Having a pop song with the word "teen" in it can be a scary thing these days. Just ask David Lowery.
Last fall the leader of now-extinct pop eccentrics Camper Van Beethoven re-emerged with a new band, Cracker. After the group completed its self-titled debut in September, it had to choose a first single. The band and its label, Virgin Records, settled on "Teen Angst."
"About a week after we finished our record, I heard Nirvana," Lowery says, referring to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the radio tsunami that nearly wiped Cracker's record off the charts. "Before Nirvana came out, we played around with the title of ours and finally decided to leave it. It's a good thing we didn't call it 'Smells Like Teen Angst.'"
But semantic confusion with Nirvana is a bee sting compared to the bite the ghost of Camper has taken out of Lowery's new band. Happily, the success of Cracker and that album's direct, un-Camperlike sound have eased the CVB comparisons for now.
Alternative before alternative was cool, Camper simultaneously reveled in and poked fun at earnest indie rock. The Santa Cruz-based group mixed Middle Eastern sounds, surreal pop and jabberwocky lyrics to create some of the most fiercely creative and eclectic pop music of the Eighties. At the height of its powers, the group possessed the twin charms of powerful, unpredictable originals like "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" and so-bad-they're-cool covers of tunes like Ringo Starr's "Photograph."
Camper came to a bitter end in the middle of the band's 1990 European tour. Part of the problem was that three Campers--drummer Chris Pedersen, bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist Greg Lisher--were spending an increasing amount of time in a side project called the Monks of Doom. In fact, they released their first album, The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, before Camper had officially disbanded.
Monks' members have complained that Lowery was dominating the band. He counters that the problems arrived with the onset of rock-star egos. Suddenly, certain hotels weren't good enough for the band to stay in. And everyone had to have new instruments.
According to the band's ex-front man, a chasm of social class also opened inside the band. "Look at Camper," Lowery says. "We had a doctor's son, a banker's son, an architect's daughter and me. There were very real differences there. A gap in the fundamental way we viewed the world. "In Cracker, I got these guys from my hometown. Johnny and I, our fathers were enlisted men in the Army."
What Lowery is leaving out is that he, too, was a pampered college boy when Camper coalesced into a band. Stations in life aside, a musical division existed within the original band. As the Monks have delved further into eclectic art rock, Cracker has gone just as hard into mainstream, Stones-influenced guitar pop-rock.
In many ways, Cracker is a reaction to Lowery's white-punks-on-dope days in the Camper artosphere. Now, instead of trying to work the sounds of a gamelan band into a pop tune, he's copping hooks from BTO and Billy Gibbons. Speaking of ZZ Top and Southern rock, Lowery has even assumed a Southern-man persona on Cracker. One tune, "Another Song About the Rain," sounds like Heart of Gold-era Neil Young. Now a resident of Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, Lowery formed Cracker with guitarist Johnny Hickman and bassist Davey Faragher, two pals from high school days in Redlands, California. The group used distinguished session drummers Jim Keltner and Rick "Jag" Jaeger for the recording. Another California acquaintance, drummer Joey Peters, has since signed on to complete the band's full-time lineup.
The name of the album comes from the Southern term for a redneck white native of Dixie. Lowery and Co. coined the semiserious term "cracker soul" to describe their Southern-rock-meets-the-Nineties music. Its essence, according to Lowery, is tied up with "kicking ass" and "narrowing the focus and learning to rock."
Lowery has written lyrics to match his new, stripped-down aesthetic. Renouncing Camper's political statements and arty but pointed nonsense, Lowery has turned blunt. "Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)" is aimed straight at Camper's Big Sur-hippie mindset. Lowery says Cracker often plays the song back to back with its obvious inspiration, Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
But not all of Camper has been expunged from Lowery's memory banks. His recognizable nasal voice still whines away in the front of the mix, and a few of the songs bear a Camperlike quirkiness. "St. Cajetan," for example, a tune Lowery wrote for the never-recorded follow-up to Camper's last album, Key Lime Pie, is very much in the vein of Camper ditties like "Good Guys & Bad Guys" and "I Was Born in the Laundromat." And for those desperate for a fix, the last tune on the Cracker record, "Dr. Bernice," is exactly the kind of gonzo Gilbert and Sullivan knockoff Camper was known for. Lowery admits that Cracker includes a few Camper tunes in its live sets just to keep the request shouting from getting out of hand. But these glances backward don't seem to bother Lowery. The success of "Teen Angst" has given him confidence that after nearly two years of regrouping, he has rediscovered what made him play music in the first place.
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"When we started out, label people told us, 'Rock is dead. The cool thing is dance music, or the English hybrid of dance and rock,'" Lowery says.
"In a way, I don't blame them for trying to change my mind. When bands break up and one guy does a solo record, it never works. Look what happened to Bob Mould," he adds, referring to the former lead singer for Hsker D.
"With this band, we've gone back to what we loved the most--Creedence or, better yet, Ted Nugent with a punk attitude.