David Lowery On Songwriting, Not Sleeping In + Cracker’s New Album
Cracker's 10th studio album, 'Berkeley to Bakersfield,' is set to hit the streets in early December. The double-disc release finds the seminal '90s rock outfit covering more ground than they ever have -- within 18 tracks, they travel, as you might guess, from the unadulterated rock and roll of Berkeley to the classic country of Bakersfield.
As they prepare to unveil the record, we had the chance to chat with frontman David Lowery about the new endeavor. He's been a busy guy -- between Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven and his solo efforts, before 'Berkeley to Bakersfield,' he's already released four albums since 2009. He fills us in on the recording process for the album and how his songwriting method has evolved over the years. Check out our exclusive interview below:
I have to start by saying Cracker have always been a big part of my life.
Well thank you. That’s very nice of you to stay.
Let's just get into your new album, your 10th studio album. How does it feel to have it wrapped up?
Well, pretty good. It was a pretty big project. It was fairly ambitious. We didn’t start out trying to do two albums, we just had these two batches of songs. I sort of thought it would just sort itself out. They kept getting more distinct, we wanted to keep them two separate discs, two separate concepts, loosely tied together. It was a shocking moment when I was listening to stuff we did with the original lineup in Berkeley, right, and then I was listening to some of the stuff we were working on out here in Georgia. I listened to them and just thought they were so different. So, to do it, we had to do a double album, two separate discs. It was a relief when we decided it was done and that we had no filler on the record. It was finally right. It was ambitious. Between the Camper Van Beethoven albums and this thing, that was like 40-something songs we wrote and recorded in two and a half years or something like that.
That’s kind of unheard of in today's music industry, isn't it?
Right, everyone is so focused on touring and then there are these long gaps in between albums.
So you were recording these albums simultaneously.
Yeah, we worked on the Camper stuff first and then got into the Cracker stuff after. I would say we started Cracker just about a year ago. I had some of the country songs ready in my pocket, but it was about this time last year that Michael [Urbano] and I got together in his studio and jammed for three days and basically came up with the music on the Berkeley disc. Not entirely, but almost all of it came from those jam sessions. Then we turned them into songs. It was right before Halloween last year. It’s pretty good, right? It’s pretty fast.
Oh yeah. And it’s not like you just did two discs -- you did two distinct albums.
Yeah, I think so.
When you set out recording these, you didn’t have the idea that you would do a double album. What were your thinking in the beginning?
Sometime in November we cut some stuff with Matt Stoessel and Jeremy Wheatley -- we have a little local Americana and indie rock community here in Athens, Ga., and we have session musicians that everyone plays with, right? It’s like our own mini-Nashville. My wife is a concert promoter and a rock manager and we started listening to it, and she thought it all sounded good, but she said they can’t go on the same album. They’re so different. In the end, we figured out stylistically how to make it blend together. But at first we had the really punk rock stuff and the really country stuff. They were two totally different f--king albums. It kind of freaked us out. But that was good, it was the challenge. We respond well to a challenge as a band. If something went wrong, we just tried to think that it was a good thing and go with it. It took awhile to figure it out, but we did eventually. We spent a lot of time playing songs different ways, and ultimately, that ‘Berkeley’ disc is the original lineup and that ‘Bakersfield’ disc is largely the Athens lineup.
I like it because I’m a big fan of alternative country and Americana, what you mentioned in Athens. And in those genres, there’s always this blend of country and rock. You hear the bands walking the border between the two. As distinct as the two records are, there is still something that works very well going from Berkeley to Bakersfield.
Ultimately, those two stylistic themes in those two albums are what are essentially in our first album. To me, this is a good summary of what the band does. Instead of blending it together in one disc, we sort of teased it out and spread it out over two discs. This represents what the band has been doing since our first album, we just made it more pronounced. And it’s actually really great having 18 songs, that way we can go all the way from the edgy stuff to the straight-up Bakersfield honky tonk tunes.
How has your writing process changed over the course of 22 years, from that debut to writing this double album?
I think part of the reason I’ve been so productive, like since 2009-ish, is because I’ve kind of learned a trick that somebody’s been telling me my whole life. I have a friend who told me I should get up really early and write. If you're tired, don’t stay up and write, go to bed and get up really early. So a lot of these songs, it was counterintuitive. A lot of this s--t was done at six in the morning. About halfway through the ‘Surnise [In the Land of Milk and Honey]’ album, I got it. I finally got it.
If you get up in the morning, really early, your phone isn’t ringing, nobody is up, nobody is bugging you, you have this fresh ear. I would describe it as almost being stoned -- if you get up early in the morning and mess around with melodies, you hear them in a different way. So I got into a super regimented mode of only really working on the music, not exclusively, but especially the lyrics and vocal melodies, I just started doing them early in the morning. A lot of times I’d have nothing at 5:30AM, but by nine o’clock in the morning, I’d have the whole song figured out and written and the vocals recorded. It was really interesting. That change happened for me around 2009. I think that’s why I managed to get all of these albums out. Since 2009, that’s ‘Sunrise,’ my solo album ['The Palace Guards'], the two Camper albums and this Cracker disc.
So these songs were written before the sun came up?
Yeah, a lot of the lyrics. I mean, I’ll jot down a lot of these ideas, but then you have to make them fit the song and make them talkative. Some of these songs the world just hands you. That song ‘El Cerrito,’ a lot of that comes from what a taxi driver told me in San Francisco. I got in the cab with this guy, and the first thing he asked was if he could flip this other guy off. He gets out, flips him off, gets back, and that was it. He started telling me all this stuff, it was kind of awesome. That song, a lot of it was me just taking it in. At some point, he told me he doesn’t give a s--t about your IPO, he’s from El Cerrito. It’s so perfect. I knew I could work with it. The next morning I just got up and cranked on it until I got something out of it. I don’t think I ever would have done that in the past. I might’ve abandoned it because it has so many words and you need so many angles and inflections on it, and you have to say it in the right way. That song is kind of ridiculous. [Laughs]
That song stood out to me when I first spun the record -- now I have to go back and listen to it.