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‘It’s always been about grass–roots stuff’

It was almost exactly a year ago that Cracker, the long-running alternative rock band fronted by rhythm guitarist/singer David Lowery and his songwriting partner, lead guitarist/singer Johnny Hickman packed the house for a sold-out show at American Legion Post 135 on Forsyth Park.

That night, 275 locals (and many out-of-towners who drove in specifically for the gig) were treated to a long, polished (yet undeniably spontaneous) show that found the band — which formed in the early ‘90s from the ashes of Lowery’s previous group, the almost mythical psychedelic world beat act Camper Van Beethoven — in rare form.

Tearing through such memorable mainstream radio hits as “Low,” “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now),” and well-known college radio staples like “Euro-Trash Girl” and their cover of The Flamin’ Groovies’ immaculate “Shake Some Action” (Lowery’s all-time fave power-pop tune, in case you were wondering) the group once more proved themselves as one of the most consistently impressive and creative American roots-rock bands of the past two decades.

Since then, the group —which also includes ex Del-Lords drummer Frank Funaro, Mink Deville keyboardist Kenny Margolis and bassist “Black” Sal Maida, who’s worked with Sparks, Roxy Music and the fabled Milk’n’Cookies— completed a world tour based around their most recent release, Greenland.

To many, that album seemed almost a rebirth for the band, as it incorporated the blues, Southern soul and folk influences they’re commonly known for, but also dipped into the kind of windowpane psychedelia more commonly associated with Camper Van (whom Lowery and Funaro have spent plenty of time playing with of late since their unexpected reformation a few years back), as well as hinting at a more contemporary form of indie-rock then many may have thought the band would be into.

As the band prepares for their return to Savannah —and a move to a larger venue in anticipation of a bigger crowd this time around— I caught up with the mercurial and always engaging Lowery via phone for a casual chat about life as a career rock artist in the strange days of 2007.

You’re on the road right now, but it’s not like you guys are ever really off the road, is it?

David Lowery: Yeah. We pretty much tour whether or not we have a new album out. After all this time, we have such a legacy of work between Cracker and Camper Van that basically, whenever either band wants to, we can go out and make it work. However, we traditionally go out on a big Summer tour each year and that’s what we’re on right now. We just started Friday night and we’re on our way to Baton Rouge.

Do you have a strong following there?

David Lowery: Like a lot of bands out there, we do have areas of the country where we’re more popular than others. More or less, the whole Gulf Coast is a strong market for us, all the way down through Charleston and Savannah.

Last time you played here, Greenland had just been released. How has it been received?

David Lowery: Well, I think as far as press goes, all around the world it got some of the best reviews we’ve ever seen. I mean, it was an acclaimed record. Then again, we’re on an English label now called Cooking Vinyl, and so we’re not quite as widely distributed in the states as we were when we were on Virgin Records here in America.

You’re a prolific songwriter, and lately you’ve been making new songs and videos available for download. What are the benefits you’ve found in using this new direct distribution?

David Lowery: Well, I am kind of releasing demos and single tracks for streaming through the internet. But they’re not for sale. I just find that a lot of our fans aren’t listening to the radio anymore. It’s much easier for them to simply find us directly. We try to take advantage of that and give them new stuff. It’s just like in the old days when bands would release singles and then after a while, they’d gather them together and put out an album. That’s the way I see YouTube and MySpace operating. It’s putting stuff out there for the fans every few months and making sure it’s something new. It helps us thrive. Look, we’re a cult band. The way that came about and the way we maintain that is through this sort of constant interaction with our fans.

So, does that mean you might at some point release an album under your own name that would coexist along with Cracker and CVB?

David Lowery: Well, to me it’s all kind of the same thing in a way. Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, it’s all a kind of family of musicians and bands. I don’t necessarily see myself as going out on some kind of solo tour. Maybe I’d play a few shows if I released something like that. You know, talking about the music business — there have been people saying that the record business as we know it has been over for a really long time. I was a skeptic for a long time, but it really is over now. It’s ending. At some point, you wonder about the idea of even releasing a CD. It used to be that releasing an album was sort of the whole purpose. That’s not really the case anymore. People can go to your website and get things directly from you, and then come to your shows and see you in person... But, like, it’s always been about grass-roots stuff when it comes to how popular bands are. That was the best way to do it, and it still is. I mean, let’s ask the label question again: Do we really even need a record label anymore?

Does the rest of Cracker agree with you?

David Lowery: Yeah, I think so, in a general sense. But it’s not like we’re gonna stop making records. We have to make records and stuff. It’s what we do. This is one of the reasons that we’re still on tour for Greenland a year later. It really is the way you have to sell records now. I mean, that’s not the main reason we’re on tour, but it’s a big part of it. It takes longer for people to find our records now. There’s too much other stuff out there. Plus, radio is crap. Most of the people who come out to see bands like us do not listen to regular radio and do not listen to satellite radio. It’s more important these days to tour. That’s the main act. Bands used to tour to support their CD. Now you make a CD to bring with you on the tour. It’s the opposite. It’s the end of the business. You tour to make enough to produce a CD!

That’s interesting that you say your fans don’t listen to satellite radio, because I’d think that’s where most of them find you these days.

David Lowery: I think we’re played a lot on satellite and internet radio, and there is an audience out there for that. But it’s not nearly as important to us as word of mouth from a friend.

Last time you were here, you played a fairly triumphant show and were vocal about that being the best crowd response you’d gotten so far on that tour. What do you recall about that night?

David Lowery: Well, just that there were an awful lot of people who showed up and were really familiar with our music. That was great. They weren’t just there to hear the hits. They seemed really interested in everything we had to play, and that always means a lot.

I know Cracker operates without a setlist and you just call songs out as you feel like it. How many do you have in current rotation?

David Lowery: I’d say about fifty, but Frank keeps a little drum machine back there as a metronome, and he says he has over a hundred tempos stored in there, so it must be that many! (laughs) We always try to rotate the songs in and out on a regular basis, so if there are folks who came and saw us last time around, this won’t be the same show. We always play the hits, but other than that, it’s different each night.