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By Mike Seeley
As David Lowery prepares to take his bands out on the road, he’s reminded of his age. Touring is a young man’s game, and Lowery–who heads both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven–is doing double-duty each night. Two full sets with each outfit. It’s a real workout, he admits.
“I’m 49,” he says from his home in Richmond, Virginia. “In Cracker, I’m the youngest, but I’m the oldest guy in Camper.”
As implausible as that sounds (Lowery has fashioned his entire career, it seems, on an immaturity that injects his music with age-defying power), it’s the truth. Lowery started Camper Van Beethoven back in 1983. He guided them through a string of increasingly successful records until infighting and disappointment brought the enterprise to the ground in 1990.
Eschewing Camper’s schizoid blend of personalities, Lowery began Cracker the following year, placing himself in the front seat. The decision paid dividends: the first Cracker album outsold anything Camper had offered up, and in 1993, the band hit platinum status with Kerosene Hat. Singles “Low,” “Teen Angst” and “Get off This” rotate ’round alternative radio to this day. But the success was short-lived.
“It was such a brief period and it got so hectic it was hard to enjoy it,” Lowery says. “Even at our peak, we never had more than four guys on our [road] crew. We never went for the trappings of success, so we didn’t miss it when it left.”
Over the decades, the two bands have tended to play the same venues, and their popularity appears evenly matched. Now that the bands are touring together (with a stop in San Juan Capistrano on Sept. 8), Lowery reveals his secret to performing two sets a night without draining his batteries.
“Blood transfusions,” he jokes, “in Switzerland. Lots of coffee. I don’t know. It’s a little tiring, but somehow my constitution allows me to do this.”
A third of Camper’s set consists of instrumentals, which, as Lowery explains, is a big help: “It’s the singing that tires you out.”
Those instrumentals fleshed out the band’s records from the beginning, with Jonathan Segal’s violin usually leading the way. Hardcore punk, Floydian psychedelia, and white-kid ska cavorted together while a whiff of Eastern Europe floated by.
“Camper’s predecessor was a band called the Estonian Gauchos, and we used Eastern European scales,” Lowery reports. “And Jonathan, the music student, brought a little authenticity to that.”
A throwaway from the band’s first record, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” remains a high point, particularly after its association with Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine film. The group matured, but Lowery’s caustic wit never waned, and by the time Camper found a major label and a producer in time for 1987’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the musicians wielded Zeppelin-styled stomp as handily as they brewed up a balalaika/sitar stew.
Camper’s swan song, Key Lime Pie from 1989, was their most accomplished outing to date, marked by a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” By then, however, the band’s implosion was inevitable.
“We were distracted,” says Lowery. “We’d unceremoniously relieved Jonathan a couple of years earlier, we had new members and we toured, but the pieces were held together with mosquito netting, and it didn’t hold.”
Though the album is often paired with the phrase “critically acclaimed,” Lowery remembers differently. “Key Lime Pie was not well-received; there was a lot of negativity from the press. A cloud hung over the band.”
With a mixture of pride and pissy-ness, Lowery also says Camper were never recognized for their contribution to today’s alt-country pantheon. Without mentioning Wilco by name, Lowery says Camper were “absolutely” a huge influence on that band.
“If you talk to Jeff Tweedy, he will tell you that!” Lowery insists. Just after Camper broke up, Uncle Tupelo toured with what would become Lowery’s next band. “He [Tweedy] spent three hours asking me what kind of mics we used on Key Lime Pie!”
Enter Cracker, which Lowery formed with guitarist Johnny Hickman. The band were unstoppable in the early 1990s but ran dry in the latter half of the decade, around the same time Lowery and his old cohorts restarted Camper. The two bands kept touring and recording, with Camper Van Beethoven releasing a 2004 album of polished new material, Times New Roman, a conceptual parable about a soldier caught up in a right-wing militia movement.
“A lot of times in my songs,” Lowery explains, “I’m trying to get inside the head of a character, portraying a view different from mine.”
Lowery’s political leanings belie his Santa Cruz days, though he says the fan base for Camper/Cracker isn’t entirely lefty. “There’s a good number of libertarian anarchists, too. Because we’re anti-authoritarian, we appeal to both sides.”
In 2005, the bands began hosting an annual three-night concert/campout at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. This community, Lowery reckons, sports only a small overlap who are fans of both groups. Many hip to Cracker’s hits, he says, only have a vague notion of the “narco-syndicalist collective” that is Camper.
New music is sure to come, Lowery promises. “I don’t know about records,” he says. “It may suit our strengths better to release 4 to 5 songs at a time. Or just one long, dope-smoker jam.”
Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven perform at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-7935; www.thecoachhouse.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $20.
This article appeared in print as "Back In the Van: David Lowery is indefatigable as front man of both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven."