School Of Rock: A Q&A With David Lowery

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

David Lowery has a lot on his plate. The frontman for two of rock’s most beloved cult bands, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, has just released a trippy new solo album, The Palace Guards. He’s also been cultivating his 300 Songs blog project, and he’s gearing up to teach a music industry course at the University of Georgia.

You recently played some Cracker/Camper double bills. How did that go?

It was great. They were all sold out, so that’s fantastic! I mean, in the middle of the winter, in the northeast? It’s gotta be good, right? [laughs] Especially the Cracker stuff, you know, we’re playing most of that stuff all the time anyway so it’s fairly easy for us to do that. The Key Lime Pie thing is a little challenging for Camper, because a lot of those songs we’ve never played live. When we broke up for the first time before, we never really toured all that much for that matter. So, that was a little bit of a challenge.

Did you get the sense that people were more into one record or the other during the show?

Well, I mean obviously Kerosene Hat is a little more well known, but there’s quite a contingent of hardcore Camper people who came out specifically to see us do this. I think people know the Cracker songs better, so people reacted a little bit more to that. There wasn’t a huge difference though.

Are you currently writing songs for both projects at this time?

Not at the moment. I have this solo record out, so that’s what I’m focused on right now. We did some songwriting this fall for Camper, but it didn’t really come to a full album yet. We need to dig into that again. Actually, I’m not even sure we’re going to do a whole album. I’m not really sure a whole album really means anything anymore, but that’s another story [laughs].

What was the impetus for creating your solo record?

Well it’s been 27 years, probably 28 years, since I’ve been recording with my bands and stuff like that. I never really had a solo project, partly because I had these two bands, and I feel like I write a lot of different kind of songs. Both my bands are eclectic in their own way. Cracker’s really worked everything from sort of country to psychedelic, ’60s blues-rock and stuff like that to punk rock. Camper Van Beethoven has more eclectic things going, we sort of came out of the punk rock thing as well. Then there’s our patented, sort of fake-patented, Eastern European music, and southwestern kind of music.

Does the songwriting on Palace Guards diverge wildly from the stuff of your other two bands?

Uh, no. I don’t really think so. I don’t know about wildly. It’s a collection of songs from over the past five years that I didn’t end up using, that I didn’t put on the Cracker record or the Camper Van Beethoven record, because ultimately in my mind I thought they really couldn’t realize them the way I wanted them to, so that’s partly why it took some time. I was pulling those ones out.  I suppose Cracker or Camper could have played those songs well, but I was looking for sort of a crazy Syd Barrett or Skip Spence kind of vibe.

Was the title track directly influenced by Syd?

No. I don’t think so. Well, the second half of it sounds a lot like The Pixies. It would be closer to Skip Spence. In fact, I believe I even quote Skip Spence with “Lawrence of Euphoria”, I think I quote that in “Deep Oblivion”. There’s just something interesting about like, demos of songwriters -and songwriters that I know- make. They make sort of this same thing. There’s this madness that when you make a demo, when it’s yourself playing most of the instruments or small group of people in the studio, that doesn’t really come across as a way of doing things and stuff like that. That’s kind of why I wanted to do this record. I couldn’t really say that it’s more pop, because these songs are a bit more extreme with personality. It seemed like that was a good thing for these songs, and to leave them that way.

You wrote on your Facebook page about the Tea Party recently. Is there any political content on this record?

No, I don’t think so. If I did touch on politics, I did it in such a oblique way. There is a song on the last record, which I really specifically took the voice of what I would call the “angry rights”, and sort of took that voice and portrayed it not sympathetically. I happen to think a lot of people on the right, they’re angered about the right things, I just disagree with the solution they present. Not all of them, but there’s actually decent, thoughtful people on the right who happen to disagree with me about what solutions are. And then there’s a bunch of whack jobs [laughs].

Now that we are in the Internet age and you can get direct feedback from your fans, has that been eye opening for you?

Um, yeah. I think going back to Forever, the album Cracker put out in 2002, we made that record fairly interactively with a small group of fans that could figure out we were actually hiding songs in little snippets of songs and other things like that on our website. We weren’t really making it open to everybody, but we made this game out of it with me and Johnny doing the demos to those two records. So, yeah we’ve been doing it about 10 years.

Originally, before I had a deal for this record, I was just going to make a video for 10 songs. Like 10 songs, and make a video for each song, put them on YouTube, and that was all I was going to do. The songs from Oblivion just start with me putting them on YouTube probably till about 2007. I started doing this record in late 2006, and there’s actually a lot of work, about a week of completely concentrated work to do a whole video to a song, and it may not always be good. It really became like a month for each of those, because I could just take a week off and work on the video for the rest of my life. I knew that was going to be too slow, so I didn’t do that. But, now I’m sort of back to thinking about something like that.

For Camper, we have a couple of newer songs that are really long, almost like progressive rock in that they have a lot of different sections to them that are strange. I thought, “You know, maybe the next thing Camper does is do one or two eight minute-long songs.” There would be an interesting video to that, but I don’t know.

Tell us about the 300 Songs blog you have going. How long have you been doing that?

Since about August. When I’m on the road, I usually write one everyday because there’s a lot of driving around and that’s what I liked to do with my time. Now that I have this solo record out, I’m just really trying to do one or two a week. There’s a lot of stuff going on.

Did you find it easy to recall stories about your old songs?

To a certain extent. It’s interesting, you know. l like the comments going up. That’s one of the great things about the blog, and yet some of my friends would remember things in different ways. Sometimes, I have to go back and edit to incorporate the conversations into the blog about each song. A lot of my friends would remember things that I didn’t remember. It’s interesting, you know? In our minds you don’t always remember exactly right, but that’s part of the process. I like that. I come back to the same event, and almost contradict myself. When I think about it, I’ll remember that I actually thought this happened.

And you’re planning on turning it into a book?

I was really gung ho on that, because our fans got me really wound up to do that. But the publishing business is about as clueless as the record labels where five years ago. Ultimately, the charm of this book is that it’s a little multimedia event. What’s the charm of the blog is that you can stream these videos and play these songs while I’m talking about this stuff. It’s not exactly a book; it’s a little more. I may still do the book, but I’m not really crazy about what people have told me about adapting the blog to a book. I think in some ways it may be better as a blog until the multimedia, interactive book stuff sort of comes together more over the kindle and iBook.

You’re going to be teaching a music industry class at UGA in the spring. Who’s idea was that for you to teach the course?

Well, I have a background in mathematics and finance, and obviously as an artist. I’ve heard managers say they have the best perspective on the whole music industry, because they deal with anything and everything. But that’s actually not true. The artists do. The manager never goes to the show in Tulsa or Allentown, Pennsylvania. We actually see everything, the whole country. We know how the royalties work, how everybody gets paid, what marketing works, what doesn’t.

So the guy who is running the music business certificate program at UGA is a friend of mine. He sort of thought I would be good at teaching the business part of the class rather than managers, accountants, business managers, or agents. I’m actually pretty well educated, so I thought, “what the heck.”  Obviously, UGA is a very well-respected institution, so in that way it was it is a big deal, but it’s two one hour and 15 minutes classes a week on Tuesday and Thursday. So, I can do that during the week, and on the weekend I can have my other life.

Is it a curriculum that you’ve designed completely? Will you use textbooks and stuff?

For my class I opted to not use any books. I felt they were out of date from the way people are actually selling records now. So, it’s a bit more work on me. Essentially, I have to write a blog everyday for my class to teach them. We’ll insert some other books and charts, and all kind of other things, so it’s almost like writing my own book. It’s a good discipline.

You’ve written so many songs over the years. How often do you write currently?

I will write little snippets of songs here and there, but what I actually prefer to do is sit down and set aside time to write songs. I decided not to do that right now. I just want to concentrate on my teaching, my blog, and my solo record. When you’re younger, it’s really easy to accidentally find yourself with nothing to do and you can write songs. When you’re older, you have to set aside a week or some time to write, and then you usually come up with a couple ideas a day.

I love the idea that when you are writing songs, you do quantity, not quality, first. You sort of sketch them out. You don’t care if they’re a good idea or a bad idea; you just sketch them out and finish it. You know, I’ll do these week-long sections. Once I get a lot of that, I’ll start tweaking them, maybe taking the good bits, throwing some away, maybe combining two into a better song. Then, I would refine them later. For instance, this Fall, how we got lots of good pieces for the Camper record was that I specifically took ten days of me and the lead guitarist for Camper holing up in my house. Everyday, we got up and had to come up with two pieces of music. It worked out.

And that’s very similar to how we did the last Cracker record. We got everybody together for a week every two months, and we did the same thing. We had to make up two pieces of music before we went home from the studio. Even if there’s only “blah, blah, blah” through the chorus or something like that, and then you can extrapolate the two parts of songwriting: raw inspiration and getting riffs, chord progressions, and melodies. The other part of songwriting, which is really just refining something to be coherent, is to craft a more interesting song. I’m not crazy about the word “craft” when it comes to songwriting, but I’ll use it anyway because I think most people will understand what I’m talking about.

One of the songs that Camper is best known for is “Take The Skinheads Bowling”. How do you see that song now?

Well, if someone would have told me 27 years ago that I would be singing it 27 years later, I would be shocked at that whole notion. I think I would question their sanity. I mean, I understand why people like that song. In 1983, everybody had style and real strong “flavor” or something, so they were trying to get that across. But, more importantly, everybody had something important to say in songs. So, that song was a total reaction to that crap. It was a song specifically designed so it didn’t mean anything. It didn’t have any real importance.

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