Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven


Editorial Review

For Lowery, it’s always a double billing
Friday, May 10, 2013

For someone who has logged 30 years at the obscure end of the music industry ---- with the radio--friendly, alt--rock Cracker and the trippy, psych--rock Camper Van Beethoven ---- David Lowery is remarkably practical about success.

With Lowery as frontman, the bands churned out two ’80s and ’90s earworms, Camper Van Beethoven’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and the twangy Cracker rocker “Low.”

The latter song catapulted the then--boyish Lowery onto MTV, the late--night circuit and radio (back when such things mattered more). But then, like so many other alternative acts, Camper and Cracker faded, drowned out by electronica and industrial, gangster rap and the umpteen other musical sea changes in the decade after “Low.”

The mainstream attention, Lowery says, was the anomaly, a blip in the timeline for two bands who had done just fine playing small venues. All these decades later, they still find their way to intimate spaces.

Lowery, who lives in Richmond, also has pursued other passions. He teaches a course at the University of Georgia, and the onetime mathematics major is on the board of a fund that invests in tech companies.

But with the release of Camper’s new album, “La Costa Perdida,” Lowery is back on the road. For more than a decade, his two bands have played double--bills, meaning that every night, Lowery is at the mike for two concerts. It’s something, he says, fans have come to expect. We talked with Lowery about playing in two bands nightly, decades of touring and California dreaming.

Lowery: In Cracker, we have a more traditional singer--lead guitarist performance. There’s a lot more of physical energy that goes into it. That requires me to be more of a focal point. I sing a lot more, I have a lot more physical energy in it. Camper Van Beethoven is a totally different type of ensemble. I do sing. There are songs that are like the songs Cracker does. But a lot of times there are long instrumental passages within the songs, and songs that are just instrumental. It’s actually a lot easier for me to do a performance with Camper Van Beethoven than it is with Cracker.

Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven have always worked on a grass--roots level. We had radio hits, but we built our long--standing following by going everywhere you could play, and playing where people were like us. A pop band might not play Tucson, Arizona, or Marfa, Texas. But there’s actually a lot of freaky people who like Camper Van Beethoven in places like that, so we go and play there. We don’t do it as much anymore, because it’s a young man’s game. It’s not actually profitable.

I’ve been in Richmond now for about 20 years. Camper Van Beethoven, now, the members live in Australia, Los Angeles, the Bay area, Sweden and here. Essentially, like most bands, when we were kids all living in the same town and hanging out with each other, we wrote more songs because we were in each other’s general proximity. Camper Van Beethoven just didn’t do that for six years. We ended up having a show at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, and they postponed it for a week because of weather, and so I ended up hanging out at [violin and guitar player Jonathan Segel’s] house in Oakland. I said, “I know what we should do: We should write some songs.” We just sort of did that all week and generated this album. We’re talking about going to Iceland next year to write a record.

We were listening to this Beach Boys record called “Holland,” one of those weird records that got panned at the time it came out and was just a weird period for the Beach Boys. This explains Camper Van Beethoven: We were like these post--punkers in the ruins of that back--to--the--country, ’70s hippie culture. We just started taking bits and pieces of that and incorporating it ---- incorrectly ---- into what we were doing. That was Camper Van Beethoven for many, many of the years. But you can’t do that without really coming to understand what that Northern California hippie culture is, to identify with and to delve into it. This is our album where we just finally embraced that.