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The Golden Age: On 'Berkeley to Bakersfield,' Cracker Grapples With Its Split Personality — and the Realities of the Music Industry 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014
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"We're kind of in our Joan Didion phase," says David Lowery, co-founder of Cracker, when asked what inspired the band's new California-centric double album, Berkeley to Bakersfield. The singer-guitarist is taking a break from his office at the University of Georgia, where he teaches music business classes when he's not writing, recording, or touring North America. "You know, we're writing little nonfiction essays that are semi-geographically based. I'm kind of joking." A beat. "It's also kind of true."

People might not associate Lowery, who also founded Cracker's weirder cousin/predecessor, Camper Van Beethoven (biggest hit: "Take the Skinheads Bowling"), with elegant literary journalism. And while the new record, out Dec. 9 on 429 Records, probably won't change that, it does stand to introduce a new generation of fans — namely, the young'uns lapping up all things Americana right now — to a band that's been blending country twang and often-goofy, punk-spirited rock 'n' roll for the past 24 years. (Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven will team up, for the 10th year in a row, for a two-night stand at The Independent in the days between Christmas and New Year's Eve, Saturday, Dec. 27, and Sunday, Dec. 28.)

Berkeley to Bakersfield, the band's 10th studio album, is also without question the most narratively cohesive project Cracker's released to date — at times both a love letter and a harshly realistic vision of the Golden State as it leads listeners through an archetypically East Bay landscape of punks, hippies, and an undercurrent of radical politics (on disc 1, Berkeley) before zipping down 5-South until we meet bikers, beer, and miles upon miles of farmland (disc 2, Bakersfield).

Interestingly, after 24 years of merging the rock and country sides of Cracker's split personality, Lowery says he and co-founder/guitarist Johnny Hickman found themselves, in the spring of 2013, with "two distinct batches of songs that would never quite blend. So we put a little high concept in there. And that meant we had to narrow the songs by a little bit ... but it was an interesting thought experiment to break it into two parts.

"We did want to bring it together somehow, so then that became: How do you tie Oakland to Bakersfield? With a junkie. With a sad junkie song," he says referring to "Almond Grove," a banjo-fueled map of a downward spiral that anchors the Bakersfield disc.

You don't have to be from California to appreciate this record. But if you do happen to hail from either the East Bay or the San Joaquin Valley? Cracker is basically daring you not to like this album.

Berkeley sees Lowery and the band (Hickman and the others are the original lineup, recording together for the first time in 20 years) as young punks — bumming around town, dropping such a thick layer of location-specific references that on paper it'd read like a welcome pamphlet.

"Let's buy records at Rasputin, let's see a show at Gilman Street, an anarchist rally at People's Park..." implores Lowery with an unabashedly earnest, youthful urgency before the shout-along chorus on "Beautiful," hurling some of us (hi!) down a memory tunnel to an adolescence spent bumming around Telegraph when there was nothing else to do. Piedmont Park, San Pablo Avenue, Jack London Square, and the MacArthur BART station all figure elsewhere on the album.

Maybe most notably: In a year full of musical takes on tech-bubble gentrification, with varying degrees of success, Lowery manages to issue perhaps the most scathing indictment of new money San Francisco we've heard yet — in a song called "El Cerrito" whose lyrics he took from a cab driver. From the track's opening:

"Walking down the street in San Francisco just the other day / wondering what has happened to the freaks the hippies and the punks / everybody's squeaky clean, they look and dress and act the same / I don't give a shit about your IPO, I live in El Cerrito."

Later, Lowery laments techies' "bullshit claims to change the world, making Wall Street bankers even richer," and declares, "It's not that we don't like the rich, it's simply that we think this kind is boring."

"That song is, almost verbatim, taken from a rant that I got from a taxi driver one time when I was going from the S.F. airport to Albany," says Lowery. "That's why it's so specific with names of places and buses ... I was doing research, trying to see when the San Mateo Bridge was built, everything."

And while writing countrified Central Valley songs for Bakersfield was fairly straightforward — despite many of the songs' dense layers of pedal steel (by Matt "Pistol" Stoessel), guitar work, keys, and vocals, including two tracks in which Hickman takes the lead to great success — capturing the spirit of Berkeley was a little more difficult.

"We wanted a combination of punk rock, and then these semi-funky backbeats and bass parts, and then political songs," says Lowery, going over his thought process. Figuring if they were going to do it, they might as well do it right, the band did the bulk of the recording at East Bay Recorders in Berkeley — hanging out at coffee shops and bookstores and seeing a show at Gilman when they weren't working.

That time probably helped solidify the record's obvious rejection of the "tech-will-save-the-future" church espoused by so many of the Bay Area's newer residents — but it's not like Cracker needed much help. Since 2012, Lowery has been one of the most outspoken critics of internet piracy, services like Pandora and Spotify, and pretty much anything else that he sees as undercutting artists' rightful profits from their work.

On his blog, The Trichordist ("Artists For An Ethical and Sustainable Internet"), he posts near-daily updates and musings on the music industry and the ways its new technological paradigm is gutting the writers and performers on which it relies. On the day of this interview, for example, Lowery — who holds a B.A. in math from UC Santa Cruz — posted a mathematical breakdown of the ways "the relationship between the fan and the artist has been broken by completely disconnecting compensation from consumption," based on Spotify's royalty payments and Billboard's new rubric system (counting streams as opposed to purchases).

Berkeley to Bakersfield is, of course, far from being a strictly DIY effort. The day of its release, the record appeared on multiple streaming sites because, says Lowery, the band is still under an old contract, but also because "that might be what's best for Cracker now. Camper Van Beethoven, other niche artists, not so much."

"I wouldn't call myself a streaming hawk. I'm actually kind of agnostic about it," says Lowery. "But it's a very strange business model. You have to be on every single platform. Like Netflix makes House of Cards, or Orange Is the New Black — in music, those would have to be on every single channel all the time."

In an ideal world, what would the fix be? "I think you have to have some opt-outs," he says. "A number of years ago we were passing laws about exploitative contracts that said, 'Okay, after 35 years [artists] get their work back.' Some kind of legislative intervention that allows artists to file with the record label and say, 'Hey, this thing doesn't work for me.' It's really complicated. But look, this isn't going to sort itself out."

In summary?

"The music business right now is so fucking crazy to me," says Lowery with a laugh. "When I first got signed to Virgin Records, the two main music promotion staff people came out to [Camper Van Beethoven's] show in downtown L.A. and were high on mushrooms, completely out of control. And when we did [the Status Quo song] 'Pictures of Matchstick Men,' they loved it, and they decided that should be a single on our album. There was no market research, no data, this wasn't 'Let's bring together the smartest minds in the business,' they just did it because they were high on mushrooms.

"And you compare that to the record [Cracker] just released? If you go on Amazon right now it's pretty cheap, because there's a co-promotion. And that came out of research about the [demographic] of our audience, and it was timed for right before Christmas, and that's just the digital world we live in. ... I mean, it'd be awesome if the Amazon people came to our show high on mushrooms. 'Do something where you drink reindeer blood!'

"No, look, music has always been interesting because it's fantasy sports: Anybody can do it ... and on the one hand the internet is great for that, it eliminated a lot of the gatekeepers, which is awesome. Creatively, it's kind of a golden age just for being in a band and putting your songs out there," he says. "But it's a lot tougher to monetize it. And I'm afraid, when you start talking about how bands have to know the [demographics] of their audience, that those who are the most business-savvy are the only ones who get popular.

"And," he offers pensively, "what would that have meant for Captain Beefheart?"

About The Author

Emma Silvers

Bio:
Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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