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.”
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.”