Bands that had recorded albums on corporate dollars were told there just wasn't money in the budget to actually release them, and acts that hadn't produced albums that landed solely in the black wouldn't be given a chance to take another stab at it.
Cracker, the country-tinged straightforward rock band led by singer/guitarists David Lowery, formerly of Camper Van Beethoven, and Johnny Hickman, formerly of a bunch of supposedly decent bands you've never heard of, was one of the survivors. Virgin Records, once a UK-only label owned by the infamous Richard Branson, had released the last two Camper records in one of its first forays into the American market, and has stuck with Cracker ever since.
When Cracker released its self-titled debut album in 1992, it sold a healthy amount of copies to both new fans--the album yielded a moderate hit in "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)"--and leftover Camper followers. "I always said that Camper wanted to be The Beatles, and Cracker wanted to be The Rolling Stones, but really, in sum total, we ended up being The Kinks," Lowery says. The band's sophomore record, Kerosene Hat (1993) upped the ante and garnered MTV-level success, largely based on its ubiquitous singles, "Get Off This" and especially, "Low."
Its next two efforts, 1996's The Golden Age and 1998's Gentleman's Blues, however, sold only to its hardcore fan base, and failed to cross over into the lucrative mass market--usually suicide for a mid-level act. Lowery remains firm in his belief that Virgin is wholly behind Cracker, though he can't say exactly why. "Maybe it's because we know where the bodies are buried, but it is surprising, in a way, that Virgin keeps us," Lowery says. "They went through all of that restructuring stuff before any of the other labels did, when they got bought by EMI-Capitol, so we didn't really have to deal with any of that. And a lot of the, I guess, important players at Virgin really like us, so they keep us there. Do I think they recoup on our records? Naw. I don't think they make any money off of us. I don't think they lose a lot of money on us, though; it might be a break-even proposition. We've always recorded records cheap, and even when they're just completely off the radar as far as mainstream music culture goes, we still sell a lot of copies. Not that I know what a lot of copies is anymore." He laughs.
Still, Lowery is perfectly happy with his employers. "The good thing and the bad thing is that we've always been left alone by Virgin to do what we want to do," he says. "We pretty much make the record that we want and no one tells us what to do, but we also don't get a huge (promotional) focus from them either. Then we weren't getting a huge push from them when we had our hit either. I mean, Virgin wasn't having meetings about how they were going to break Cracker with this single ("Low")."
These days the band is readying its fifth album for Virgin, sixth if you count the double-disc hits-and-rarities collection, Garage D'Or, released last year. Lowery and Hickman met in Tucson back in March to write a batch of twenty or so songs, then reconvened in Richmond to record them. The duo is back in town as you read this, for more of the same. Hickman resides in L.A., while Lowery is based in Richmond, Virginia, where he owns a studio that has produced efforts from Sparklehorse and Counting Crows, among many others.
As for their choice of Tucson as a writing spot, the reasons are many. For one, Lowery loves Tucson so much he once almost moved here. When Camper Van Beethoven was collapsing in Santa Cruz, Calif., as the eighties came to a close, Lowery decided he needed to bail; his three choices of new locales were Portland, Oregon, Richmond and Tucson. Says Lowery, "There's a certain similarity to all three of those towns that I can't quite put my finger on. The terrain looks completely different, but it's a good, cheap place to live where people just kinda don't do anything with their lives, and have sorta shitty jobs, and ride bikes around, and play in indie-rock bands. All three of those towns have that in a major way."
A few other Tucson-related factoids about Lowery: Before Cracker was called Cracker, the band played a show at Club Congress as the David Lowery Band, because Tucson was one of the few cities where people would recognize Lowery by name from his Camper days. Cracker released an EP called Tucson in 1992, so named because it was recorded here at Jim Brady Studios. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, after fifteen or so years with the same manager--going all the way back to the Camper days--Cracker has just signed a new management deal with Tucson-based Mike Lembo, who has represented Lowery as a producer for a while now. Lowery explains, "We occupy a strange little niche. If we were represented by a big, powerful management company in L.A. or New York, they wouldn't be able to do anything for us. We need sort of a more boutique sort of thing, and Mike has represented NRBQ, The Church, just a lot of quirkier, niche artists. It was kind of a natural fit for what we were doing."
And with the duo back in town writing yet more new songs, the Tucson connection works in our favor this week, as Lowery and Hickman once again grace the stage of Club Congress for a special acoustic show. Lowery explains, "It's just mostly to have fun. We've been to Tucson a couple times now, and we're like, 'Aah, we've never played a show, so let's just do an acoustic thing.'"