David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven is a master of the DIY movement in music. This summer, as he tours again with both bands on the bill for a two-and-a-half-hour show, he's recorded a solo album defying the expectations of the orthodox route for an established performer. Lowery is also a professor at the University of Georgia where he teaches music business and acts as a champion of digital rights for musicians. He sees the limited release as a kind of critique of the current sad state of online receipts for artists.
For what he calls "the most under-functioning new record release strategy ever," the singer and songwriting mind behind Billboard-charting records is only making 1,000 copies of the album. In the Shadow of the Bull was recorded on a $300 Tascam Portastudio, then mixed and mastered. The first part of a "multi-disc musical autobiography," the seven-song recording will be sold only at Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Summer Vacation shows. If there are any left, they will be sold at his website online.
"These are not records I'd expect to be played on the radio," he says. "I did a solo album a couple of years ago (sold on the crackersoul.com website). I'm doing it again with songs ... stripped down with guitar, harmonica and tambourine, making a thousand copies to be sold at the shows because I would need 71 million views online to get the same return. That's how screwed up the digital world is."
His professional career in music started around 1983 in Redlands, California, when he played for several punk-oriented bands, as well as a goofball act called Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol.
"We had other bands and Camper Van Beethoven was a side band," Lowery says. "After about a year we realized it was more popular than the other bands. We liked the way surf and psychedelic bands took in these other elements. They didn't try to get it right, and they weren't like dilettantes trying to imitate a style. They got it wrong and it became a weird, freaky style of rock.
"We did the first Camper Van Beethoven album for $400. We promoted it and distributed it. We just kind of did what people didn't think you'd be able to do. We did a lot of things that weren't supposed to happen."
The first albums were on an independent label, incorporating numerous styles of raw, spontaneous ska and punk, country rock, sometimes within the same song. Each album was a roller coaster ride, with songs usually limited to two minutes or less. It was the kind of music that was joyous in its skewed dissonance and happy hippie diversity, usually with strange song titles as "That Was The Day Lassie Went to the Moon," "We Saw Jerry's Daughter" and the college-radio classic, "Take the Skinheads Bowling."
Despite the fact it was totally different than the leading punk bands in the region, the band had a close association with the legendary SST label bands such as Black Flag and the Meat Puppets. At one point Lowery gained access to SST's list of contacts, tapping the label's rolodex to send their albums to college radio stations.
"Out of punk rock and post-punk, there was always a kind of audience," he says. "We drew from the first wave of hippie experimental garage psychedelia, a lot of obscure '60s music, and we updated that for the punk and ska culture. I don't know where the Rubicon was crossed. There was a formula for Camper Van Beethoven in those days. Take one of four punk, ska, country shuffle beats, take something that doesn't belong, add a reference to conspiracy theories, space aliens and psychedelic drugs, and whip them up for a while."
What powered the songs more than anything else was an absurd sense of humor.
"In the mid ‘80s, with punk and new wave, everything was so deathly serious," he says. "We came to the point where we wondered, ‘What does a song have to do with anything, does it have to be about anything?"
The band eventually signed with Virgin Records, efforts that were more streamlined and radio ready. Camper Van Beethoven made a hit out of a cover of the Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," which became a number one song on Billboard magazine's Modern Rock Tracks. Also from that second major-label album, Key Lime Pie, they came up with one of their showstoppers, "All Her Favorite Fruit." With its signature classical violin intro, the symphonic piece was as Beethoven-esque as the band would ever become.
But things were looking up for the band, at least for the time being. In 1990 they broke up when differences in musical direction came to a head in Sweden, with several members going on to form a band called The Monks of Doom.
As Lowery often says, "We didn't blow up like Fleetwood Mac. It dissolved like a urinal cake, with everybody going in different directions."
In short time, Lowery formed Cracker with long-time friend and guitarist Johnny Hickman, who had played within the same circle of musicians in Redlands that played in garage bands prior to Camper Van Beethoven. The period was so seamless between Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker that many of the songs meant for the first band were used for the top-selling act that was to follow.
Cracker gained a reputation for a great live act throughout the 1990s, and then in 1999 Camper Van Beethoven reformed with an eccentric re-do of Fleetwood Mac's double album, Tusk, with Lowery returning as front man. Suddenly, he had two bands to lead.
Lowery's duo show format started with "campouts" in a pioneer town in the Mohave desert, he says.
"We had been disappointed with places we could play in the greater Los Angeles area," Lowery says. "They weren't the right size and you couldn't get as good of a deal. So we started playing as a two-band set out on the fringes of civilization, Pappy and Harriet's Pioneer Town Palace. I have a long history with the area since I had a place out there. They got new ownership and expanded it. It's a totally trendy place now. We also actually recorded 'Kerosene Hat' there, which a lot of people probably don't know."
Now the Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker tours have a key fan base connected with people who call themselves Crumbs, that is, fans who keep in touch with tour events with listservs and online bulletin boards, a smaller version of what was used by Grateful Dead fans. For the past 20 years the two-band act has developed a dedicated following. It keeps Lowery busy on top of his career teaching and as a mathematician and financial analyst.
“With most things in music and touring, as Elvis Costello said, ‘I play for free. You pay me to travel,’” Lowery says.
Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven will perform at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen Ave., on Sunday, July 21. The all-ages show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $24, plus applicable fees. Visit www.crackersoul.com for more information.