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CRACKER: David Lowery

Between Meaning and Nonsense
Hearsay #14a / 1996 / Email interview with Pete and Neil 

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"Nobody could understand if I was asking for a pin or a pen. I pronounced 'leg' in such a way you could rhyme it with 'The Hague'"

 

In between uncovering 'worldwide conspiracies to do something kind of vague", endearingly volatile DAVID LOWERY always found time to despatch postcards from the skewed and skewered side of America in the form of various Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker albums. The most recent effort under the latter awning was one of our favourite albums of the nineties: The Golden Age. David slotted Hearsay into his punishing US tour schedule back in the nature‑drenched summer of '96 and agreed to answer a panoply of questions cooked up jointly by Pete and Neil while most everyone was naked or wearing massive fur boas and platform shoes...

HEARSAY: You seem to embody stylistic extremes, both musically and lyrically in Cracker, from lethargic melancholia to frenetic madness and irreverence. Does this reflect your mental state and approach to life?

DAVID LOWERY: I might be a bit more extreme than most people, but not significantly. I think I might appear that way cause most rock songwriters seem to adopt a certain persona, perhaps their own, perhaps not, and then stick with it. Also, I am not very interested in autobiographical songs; I don't think anyone is interesting enough to write nine albums about their own experiences. I prefer to make up characters and let them tell the story. It's somehow easier to write this way; it seems like I can continually come up with new material. That said, I do realize that these characters must reflect something of myself and my experiences. How could they not?

While much of your writing is highly acerbic, some songs like Jack Ruby have a dark undercurrent. Do you think people find it harder to take a serious point from artists who also exhibit a sense of humour?

Well, yes. Certainly the press does. A recent review of The Golden Age, referred to Big Dipper as satirical. Oddly, the reviewer claimed to like the song. Throughout Camper Van Beethoven's and Cracker's careers, reviewers have tended to think every song was some kind of joke or, if they did get it, to dismiss anything that wasn't satirical or absurd. Key Lime Pie was savaged in the US press, largely because they thought we had no right to do a 'serious' record. However, among our core fans, those that own many Cracker and Camper records and the majority of the folks who come to the shows, this does not seem to be the case. On this current tour one of the obvious crowd-pleasers is Big Dipper. When we were touring with Camper, there were always a few people shouting for Take the Skinheads Bowling but you were more likely to hear shouted requests for O Death, She Divines Water, One of These Days, Sad Lovers Waltz or Sweethearts. Key Lime Pie continues to be the best selling CVB record and seems to be the favourite of CVB fans, at least in this country. I've always found it strange that an author or a filmmaker can use humour, satire, and absurdity to tell a serious story, yet songwriters may not, or at least risk being labelled a joke band.

Can you explain the fascination with English psychedelic in the CVB period? Many UK artists pay homage to US psychedelia, but it's rare to find it happening the other way round...

Let's see, you must mean early Pink Floyd and... oh, early Status Quo? Are there others? I can't really remember. I think we were pretty transatlantic with our psychedelia as the II and III album was heavily influenced by the Chocolate Watch Band and Kaleidescope (US). Our interest in psychedelia came about largely as a reaction to the kind of stuff our peers were playing. 1983-84 was mostly American hardcore punk, and what we called gloom and doom. Sure, Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Green On Red and a few others were exploring some kind of psychedelia, but these bands were relatively obscure in the US at the time. Also, we arrogantly felt that their version of psychedelic was rather tame.

Are you a card-carrying member of Chris Stamey's Southern Gentleman's Club? It often seems that every instrumentalist from the Southeastern states automatically knows each other and together they form some kind of scene... or is this a romantic fantasy on our part?

Definitely there is a lot more personal and friendly interaction between musicians in the south, at least more than in the rest of the US. Competition and rivalry between bands tends to be regarded as a nasty yankee trait. This is not to say it doesn't exist in the south. But yeah, a lot of us know each other and collaborate occasionally. Obviously as 'David Charles' I was involved with the Sparklehorse record. Johnny Hickman and I played on a couple of Vic Chesnutt records, and also Vic, Mark Linkous, Kurt Wagner from Lambchop, and myself did a 7-inch. There are also our friendships with the REM folks. Indeed Michael Stipe and Peter Buck tend to act as patrons to many bands... well, some might say stalkers, heh heh. But it would be unfair to say there is really a musical scene there in the sense of Seattle. It's too diverse. GWAR, Cracker, LaBradford, Sparklehorse, and the Dave Matthews Band are all from Richmond and the vicinity. Certainly a lot of the music from the Southeast has always had a certain roots element to it that is only recently fashionable in the rest of the US. Indeed, one of the reasons I moved back to the south was because CVB was so readily embraced there, and Cracker even more so. If there currently is any 'scene' in the south it would be something that I call 'slowcore', revolving around Vic Chesnutt, This Living Hand, Palace, Sparklehorse, Lambchop, Birdy, Lauren Hoffman and others.

In his novel Moon Palace, Paul Auster uses the advent of space travel as a metaphor for the things in life that are beyond our comprehension and control. Does the fact you were born in the early 60s explain your interest in all things space age?

Well, I do remember all of that 60s space-race stuff pretty clearly. I got my first telescope when I was 10. I know the constellations pretty well and can even use a sextant... well, sort of. I hadn't really noticed till now that there were so many references to outer space, the planets, astronauts and the heavens. I thought I had many more references to the sea, sailors, ships and boats. In my mind these two represent the same thing, but what that is I don't know. I always carry a compass in my pocket and I have hundreds of maps, GPS, an amateur radio licence, various transmitters and receivers, antennas and four lightning rods on the roof of my house... regardless, it is always being struck by lightning. I feel like that character in Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, which brings me to another current obsession: the relationship between Southern (US) culture and the Celts (see Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways of the Old South by Grady McWhiney) which apparently is somehow my own heritage. Then, of course, this leads me back to the Celtic-Nordic connection: the Isle of Man, leading to the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, various Norse Sagas, Beowulf, Newfoundland (vinland), and once you get to Newfoundland, it's all sea, fisherman, boats, Irish ballads, Scottish reels and of course the first transatlantic radio transmissions.

There are some overlaps between CVB and Cracker – similarities of themes and arrangements but equally each band has a different 'feel'. How would you define Cracker's raison d'être and how does it differ from CVB's?

A lot has been made of the differences between CVB and Cracker, at least here in the States. Even after six years and three albums. It's curious to me. I was surprised that a lot of people assumed I would start a new band that would sound exactly like CVB. I figured if I were a typical CVB fan the last thing I would want to hear is a second rate CVB, even if I was the singer. Cracker was purposefully different, and I feel it was the right decision. I looked up Cracker in my dictionary and definition (4) is "poor rural white south-eastern US." When I went away to university, I began to realize my background was very different than my classmates'. I was born in Texas, my father was an enlisted man – not an officer – in the US Air Force. We lived all over the world, which sounds kind of exotic, but generally we lived in poor suburbs or military housing. My dad's folks all still live deep in the piney woods of Arkansas. My grandfather was a genuine fiddle-playing, overall-wearing hillbilly, didn't read or write, signed his name with an 'X'. My uncle was a hell-fire and brimstone-type baptist preacher. Several of my cousins have been or are in prison. It's a colourful family. Nothing I'm ashamed of. One day I just got tired of hearing the well-educated university kids make outrageous stereotypes of Southerners. I rebelled. I started saying "y'all" again. I pronounced the word "insurance" with the accent on the first syllable. Nobody could understand if I was asking for a pin or a pen. I pronounced "leg" in such a way you could rhyme it with "The Hague." Of course, I wasn't truly a Southerner – I don't know where I'm from – but ever since then I've identified with my Southern heritage.

CVB, with the exception of myself, were the sons and daughters of upper-middle-class families. It was CVB's stage manager who gave me the nickname 'MC Cracker D'. Johnny Hickman and I came from a similar background. When we began writing songs together they had some kind of rootsy, bluesy element that CVB did not. At some point we realized this was one of the strongest and most interesting parts of our collabora­tions and went with it. Somewhere along the way we started referring to these kind of songs as 'Cracker-Soul'. And we moved to Virginia.

Those are the differences, but in my mind, there is so much more in common between the two bands. Obviously both bands have a very similar narrative style. Both are wildly eclectic. In some ways The Golden Age is more eclectic than any CVB record. Many Cracker songs could have easily been CVB songs: Dr Bernice, Mr Wrong, Happy Birthday to Me, Nostalgia, The Golden Age, Big Dipper, Bicycle Spaniard. And many CVB songs could have been Cracker songs: Eye of Fatima, Come on Darkness, Turquoise Jewelry, Sad Lovers Waltz, Shut us Down, Down and Out, Bad Trip...

And, of course, The Golden Age reunites you with erstwhile CVB producer Dennis Herring [Throwing Muses, the innocence mission, Timbuk3]. What brought you back together and what appeals to you about his approach?

This collection of songs felt a lot like Key Lime Pie to me. It really wanted to be a studio record. The songs wanted to be taken to an extreme. They were all strong flavours that wanted to be even stronger. Dennis is crazy. He has the patience to take things much farther than any other producer would. When you work with Dennis he becomes another member of the band. He's like George Martin to me. It's not like he sits there and makes you do a guitar part over and over again until it's perfect. He tries to get the perfect idea on tape. Sometimes this takes weeks. Also, Dennis is from Mississippi.

You've been exploring a particularly epic feel recently with tracks like Dixie Babylon boasting strong cinematic leanings. Are you influenced by soundtracks and would you ever want to write music for the cinema?

Johnny and I told Dennis we thought the strings on the end of Dixie Babylon should sound like the credits to a movie were rolling up, so it's funny you would say that. Normally I'm not really influenced by sound­tracks. I don't own many; in fact I think I only own a couple Fellini soundtracks. But I do watch a lot of films and especially enjoy them when the music is good. Almost all Hollywood films are "cross-marketed" these days – they just pick artists that they think the target audience likes, pick up their crappy leftover songs and put together a cheesy soundtrack CD, to help promote the movie. I know because we've been on quite a few of them. It's funny to me - they pay you quite a lot of money for a song, any song, a cover song, or perhaps one you didn't like enough to put on an album. It's fun to take their money. This is a generalization, but film people are idiots. I couldn't imagine working with many of them. I would do an entire soundtrack for Carlos Grasso, if he'd let me.

The use of strings on the album feels both original and familiar – were you trying to emulate a particular style? Sometimes it recalls the classic string sound of 'elderly Italian crooners'...

Aside from the faux cinematic strings on Dixie Babylon, most of my ideas for strings have been blatantly stolen from the LP September of My Years by Frank Sinatra (arr: Gordon Jenkins). This LP has been an obsession for years. We recorded parts of Key Lime Pie at Capitol Studios because of this record. In some ways the title track to Kerosene Hat was supposed to be like a broken September of My Years: "how can I fly with these old doggy wings, while a magpie sings some shiny song." Very broken.

Get Off This addresses the freedom that rock star status affords and you've said in the past that you can't believe what a privileged lifestyle such icons can lead. What job would you rather do if you weren't able to make records?
My favourite job ever was driving a truck. It was great, there was only an hour or two of real work each day: load the truck, unload the truck. The rest of the time I listened to tapes or the radio. Usually I was finished an hour or so earlier than I was supposed to be so I would go to my house and watch TV. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I didn't think the whole idea of civilization was to provide us with meaningful work, nor well-paying work. I thought the whole concept was to keep us from having to work much at all.

You seem to attract a very obsessive following - given the choice, would you rather be investigated by the FBI or allow the CVB fanbase to sort through your garbage?

Oh dear. I guess there's no way of saying this politely. Definitely the FBI. They dress better and have a better sense of humour.

Given your jovially confrontational relationship with death In the past (O Death, Kerosene Hat etc.) what would be your preferred method of checking out ?

I don't know if I could say exactly how I would want to die. I know that there are certain ways I would not want to die. Airplane crashes. There's something really embarrassing about dying in an airplane crash. The way the headlines look in the papers. The local television news reporters – I never understand why they dress the way they do. Unshaven airline spokesmen. Furtive telephoto images of relatives, out of focus, shrubbery in the foreground, words like "makeshift morgue".

One of the least famous California earthquakes of the last couple decades was the one in LA in 1988. Although a fairly strong earthquake, only one person was killed. A bit of a building fell off and onto this person's head. I suppose that might not be too painful - hopefully they died instantly. Can you imagine being the only one killed in an earthquake? A strange way to die, but definitely better than an airplane crash.

More: David Lowery on Camper Van Beethoven | Johnny Hickman | Camper Van Beethoven's Jonathan Segel and Victor Krummenacher
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