Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bonus Q&A with Cracker's David Lowery

Here is more from my interview with Lowery (pictured right) earlier this year...

Q: Have you found most of Cracker's radio airplay these days comes from the outlaw and lost country stations on SiriusXM and other specialty programs?
A: That’s true. It’s the one place we get played pretty consistently. There’s four of five of those satellite channels that play us, [but we still get] played on [terrestrial] radio...It’s a lot like the way it was when Camper [Van Beethoven] started: we weren’t played on the radio. We built a grass roots following. We had a newsletter before email that we sent out to our fans about road stuff and they passed it along to their friends. It was just a slow motion version of what people do with the web now. There was a good time lag on it. Like, ‘ok, we’re going to mail this newsletter today. Maybe in three months we’ll find out what people are saying about it.'

Q: Do you enjoy having the immediate reaction to things you do from social media?
A: Yeah. I still think it can happen quickly with your most engaged fans who are following you. They’re actively engaged in everything. It’s immediate stuff with them. But because there’s just so much stuff out there – I think it’s technically called ‘the tyranny of choice’ – if you’re anything other than a Taylor Swift, any sort of niche music genre, it requires, just like it did in the old days, 6-9 months of going out there and touring and promoting your record. Because there’s so much stuff. You get immediately to your fans but then the general public, they’re overwhelmed by all of the choices. It’s harder to get through to them.

Q: Does the old school method of recording you used on the new double album - with all the band in the same room as opposed to putting together a song piece by piece - result in a more authentic sound for Cracker?
A: Most of our records are done that way. It’s kind of part of our sound. The ‘Berkeley’ disc is basically the entire ‘Kerosene Hat’ lineup. We did it in Michael’s studio up there with all of us live in the same room. A couple of those tracks – “El Comandante” and “You Got Yourself into This” are pretty much completely live. No fixing anything. The ‘Bakersfield’ disc was done with the band we built in Athens, Georgia where I live these days. But ‘Berkeley to Athens’ didn’t really sound like a good album title. Since the Athens, Georgia lineup is more Americana-oriented, they played with the California country sound. Then it gave the whole record a narrative life. Prompted us to divide it into two discs. It’s been a really good thing. It’s got a good story to it. A lot of people talking about it. It seems like every summer there’s this procession of ‘90s bands out touring together. We’re going to be one of the few of those bands out touring this summer that has new material. That’s still exploring new territory and doing new stuff.

Q: On ‘Berkeley,’ which song has the wild guitar solo by Johnny that he said went out of tune but you guys all liked it and decided it was a keeper?
A: “El Comandante.” He did an overdub one but it didn’t have as much energy.

Q: What was it like recording with Michael and Davey again after so long for ‘Berkeley?’
A: They’re world class players and basically people we grew up with [Davey is also from Redlands] and really good friends with. We’ve had those guys playing with us off and on. Those guys went off and became the big session cats. Around the time of the ‘Kerosene Hat’ album, they were playing on everything: Third Eye Blind, Sheryl Crow, Smashmouth. All the hits of the ‘90s. Then Davey became Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ bass player. A lot of people regard him as the master bass player in the rock world. We basically created the [‘Berkeley’] record in three days. I had to come up with lyrics for a lot of the songs, backing vocal overdubs, put the vocals on it and mix it. It was in Michael’s project studio where people email him files and he adds drums. It’s a little room about the size of a bedroom.

Q: Why did you decide to revisit “Where Have Those Days Gone?” and “San Bernardino Boy” from Johnny’s solo album?
A: The thing about “Where Have Those Days Gone?” is I was really just getting sounds in the studio in Georgia. I started playing that chord progression and thought, ‘what is this? This is one of our songs.’ But I was playing it totally different, like in a Creedence, California country rock [style]. There’s a nickname for it, called the ‘heartbeat.’ Sort of a way of strumming the guitar in the way the bass and drums play together. It’s in a lot of Tex-Mex stuff. So I was doing the chord progression and thought, ‘I know this is something’ [then figured it out]. By that time, everyone had joined in on it. So I said let’s re-record this and figured it would be a B-side. When we got to the end of the album, Drew - who mixed the record - said ‘please put this on the record.’ I said, ‘we recorded that back in 2005.’ He has to be a smart ass and says, ‘you mean when I was 15?’ It closes the record well and is so descriptive about California. It just had such a good vibe that we had to do it.

Q: When you wrote these songs, did you find that some of them begged for a country arrangement?
A: I wrote those specifically to be country. The reason they sound the way they do is you can sing and play them on an acoustic guitar. That’s the essence of the song. Something like Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine or Third Eye Blind – rock songs, you don’t necessarily hear the song you’re just playing acoustic guitar and singing. So much has to do with the arrangement, the drums and the bass. The ‘Bakersfield’ side was largely written like I wrote the chord progression, vocal melody and words and was basically written in advance. Country’s a highly stylized form. You have things you can do with it like say, a flat tire shuffle or up-tempo Texas shuffle or 6/8 waltz. It has these specific forms that you fit it into. In some ways, you could look at it as limiting or you could look at it as using the classic forms with the creativity of the words and vocal melody and other elements. So when you do country rock/Americana music, you have to be able to do it on an acoustic guitar. For a little bit of the record, I basically method-acted it. I went to Nashville and went around in rooms in the Nashville style where you go and make an appointment with one or two other songwriters, meet up at the publishing company, go into a room, spend 2 ½ hours and you [might] make up a song. ‘California Country Boy’ came out of one of those sessions. That was Trent Sommer. ‘Waited My Whole Life’ came out of one of those sessions, but in the end, I threw it to Davey and Michael because I thought it was more interesting with them playing it as soul rock instead of country.

Q: Which reminds me, who is doing the really soulful backing vocals on the first disc?
A: That’s Davey. Typically, he makes Johnny sing in falsetto high and Davey sings the next part down [reminiscent of older song ‘I See the Light’].

Q: These days when fewer people buy albums as a whole, does it make it more difficult for you to sequence the physical CDs?
A: You do the sequencing for the 30,000 people on your email list who are your hardcore fans. The other people are just going to get suggested a song and played on Spotify and it will get played out of order on whatever streaming service people are using. You really can’t help that. I definitely do think about sequencing. I think it’s still important.

Q: Do you think it’s important to get a rise out of listeners by getting political on songs like you do on some of “Berkeley?”
A: That’s part of the “Berkeley” element. It was known for its protest and frmovements, all that really radical punk rock that’s always been based around Gilman Street - the little punk rock co-op that’s still there. It needed to be in there for that to represent Berkeley.

Q: Anything new about the long-gestating Cracker documentary “Get Off This?”
A: It’s not ours. I think they’ve been editing it for about six months. I hope it comes out soon.

Q: Did the fact that you rejuvenated Camper Van Beethoven around 2000 keep things fresh for you when it was time to focus on Cracker again?
A: Yeah. For me, it’s good not to try and fit every single one of the songs I write or my creative ideas into the framework of Cracker. It’s good to have other outlets. Otherwise it gets kind of frustrating. I’m sure that’s helped. It’s not like one takes away from the other. I just went through this period of in 2009, did a Cracker album, then a solo album, two Camper albums then Cracker. This is six discs now. Nobody’s putting out albums at that speed. Having both bands together I think there’s more creativity going on.

Q: Then of course you have the teaching gig at University of Georgia when you need a break from music.
A: I’ve always had another job when I was in a band, whether it was producing other people’s records, running the recording studio, consulting, advising. I’ve always been doing other projects. It’s fitting for me to be around 18-22 year olds.

Photo by Bradford Jones

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