As catchy, crunchy and completely memorable as their previous hits, Cracker's latest chart-bound single, "I Hate My Generation," is a refreshing chunk of angry, tonsil-ripping virulence with an irresistible Top 10 hook.
Taken from Cracker's third Virgin Records release, The Golden Age, the song blasts its way through the sappy ballads, make-believe tough grrrls and fifth generation Pearl Jam posturing on today's charts like a recently-fired postal employee paying the boss a surprise, early-morning visit.
"I Hate My Generation" is an odd, but effective, choice for a first single in this, the feel-good era of Hootie. Driven by guitarist Johnny Hickman's manic, juiced-up power chords and distorted metal riffs layered over a heavy, melodic pulse machine-gunned out by bassist Bob Rupe and drummer Charlie Quintana; the song's big hook comes from vocalist/guitarist/songwriter David Lowery - who lets loose with an impassioned yowl and a raw, snarling, end-of-his-rope frustration that jabs a lyrical stake into the heart of just about everyone over the age of 30.
Lowery, the former leader of every mid-'80s college student's and rock critic's favorite band, Camper Van Beethoven, has worked hard on The Golden Age . This is his third release with Cracker and - as has been the case since CVB disbanded in the wake of 1989's Key Lime Pie and Lowery began working with Hickman - Cracker's latest is getting its usual lack of respect from the critics.
Calling from Thunder Bay, Ontario, during the first week of a particularly grueling North American tour, Lowery is still baffled by a recent Cracker/Paul Westerberg joint album review in a New York City newspaper. In the full-page article, the writer called the former Replacements bandleader "heroic" for pointing out that, "a good day is any day that you're alive." The author then went on to label "I Hate My Generation" as a "cheap collegiate joke" because Lowery "never bothers to tell us why."
Sounding road-weary, tired and slightly edgy, Lowery clearly needs to get a few things off his chest.
"Sometimes I look at a review and I go 'What the fuck is this person even and did they even listen to the lyrics?' " begins the obviously bewildered singer. "I can't be that oblique. Or, I'll read a review where the writer got a really weird take on what I'm saying, in particular, a lot of people say that I'm always cynical. There are two out of 12 songs on this record with maybe an element of cynicism to them."
"I mean, Paul Westerberg. Now, I love Paul Westerberg. But, Paul Westerberg is way more cynical than I am in his songs and that's not what you read about him," Lowery adds, still stung by the review, "I was really mystified and I just don't know what the deal is anymore."
"Some woman from the L.A. Times wrote that "Big Dipper" says, basically, the same thing as "I Hate My Generation," "he chuckles. "And when I read that I went, 'Wow!' I mean, what the fuck is up with that? I w as really astounded by that and I thought to myself, 'Well, maybe it's just really oblique. Maybe I fucked up on that song.' "
"So, anyway, there was this kid at one of our gigs who asked me for my autograph," continues Lowery. "He's this 17-year-old kid at a club and when I ask him, 'Hey, man, what's "Big Dipper" about?' He can tell me! You know, lately my theory has been, 'Okay, all right, I guess I'm smarter, I'm just going to have to accept it.' Critics," he says jokingly, "are afraid of me because I'm smarter than them."
"I think I might be turning this into another one of my 'I'm-mystified-by-music-journalists-interviews,' " he laughs, "and I'm not really trying to. It's actually kind of fascinating to me because I'm really trying to figure out what, exactly, is the deal. I also can't figure out why, even in good reviews of Cracker, there always seems to be this sort of backhanded compliment thing. It's like they [music critics] almost have to be rude to us. It's bizarre. Does everybody think that they're being original?"
"I've been accused of being cynical, arrogant, negative, self-loathing, self-indulgent and, you know, sort of angry and such and such," he sighs. "It's like, what the fuck's that about? Of course we're self-indulgent, that's what you guys [critics] want us to be. We're supposed to be self-indulgent - we're a fucking band! Duh," Lowery says in his best Butt-Head imitation. "Let's see, I'm gonna write songs. I'm onna be selfless and write songs for the masses, huh, huh.' You know? Well, fuck that!"
It ain't easy being Cracker.
After four years, five albums, two EP's and a flood of positive press, Camper Van Beethoven imploded in a shower of anger and acrimony and the various band members moved on to other projects. Drummer Chris Pederson, bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarists Greg Lisher and David Immergluck formed the very Camper-esque Monks Of Doom and released a few critically-praised albums on Pitch-A-Tent/Rough Trade Records.
Lowery laid low for awhile before forming Cracker with long-time friend and pre-Camper bandmate Hickman, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Rick Jaeger.
"Me and John had played together or just sort of fucked around working on songs, playing covers and stuff like that for years before we put this band together," recalls Lowery. Hooking up with Hickman after high school, the duo formed a mutant jam band known as the Estonian Gauchos and played together until Lowery moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz, where he would eventually form Camper. "He's just awesome on stage. He kicks ass," says Lowery of his old friend. "It's great that, years later, we would start working together and have a band and actually get sort of famous."
When Cracker's self-titled Virgin Records debut was released in 1992, a legion of Camper Van Beethoven fans joined a new group of people attracted to Hickman's sharp guitar and Lowery's even sharper lyrics. Solid tunes such as "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," "I See The Light" and "Happy Birthday" got frequent listener requests, a club tour did relatively well and alternative rock radio got behind the record.
Failing to note the gradual shift toward a poppier sound in Camper Van Beethoven's music, critics who'd only recently finally "got" that band reacted to Cracker as if Lowery had betrayed some sacred, unwritten trust and sullied the CVB name by blending country, funk and hard rock influences with witty lyrics and catchy, upbeat pop hooks.
Although sales of Cracker's first album were decent, the record never received the press it deserved as critics, for the most part, remained unmoved.
The band devoted part of February and most of March, 1993, to recording their second album with producer Don Smith. Lowery, Hickman, Faragher and new drummer Michael Urbano released Kerosene Hat in September and signed a contract for a spring/summer '94 tour as the supporting act for the Spin Doctors and the Gin Blossoms.
A funny thing happened on the way to the arena.
"Low," the lead track on Kerosene Hat, became a major hit. It took several months for the song to build - but, with a video in regular rotation on MTV featuring actress Sandra Bernhard, a sprawling hook that grabbed you by the collar, memorable, shout-along lyrics and an aggressive, air guitar-worthy riff, "Low" and the follow-up singles, "Eurotrash Girl" and "Get Off This" helped the album become a million-seller by the end of the year.
Losing Faragher and Jaeger along the way, the band picked up bassist/vocalist Bob Rupe (The Silos, Gutterball, The Bobs) and former Pixies drummer David Lovering and hit the road on a Gin Blossoms/Spin Doctors shed and arena tour that often found the opening act more popular than the two headliners and the headliners frequently wearing "Cracker kicked our ass" hats and T-shirts on stage.
"We got booked into that tour when our record was still obscure and stuff," recalls Lowery. "That's just the way the business goes. We did have a lot of fun, though."
After a few months off, the band returned to the studio with new drummer Charlie Quintana to record songs for what would eventually become The Golden Age.
Released at the beginning of April, in its first two weeks on the Billboard charts "I Hate My Generation" bulleted to No. 28 on the "Mainstream Rock Tracks" list and jumped from No. 29 to No. 14 on the "Modern Rock Tracks" chart. A quick scan of the radio dial was usually rewarded with the rude blast of Hickman's guitar and Lowery's urgent, tortured proclamation of disgust.
A wildly-diverse record, Lowery's slightly-absurdist, vividly-inventive everyman lyrics and raspy, engaging vocals carry the day on The Golden Age. Songs such as the frenetic, almost punk "100 Flower Power Maximum"; a swaggering, slightly funked-up "Nothing To Believe In"; the gorgeously-reflective, tremolo-heavy, "Big Dipper"; a harmonica-driven, Neil Young-ish swamp-rock tune called "Sweet Thistle Pie"; and the yearning, backwards-looking, jaundiced sentimentality and pedal-steel and acoustic wash of the title track have the feel of classics and are written and performed with more authority and accessibility than anything Lowery has done in his frequently brilliant career.
"I don't know if The Golden Age is our major pop move," he comments. "But, I really wanted to do a pop record in the sense that this album is fairly eclectic and each song is arranged and instrumented more according to what that song wants or needs rather than having a sort of general 'rock' sound for the entire record."
"We go pretty far afield on different songs in the way that, say, Bowie or Roxy Music did," he adds. "Well, David Bowie in the late-'70s, early-'80s, that era. I'm talking about this old idea of pop and rock music, you know? We tried to do a thinking man's version of that era of pop."
When asked if there was pressure placed on the band by Virgin Records to equal or surpass the success of Kerosene Hat, Lowery says: "Not from the label. The only real pressure we felt was to top ourselves creatively. The only way I know how to make a record is to make it so that everyone in the band feels like we've just done something great. You know, a much better record than the last one. A record," he adds, "you're still gonna be proud playing a year into touring. That you're still gonna dig, you're still gonna dig playing it."
"That's the only way that I know how to survive in this business and that's all I've ever done," Lowery says. "And, apparently it works. It's not exactly the direct route to stardom or anything like that. But, it apparently works. With each new record there seems to be a few more people at the shows, we sell a few more copies and we get a few more fans."
"And some of our fans," he laughs, "are psycho. There's a lot of psychos in the audience. Do you know that L7 song, "Freak Magnet?" Okay, I'm the boy freak magnet. I'm the male version of that. God! There's a lot of freaky fans. With most of our fans it's really a healthy kind of freaky. But, some of them are a disturbed kind of freaky, too. Occasionally," Lowery adds, "you get somebody who's a little too unbalanced, you know? Comes to, like, seven or eight shows in a row and says really strange things in front of the stage and stuff like that. Sometimes it's scary."
As for the meaning behind the lyrics that've caused the latest bout of Cracker animosity amongst critics and are, undoubtedly, a potential well spring of inspiration for "freaky" people everywhere; the 35-year-old singer says that "I Hate My Generation" is: "An overstatement and kind of an outrageous thing to say. I don't really, but, I think that maybe I hate my generation for its self-loathing, negativity and its pointless anger."
"A lot of people who are my peers only seem to be able to define themselves negatively - by what they hate," Lowery says with genuine regret. "They sort of delight in the failure of others rather than in their own successes - and I think that's kind of sick, actually."
"That's what I was so pissed-off about on "I Hate My Generation." The whole point of the song," Lowery explains, "is 'I hate my generation. Now that I've said it, I feel liberated.' To me, it's a liberating song. It's really fun to play and it's actually a happy song."
"Sometimes I just feel that rock lyrics are taken too literally," he laughs. "But, I like the fact that it [the song] kind of stirred up something. You know, people are, like, going, 'Shit, man! "I Hate My Generation." Man, that Cracker!' "
(This interview first appeared in Music Paper)