The Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman takes both bands on a winter tour, partly timed to his new gig as a professor.
He’s flattered to be remembered at all, but David Lowery did not need the new Diablo Cody-written movie “Young Adult” to remind him that his band Cracker is seen as an early-1990s nostalgia act. That reminder comes on a daily basis, thanks to his new job teaching a music-business course at the University of Georgia-Athens.
“A lot of the students there tell me the same thing we heard from the soldiers when we performed over in Iraq” in 2009, Lowery said with a droll laugh. “They said, 'Dude, my parents are going to totally freak out when they find out I was hanging out with you.’”
Let’s give Gen-X rock fans a little break, and hope those kids were referring to the singer/guitarist’s earlier, far quirkier band, Camper Van Beethoven. That mainstay of the mid-’80s college-rock circuit landed one novelty underground hit, “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”
Although still cult-loved, Camper experienced nothing like the run Cracker had. The band enjoyed steady mainstream radio play in the early 1990s with the slacker-flavored songs “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Low.” The latter landed on the “Young Adult” soundtrack alongside the Replacements, Lemonheads and other bands of the grunge era who weren’t all really grunge
In part to fit his teaching schedule, Lowery paired both of his groups for a short twofer tour coming to Minneapolis in the dead of winter. This is the first time the bands — which share drummer Frank Funaro — have played in Minneapolis together, and Camper’s first time here since 2003.
“The advantage for me is, I get to essentially cover my entire catalog in one night, which I really enjoy, and hopefully some of the fans do,” said Lowery. “The disadvantage is it’s a really long show, and actually a lot of work.”
This is not the first time the Southern California-bred musicians have braved Minnesota in January.
“We had a tradition of going to the coldest parts of the country when nobody else would,” said Lowery, who vividly remembers Camper Van Beethoven’s first gig at 7th Street Entry in 1986.
“Our roadie guy slept in the van to stay with the gear, and when we got there in the morning, his beard was actually frozen,” he recalled. “We proceeded to realize that the van was broken, and I remember us California boys being under the van in like 3 degrees, changing the starter motor. That was pretty true-to-form for a first trip to Minneapolis.”
On tour with the Red Bulls
Lowery’s older band actually has the newer songs to play on this current outing. The eclectic, gypsy-punk-gone-country ensemble — which originally disbanded in 1990 — has been working on its first new album in eight years, due this year. Lowery said one of the reasons for this tour was to road-test the new songs.
“With [Camper], we really don’t play a whole lot, and we kind of like it that way,” he said. “Forty shows would be a lot for us in one year. Which is funny, since everybody in the business is touring more now because it’s the only way to make money anymore. Not in Camper; we only want to make albums now.”
As for the more straight-ahead Cracker, Lowery’s and co-founding guitarist Johnny Hickman’s last effort was 2009’s twangy “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey,” which was something of a return to form.
“Cracker’s first record really was a lot more Southern-rock/country-rock than people remember,” he said. “I remember our longtime A&R person at Virgin said to us when we turned in that record, 'It sounds great. But do you really want to put out a country-rock record when nobody else is?’ This was 1991, when Nirvana hit.”
Lowery’s trajectory with Cracker through the early-’90s alt-rock boom echoes that of ex-Minneapolitan Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, as the former indie-rockers went mainstream with new bands. Coincidentally, Sugar bassist David Barbe also teaches at UGA with Lowery.
“We all kind of grew out of the tail end of punk-rock, when punk had sort of become this rigid art form and some of us just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll — something poppier, but not like classic rock, our own kind of thing. The mainstream sort of moved toward us instead of the other way around. MTV and radio suddenly discovered our bands. It wasn’t like a specific stylistic thing. It was just like we were held up as the 'new generation of rock.’”
As for today’s new generation of rock fans, Lowery said he’s surprised how many of his students know his bands, just as he was surprised by the reception Cracker got on its tour of Iraq and Kuwait. The group’s hosts for a week of that trip were members of the Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Red Bull Infantry Division, about whom Lowery said, “They were a big part of a very impressive operation.”
Sgt. Ryan Lodgaard of the Red Bulls recounted watching a Vikings game with the band and talking abstract math with the not-so-secretly-nerdy Lowery. When Cracker played, Lodgaard said, “for the only time I was in Iraq, I literally forgot where I was for a couple of seconds.”