The secrets of semi-success

Who needs fame and fortune? All they get you is an unflattering shot in the tabloids and a steady stream of phone calls from suddenly-not-so-distant relatives.

But seriously, how can a talented band keep disgorging disc after disc of solid, accessible music without ever hitting the big time? We found some answers in Cleveland’s The Odeon not long ago, during a pre-show interview with Cracker front man and semi-success expert David Lowery.

Despite a handful of radio hits big enough that listeners can effortlessly sing along, Cracker is still far from a household word. Lowery explains the making of a five-hit wonder: “It’s some kind of marketing plan by Virgin, as best as I can figure, to make sure we have an exclusive audience. There’s a dichotomy between people that know our songs from the radio and [our] cult following.”

“Following” is the operative word here; about 100 fans at any given show are from out of town, a slew of them tagging along on the tour in a part-time, Grateful Dead kind of way. These folks know every song. They sing all the words. They even collect and trade bootlegs.

That may be one reason Cracker hasn’t gotten any bigger: They’re too roots-rock for the indie crowd, but having been labeled, to some degree, as the latter sort of band, they’ve been largely unavailable to most of meat-and-potato America.

“That comes from me and Johnny,” Lowery admits. “We grew up listening to [country] from our parents. And my sister was kind of a hippie in the ’70s, listening to bluegrass, and she learned to play the banjo. Then, in the heyday of punk rock, we were in punk bands, and we used to listen to it ironically. It made us seem weirder and more complex than other punk rockers.”

The punk-rock Lowery was living in Santa Cruz in the early ’80s, when everything started to shift. The pure styles of punk, New Wave, country and everything else you could find were becoming diluted, combined and refined into a growing alternative scene. In due time, Lowery’s Camper van Beethoven was born. The group’s trademark sound — a bit roots-rock, puffed up with an airy sauciness not found since that era — attracted a small cult following on college campuses, and grabbed some national radio play on brand-new alternative stations.

But after languishing in mild fame for years, Camper van Beethoven faded away in frustration.

So what does a slightly famous musician do when he wants to start over? Move to Richmond, Va., of course: “It probably seemed odd at the time, but it makes more sense now. It just seemed kind of crazy to start a new band in L.A. or San Francisco. I’d be busting my ass all the time just to make the rent.”

In hindsight, he made the right choice. We can thank Virginia for the Dave Matthews Band, D’Angelo, Gwar — OK, Dave Matthews and D’Angelo,at least –. and now Cracker. On their very first try, Cracker hit bigger than Camper ever did, with “Teen Angst,” from Cracker (Virgin, 1992). Then, on Kerosene Hat (Virgin, 1993), they scored even bigger hits with “Low” and “Euro-Trash Girl.”

Here’s where Lowery shares the real secret of his semi-success.

“Richmond is the kind of town where there’s a lot of people who don’t really want to do anything with their lives. That’s what it was like in Santa Cruz. There are several neighborhoods you can live in quite cheaply, and you can just burn out and ride your bike to the local bar. To me, that inspires a lot of creativity. It’s just a lot of people hanging out having fun, which is the point of civilization, right?” (Sounds like a plan. So should we all move to Richmond? Don’t pack your bags. According to Lowery logic, we’re living smack in the middle of our own civility: “Asheville is like Santa Cruz with banjos. It’s the same small town with the hippie types hanging out, but instead of playing congas and reggae music, they’re playing banjos on the street [and] bumming change.”)

After a strong run out of the gate, however, Cracker hasn’t had a major radio hit in years. But don’t blame Richmond; fingers point to the fickleness of contemporary radio stations, which have virtually ignored the group’s later efforts. True Cracker fans, though, have celebrated both Golden Age (Virgin, 1996) and Gentleman’s Blues (Virgin, 1998) as yet more Cracker magic. Not surprisingly, as the band’s radio popularity dwindles, its cult following swells. And if you thought a compilation disc was proof that Cracker had gone stale, you need to really listen to Garage D’or (Virgin, 2000) before you judge.

“We weren’t interested in a greatest-hits package of what was on the radio. That wouldn’t represent the band to the fans very well. ‘Big Dipper’ is way more important to die-hard fans than ‘Low.’

“We also wanted to make sure if we put out a CD, it would include enough new or hard-to-find stuff on it so our fans didn’t plunk down $15 for stuff they already had,” he continues thoughtfully.

Acting on this sentiment, Lowery solicited Cracker fans everywhere to write down 15 of their favorite Cracker songs. Then the band and their management made their own lists. The singer describes the process this way: “We got hundreds of responses and we compiled it very unscientifically, just looking at which songs were mentioned a lot.” The result was a good mix of radio hits and cult classics, plus three brand-new tunes. But that wasn’t enough for $15, the band decided. So they added a second disc, filled with rarities, B-sides and live tracks. And Crackerheads ate it up.

The band’s democratic song-selection methods spill over into live shows, as well. There’s no set list to speak of, and after every song Lowery looks to the screaming crowd for inspiration.

Observing this, it’s easy to see how a cult following develops. At the Cleveland show, Cracker trotted out the radio favorites right away, so they could move on to deeper requests. And they played those for hours — until the bar kicked everyone out, in fact.

“We pick [what songs we’re going to do] on-stage, [rather than before the show]. Somebody starts it, and we go from there,” explains Lowery.

“It’s pretty easy to do,” he adds. “I’m surprised more bands don’t do it. The only thing it f••ks with is your light show. And we don’t have a light show.”

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