Growing old gracefully is a rare achievement for a rock'n'roll band, but Cracker are certainly fitting the bill. Their career now spans 18 years and has spawned a discography in the double figures. While they may not regain the platinum-selling level of commercial success or status as college radio favourites they enjoyed in the early '90s, they have retained a loyal international audience. Their new disc Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey betrays no sign of complacency, and it frames the imaginative lyrics and sardonic wit of main-man David Lowery with full-blooded rifferama.
Pleased with the reaction to Sunrise?
Yes, I am. It's been getting some great reviews and it appears we've actually been selling some copies too. That's nice in this day and age when people don't buy albums. It has been three years since we put out a new record so it's fun to go out and play some new songs.
I guess its three years since your last gig here in Toronto?
That's right, at the Mod Club with Greenland. We actually have fans all over the world, and they come out of the woodwork. It's different in different countries. Oddly enough the place in the world we get to play for the most people is Spain. It's even better than it is in the States for us.
There are worse places to be famous than Spain.
Indeed. At least the food's good. You can be popular in England, but the food's not very good there!
The new album sounds like it was fun to make.
What it is, it's that it's largely recorded live. What you're hearing, with a few minor exceptions, is the four of us all playing at the same time in the studio. A lot of people might go, "well, don't all bands do that?" Actually no. That's not the way records are made anymore. Of course you overdub the vocals and a few other things, but there is the live energy. And this may seem counterintuitive to people who don't know how it's done, but we had actually played all these songs before we went into the studio. Maybe they ended up a little differently, but that hasn't really happened since our first record. This is really typical with bands. You make your first record after you've played some shows. You've written and rehearsed all the songs, and you make your first record. After that, you get into this cycle where you are going into the studio and the songs aren't really finished. If they are finished, you haven't really played them out live, as you've been playing the last record. That's the cycle most bands stay in. This time we tried to break it. We started writing the songs about a year before and started trying to play them when we did have concerts, and this is kind of the result. I think that's why it has that sound.
I gather you messed things up in the songwriting, doing it more as a band?
Yes, it was stuff that came out of these songwriting sessions we'd have every two months. We'd take a week and go into the B room at my studio, set up live. Our goal every day was to write two pieces of music that were more or less songs. It didn't really matter if they were good, the idea was to just finish two pieces of music.
Is that discipline useful? Sounds a bit like those Nashville writing sessions where country writers are on the clock, usually with awful results.
Yes, that is horrible. If there was hell, for me it would be something like that. There was a little bit of that too. We did start in the morning, but the characters that play in my band hardly come from that kind of background. Our drummer, Frank Funaro, was in bands like the Dictators and he played on Joey Ramone's solo record. It'd be hard for him to turn out dreck, or work in some kind of song factory.
It's a pretty up-tempo album, without many of the moody ballads we sometimes get from Cracker. That come from the band dynamic and playing the songs live?
I think the guys in my band, their strengths are playing loud and fast. It sometimes goes against the grain to get them to turn down and play more subtly. I don't mean that negatively, that's just the more natural thing for them to do.
You recorded in Athens with David Barbe. Had you thought of producing yourself, or good to have an outside ear like David?
It was kind of produced by us and David. There used to be producers and engineers, but now you don't usually have those separate roles on a record anymore, unless it's a really expensive one. David is more like an engineer/producer, kind of in between the two. A lot of production came from us. A tune like "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," that is kind of our single and getting lots of radio play now. We had recorded that and it wasn't really exciting to me. Then one day in my apartment by myself, I was thinking "this just isn't right. I think that song is better than the reaction it's getting right now," so I quickly sketched up a demo, doing it differently. David agreed we should try it that way. The point is, yes, he's the producer, but there's a lot coming from us about how the songs go. So we re-recorded that track one day, and it became the single.
In an earlier interview, you told me you had to write songs for yourself, not the audience. It has to engage you.
Right, and I don't think that's bad from the commercial perspective. I think there are always people out there that share your musical tastes, so I think I'm a good target audience. I think I'm representative. I remember reading about how in the '60s they selected certain towns or neighbourhoods as the perfect test market to test products. I think I'm a good example of that.
You also said your best approach is to create characters and let them talk.
Yes, and it's also easier. Kind of a lazy man's way of writing song lyrics. It often relieves you of some of the psychic anguish of writing a song if you can get a character in your head and get them speaking. It is almost as though you're not doing it, you're letting someone else write the song's lyrics.
Still get inspired by literature in your writing?
Well, I'm off my pulp fiction phase. That was a while back. Lately it seems I've read a lot of great stuff. I'm back in this mood where I'm back to non-fiction, like history books and science. That's where I am right now.
As a lyricist, you keep people guessing. On the new album, there are references to Pakistani cricket star Younis Khan, punk rocker Dez Cadenza and Captain Beefheart. Any mandate behind that?
It's not like I'm trying to be perfectly obscure, but why do I have to participate in making our popular culture dumber instead of smarter? I hope some people do go and look up the cricketer or the history of Peshawar.
Have you become a cricket fan?
I used to watch my cousin in England play it, and I was sort of fascinated by him. I ended up on Youtube watching the cricket played in India and Pakistan. It's crazy, especially in India. At the same time I was reading a book about the history of central Asia, and currently the Taliban is in the news as being at the gates of Peshawar in Pakistan. It has been a very enlightened multicultural oasis in that part of the world for thousands of years. For it to be where it is now is kind of crazy. I just got interested in all of that. No, I don't play cricket but I have watched it before. I did know Younis Khan was a national hero. And there are all these guys named Khan, like Genghis Khan. It goes back to the great Mongol Empire essentially. Plus that song has John Doe, a guy who I could explain the song too and he was willing to sing harmonies on it.
You have peers guesting on the record, like John Doe and Patterson Hood from Drive-By Truckers. Feel an affinity with them?
Sure, those guys have lived the same kind of life as we have. We've had some of the same musical trajectory, meaning we've been a little under the radar, or under-rated. So I relate to those guys, absolutely.
Cracker have been termed "alt-rock godfathers." That make you feel old or proud?
I like that, it's a compliment. I don't have a problem with getting older, though who said that quote that "youth is wasted on the young"?
You now have a serious body of work behind you.
Well, you can take pride in that, but it's a double-edged sword. You think, "well, why don't I have the fame and fortune that some of these other bands have?" You have to be careful about being prideful. I don't want to sit around and dwell on that all day.
Cracker did grab commercial success early on.
Yes, and the weird thing is that songs like "Low" and "Eurotrash Girl" are probably played more today worldwide than when they were hits. Guess they're seen as classic or something. I can objectively measure that as you get paid a very small royalty every time a song is played on the radio. There aren't many things in this business you can measure objectively, so that is something you can hold onto. They love "Eurotrash Girl" in Argentina. Go figure!
Does Cracker now attract a younger age group too?
We attract some, but not really at the rate I'd like. It's interesting that when we do attract younger fans, they tend to come from punk rock. Kids who would self-identify as punk rockers seem to like what we do.
You've kept Camper Van Beethoven going. Is that just a few select gigs each year?
I think, especially as we haven't had a record out in a while, it's best if we play a couple dozen shows a year, maybe 25. It's partly because in the ten years or so we were on hiatus, everyone kind of moved on and had other lives. Victor is an art director at Wired magazine. Jonathan teaches college, Greg has a store in Santa Cruz. I have another job, this band Cracker. It works best in our lives if we don't go out and tour full-time.
Is playing live as much fun as ever?
To me, that is ultimately what music is about. A lot of people can make a good studio record with enough money and help, but I think you're really a band when you're playing live. That is the ultimate arena for the expression of your talent. To me, it is the end, not a means to an end, and always has been. But I'd be a liar if I said I enjoyed every show. There have been a few Monday nights in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I could have done without.
Are you staying active as a producer?
There's a band I did last year called Modern Skirts that I like a lot. And a jam band called Peewee Green that I did last year. I've stopped doing production for a little while to just work on my own stuff.
Are you a prolific songwriter?
I actually have a collection of solo songs on the way as my next thing. It is stuff that doesn't really fit with the band, so it takes a while to come together. That's the next thing, and I hope to finish it this summer.
Flirted with the idea of writing fiction or short stories?
Not really, but I do have a series of essays on not just the music business, but these reflections on wealth, risk, money, creating things, ideas. They may end up coming out, but they're not what people listening to my records would expect.