Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

(Above: Cracker perform “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” at Crossroads in Kansas City on July 6, 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, David Lowery was riding high. The underground band he started in 1983 had attained major label success, and his new band, Cracker, continued to ride that wave. His songs “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” were all over the radio and MTV.

This year, Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band they founded together out of the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven. In that time, Cracker has come full circle, operating in a landscape that eerily mirrors the early days of Camper Van Beethoven.

“To me the real story isn’t that we had bit MTV and radio hits in the early ‘90s,” Lowery said, “but how the band kept going after that for 15 years. We’ve done it by cultivating a loyal following that exists away from the rest of the industry.”

Cracker’s model of relentless touring, taper- and fan-friendly policies and annual weekend destination festival should be instantly recognizable to any jam band fans.

“We all got it from the same place,” Lowery said. “I remember back in Camper (Van Beethoven) days telling people we had more in common with the (Grateful) Dead than the punk scene. Out of all the jam bands, I don’t know how many played with the Dead, but we did.”

David Lowery (second from left) and Cracker perform a free concert tonight on the KC Live! stage in the Power and Light District. Start time is listed as 8 p.m., but bands usually go on much later.

The Dead invited Cracker to open for them in 1994 at their annual stand at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. Lowery remembers well his meeting with Jerry Garcia.

“Apparently when I met Jerry he had just come out of a porta-potty. I went to shake his hand, but the only thing I could think was ‘there’s no sink in there,’” Lowery said. “Jerry told me he totally loved our song ‘Euro-Trash Girl’ and was trying to work up an arrangement so the Dead could play it. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to get it done.”

Camper Van Beethoven emerged in the early ‘80s, in the Southern California underground rock scene, but didn’t fit comfortably. They definitely weren’t punk and too quirky to be mainstream. Over the course of five albums, Lowery and his band mates carved their own niche. Similarly, Cracker came up in an era where they were too poppy for grunge and too much of a country influence to rest beside other rock bands. In 2000, Lowery revived Camper and splits his time between bands.

“The music business has gone all the way back to where we started, where we had to do a lot of stuff independently, within our own organization,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t a challenge for me, because I learned how from the Camper Van Beethoven days. When the labels started coming apart, we always knew what to do.”

In a way, Lowery and his bands have always operated both on their own and on their own turns. The window of high-profile success was so brief they didn’t consider changing how they worked.

“The alt-rock bubble or financial bubble,” Lowery said, “where any band together for more than two weeks and three shows got signed was such a brief period in the 20 years of Cracker and my 27 years of recording that it almost seems like a fluke. There was hardly time to adjust.”

After seeing Internet entrepreneurs being praised for the books they wrote about their five-year-old businesses, Lowery decided he might have something to say about his 27 years in the music business and started working on a book that’s part memoir and business manual.

“People give record labels way too much importance in their minds,” Lowery said. “I learned some things doing research for my book. Like, very few labels last more than 10 or 15 years. Most collapse or are absorbed. The average lifespan of an A&R man (a talent scout who works as a liaison between the label and artist) is less than four years. The people who have been around a long time, that have all the experience, are the artists and the managers.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cracker get on this (again) at Crossroads

Concert Review: Cracker and others at the Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)

9 thoughts on “Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

  1. I have been a loyal Cracker fan since about 1993 and still see them EVERY time they play even remotely close to my home. When I describe Cracker to people who aren’t familiar with them (other than Low, ETG or Teen Angst) I always say “they’re kinda the new Dead…”. This band SO deserves more appreciation!

  2. Summer 1989 I believe.
    I convinced a crew of my friends to make the 90 mile trip south from Saint Simons Island Ga. to Jacksonville Fla. to catch CVB at the legendary all ages venue Einstein A Go Go..Several in my party were Hardcore Dead Heads, the kind that would NEVER listen to anything else but the dead…They were floored when the boys broke out Loser!
    I looked on as they danced, swayed, and sang the lyrics..
    unknowing to me at the time that this song was even a GD song. How did my deadhead friends no this tune?
    An unbelievable show not only because of that moment-but also because the electricity, due to a crazy thunderstorm,went out and Camper Van continued on unplugged for the rest of the show!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.