Alt-rock outfit Cracker formed from the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven in 1990, when David Lowery and his childhood friend Johnny Hickman moved from California to Richmond, Va. Starting with the breakout hit, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” from their self-titled 1992 debut album, Cracker went on to be one of the most vital bands of the decade’s alt rock boom. In particular, their 1993 follow-up, Kerosene Hat, became an instant classic.
That record’s singles, “Low” and “Get Off This,” helped establish Cracker as a band capable of moving through multiple genres, from Americana to country to punk, all fueled by Lowery and Hickman’s ever-evolving songwriting. Cracker haven’t released new music in close to a decade — 2014’s Berkeley To Bakersfield is their most recent album of new material. But the band has solidified itself as a hard-touring legacy act that connects with fans on the road, according to Lowery.
“The nice thing about being a band with some history, that’s established a following like we have, is that you can work directly with your fans,” he said.
The singer, guitarist and mathematician (he teaches at the University of Georgia in Athens) spoke with Seven Days by phone from (where else?) the road ahead of Cracker’s upcoming performance on Friday, July 14, as part of the Old Stage Summer Series at the Essex Experience.
A Q&A With Cracker’s Johnny Hickman
A Q&A With Cracker’s Johnny Hickman
By Dan Bolles
One of the silver linings for the band during the pandemic was the connection with its fans. Cracker’s fervent fanbase, who call themselves Crumbs, interact with the band on an intimate level through fan clubs and social media groups. It has enabled Cracker to maintain a strong bond over the decades with their audience that Lowery only believes has grown deeper.
Still, social media aside, the front man doesn’t have the rosiest impression of technology and the music business. Even though Lowery says the band does well with its streaming numbers, he takes a dim view of the streaming model. Indeed, he and his Camper Van Beethoven bandmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Spotify in 2015.
“Streaming is pretty terrible financially for the artist,” Lowery said. “There have been some positive developments lately, but at the end of the day, songwriters’ pay is still largely determined by the government — which is pretty fucking weird in this day and age.”
Songwriters in America are primarily paid through three revenue streams: mechanical royalties from songs downloaded or sold on albums; performance royalties from songs played on the radio or streaming sites; and “synch fees” generated from licensing songs to film or TV. Mechanical and performance royalties are regulated by the federal government through the 1909 Copyright Act.
Lowery has some optimism, though, particularly around the growing shift back to owning physical music. While vinyl has enjoyed a steady comeback over the years, it’s another once-nearly defunct medium that has him excited.
“I teach classes where I live in Athens,” Lowery said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the younger people getting back into CDs, which is kind of wild. There’s probably a lot of reasons — most of them got hand-me-down cars with CD players in them. But they’ve also figured out that it’s a cheap way to own physical media.”
Lowery pointed out that it costs Cracker around $7,000 every tour to press vinyl records to sell on the road, but they produce just as many albums on compact discs for “something closer to $1,300.”
“All those old Cracker albums were mastered for CD anyway, so I try to tell people that,” he said. “I always loved the format. People have this perception that the audio quality of CDs is lesser or something, but it’s not true.”
It’s perhaps fitting that early in their career, Cracker covered the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.” Cracker have has taken a page from the legendary San Francisco band, who built its career around cultivating a devout fan base obsessed with seeing live shows.
“It’s pretty cool, actually,” he said. “We have such a direct connection with our fans, if we want to release a live record like we did from our Spanish tour in 2021, we’ve got 40,000 people we can just email and sell the record directly. So the technology angle isn’t all bad, you just have to work around the streaming issue.”
Lowery says Cracker maintain anywhere between 50 and 60 songs for their live sets, spanning their entire career.
“We’ve got stuff that’s Americana, outright country, Southern rock,” Lowery said. “We’ve been leaning into the fast, punk-influenced stuff on tour lately. We have a pedal steel player with us and he was like, ‘Damn! I’m not even playing until 30 minutes into the set!'”