The new Cracker album is called Forever, which is approximately how long the band's driving force, David Lowery, has been recording his style of weary, winking, warts-and-all rock & roll.
"I've been making records since 1983," Lowery acknowledges in his Jew's-harp-meets-digeridoo voice. He pauses as if to calculate, but the silence has to be for effect—at this point in his career, Lowery probably works some version of this equation every day. Besides, the guy's got a degree in mathematics. Finally he says, "That's 19 years."
That's nearly an eternity in the record industry—and in the genre known for too long as "alternative," 19 years flies off the edge of the time-space continuum charts. There was no "alternative" back when Lowery began making his tongue-in-cheek but on-target music with Camper Van Beethoven, but all these years later, he carries on with Cracker for pretty much the same reason—he has no alternative.
Well, that and the success.
Although the most recent concert review posted by a fan on Cracker's website (www.crackersoul.com) mostly wonders sadly why the band isn't huge, Lowery & Co. survive comfortably on a diet of crowded clubs just about anywhere they choose to play. Despite only one semi-hit single—"Low," off their second album, 1993's Kerosene Hat—its CDs sell in consistent moderation, spinning out songs about life and love so packed with the over-the-top and bottom-of-the-barrel sentiment that they can make you wince with embarrassment and shed a profound tear at the same time.
"I just think our themes are very American," says Lowery, whose songwriting catalog includes titles like "Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Can I Take My Gun to Heaven?" and "I Hate My Generation." "Very few bands have stayed together as long as Cracker, and I guess you could say the same thing about Camper Van Beethoven."
Lowery has been more or less the front man for both, which is rare, too.
"Yeah, I guess the usual process is to be in a band, and then go off on a solo career—like Rod Stewart," Lowery says, his tone drifting in mid-sentence from sincere to a bit sinister. "I guess I could have done it like Rod Stewart. That would have been nice, don't you think? Or maybe I should have done it the other way around—have a solo career and then join a band—like Ted Nugent and Damn Yankees. Maybe I could have been Ted Nugent!
"But I guess the point," Lowery continues, sounding sincere again, "is to do what you do and allow the audience to respect you, rather than getting a little success and then pandering to the audience, which a lot of bands seem to do. We do what we do."
The 13 songs on Forever are Cracker's fifth collection of originals in 10-plus years but the first since Gentleman's Blues in 1998. In the meantime, Lowery assembled a package of Cracker's greatest hits (Garage d'Or) and a live album (Flash Your Sirens) culled from the Traveling Apothecary Tour that Cracker did a couple of years ago with members of Camper Van Beethoven. He's also still producing records for the likes of Counting Crows, Joan Osborne and Sparklehorse. And he has a record label and distribution website, both called Pitch-A-Tent (www.pitchatent.com).
Now Cracker's just back from a short European tour and setting out on a swing across America, which will stop at the House of Blues on April 25.
"I feel pretty good about this record," says Lowery, in between side conversations with his wife and their seven-year-old son—he's doing this interview on the phone from his home in Virginia. "One of the indications I get that the record is going to do well is that this is finally one that the Europeans get. They understand it—and they're buying it. Camper Van Beethoven's first records sold better overseas than Cracker's. But Forever is selling more in Europe than in the United States. It's doing good over here, too, but the idea that this is going to be more internationally recognized bodes well, I think."
Lowery pauses again, but this time it seems as if he really is trying to figure out something—such as how he started evaluating his music this way. And it's not just his music—Lowery can give seasoned opinions on other aspects of the music business, such as the state of Virgin Records, the umbrella label for his recordings since 1987.
"If I owned EMI stock, I would sell it," he says. "Virgin is being dismantled. Cracker is on an imprint called Back Porch—one of the Virgin-associated labels—that has been left standing and hasn't been much affected because it is being sold off. But as a whole, Virgin has become somebody's idea of how to make money in an Enron way."
Lowery pauses for another of those side conversations. "It's my wife telling me I shouldn't say this stuff," Lowery explains when he returns. "But I can say that. It's the truth. Besides, what do I care?
"Camper Van Beethoven started out wanting to be the Beatles, and Cracker started out wanting to be the Rolling Stones. Both times, we failed. But after all these years, we've figured out what's important. It's not what the press says or even what gets played on the radio. What matters is that bond with the audience—nurturing it and keeping it going.
"I guess in sum total," says Lowery the math & roller, "our career has resembled the Kinks."
Cracker performs with Sound of Urchin at House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE; www.hob.com. Thurs., April 25, 7:30 p.m. $16.50. All ages.
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