It’s the early ’90s. If you could push your way through the flannel and step over the many Doc Martens in the way, you’d find another musical movement. The domain of floppy middle-parted haircuts, long sleeve button-downs buttoned ALL the way up, tucked into belted acid-wash jeans, begat the alternative indie folk pop of the day. Sincere snark, generally relegated to the screamier punk set, felt more droll and coffee house poetry-driven in the hands of the sad/mad boys and girls of the age. Cracker, and its pre-pupae embodiment, Camper Van Beethoven, were big. Like, on the Clueless soundtrack big. They were also OUR big alt indie rock band.
It’s the 30th anniversary next week of their second, and most successful album, Kerosene Hat. Their first self-titled release boasted their massive hit “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” but Kerosene Hat cemented their staying power as a legit genre-defining act. I promise you know at least four songs from this album. Like most records with that many hits on it, the rest of it could have also been hits too. Highly recommend you check it out for the first time (or the hundredth, if you were a teenager in 1993).
Here is our chat with David Lowery of Cracker who will be playing this weekend on Brown’s Island with Fighting Gravity and Everything.
Christian Detres: So, thirty years of Kerosene Hat, huh?
David Lowery: Yeah, it’s just shy of a week before it. So we’re not going to do the album in its entirety this weekend, but we’ll play a fair number of a large part of that album. And I mean, we’re only playing for an hour in Richmond.
CD: Nice. You’re from Cali. How did you wind up living in Richmond?
DL: My ex-girlfriend was from Virginia, that’s where she was living when we were dating, and I spent so much time on the East Coast anyway, touring. I was like, I want to move to Richmond.
CD: You could have made a worse decision.
DL: Yeah. I actually still have my house there. I’m just not there very often. One of my sons lives there and I’m out there maybe like a few days out of the month, but yeah.
CD: When you came to Richmond, was that a permanent thing?
DL: Yeah, I moved to Oregon Hill in the summer of 1990. Wow. Oregon Hill was very different. It was a place where you could rent a shitty house, practice in your own house, and people didn’t really complain because a band was the least of the troubles in the neighborhood. There were a ton of musicians and dancers that lived there too. Because this is the kind of place you can live really cheaply and work a crappy job, and ride a crappy bike to your crappy job.
CD: It’s funny; I wrote a whole article about that. Really, yeah. For Vice magazine way back in like 2009 where I like everything that you just said was just like my main calling card for why you should live in Richmond was just basically like, yeah, you could have a job at Mojo’s in the kitchen and you know, make no money, spend no money, and drink PBR on the front porch with your friends and play music. But yeah, it was kind of a late 20s – early 30s retirement community. Yeah, it’s actually getting nice. It’s always been charming, right? But it’s getting fancy there. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s getting there. You have a rare perspective from which to see the ’90s, ’90s music specifically, as it was coming around here, but then also nationally and globally. What were some takeaways, persistent memories, things that kind of stick in your head about this time around when, like, when Kerosene Hat was coming out. Can you tell us a little bit about the experience?
DL: Yeah, we’d already put out one album there. It garnered a fair amount of MTV and mainstream radio play and stuff like that. So we were already sort of local, you know, townie favorites or whatever when Kerosene Hat came out. But I remember like, probably like a few weeks after that album came out, I moved just outside of town, into a country house, but we started having like local teenagers pull up on the road and park outside of our house.
CD: You got any bras thrown in the front yard?
DL: Nothing like that. But we had to contact one of the local sheriff’s deputies. We had to sort of get friends with them. They’d drive by every once in a while and run people off, haha. That was just a short period. After that, people left us alone, but it was sort of like there hadn’t been an internationally famous band from Richmond at that time. Pre Lamb of God, of course. You had a band from Richmond with three videos simultaneously all heavy rotation on MTV. So it was a little… it was a little crazy.
CD: How much percentage of thrilled versus terrified would you say that you were through that experience? How did that hit you? Was it exciting for you or was it kind of like “oh my God, what Pandora’s box did we open?”
DL: No, it was exciting. Yeah, it was fun. We weren’t old enough to be afraid of shit. This is a fun story. I ended up buying into a studio that became Sound of Music. I started producing stuff there. And one of the guys who worked in the studio lived in Southside somewhere and said, hey, you know, they got “Low” on the jukebox, and the jukebox was connected to a karaoke machine. It was like a Saturday night in Richmond. I’d been doing some work at the studio and so we just packed everybody up and went over there. And I, you know, just completely anonymously sang my own song at karaoke because I don’t think a lot of people put together that they just got a small private Cracker show. Yeah, it was pretty funny.
CD: Was it the Locker Room in Forest Hill?
DL: I know that bar, but I don’t think so. I ended up living in that neighborhood. I still have the house kind of just outside of Westover Hills. So I kind of know all those places. I feel like it was a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Down Forest Hill, near where the Target is.
CD: Oh, okay. So yeah, they razed that whole area. That whole area was just demolished for the endless strip malls and Wal-Marts and such. I can barely remember what it looked like before then. You know, I actually just, as we were just talking, I don’t know why, I was thinking about the timeline here. How the rise of Dave Matthews, who’s coming out of Charlottesville… He used to play the Food Zone every Wednesday, right? And pack that place out. Right? But you know, how were you guys – I never really thought to ask and so I’ve done no research on this, haha. So if there’s no connection, there’s no connection. But did you have much awareness of each other? For a lot of that kind of come up, relatively close in time to each other?
DL: Well, we were you know, we lean for alternative and especially Americana. So yeah, a lot of the people that we were kind of hanging around were more like Wes Freed. We were more indie Americana. We were more plugged into that scene. That said, we toured with Dave Matthews years later. ’90s, early 2000s. He’s a really nice guy. He is funny as shit. Yeah. A lot of people don’t know that. He does so few interviews like that much. He’s got a wicked sense of humor. I think that’s kind of lost on a lot of people.
CD: Yeah, no. He does. No, he’s hilarious. But okay, so Cracker, you have your time in the ’90s and, you know, it gets a little crazy. You’re coming on 33 years since your first album. You’re teaching in Athens now? What are you teaching?
DL: Yeah, so I started well, first of all, yeah, okay. Let me do the short version. So I teach three classes that are basically about the music business. I have a lot of students. My class is pretty popular. There’s a music business certificate program at UGA. You have to have another degree you attach to that, but it’s successful. It’s a very successful program. We turn out a lot of students who go to work for the major labels, agencies, and all that stuff. I’ve been there 10 years. No, I’ve been there 12 years, actually. But so it’s a normal college professor life…
CD: Sounds kind of like an Indiana Jones type thing. You’re in the classroom all tweed and leather elbows, but then you also get out in the field and play shows, crack whips, and all that.
DL: Yeah, yeah. Because when you’re a teacher, after you’ve been there for a while, you move all your classes to the Tuesday and Thursday schedule, and you show up for Tuesday and Thursday and then the rest of the time you’re either working at home or you’re on the road doing the rockstar thing.
CD: You ever find yourself grading papers in the tour bus?
DL: [laughs] Not really papers, they’re online. But yeah, so that’s, it’s really not that much different. Really anyway, in the last 10 – 15 years, we’ve really just been just playing for older audiences. So yeah, we generally play weekends. It’s how it’s been for the last 15 years where we play on weekends or you know, in the summer, and then the rest of time I’m kind of a basically a university instructor.
CD: That sounds like a pretty fucking comfortable groove, though. It seems like you found a happy, happy place, a happy medium there. Are you guys making any new music for this tour? Are you just kind of playing the hits? What’s up with that?
DL: It’s not very economical to make new music. I mean, it frankly basically cost us money to make an album. We made so many albums between Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. We made some music. I don’t know, man. It’s just like…
CD: …It’s not necessary. Yeah.
DL: Well, in some ways, I wish it was, but…
CD: I hear you, dude. You have an incredible book of work. You can play that to the end of your days. Do you write on your own? For yourself? Do you do any kind of solo or just you know, acoustic sets, things like that just in your own time? Or is that “in your own time” really a laughable concept with how otherwise busy you are?
DL: Well, I’ve made these three solo albums through COVID that I kind of just make at home with an eight-track recorder type home thing, and then I collaborate with various friends who are spread all over the globe. Yeah, I just sell those directly. Like it’s a direct mail thing sold directly off our website. There’s only physical copies, never streaming, and that actually has been doing really well. And I know it’s really hard to think, but it’s actually more profitable to do direct mail. That said, I recently completed a little deal in the UK. I’m gonna release all of those and a fourth. So they’re gonna release all that as a box set and then globally to the streaming services next summer. So, there is something I’ve been working on, but it’s a little more stripped down. A little more personal than Cracker. Yeah, yeah. I won’t get too far ahead on that one, because…
CD: Oh, no, no, no, that’s I’ll leave it at that. In fact, I did read that you had a run-in with Spotify a while back, right.
DL: What was happening was I was teaching a class at the University of Georgia, and somebody said, “Where are your Spotify royalties?” I showed my friend my statement for royalties, and I was like, “Well, they’re here somewhere… I’m like, I’ll show you – I can’t find it right now. I’ll show you next class.” Right. Which is what my statements like; they’re actually our newest Spotify, mechanical royalties. Who’s got my mechanical royalties? These are songwriter ones. I ended up sort of going through my records, and I couldn’t find anything, and then I asked a number of my friends, and they’re like, actually, I don’t have either. There’s two royalties that pay. They’re paying one but not the other. It quickly became apparent to me that what we have is a class action situation. And so I found a firm that was willing to do a class action on spec. On behalf of songwriters. I didn’t really have that much to do with it after that. Got the ball rolling. But yeah, we won. Spotify settled and paid out a significant sum of money.
CD: With that experience behind you, what advice would you give to newer artists and bands that essentially can’t live without the streaming services? You’re really not going to do yourself any favors by not being on them in 2023. Is there anything they could look out for or, you know, or is that kind of a moot point? Do they have ALL the power?
DL: Well, the mistake that a lot of artists make that you can’t when you’re a new artist, you know, even back in the 90s – you give away most of your music when you start. Right? I mean major record labels with like, press armies give 30 to 40,000 copies – give most of those away at first. So if you’re a new artist, you’re going to be giving stuff away if you can be on the platform. You should do basically what a lot of indie niche specialty labels have figured out. You window your stuff, you first put it out, maybe on physical and download only where people have to buy it. This appeals to your hardcore fans. They go right out and buy it. And then later you move into the streaming services after you’ve sort of exhausted that initial demand. And if you do that, you’re kind of back to the same sort of revenue flows and compensation that you got back in the 90s. And there’s nobody stopping you from doing that. Except for, you know, maybe your record label just wants it to all go in the streaming service right away. But you can do that, and there’s plenty of indie, especially like jazz, metal, and punk labels doing this, and I don’t know why nobody talks about it.
CD: I’d love to ask you about your impressions of Richmond music. Are there any Richmond bands that you’ve caught in the last 30 years or so that have impressed you? What are your favorite ones? And do you have any that are performing these days that you could recommend people to go check out?
DL: I mean, I don’t know a lot about the more recent stuff. I mean, look at Lucy Dacus. She’s great. Boy Genius is doing great. Oddly I met her through Faye Webster, who’s here in Athens, you know. So she’s pretty interesting. But you know, Lamb of God was a real breakthrough artist. Metal’s not really my thing, but if you talk about a Richmond band that had a great impact on, you know, the music scene in the United States or even globally, you know, it’s Lamb of God all day.
CD: We’re looking forward to the show this Saturday, man, on Brown’s Island. It’s gonna be great. I’m sure. Well, from everybody at RVA, I want to say congratulations on an incredible career. And thanks for coming back to Richmond and playing for us again. Have a great time on stage, dude!
DL: All right. Well, thank you very much.
CD: You’re welcome. Take care!
Give Cracker a follow HERE