Where Weird and Pop Converge

An e-mail duet with Cracker's David Lowery.

By Cynthia Joyce

Published April 6, 1996 7:53PM (EST)

Cracker's David Lowery has made a career of going against the musical grain, and as a result has come to sit at the center of a certain universe that connects musicians as stylistically diverse as Jane's Addiction and Wynonna Judd.
With Camper Van Beethoven in the early '80s, Lowery's unlikely fusion of acoustic folk and punk rock offered an alternative to the relentless synthesized beat of the dark British dance music that dominated that era. A decade later, when the pendulum began to swing away from the folk renaissance towards a much harder edge, Cracker released its eponymous first LP, a roots-rock answer to the catcall of grunge. As Lowery put it, "What the world needs now is another folk singer/ like I need a hole in my head."
Now Lowery is finally comfortable going for a decidedly more pop sound. He does this unabashedly on "The
Golden Age," Cracker's follow-up to the 1993 million-selling sleeper "Kerosene Hat," which was driven by heavy air play of the singles "Low," "Get Off This" and "Eurotrash Girl."
"We were more interested in making something slightly pretentious and big-time," he says about "The Golden Age," without apology. "To take our weird songs so far they'd start to sound like pop songs, and to take our pop songs so far they'd start to sound weird."

Last week, Lowery logged into SALON from his home in Richmond, Virginia to chat electronically about the new album, his literary leanings, and his life in the South.

"The Golden Age" is filled with violent mood swings. You seem to vacillate between severe cynicism on songs like "I Hate My Generation" and "King of Useless Stuff" to unbridled enthusiasm on the title track. Why is that?

Truthfully, I think we were trying to do our equivalent (at least with the melancholy songs) of Frank Sinatra's "September of My Years." Of course, it doesn't sound anything like that, but we are not young anymore. I've made nine albums now and well, yes, I'm 35.
But really I can't say why the record goes to such extremes. Possibly it's because we had a lot of time to make this record, and we were most interested and intrigued by the songs that had the strongest, shall we say, personalities.

With Cracker, and earlier with Camper Van Beethoven, you have always cut through the curve of musical trends. Has this been a conscious choice on your part?

I'm a bit of a reactionary, but also our fans have come to expect this of us now. I react to what I'm hearing, and I burn out on stuff. I listen to the radio and records all day long. I find my songwriting begins to reflect what I'm not hearing and what it is I would like to hear. I would worry about this more, if it didn't seem to come from a good healthy place inside.
A lot of my songs -- probably the majority -- are not me talking but a character that I will invent, and then I just let he or she tell the story. It's actually because I don't feel that I always have anything to say.
Sure "Kerosene Hat" was a huge success compared to the other records, but I think we didn't sell enough records in the eyes of the industry to be treated as a big success, so we still felt like we had something to prove with this record. Mostly people were surprised that we could be considered cool by teenagers when we didn't really belong to the worlds of Lollapalooza or the H.O.R.D.E.

Do you anticipate allegations of "selling out" with "The Golden Age"?
No, not exactly selling out. I feel like I don't have the same aversion to the studio and all things technical that my peers have. Especially lo-fi and indie rock enthusiasts. I have this theory that this is some kind of class distinction. But I can't see why one wouldn't use technology to help oneself be more creative. Look what happened to the Beatles after they discovered multitrack recording.
I also think it was more of a challenge to make something that was intelligent and complex, yet could be understood almost immediately by most rock music lovers, and at the same time contrasted with the murkiness of some of my other stuff and especially the stuff of many of my peers.
The song "Dixie Babylon," with its dramatic use of a full string section, sounds like it should be on the soundtrack for a David Lynch film, and a version of your song "How Can I Live Without You" was used on the soundtrack to "White Man's Burden." Do you generally have a visual concept of your songs?
One of our half-baked ideas was that we would put strings on the end of "Dixie Babylon" so that it seemed like the credits to a film were rolling past. I didn't really think anyone would get it -- sort of a private joke between me and (guitarist) Johnny (Hickman). Of course we wouldn't have done it if it didn't also sound good. This is a seven minute song, and it was very difficult to keep the song sparse yet somehow keep ratcheting up the level of tension and intensity. After some experimenting, it seemed like strings were the best solution. They then began to creep into the other songs.
I never saw "White Man's Burden," but the director called and had a really specific idea. He wanted a song like Little Feat's "Dixie Chicken," yet with some kind of slightly urban element. This was an interesting challenge to me. The version in the movie is different than on the record. We used a drum machine and synths -- albeit fairly subtly -- for the bass and drums. No one ever asked
me to do anything like this before so it was kind of fun. Everything else we've done for movies has simply been somebody's cross-marketing concept and we've been fairly happy to take the money. However cynical that may sound, it's honest.
In the past you've used strings in a very unconventional way, perhaps most recognizably on CVB's "Key Lime Pie." On "The Golden Age," you use a 15-piece string section in a much more conventional way. Was this an equally challenging experiment?
Actually, a little stodginess seems refreshing and exciting to me. My girlfriend's uncle, a 60-year-old or so Wall Street banker, says to me at Christmas, something to this effect: "This alternative thing is one of the best marketing concepts in years. For who in their right mind would say that they are normal, who would want to claim they are like everyone else?"
I think he was trying to get me riled up, but I had to laugh and agree with him.
Your songs often exude a somewhat tongue-in-cheek sense of Southern pride. Do you find the Southeast to be more intolerant than other places you've lived, or is this a misconception?

Southerners generally go crazy when you talk about intolerance and the South. Many feel like they've been used as a sort of fall guy for the rest of the country, and in a way they are right.
Richmond is fairly suburban, and actually recently fairly affluent, like many of the cities of the South. Christian intolerance seems to me to be a suburban problem, and really doesn't have that much to do with the South. Of course, I am somewhat biased, as my father's family is from Arkansas, and most of my family still lives there. I was born in Texas, and after spending most of junior high school in southern California trying to rid the remnants of this accent from my speech, I have always identified with this underdog side of my heritage.

Do you consider yourself a Southerner?
I can't really say that I'm a Southerner. I grew up all over the place. Texas, Arkansas, England, Spain and California. I don't really know where I'm from. Regardless, I can't tell you how many times I've cringed when a television show has a Southern character who is simple yet lovable. "Thelma and Louise," set in Arkansas, was largely filmed in the central valley of California! And what about the accents? Lame Yankee actors and actresses doing some kind of Foghorn Leghorn accent. Or worse.
Racists aren't always Southern working class whites who live in mobile homes -- I have many amongst my immediate family. Yeah, it bugs me. Especially since I have personally witnessed some very violent and disgusting incidents of racism in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Sure the South has problems,
but in my six years in Virginia I haven't seen any racism like I've seen in California.
I also find the music scene in Richmond blows away what was going on in San Francisco when I was there. It's diverse, genuinely and aggressively experimental, without being pretentious or trendy. We have rock bands as diverse as Sparklehorse, Cracker, GWAR, La Bradford, and Technical Jed, not to mention more mainstream acts like The Dave Matthews Band. I find this vitality is repeated in many other cities in the South, especially Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, and New Orleans.
You've said before that "it seems everyone is in a band and has a record out" and you find that unsettling. Why?
The only reason I'm a little bummed that there are so many bands getting signed and that there are so many new start-up labels is I feel that a lot of great new bands are being swamped by so much mediocre music. The upside to this is there is so much more good stuff out there, but it's harder to find. I look at Sparklehorse and This Living Hand, and both of those bands have made great records. But it's hard for anyone to find out about them. Somehow this gives established media like Spin, Rolling Stone, various radio stations and others even more power.
There are more than a dozen unofficial Cracker home pages on the Web. Do you find it equally unsettling that everyone can now have a published opinion?
I guess in a way the same could be said for the Web and the Internet, but I'm not as personally connected to it, I really don't care as much.
In "Hey June," you talk about sitting on the Cafe Zinho steps "with a book I haven't read yet." What book was that?

The song is set about 1984 or 1985. I was probably reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Thomas Pynchon.
Are those your favorite writers?
I've probably read "Gravity's Rainbow" 15 times. I don't know why I love that book so much, probably because it took me so long to get through it the first time. Lately I've been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy. I finished reading "Outer Dark" at about five in
the morning in Denmark. No one was awake, so I called Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse back in Virginia just so I'd have someone to talk to about it.
Throughout your career you've collaborated with so many stellar musicians, and on this album you feature such artists as violinist Lovely Previn (daughter of Andre Previn of the London Symphony) and Joan Osborne. It seems pulling all these people together would be like trying to get a bunch of painters together to paint the same picture -- it could be beautiful if everyone shares a vision, but it could also be total chaos. How did you get this to work?
Basically, I passive-aggressively erase the stuff I don't like long after (the collaborating musicians) left. Sometimes I go so far as to edit stuff up and put things in places they didn't intend to play. But I never tell anybody what to do. It's much better to let people do what they would naturally do. It sounds more real, even if my editing makes things happen that never actually took place in real time.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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