Defying expectations is nothing new for Cracker.
Core members David Lowery and Johnny Hickman grew up in Redlands, Calif. (the former attended the U of R’s Johnston College for a year) and came to prominence during the height of the 1990s grunge era.
Mixing roots, rock elements and more with front man Lowery’s raspy vocals and wry lyrics, the band was a precursor to what later became known as alt-country music.
Cracker sounded like nothing else around at the time and notched half a dozen rock radio hits, including “Low,” “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” “Get Off This” and “Happy Birthday to Me,” plus a platinum sophomore disc (Kerosene Hat).
Lowery also ran a Virginia studio, where he produced other artists (Counting Crows, Joan Osborne) between Cracker albums. Then the singer/guitarist reunited with Eighties alternative cult fave Camper Van Beethoven. From the 2000s onward, he has pulled double duty, regularly touring and releasing albums by both acts.
Now Lowery splits his time between playing music, teaching music business finance near home at the University of Georgia, Athens and championing musicians’ digital rights via well-regarded community blog www.thetrichordist.com and elsewhere.
On Cracker’s fine double album Berkeley to Bakersfield (Savoy Records), Lowery and singer/guitarist Hickman reconvened the Kerosene Hat-era lineup of bassist Davey Faragher (a fellow Redlands native) and drummer Michael Urbano.
They recorded the aggressive, politically-minded first half quickly live, while various musicians handled the traditional California country sound on the second. Lowery’s vivid lyrics touch upon various NoCal locations; Hickman brings things down further south for the whimsical “San Bernardino Boy.”
We caught up with Lowery, 54, to talk about his Inland Empire days and Cracker’s latest tunes.
Question: How did living in Redlands from age nine influence your music?
Answer: There wasn’t a whole lot to do there as a teenager, so you had to create your own fun. I started playing in bands when I was 16. We did house parties. There were a lot of great players in Redlands. All the Faragher brothers went on to be session players. I went to Redlands High School, which was definitely quirky. I was around a lot of creative people that went onto do really interesting things. I had a lot of creative mentors and teachers.
Q: What were some of your hangouts and places to catch live music back then?
A: There weren’t really any in Redlands. We went to Riverside to see shows at The Barn and Raincross Square. For a while, The Ritz - a Hispanic dance nightclub - would do punk rock/new wave nights on Mondays. That was actually really important. Great shows there. All the classic early ‘80s punk rock bands from Southern California all played that place. There was also a place briefly in San Bernardino called The Beat. It didn’t survive, but it tried to be a punk rock/new wave live venue.
Q: Johnny has said the IE music scene had a certain attitude and style. Do you think those elements have always been present in Cracker?
A: I first started playing guitar at 14 because my sister was learning banjo. A lot of people around the Inland Empire and the desert were playing hippie country and bluegrass in the ‘70s. They had the Calico Bluegrass Festival. There was a big country movement there which is largely forgotten.
Q: Two years ago, Cracker played Hangar 24’s Fourth Anniversary party. How was that experience?
A: It was a great homecoming show. We’d love to do that again. There’s not really [another] venue in Redlands for us to play. Hangar 24 is pretty interesting.
Q: Your bands marked the 10th annual Campout Festival in Joshua Tree in 2014 and it is happening again this year. What was the original inspiration?
A: We recorded Kerosene Hat up there in Pioneertown and hung out when I lived in LA. It was like my getaway. I’d always go out there with my friends.
Q: Were you surprised to find a Cracker fan base in China since you performed live out there for the first time last year?
A: That had to do with “Low” being in a key scene in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” It was a very popular movie there. We were in Shanghai and Beijing, which are not that different than a lot of Western cities. We were playing to the kids of the solid global middle class. I suppose it would’ve been different if we’d gone to Western China or a more rural region. They were enthusiastic.
Q: How has the reaction been to the two sides of Cracker on Berkeley to Bakersfield?
A: It’s been a really good thing. It’s got a good story to it and a lot of people are talking. Every summer, there’s a procession of ‘90s bands touring together. We’re going to be one of the few that’s still exploring new territory and doing new stuff.
Q: Was using the California lyrical theme on the new albums a conscience decision?
A: It turned out that way after I had written ‘King of Bakersfield’ and ‘California Country Boy.’ I was working on these while also working on the two Camper records [revolving around the Golden State]. At one point I said, ‘I’m just giving in to this. Guess I’ll have a four-disc set about California between the two bands. Then I’ll have to move on from there.’
Q: Did you have a hard time compartmentalizing between the two bands’ California songs?
A: Sort of, but the two bands have two very different styles of working and the lyrical subject matter is pretty different between the two bands, so I was able to separate ‘em.
My interview originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Redlands Magazine.
It can be viewed here:
All photos by Bradford Jones.
Upcoming tour dates:
8/30 Nederland, CO
8/31 Pinos Altos, NM
9/1 Albuquerque, NM
9/2 Flagstaff, AZ
9/3 Phoenix, AZ
9/4 Tucson, AZ