David Lowery will be pulling double duty at the Middle East Downstairs Friday Jan 16 a winter stop that’s become a ritual in Lowery-land. First, be singing and playing guitar with Camper Van Beethoven, the quirky California band he co-founded in 1983. Then, he’ll be doing the same with Cracker, the more straight-ahead rock group he-co-founded in Virginia in 1990. The genre-scrambling Camper had underground hits like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Cracker hit the semi-mainstream with “Low” and “Teen Angst.” Lowery has been doing this dual tour annually. Some real good news: They’re not just trading upon history: CVB released “El Camino Real” and Cracker released the double-disc “From Berkeley to Bakersfield” last year and both are terrific efforts.
This interview is taken from one we did a couple of years back. I’m hosting the Boston Rock/Talk show for XFINITY on Demand at the Middle East with Lowery and company for future broadcast for the 2 1/2 million XFINITY New England subscribers. No doubt we’ll be talking some about his role as wonderingsound.com puts it “perhaps the most important and ardent spokesperson for artists rights in the digital era.”
JSInk: This tour seems like a lot of work. Why the undertaking? And why come to this part of the country now?
Lowery: We always do it in January when it’s really cold and no bands go up to the Northeast and Canada. It started from the fact that it was the only time that was slow for the Camper Van Beethoven guys who have real careers. Then, we accidentally figured out nobody else is touring, so it’s seen as this mid-winter cabin fever kind of party.
What kind of effort is this for you?
It’s hard in one way, but in some ways it’s easier for me. If I did a three-hour Cracker show it’s pretty physical because its pretty much me singing most of the time with occasional breaks for Johnny Hickman’s guitar solos. But Camper has all this instrumental stuff and even within the songs that have lyrics, there’s all these instrumental passages. It’s great to play a selection of songs that cover 27 years. Cracker’s drummer Frank [Funaro] is pulling double duty, too, and sometimes Camper’s Victor [Krummenacher] will sub on bass for Cracker.
When Camper broke up in 1990 my understanding was there was a lot of animosity.
Yeah, I always thought it was a big drama, but now after being around bands for 30 years, producing bands, it was really kind of tame. It was an uneventful breakup. There were some personality conflicts. But everybody in Camper always had side projects, so not everybody’s identity was locked into Camper Van Beethoven and still isn’t. It’s a fragile thing. My wife, who manages both bands, tells me, “That’s what Camper wants to be.” Camper comes together and it goes apart and it has to be respected.
What was the idea when Cracker formed?
Johnny Hickman, who I formed Cracker with, is probably one of the biggest Camper fans around, a true diehard supporter and an old friend. When we formed Cracker, what we didn’t want to do is start an imitation Camper Van Beethoven, or Camper Mach II. We didn’t want to screw with the legacy. For Cracker, we needed to step away and let it have its own identity. The shared musical language we have fits more in the classic rock place, leaning toward Americana and with maybe Brit psychedelia.
I liked Cracker right away, but did miss the quirks.
It is less quirky. When me and Johnny write songs together, it’s more straight-up rock ‘n’ roll without winking and having some irony involved in us “rocking.” It’s very natural for us to do that. Why shouldn’t we play to our strengths? And that downplays the quirky part of my songwriting.
You’ve always mixed irony and sincerity.
I think sometimes people regarded us as maybe not serious because there was humor in our work. It was a little weird to me. Look at American literature. Novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy ncorporated absurdity and humor, yet they told a serious story.I was always surprised that sometimes [in music] you’re treated as not serious if you do that. When you tell a serious story, you use all the narrative tools. Using an unreliable narrator is my favorite thing, a character that is not telling the truth and you’re supposed to know they’re not telling the truth. I love that.
But in rock, we seem to want to believe the singer means every word.
Yeah, there’s something about people that want that kind of voice in rock. But I am who I am and I can only end up writing and playing the songs that make me happy so. In a way, there’s always been commercial suicide built into what we’re doing.
You used to knock back shots of whiskey before and after shows, but not anymore, right?
Yeah, I’ve been sober for 8 years now. It was a little weird getting used to playing when you weren’t really going to the party, and it was challenging to feel comfortable on stage for a good year-and-a-half. But I don’t really think about it anymore. After the show, if someone says, “Let’s go!” I’m like “Do they have ice cream or coffee?”
Show at 9. Tickets: $22 advance/$25 door.
472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-864-3278. www.mideastclub.com