Head of the camp: An interview with David Lowery

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David Lowery wears many musical hats. He’s best known as the front man of Cracker—the popular alt-rock outfit that hit it big back in the early ‘90s with the platinum-selling album Kerosene Hat. But Lowery’s reach in the business is much greater than Cracker’s ubiquitous radio hits like “Low” and “Get Off This.”
Before Cracker, he founded indie punk pioneers Camper Van Beethoven, and as a producer he’s helmed records by Counting Crows, Sparklehorse and, most recently, local country rock heroes Sons of Bill. He’s also started teaching a music business class at the University of Georgia.
This weekend, though, Lowery will act as festival curator, as he brings Campout East back to the region for two days of music at Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista. The event—an offshoot of Lowery’s long-standing Campout Festival held in California—is relocating from its debut last year at Misty Mountain Camp Resort in Crozet. In addition to two nights of Cracker, the line-up includes Southern Culture on the Skids, the Dexter Romweber Duo, Carl Anderson and Radiolucent.

Cracker (from left: Frank Funaro, Johnny Hickman, David Lowery and Sal Maida) pitch a tent for their second annual self-curated festival. (photo by: Jason Thrasher)

C-Ville: Everyone has his or her own idea of what makes a good festival. What’s your vision with Campout East?
David Lowery: “For a longtime we’ve done the Campout Festival in California, and we wanted to bring it east since Cracker has a lot of roots in Virginia. This festival is about giving back to our fans. It’s doing something for the core group that has followed our family of bands and given me a 25-year-plus career. We’re getting our community together in one place to hang out. I’m sorry we had to move it a little further away from Charlottesville, but I think people are going to like the new location. It rained a lot last year, so we’ll have a covered stage with a nice little spot next to the river [Maury River].”

Tell me about some of the bands you decided to include this year.
“All of the Campout events are meant to highlight bands that fall into the Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven family. It’s generally groups that are related to my bands or side projects. Southern Culture on the Skids is a band I’ve played many shows with, going back to my dabbling with FSK. Radiolucent is an Athens, Georgia band that I just happen to love. They’re really young kids that grew up on Whiskeytown and the Drive-By Truckers. There’s a soul element to their sound, and it just blew me away the first time I saw them play.”

After the festival, Cracker will spend most of the summer on the road with the Last Summer on Earth Tour, also featuring Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler and Big head Todd and the Monsters. Is this meant to be a ‘90s revival?
“Conceptually I don’t really see it as a ‘90s thing. That seems a little insulting. This tour is the Barenaked Ladies idea, and they’re bigger now than they were back then. I think this tour is going to be really successful, and I’m glad we’re going to be a part of it.”

How would you describe the way Cracker’s sound has evolved through the years?
“We’ve always been a country roots rock band. We’ve always leaned on American roots stuff, whether it’s soul, blues or country. To me—that’s when rock works best—as a mongrel that mixes all that stuff together. That’s what bands like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and even the Clash did so well—put so many different styles in a blender. Fortunately, our sound somehow fit into modern rock radio back when grunge had taken over the entire world.”

After all these years, what part of the music industry are you enjoying most these days—performing, producing or teaching?
“I’ve decided to stop being a producer. I think it’s the most thankless job in the world. You’re always in a really awkward position of trying to make a record better, but in order to do that, you have to insult everybody by telling them how their songs aren’t good enough. You always have to be the bad cop. Psychologically that’s not a good place to be.
I do enjoy teaching people about the music business. I teach about the finance and economics of the music business, and it’s a pretty hardcore class. Half of my students seem to be artists and musicians and the others are finance and business majors. I’m basically teaching them all how to rip each other off in the future. When it comes to music, being on stage is still the best.”

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