With a few simple, twisted lines like “Here comes ol’ Kerosene Hat / With his earflaps waxed / A’courtin’ his girl,” Cracker frontman David Lowery can conjure up more images in one song than many of rock’s current young songwriters can paint on entire albums. The laid-back alternative band reaped much success after it arose in 1992 from the ashes of college radio favorite Camper Van Beethoven. In that time, Cracker released its self-titled debut on Virgin Records and the smash follow-up Kerosene Hat a year later and has moved ploddingly but steadily through the alternative rock consciousness teetering on the mainstream.
But Lowery’s bands have always defied labels as well as convention. He calls Cracker “weirder than alternative” and fails to see how a band like Cracker, which can sandwich a straight-ahead country ballad in between a couple of semi-thrash numbers and look good while doing it, can be lumped in with alternative bands ranging from Afghan Whigs to XTC. Cracker has used the alternative outlet as a springboard to methodically achieve mainstream success, with Kerosene Hat going platinum in early 1994. There are those who have called his former group, Camper Van Beethoven, the prototypical alternative band; for Lowery, the term is quite nebulous and ultimately meaningless. “I remember first seeing that word applied to us,” he told Rolling Stone.”The nearest I could figure is that we seemed like a punk band, but we were playing pop music, so they made up this word alternative for those of us who do that.”
It’s that kind of small-town California straight talk that infuses Lowery’s music with refreshing observational wit and endears it to fans both white and blue collar, both alterna-hip and backwoods wise. Lowery was born in Texas, the son of a U.S. enlisted man and his English postwar bride. He was raised in Europe, but ended up spending his formative teenage years in Redlands, California. He began his musical journey like many others—by making experimental guitar noises as a teenager. Lowery went to college in Santa Cruz, where he formed Camper Van Beethoven and recorded their music on his own label, Pitch-a-Tent. His bandmates included drummer Chris Pederson, violinist Jonathan Segel, bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist Greg Lisher.
The Campers followed the classic route to alternative stardom: putting out their own independent tapes, gaining a cult underground following, and riding the mid-1980s college radio explosion. They followed on the heels of contemporaries R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs,
For the Record…
Members include guitarist David Lowery (formerly of Camper Van Beethoven), guitar; Johnny Hickman (formerly of the Unforgiven), lead guitar; David Lovering (formerly of the Pixies), drums; and Bruce Hughes (formerly of Poi Dog Pondering), bass.
Group formed in 1992; self-titled debut album released by Virgin, 1992.
Awards: Album Kerosene Hat went platinum, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records America, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements, winning scores of fans with their eclectically quirky blend of everything from European folk to ska to hardcore punk to reggae. “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” from 1985’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory, became a college radio staple. Though the group sold over 100,000 copies of their first three indie records, and moved on to record two major-label albums on Virgin, it was the Campers’ unpredictable live shows that made the music world stand up and take notice.
Camper Van Beethoven disintegrated on tour in 1989 and Lowery was left to his own devices. He moved to Virginia and eventually contacted an old California jam partner, Johnny Hickman, who had played in several bluegrass and country bands and had a disillusioning stint in the pop music business with a band called the Unforgiven. Having turned down offers to join the Campers because of previous commitments, Hickman was now ready to collaborate with his old Redlands pal Lowery. The two holed up in a Richmond apartment and turned out a 20-song demo that interested Virgin Records.
The two formed Cracker and set out on tour with an album that was more straight than Camper’s music, but still laced with “crackpot humor and lowbrow wisdom,” according to Rolling Stone. The album generated hits like “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Happy Birthday to Me.” It also kept the alternative label affixed to Lowery’s work. “Johnny and I... feel a little more crude, a little more crass, a little more redneck ... than our alternative brethren,” Lowery told Rolling Stone.”I was sort of the ‘cracker’ of Camper Van Beethoven. That’s where the name Cracker came from. It was away of expressing how I feel in alternative land. I ain’t got the right credentials. I like that.”
Cracker wasted no time producing the follow-up. Kerosene Hat was recorded in five weeks on a deserted movie soundstage in Pioneertown, a tiny hamlet in the California high desert 150 miles east of Los Angeles. It bowed in August 1993 and built momentum throughout the year with grass-roots support and word-of-mouth. It was the album that wouldn’t go away, forcing radio and MTV to eventually cave in and allow it some airtime, which gave it enough second wind to propel it to platinum. Although the slow process was a sharp contrast to the sudden success faced by Cracker’s 1993 to 1994 tourmates, Counting Crows, the band was undaunted. “I like the way our career is going,” Hickman told Rolling Stone.”It’s not going through the roof; it’s sneaking through the kitchen.”
Kerosene Hat mined the same vein as Cracker’s debut, though it was perhaps a little more tightly produced. The first single, the swirling “Low,” started its climb up the charts once MTV began regularly airing the video clip, a black-and-white film noir piece that featured Lowery climbing in a boxing ring and sparring with comedienne Sandra Bernhard. The second track, “Get Off This,” followed strongly and even received airplay on album-oriented rock stations, once off-limits to alternative bands. The album, said Rolling Stone, finds musical moods that “run the gamut from neorockabilly whoop-it-ups such as ‘Lonesome Johnny Blues’ to the desert-induced paranoia of ‘Low’ and the band’s cover of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Loser.’”
And just to show fans that the zaniness of the Camper days still remained, the CD listed tracks 13 and 14 as “No Songs,” while track 15, titled “Hi-Desert Biker Meth Lab,” was a40-second sound collage. Then they fooled with the indexing to make the disc contain 99 tracks, most of them three seconds long and silent. The reward for the shenanigans comes with three vintage Cracker tracks buried at tracks number 69,88, and 99. And how does Lowery pull such a stunt for a major label? “You just have to tell them it’s genius,” he told Rolling Stone.”And generally they’ll take your word for it.”
The only thing that hasn’t been steady for Cracker is its rhythm section. The band has been through four drummers and three bassists, including drummer David Lovering, formerly of the Pixies, and Bruce Hughes, formerly of Poi Dog Pondering, who joined the group in 1994. Whomever he’s playing with, Lowery maintains his ability to deftly hit the mark on offbeat subjects like former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Cadillac, winning the lottery, Russian cosmonauts, and Eurotrash girls without ever reverting to writing pop song cliches in the mode of “I love you, baby. Why don’t you love me?” A writer for Request noted, “At his peak moments as a songwriter ... Lowery transcends his wry mannered persona, speaking (without intending to) for the suburban youth that make up modern California mall culture.”
Through all the overanalysis and labeling, Lowery remains seemingly unaffected. “The longer I’ve been in the business,” he told Request, “the less I understand about what I do, except for one thing: You can only play music for yourself. If you do music you like and you get really popular, that’s great. But if you do music that you like and nobody gives a shit about you, that’s great, too.”
Cracker, Virgin, 1992.
Tucson (EP), Virgin, 1992.
Kerosene Hat, Virgin, 1993.
Billboard, August 28, 1993; February 12, 1994; April 9, 1994.
High Fidelity, December 1988.
Musician, September 1993.
Request, October 1993.
Rolling Stone, March 26, 1987; April 7, 1988; May 19, 1988; August 11, 1988; December 14, 1989; September 16, 1993; April 7, 1994.
Stereo Review, September, 1988; May, 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Virgin Records publicity materials, 1994.
Formed: 1991, Richmond, Virginia
Members: Frank Funaro, drums; Johnny Hickman, guitar; David Lowery, vocals (born San Antonio, Texas, 10 October 1960); Brandy Wood, bass. Former members: Davey Faragher, bass; Kenny Margolis, keyboards; Bob Rupe, bass.
Best-selling album since 1990: Kerosene Hat (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "Low," "Get Off This," "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)"
Cracker enjoyed a short run of commercial success in the early 1990s with a string of eclectic rock hits.
Cracker evolved out of Camper Van Beethoven, a 1980s band. After leaving Camper, vocalist David Lowery began recording demos with guitar player Johnny Hickman and bass player Davey Faragher. In 1991 they signed with Virgin Records and, with the help of a variety of session drummers, released their self-titled debut album the following year. Cracker featured the quirky MTV hit "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," an uptempo folk-rock number that features the memorable hook: "What the world needs now is another folk singer / Like I need a hole in my head."
Cracker refined its sound for the follow-up album, Kerosene Hat (1993), offering up a tougher, more traditional electric guitar-based production. The band retained its celebrated lyrical quirkiness, as typified by the lead single "Low." "Low," which features spiraling electric guitars and a sprawling power-chord chorus, poses the memorable question to listeners: "Hey, don't you wanna go down, like some junkie cosmonaut?" The dizzying and drug-themed lyrics reach a climax with the song's main hook: "Being with you girl like being low / Hey, hey, hey / Like being stoned." With its catchy melody and memorable lyrics, "Low" became a staple on MTV and a minor hit on commercial radio. The follow-up "Get Off This" enjoyed similar success. Like "Low," "Get Off This" rocks in a straight-ahead manner and belies a decided funk influence; its jaded lyrics hearken to the band's previous hit "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," with the band challenging idealists to make a difference: "Let's get off this / And get on with it / If you wanna change the world, shut yer mouth and start to spin it." On the strength of its hit singles, Kerosene Hat sold more than 1 million records.
For the remainder of the 1990s, Cracker experienced a number of lineup shifts, including the departure of original member Davey Faragher; Lowery also spent significant time away from Cracker, producing acts such as Joan Osborne, Magnet, and Sparklehorse, while also appearing in various films. On releases such as Gentleman's Blues (1998) and Forever (2002), Cracker forsook the straight-ahead rock style of Kerosene Hat and embraced its musically eclectic roots, mixing blues rock, Southern rock, and Grateful Dead-styled jams into its records. Though the albums were hailed by critics for their musical imagination, none enjoyed the commercial success of Kerosene Hat.
Cracker's time in the commercial spotlight was brief. Nevertheless, with its taut rock sound and evocative lyrics, the band offered up some of the memorable pop-rock singles of the mid-1990s.
Cracker (Virgin, 1992); Kerosene Hat (Virgin, 1993); The Golden Age (Virgin, 1996); Gentleman's Blues (Virgin, 1998); Forever (Back Porch, 2002).
crack·er / ˈkrakər/ • n. 1. a thin, crisp wafer often eaten with cheese or other savory toppings. 2. a person or thing that cracks. ∎ an installation for cracking hydrocarbons: a catalytic cracker. ∎ a person who breaks into a computer system, typically for an illegal purpose. 3. often offens. another term for poor white. 4. chiefly Brit. a paper cylinder that is pulled apart at Christmas or other celebrations, making a sharp noise and releasing a small novelty. ∎ a firework exploding with a sharp noise.