SET AMID THE DIST AND cactuses of the great Southern California desert, Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is part of a Western village built in the ’20s by Hollywood’s singing cowboys. The bar is usually home to a regular crowd of bikers, desert hermits and tourists, but on this snowy night in February, it has become a private hangout and rehearsal space for Cracker. The jukebox blares a crazy mix of Merle Haggard, Boston, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Frank Sinatra — just the right blend for the band whose new album, The Golden Age, offers its own confounding range of dynamic moods, styles and influences.
Between sips of Mexican beer, singer David Lowery reaches for another cigarette. “Charlie! Fuego, por favor,” he says, turning to Cracker drummer Charlie Quintana. (Quintana has since left the group to tour with Joan Osborne.) “Si, mi general!” Quintana says with a laugh as he lights Lowery’s cigarette.
Lowery’s stewardship has brought Cracker to some unexpected heights since the band’s beginnings in 1992. Cracker’s last album, 1993’s Kerosene Hat, spawned three radio hits — “Low,” “Eurotrash Girl” and “Get off This” — and sold more than 1 million copies. But with The Golden Age, Generalisimo Lowery and co-writer Johnny Hickman are taking Cracker into new and dangerous territory that includes spacey rock and delicate ballads. “I don’t like one-dimensional albums,” says Hickman, who is wearing an old motorcycle jacket held together with duct tape. “I like albums where I feel like I’ve been someplace when I get to the end of it.”
“That’s our big worry,” Lowery adds. He sits next to a rust-colored bust of Pappy, who passed away two years ago tonight. “We thought this was going to be fairly hard for us to pull off. About three months into it we were like ‘What have we got, songs or something?’ We really hadn’t figured out much yet. We were sort of at the worst point.”
Things turned around during the session for “Nothing to Believe In,” a stirring, gospel-flavored rocker that mixes Lowery’s frantic rasp with the background wail of his friend Joan Osborne. After that, the momentum never quit. “She blew me away,” Lowery says, pushing his long blond hair away from his thin face. “She sold her soul to the fucking devil to get a voice like that.”
Like a handful of other tracks, the slow-burning “Dixie Babylon” includes strings arranged by pop veteran David Campbell, who happens to be the father of Los Angeles hip-hop folkie Beck Raw, upbeat nonsense like “Useless Stuff” is matched by the heavier dose of Lowery sarcasm found in the self-explanatory riprock of “I Hate My Generation.” “I’m not talking about 18-or 20-year-old lads,” Lowery says. “I’m talking about 35-year-olds. I feel like my generation was the last generation that had expectations, and then shit didn’t pan out. Everybody is so fucking bitter. When it got hard, they all fucking gave up. And they’re just bitter assholes now.”
The Golden Age marks the end of a long period of hibernation for Cracker that was further extended last year after the band’s bassist, Bob Rupe, nearly hacked off his finger while sharpening a knife. The album was partially recorded in a small studio in Richmond, Va., that Lowery and his childhood friend Hickman built after relocating from the West Coast in 1990. Lowery moved to Richmond to be near his girlfriend, but now he’s shopping for a house here in the California desert — maybe one with indoor plumbing. He has always been a wandering spirit. Born in Texas, he grew up an Air Force brat in exotic locales, including his father’s native Arkansas, before his family moved to Redlands, Calif, in time for high school. “When I moved [to California], I had to consciously remember not to say y’all,” he says. “Basically having to do that pissed me off a little bit; I always identified with the South in a certain way.”
The first Cracker sessions retained much of the youthful edginess of Lowery’s first band, the underground heroes Camper Van Beethoven, but they discarded the earlier band’s cross-cultural experiments and semiacoustic quirkiness. “I was a huge fan of Camper Van Beethoven,” says Hickman, who had been asked to join that group twice but declined, first for personal reasons and then because he was trapped in a contract with a band called the Unforgiven that went nowhere. “[Camper Van Beethoven] really were a unique band. The only good thing about them breaking up is that I finally got to play with David.” What set Cracker apart immediately from Camper was Lowery and Hickman’s decision to play straight-ahead rock & roll. That meant no violins and no quirky polyrhythms — just electric guitars. “The last thing I wanted to do was imitate Camper, because it would be a second-rate Camper,” says Lowery. “But I knew we could always go someplace else. We had to start at this real-rock, real-roots place.”
Lyrically, too, things had changed, at first sinking even deeper into the loopy sarcasm that Lowery explored with Camper on “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” from their 1985 debut album. Even before Camper collapsed while touring in Europe, Lowery was already uncomfortable with certain fringe benefits of pop notoriety that seemed at odds with his working-class roots. “You’re thrown into this hip movie star culture,” he says, “and these are some of the most judgmental, uptight, rigid people you could ever meet. I burned out on it really quick, and I’ve never been interested in it again.”
Fueled by Camper’s bitter breakup and Hickman’s then-recent divorce, Cracker’s debut included such songs as “Teen Angst,” with its memorable lyric, “What the world needs now is another folk singer/Like I need a hole in my head.”
“He just kind of rants and raves until he says something that he likes,” Hickman says of his friend Lowery. “That’s a fun way to make music. It has very much to do with how he sees the world. He was the 19-year-old curmudgeon. He’s a cynical man. He was a cynical Kid. He’s been that way from the time he was born.”
The Golden Age balances those moments of cynicism with songs like “Big Dipper,” which evokes raw emotion with a quiet country melody as bare and lonely as a coyote howl. Lowery tackles big themes in small ways, with attention to subtle detail, instead of the epic manifestoes he sometimes attempted in his early songwriting. “That’s just getting older and facing your mortality,” he says. “Suddenly you actually have some experiences with people dying or fucked-up things happening. In the later Camper days some of the stuff I tried to write about I had no business writing about yet. Now that I’m 35, I feel like I can come back to it and do it better. Maybe that’s not true. But I sometimes feel like I got out of my league in some of the Camper stuff. I hope I don’t feel that way in seven years about this record.”
A few nights later, at the Troubadour nightclub, in Los Angeles, Cracker are playing their first gig in about 15 months. The crowd is heavy with industry types in town for an annual radio convention, which means more than the usual music-biz chatter during the quieter songs. Lowery seems not to notice, and he greets the audience from behind dark shades with a pleasant grin, launching into the high-volume tension of T Hate My Generation” and snapping a guitar string. Hickman provides an amiable contrast, smiling comfortably while churning out crisp leads.
Cracker’s last road trip was in 1994 as part of a package tour with Gin Blossoms and Spin Doctors. That prompted charges from some quarters that Lowery had sold out his underground roots, but he makes no apologies for wanting to play larger venues. He spent eight years traveling with Camper by van from one club gig to another. “Anybody who tells you that ‘oh, yeah, we only like to play in clubs — we like this intimate atmosphere’ has not played in front of 10,000 people who just totally dig your shit,” he says. “That’s just such a rush, man. That’s a blast.”
Cracker’s challenge now is dealing with mass popularity while remaining true to their adventurous musical spirit. At Pappy’s, after an afternoon of rehearsing, Lowery pauses to have a smoke next to a wall decorated wit a variety of antlers, a big stuffed bird, crumbling stagecoach gear and a painting of the ’50s movie vixen Jane Russell. “I’m just trying to play music that I’d like to hear right now,” he says, “with the stupid faith that ultimately there must be other people out there like me.”
But then there are those songs on the new album like “Bicycle Spaniards,” a spare rocker that is almost an instrumental. “That’s a weird one,” Lower)’ admits. “What the fuck’s that doin’ on a record that has ‘I Hate My Generation’ on it? That makes me worry. What are the kids going to think of ‘Bicycle Spaniards,’ Johnny?”
“Fuck ’em,” Hickman says with a grin. “They’ll come along.”