Crackers with Attitude

When the alternative gets predictable, the alt-country rockers get weird

Cracker Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

It is the first night of the second leg of Cracker's tour in support of their latest album, Kerosene Hat, and sweat-soaked bodies are being squeezed off to the sides by the stageward press of a frantic, mosh-mad crowd, but somewhere in between the choogling rock slide of "Get off This" and the countrified funk of "Sweet Potato," singer-guitarist David Lowery pauses to apologize to the packed house at Trax, a rock club in Charlottesville, Va. "I should have told you we're not really alternative," he says, more proud than contrite. "We're much weirder than alternative."

The audience — a sardinelike mass of flannel-clad college kids rambunctiously bouncing off the walls of this gloriously unfancy concrete bunker — really can't be bothered with semantic distinctions. They're too busy stage-diving and being passed overhead to the din of Cracker's streamlined, rootsy thrash & roll. Legs flail recklessly in the air like masts of ships being tossed into a pitching sea. Toward the set's end, the self-effacing Lowery salutes this bunch of die-hards, who have expended at least as much energy as the band, with these words: "You like us so much, it scares me sometimes."

If Lowery finds the enthusiasm of about 800 Crackerheads unnerving, his band's bright future ought to put the fear of God in him. Surely he can see it coming. His previous band, the much-loved Camper Van Beethoven, was on the verge of transcending cult-band status in the manner of R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs — two groups for which it served as opening act — when Camper blew up while on tour in Europe in late 1989. Subsequently, Lowery formed Cracker with guitarist Johnny Hickman, a longtime pal from Lowery's inland-California hometown of Redlands, and a shifting rhythm section. Cracker, their debut album, sold 200,000 copies — roughly twice the number of the best-selling Camper Van Beethoven album, 1989's Key Lime Pie — while Kerosene Hat, released last August, has already gone over the 400,000 mark.

The LP's first single, a slice of mood grunge called "Low," created a buzz with its unsettling black-and-white video highlighted by Lowery's boxing-ring sparring with Sandra Bernhard. The release of a second single, "Get off This," finds Kerosene Hat still gaining momentum after half a year, while Cracker crisscross the country on a bill with Counting Crows. In recent weeks, the Crows have suddenly leapfrogged up the charts, in contrast to Cracker's slow, steady climb, which has instead been keyed by grass-roots support and word of mouth. But, says Hickman: "I like the way our career is going. It's not going through the roof; it's sneaking through the kitchen."

Lowery, too, is pleased with Cracker's sure-footed creep, although he is frequently given to musing about the band's standing relative to the alternative-rock scene. The subject, in fact, preoccupies him during an eve-of-tour interview at a studio he co-owns in Richmond, Va., where he now lives. Lowery's conundrum goes like this: Camper Van Beethoven were arguably the prototypical alternative band. "I remember first seeing that word applied to us," he says. "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." Cracker, he feels, may be less eclectic but no less esoteric than Camper, and they're decidedly more offbeat than what now usually passes for alternative rock. Because of their advanced age (at 33 and 35, respectively, he and Hickman are "old men to everybody," Lowery says) and the fact that they draw on country & western and Rolling Stones-style roots rock, Cracker are not perceived by some alternative dogmatists as truly legit. Lowery, on the other hand, views the alternative scene as having become depressingly predictable.

"Isn't it funny how normal alternative bands are now?" Lowery says. "Even the stuff that's supposedly underground is so normal I don't want to let go of the word alternative in a way, because I feel like 'Hey, man, they had to invent that word to deal with me!' But now some people will say, 'Cracker, they're not an alternative band, because they play country music.'

"I've heard the most insane things said about us," Lowery says, "and I'm like 'Hey, fuck you!' I get all territorial about it. Then at other times, I just look at it and go, 'God, we're just so much weirder.' I mean, we're getting popular, and we're seeing some mainstream success, and we still can't really figure out what we're doing. We're just weird, you know?"

Lowery may have a point. In the title song of Kerosene Hat, he describes a twisted, desertbilly couple with an eye for the surreal as attuned as that of Captain Beefheart's: "Here comes ol' Kerosene Hat/With his earflaps waxed/A-courtin' his girl." "Movie Star" builds a furious, Sex Pistols-worthy head of steam while Lowery offers such loopy lyrics as "The movie star, well, she crashed her car/Everyone said she looked beautiful even without her head." Cracker's musical mood swings on Kerosene Hat 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."

Then there's the song listing on the CD that identifies tracks 13 and 14 as "No Songs": They consist of snoring and sawing sounds. The final track listed, "Hi-Desert Biker Meth Lab," was the title of a song the band never got around to writing, so they put a 40-second sound collage in its place. Then they fiddled with the indexing of the CD by listing 99 tracks, many of them silent and three seconds in length. Lowery recalls with a chuckle the confusion of a car-stereo installer who tried to show off the CD player he'd just put in Lowery's car — by using Kerosene Hat set on random play.

Cracker and producer Don Smith also buried three unlisted songs — "Eurotrash Girl," "I Ride My Bike" and a rough take of "Kerosene Hat" captured on the audio track of a camcorder the morning after Lowery wrote it — deep in the disc. How do they get away with such shenanigans on a major label? "You just have to tell them it's genius," says Lowery, "and generally they'll take your word for it." Then there are such as yet unrealized larks as Crackers With Attitude — a trio consisting of Lowery, Hickman and the group's lawyer Brian McPherson — whose ambition is to be a hip-hop band that solely samples trad-country greats such as Merle Haggard and Jerry Reed.

Lowery has been walking an offbeat track since the age of 16, when he began making dissonant, experimental guitarnoise tapes, even getting one reviewed in an underground magazine. He soon progressed from playing in New Wave cover bands to determinedly original groups with names like Box of Laughs and Estonian Gauchos — the latter including Johnny Hickman. "There were no rules," says Hickman of the Gauchos. "We could play any style of music we wanted, so we played everything from European folk music to ska to country to hardcore punk to reggae."

The groundwork for Camper Van Beethoven's fearless eclecticism — showcased to brilliant effect on records such as 1985's Telephone Free Landslide Victory and Vampire Can Mating Oven, in 1987 — was laid during those years, and it eventually took them everywhere from Pink Floyd covers to musical collaborations with noted guitarist-bizarro Eugene Chadbourne. The group never had a hit per se, but the '85 college-radio fave "Take the Skinheads Bowling" remains a classic of the pop-dadaist wing of '80s alternative rock. Nurtured in the tolerant, slacker environs of Santa Cruz, Calif., where punk rock and New Age lifestyles met head-on ("cigarettes and carrot juice" is how Lowery describes the overlap), the Campers found themselves with lots of time and ideas and little to distract them from making music.

"We didn't really have anything else to do in a town like Santa Cruz," Lowery says. "Also, it was so easy to do this kind of weirdo music that was a reaction to all the strait-laced punk stuff that was around them." The Campers drew from such disparate influences as the Kinks and the '60s ethno-acid Los Angeles band Kaleidoscope and became paragons of the do-it-yourself ethic by releasing albums on their own Pitch-a-Tent label while building a following in the early alternative-music community.

After making two albums for Virgin, Camper Van Beethoven came undone, with Lowery becoming the odd man out as the other members formed the more deliberately obscure Monks of Doom. Lowery waited patiently for them to come back, to no avail. "I had a sort of big-brother attitude with them," he recalls. "I was always like 'You stupid kids, you're blowing it! Can't you see?' So I went, 'OK, go and do your thing.' But after six months, I just got tired of waiting around."

Lowery moved east to Richmond to be with his girlfriend, and he eventually contacted Hickman, who'd been casually gigging around Bakersfield, Calif., with country bands in the wake of a disillusioning music-business experience with a band called the Unforgiven. Having turned down previous offers to join Camper Van Beethoven because of existing commitments, Hickman jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with his old compadre from Redlands. "I'm a believer in letting the hand of fate weave its way," Hickman says. "When we finally did end up getting together, a lot of the pleasure of working with David was that it was a long time in coming."

Lowery and Hickman holed up in a cheap apartment in a dicey Richmond neighborhood and churned out songs, sending Virgin a 20-tune demo reel that inspired the label to exercise its option on Lowery after Camper Van Beethoven's demise. Cracker's debut album was as taut and streamlined as the Campers' records were musically schizo, an economical synthesis of country, punk and roots music neatly summed up by Lowery when he sang, "Hey, don't get your head a mess/This is Cracker soul/It comes so easy." Cracker have been on a roll ever since, rocking harder while plumbing the white-trash psyche for nuggets of crackpot humor and lowbrow wisdom. Indeed, honoring the folk culture of rural and blue-collar America has become something of a crusade with Lowery.

"I think all that stuff is dying out and being replaced by a bizarre, suburban, middle-class thing, which to me is even more sick," says Lowery. "I grew up around a lot of that stuff. My relatives in Arkansas, most of them live in mobile homes. I have a couple of cousins in prison, and I was around a lot of military bases, which are always really trashy.

"It's a little bit like how me and Johnny feel amongst all our alternative brethren," Lowery continues. "We feel a little more crude, a little more crass, a little more redneck. That was the thing: I was sort of the 'cracker' of Camper Van Beethoven. That's where the name Cracker came from. It was a way of expressing how I feel in alternative land. I ain't got the right credentials."

He pauses.

"I like that."