After beloved indie rockers Camper van Beethoven [pictured] broke up in the late ’80s, singer-guitarist David Lowery approached childhood friend Johnny Hickman about starting a new band.
The duo began writing songs together and even played a few shows as the David Lowery Group before forming the alt-rock act Cracker with drummer Greg Weatherford (since replaced by Coco Owens) and bassist Davey Faragher (since replaced by Bryan Howard). The current Cracker lineup also includes Matt “Pistol” Stoessel on pedal steel and Thayer Sarrano, who sometimes tours with the band, on keys and backing vocals.
Then, after Camper Van Beethoven reunited a few years ago, Lowery started taking both bands out on the road. He’d play a set with Camper and follow it up with a set with Cracker.
“Back in 2000 or 2001, Camper Van Beethoven wasn’t officially reformed but [bassist] Victor [Krummenacher] from Camper Van Beethoven had been playing bass with us,” Lowery explains in a recent phone interview. “When we were on the West Coast, we thought we’d add [multi-instrumentalist] Jonathan [Segel], so we did a set with Camper songs mixed in. We started calling the Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker Apothecary Tour.”
Once Camper reformed, the group played some after Christmas shows on the West Coast and the Bay Area, and “people seemed to like it,” as Lowery puts it.
“We decided to make it a tradition every year,” he explains. “It’s been going on for at least 13 years now and has now extended into January. We were doing the West Coast as the Apothecary Tour and then started doing the East Coast and doing D.C., Philly, Toronto and Boston on MLK weekend. Now, we just string it all together. It’s sort of a U.S. tour that goes from San Diego up to Minneapolis and then to the East Coast. Some years, we go to St. Louis, and I think we’ve been to Detroit. It might have been Grand Rapids.”
The two bands have never played Cleveland together, but they will both perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 8, at the Music Box Supper Club
When Camper Van Beethoven initially came together in 1983, the music scene in Redlands, Calif., where the band was based, didn’t have much going for it.
“We were it for the music scene,” says Lowery. “It was us and Johnny Hickman’s band. It wasn’t until we got to Santa Cruz that we started playing more and basically figured out that we could work together. We were all in other bands, and then we figured that Camper van Beethoven was more popular than our other more serious bands.”
Lowery says the members of Camper played in vaguely post-punk bands before coming together to form Camper. The band quickly found a club it could call home in the southern part of Santa Cruz at a place called O.T. Price's Music Hall, a local country bar.
“They would do local indie bands that had any sort of folk appeal to them,” Lowery says when asked about the club. “Camper became a regular there. Cracker grew out of there too. We were playing alongside people who were doing more traditional country. It was amazing. It would have been called alt-country back then. Rank N File and Terry Allen and all these Southwest weirdo hippie country writers who came in there. We bumped into all that stuff. It was an eclectic scene there, so Camper makes sense if you were there. It seems weirder if you weren’t. We were a natural thing to grow out of that scene.”
The band’s first underground hit “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” features a jangly guitar riff and Lowery’s distinctively nasally, high-pitched vocals.
“The idea in my head was that music was really serious in 1983 and 1984,” says Lowery when asked about what inspired the tune. “No matter what style it was, every song had meaning. Even if you were playing hair metal, you had to really mean what you were doing. Music wasn’t always like that. There has been a playfulness in popular music. The song was a reaction to what was going on. It’s designed so that each line undermines the previous line. You’re not supposed to form a meaning from what I say in the song.”
In the wake of the success of its first three albums, the band signed a deal with Virgin Records, delivering two terrific albums before splitting it up while it was in the midst of a European tour.
“It’s not like Fleetwood Mac where the band had a big fiery blow up,” says Lowery about what caused the band to split. “We basically in late ’88 or ’89 got rid of Jonathan [Segel], and he had a solo thing. Victor [Krummenacher] and Greg [Lisher] had Monks of Doom along with David A. Immerglück. It was splitting into little pieces and ended with a dull sort of nothing. Different people had different ideas about what the band should be and what we should do, and nobody wanted to fight it.”
After Camper split, Lowery reconnected with Hickman. The two had jammed off and on in the past and they knew one another for a very long time.
“He was the guy I knew who was really comfortable with the country rock or whatever we called it then,” says Lowery. “He was comfortable with that stuff. We knew what we were approximately doing, and we knew it would be eclectic like Camper, but we were trying to stay more mixing rock and psychedelic and punk with the Americana stuff because that was where our interests overlapped. It was kind of silly, but we wanted to make a good roots rock album.”
That was during the height of grunge and when the band’s debut came out, the band won an MTV Music Awards nomination for best new band along with acts such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam and we didn’t even go.
“We thought there would be no way we would win,” says Lowery. “The thing about the first album is that people forget that even though our songs were played on alternative rock radio, the first record was super roots oriented. Our A&R guy Mark Williams was pretty supportive of us, but he did call me and say, ‘I like this record abut are you sure you want to put out a country rock record when there was grunge and the Manchester sound stuff?’ It did not seem like we knew what we were doing.”
The album delivered with a hit with the sarcastic first single “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).”
“And then, we had this other stuff that came out like Counting Crows and we make more sense in the context of that and what came later,” says Lowery. “But with that first album, we were really rolling the dice.”
Camper reformed in 1999, secretly re-recording Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk
album and manufacturing a fake story about how the band recorded it in 1987 and the tapes were lost. The group also released what it said was an oddities album of lost tracks when in fact many of the tunes were newly recorded.
“This is the way the band thinks,” says Lowery. “We just didn’t want to tell anyone we were back together, but we put clues throughout the record. There were backward strings from a Cracker song. People weren’t buying it after awhile and then we more or less reformed. That was the gag.”
Up until 2014, both bands put out a slew of new studio releases. But now, neither act has put out anything new out in almost three years. Lowery was non-committal when asked if the new year would bring new music.
“We exhausted a lot of the music we were working on and then we toured and did 125 days of the road,” he says. “We emptied the war chest between the five discs that both bands released. I don’t like to put stuff out that’s not a great concept that engages me as a listener as well as an artist. When we have something, we have something.”
Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $28 ADV, $32 DOS, musicboxcle.com.