Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State may try to convince you that The Shins will change your life, but it was David Lowery who changed mine. Back in 1989, I became pretty obsessed with Camper Van Beethoven’s record, Key Lime Pie, after seeing their video on 120 Minutes. There was nothing like it on the pop and classic rock radio stations that streamed their way into my suburban home. The lyrics were smart and saddened, wry and witty and got me in a way that no other band’s ever had.
Camper disbanded in 1990, and Lowery formed Cracker with Johnny Hickman. On June 6th, they’re releasing their seventh album (not counting their six live and/or compilation albums), Greenland, their first album of new material since 2002’s Forever.
Before Cracker heads out on tour to support Greenland, David Lowery talks to PopGurls about the new CD, some Cracker/Camper comparisons, the mischief about “Euro-Trash Girl” and his foresight about “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”
“Something You Ain’t Got” is the only song on Greenland not at least co-written by you. What about it jumped out and demanded to be recorded by Cracker?
It was just very natural for me to sing because I felt like it had been the story of my life for the last couple of years, it really hit me on that level. The other thing was that it was just sort of accident that the whole thing happened because Caitlin Cary was in our studio, [Sound of Music,] a few times and we’re always saying that we’ve got to do something together like a duet, record something together. She was there that day and [asked] if I wanted to record something. So I was looking around for a song to record and I’d been listening to some early demos from this band from West Virginia called American Minor. [Their version of "Something You Ain't Got" is] quite a bit different, it’s much more of a rock thing. I thought it’d be a good one for us to do, and when me and Caitlin were messing around with it – it sort of fell into this little bit of an alt-country place, and that seemed much better for the song.
You’ve said that Greenland was one of the most difficult albums to write for – why is that?
We’ve written a lot of songs for this record over the course of three or four years. We started some of these songs before the Camper Van Beethoven record, [2004's] New Roman Times, and we went onto that project for a while and then came back to [Greenland]. But in the course of time, we had recorded a lot of songs. But it’s not like it had a unifying theme.
A lot of things happened over the past few years – my friends the Harveys were murdered, it was a very fucked up thing. It’s not that the record really had anything to do with it, but I had to put together a record that meant something more, had to have a certain tone to it. To me, it felt like life is short – you never know what’s going to happen. I just really want it to be good and to reflect more personally on my life and things that have happened and things I wanted to talk about. That actually in a way helped, because it helped me narrow down songs I thought were appropriate for the record.
Greenland has a darker tone than some of your previous releases – was that a conscious decision or just how the songs evolved?
It’s not completely dark, but I just wanted the record to be more thematic. It was partly about pulling out the ones that went together – the ones about endings and new beginnings and loss. I didn’t want to completely make it dark (laughs) – there are things on there like “Everybody Gets One For Free,” which is sort of loosely the story of Camper and Cracker in the last couple of years.
You mention the repeated thieving of your instruments on tour in “Everyone Gets One For Free.” How did that turn out for the bands?
We got some of it back. We never got the stuff stolen in Canada back because that was a pretty pro job. The stuff that was stolen in Dallas fortunately wasn’t much of our original stuff – I think that was stolen more by crackheads and meth freaks and they immediately took it to pawn shops so we immediately started getting it back. And I thought I’d never say this, but Dallas, Texas police were a lot better than the Canadian police – they actually gave a shit.
Yeah, according to the song, the Canadian police weren’t that helpful.
What is the difference in your approach when writing for Camper or Cracker?
Sometimes I write songs by myself and I can tell, ‘clearly this is a Camper song, and this is clearly a Cracker song.’ It’s clear that stuff that I start writing with Jonathan [Segel] and Victor [Krummenacher] and Greg [Lisher] will be Camper stuff, and pretty clear that stuff I start writing with Johnny [Hickman] will be a Cracker song. But most of the time, I don’t really know until I play it with either band, because sometimes the songs go in a different direction with each band – some more appropriate than others.
There’s some funny exceptions to that – like on the last Camper Van Beethoven record, “That Gum You Like is Back in Style,” was actually written by me and Johnny but I played it with Camper and it was really much of the kind of thing that Camper is good at. Cracker kind of has the more simpler counterpoint, the more traditional counterpoint of rock which is, I say something, and Johnny plays something – he answers me. Like the classic Mick and Keith, or Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Frank Black and Joey Santiago. That’s sort of the simpler counterpoint, whereas Camper Van Beethoven is more like countermelodies mixed in with lyrics and long passages of instrumental things. So I can tell what kind of songs, which band a song will belong to, by which one benefits the most from being played by which band.
You said that you make up characters in your head and write the songs from their points of view. Do you go back to visit them?
Actually, they do go through the songs a lot. I guess the guy that sings on the actual song “Kerosene Hat” might be who sings the song “Dr. Bernice” [on Cracker Brand] and he might be the same kind of voice that’s on [Gentleman's Blues'] “Lullabye” and [Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart] “Turquoise Jewelry,” or many Camper Van Beethoven songs. Then there’s the guy in [CVB's Key Lime Pie,] “When I Win the Lottery” – that character is in Cracker songs too, like “Mr. Wrong” or Gentleman’s Blues’ “Waiting For You Girl.”
I think all fiction is autobiographical – I’m not the first person to say that, somebody else said that – but you can’t really escape from yourself.
Key Lime Pie‘s “All Her Favorite Fruit” is one of my favorite songs ever written. What character inspired that?
It’s loosely based on two characters in a Thomas Pynchon novel, Gravity’s Rainbow – the mathematician, Roger Mexico, and his love interest. Being the mathematician, that’s sort of me, but not exactly. It’s an interesting story and it was interesting to use a voice from the ’30s and the ’40s and an English person who was alive then and their voice and what they would say.
“Euro-Trash Girl” really defies the conventional pop song expectations of being a hit. Why do you think it became such a hit – was it the wink, wink thing about having to know that it was a well-hidden track, or it is just because it’s so damn relatable?
Actually, we had an EP out between Kerosene Hat and the first album and it was sort of a limited thing – we put it out to college radio. But a couple of commercial stations picked it up in Atlanta, and one in St. Louis, and played that song. So we sort of knew it was a hit and wanted to put it on Kerosene Hat but everybody was like, we’d kind of already did that song and it’s gonna make the record too long, so we stuck it on when we mastered it and didn’t tell anybody and [the song] came back (laughs). It just constantly gets rediscovered by people, it’s this quirky seven-minute long song, which in a way, I hope that “Everybody Gets One For Free” becomes that and people play the seven-minute long version instead of the radio edit.
You’ve done a great deal of producing. What do you find different between producing for yourself and for other artists?
[When] producing my own work, I have to do it over a longer period of time so I have more perspective on it, and then in the end, I don’t know if I really do. Of course, I trust the guys who work with me in the studio, and I spread the songs around a lot among family and friends and acquaintances and people in other bands for feedback because I think it really is hard to produce your own records.
Whereas, when I record other people’s records the basic perspective thing is easier. I actually find the easiest things for me to produce are stuff that are the furthest from what I do myself as a songwriter. Although, I also find that when producing other people’s records, it’s really important for me to play an instrument with the people I’m producing. A lot of times I play bass, or [am] the drummer or rhythm guitarist. I do that a lot and that helps me. Some people who are producers really have a method and they just go down the list – they really have one way of doing things, and I don’t, so I’m always at a loss to explain what my methodology is.
I just did a record with Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co. / Songs: Ohia. We’ve been working on a record together for the past year, and I guess I’m the producer, but really I’m the bass player and do some arrangement things with him. I’m really hands off on a lot of it and let him kind of lead us. Plus, he has great ideas and I just got to get out of the way.
In an interview, Scott Sinclair of Freeloader said that as a producer, you’re so full of ideas you’re also dangerous. What do you think of that description?
It’s hard for me to self-examine like that. I know I like working with people like Jason Molina – on his trip down to Richmond, he decided to read all about Civil War stuff. I like people that I’m in a band with where we can discuss things like Civil War to mathematics, politics. I like people who are very well-read, and not experts on one thing. Dilettantes in many different things. That might be what [he's] alluding to – I start talking about anything from film to ancient engineering feats to records.
Cracker has a MySpace profile and also its own website. How has this impacted your connection with your fan base?
I think it’s pretty good. Especially for the younger end of our audience, it’s a really handy way of letting them know what we’ve got going on, and to let them hear our songs. It’s especially handy for when we’re playing with bands that have a nice MySpace presence as well – let them know that we’re playing together. We did that a lot with Modest Mouse fans when we had Camper out with Modest Mouse, [for the upcoming Cracker tour,] I’m sure we’ll do that with the Built to Spill fans on MySpace. That’s pretty easy to do – hire a couple of interns, put them in front of iMacs at the studios and say ‘go! The tour’s in October, start now!’ It’s cool.
At first when we were trying to find friends, somebody in the band would be the doing the responses. It’s a lot harder to do now, there’s so many people on there.
Now we’re all fascinated with other things that are out there that are bubbling up like YouTube – we’re like, ‘holy shit, we could put all our videos up there!’ We haven’t done it yet, but we’re fascinated by that. There’s also a few other grassroots things, like podcasts. The studio actually does podcasts, and it’s a nice little 40 minute radio show. I don’t think we do enough of them, but we’re going to start doing Cracker podcasts and Camper podcasts. Essentially we have our own audience, a huge mailing list and broadcasting directly to them is pretty interesting.
Last September you started the Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout. How did that idea come about?
Me and Johnny have birthdays on the same day. We were thinking about having a get-together out in Pioneertown [California] and then it turned into ‘let’s have both bands play,’ then it turned into this whole mini-music festival. As we went into it, we decided that it’s something that we should do every year. This year we have Cracker and Camper, Neko Case and John Doe. It’ll probably be a bit bigger this year, but there’s limited capacity to the place and we’re going to max out very soon. It’ll always be the weekend after Labor Day – the anti-Burning Man.
You’ve said that you’re not as cynical as people might expect, that you’re weirdly optimistic.
Yeah, I am in real life. The songwriters I admired had some humor and irony and sarcasm in the way [they] speak, [which] is pretty important. So my songs reflect that. Your average person tells a story that uses all these elements but your typical rock songwriter doesn’t. They write with this one narrative style, this narrative voice you would use when you wrote your ‘what I did over my 6th grade vacation’ essay. It’s a funny thing that in hip-hop and country music you can use humor and irony to tell a serious story but in rock it’s not as common, people think you’re not a serious band. Certainly novelists are allowed to do that, Kurt Vonnegut does. Limiting oneself to not use that. I’m fairly optimistic person.
What are you particularly optimistic about at this moment?
Well, to talk about politics – a lot of my friends think that Bush in office has been this total disaster. And I’m like, ‘No…I think Bush has done more for energy conservation than Clinton ever did just by screwing everything up. He finally got through to people in a way that nobody else ever could, unintentionally, that we really do need to think about our dependence on fossil fuels.’ Secondly, even though the conservative cultural movement seems strong politically, the exact opposite seems to be happening in real life. [For example], kids and younger people are way more accepting of gays. You’re seeing these characters portrayed in film and television. They’re not winning the culture war, they’re losing it really badly. And it’s just like a rearguard action is what they’re finding. I always look for things like that [as a barometer of public opinion].
What songs do you personally feel stood the test of time? Which are still your favorites to play?
I think “All Her Favorite Fruit” and/or “Big Dipper,” those stand up really well. We’ve been fortunate with Cracker to have hits that have held. Somehow, “Low” keeps getting played on the radio year after year after year and I guess it sounded alternative when it came out but now it just sounds like a rock song. “Euro-Trash Girl” is fun to play still and people perennially discover that song and that’s nice. And “Take the Skinheads Bowling” just doesn’t mean anything so it keeps coming back and being adopted by younger bands every five years, whatever generation of punk rock we’re in now – generation 15 or 16, something like that.
Did you have any clue when you wrote “Take the Skinheads Bowling” that it would have this tremendous shelf life?
If somebody had told me when I wrote that 23 years ago, that I’d still be singing it 23 years later – I’d ask them what they were high on and if I could have some of what they’re smoking (laughs).