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Cracking the code: Founder David Lowery talks nearly 40 years of Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven

David Lowery, whose influential work with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker defined the alternative sound of the 1990s, is bringing both of his groups to Lucky You Lounge with support from local rock combo Buffalo Jones on Sunday evening.

“We’re playing with Buffalo Jones, who has kind of become a local (Spokane) band that has been around for a while. I produced their last record, and they are just good friends of ours. They’re the ones who have been bugging us to come back and play there,” Lowery said on Dec. 16, two weeks before embarking on his groups’ annual holiday tour.

What’s changed from when you first started touring compared to now?

It’s remarkable how much it’s the same. It’s still all kind of grassroots and word-of-mouth. I suppose you could pay for promoted tweets and promoted Instagram and adds on Facebook. We do a little bit of stuff like that, but it’s really still just your mailing list, your fan club and just sort of working with your fan base in a grassroots way that’s most effective. Touring is still the best way to generate interest in your catalog or sales of your CDs and vinyl.

You had both of your projects touring at once with the 2010 “Traveling Apothecary” tour – was that series of sold-out shows the first revelation that made you think, “This could work”?

“The Traveling Apothecary” shows I think really started even earlier than that. Since there’s overlap between the two bands, generally, I can get Cracker’s drummer to play for Camper, or I can get (bassist Victor Krummenacher) to play bass with Cracker. Partly we just did it to save a little money, and then it just turned out to be kind of cool.

I know one year I broke my wrist right before we went on tour, so I could only play for about 20 minutes at a time. We just kept doing these short, 20-minute sets switching between Cracker and Camper, and toward the end we started mixing the band up. It’s cool just mixing it up, and you get 35 years worth of music that way.

What does the audience look like now? Is it the generation of people who grew up with those songs, or is it the kids of that generation?

It seems like it’s become this holiday, these shows, whereby parents come with their kids. It’s basically people who grew up on one band or the other, and then sometimes you get a lot of younger people because their parents listen to us. I have this great story of doing USO-type shows in Iraq, except they were really small shows … we went to control bases.

The first day we got there, the classic U.S. infantry-looking guy complete with the Oakley sunglasses, just the cliché of every young Army-infantry man, comes walking up to me, and he’s got a CD that he wants me to sign.

I’m like, “This is interesting. These young people know who we are.” He walks up to me and hands me the CD and says, “Sir, would you please sign this for my parents?” That was the first interaction that we really had with the public there – and that happened repeatedly.

As a producer, you’ve worked with groups like Sparklehorse and Counting Crows. Has working with these other bands influenced your own work at all?

Sure. Most of the time, what constitutes a band is the core songwriting pair, the people in the band who contribute to the sound, then this other circle of more informal people who are more influential on the band’s sound than you might think. I feel like all of the time I get stuff from that.

You can hear that I recorded two albums with Sparklehorse because suddenly I’m using some of the same keyboard patches or approaching things in a similar way. I’ve always thought that “Hanging Around,” which I produced that song by Counting Crows, has a kind of Cracker feeling to it, and I’d think they would admit that, as well.

Do you usually have a consistent setlist, or does it vary from night to night?

We try to change it 50% from night to night. I imagine it’s about 100 songs that we’re working from, so we also look back at what we played last time we played in that town. It has to be 50% different from what we played last time we were there. I have the main iPad, so I can make the setlist, and I usually have a list of songs that everybody’s comfortable with.

The cool thing about technology is that I can very discreetly have an iPad tucked away somewhere on the stage, and when somebody calls out a song that we haven’t played in a while, we have just enough notes to allow us to play more songs.

Does the setlist read like a greatest-hits track list, or do you make sure to include deeper cuts?

There’s basically five songs that Cracker has to play every night for the most “I haven’t seen them in 20 years”-type person. Then it’s kind of deep tracks, and I try to play a little bit off of every record. Lately, Camper Van Beethoven has been focusing on the earliest albums that are very garage-y.

What’s one song you never get tired of playing?

There’s this pseudo-’70s blues-rock thing that’s a sleeper from this album called “Greenland,” but it just really shreds live. I feel like we’re in some ’60s British psychedelic blues-rock thing. It’s a song called “Gimme One More Chance.” It’s kind of a deep track, but over the years a lot of our fans have gravitated toward that. It’s all pocket and emotion.

In the past, you’ve gone on tour with acts like R.E.M. Are there any other tours or bands that you’ve played with that have really stuck out to you?

I think that R.E.M. tour was pretty significant as far as a career goes. In 18 months, we went from selling cassettes at shows and playing locally to having three records out and touring with R.E.M. playing in hockey arenas. Being this indie band putting out your own records through networking and grassroots touring to being on a stage playing for 10,000 people, that gave us the big breakthrough.

I don’t think anything compares to that. On that tour, R.E.M. was playing “The One I Love” at sound check every night so they could work it out, and we sort of just sat there at the side of the stage waiting to load our stuff in while they worked on the songs for their new album.

Do you think it’s easier or harder for college-level bands to make it today because of greater access to distribute or stream their music?

In my day, the problem was that there were essentially gatekeepers who you had to get around. You had to meet the right people, and they would recommend you to somebody else. In some ways, that was a little easier just because you could see what the rules were.

Now what you have for younger people trying to move up is the tyranny of choice. If you just go onto Spotify, how do you know what to listen to? We have empowered this different kind of gatekeeper. It’s really hard to get yourself noticed or trending on things like SoundCloud without hiring a publicist.

In 2019, you released your third solo album, “In the Shadow of the Bull,” which is the latest since 2016’s “Conquistador.” Neither of them is on Apple Music or Spotify. How are you distributing that music now?

What I’m doing with those albums right now is I sell them directly to our fans. I only sell them at shows. It’s as if they’re in theaters. There’s one more album in the group that I’m going to put out that way, and eventually I’m going to release them all as physical copies. Once I’m done with that, I’ll put them on the streaming services.

I sold 1,000 CDs of “Conquistador.” I would have needed 23 million YouTube views to make the money I made off that. What you’re really trying to do is just get the music to the people who like you. You can still make money today off albums, but you have to control the availability and put it through different, windowed stages like the way the movies do.

They’ll eventually show up on streaming services, but not before I basically give it to my most hardcore fans and spread it out from there.

My editor is a longtime fan of Cracker, as “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” were staples when he was in college. Are you surprised at the longevity and staying power of Cracker and CVB?

Maybe a little more surprised about Camper. With Cracker, I sort of knew there were a lot of people who might listen to things like grunge or the Manchester sound – it was half electronic and half rock. Those were the two big things when we put out our record.

Our idea was like, “Look, half of my hipster friends, you know, punk rock kids, I get in their car, and they’re listening to Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones or Creedence Clearwater when we’re driving around.”

Obviously everybody has broader tastes, so I was like, “You know, we should do a straight, blues-rock, country-rock kind of band because Johnny (Hickman) and I can play that all day long. Our friends like this, we like this, we can write songs in this vein, and we sound more or less authentic doing it. Let’s just do it.”

In a way, I didn’t think we’d get on the radio, but I thought we’d appeal to people. The real surprise is that we got on the radio right away.

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