolithic corporations like it used to be. Get used to it, because the entire economy will eventually look like the music business today.
You were on Virgin Records for some time. Would you consider getting back in with a major label if they came calling? Or are you happy to keep with the independent labels you’ve been working with?
I’ve never noticed any difference as far as creative freedom goes between major labels and independents. That’s all I care about. So why wouldn’t I want as much money and as many people behind my newest CD? We work all the time with EMI and Warner licensing our back catalogue for film and TV. The only reason we sang out Virgin Records in “It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself,” well, we needed someone to be the villain of the song.