Is David Lowery going solo these days? Yes and no, according to him. His latest collection, The Palace Guards, takes Camper and Cracker’s frontman to untouched territory within his mind and music. What may sound familiar is the trusted circle of musicians Lowery has relied on for over 17 years and who are once again instrumental in creating the sounds for The Palace. In between his other recent Cracker CD’s, Lowery embarked on an artistic journey that took years to complete. The result led to some soul-searching realizations as he explains, “I felt like a mad scientist holed up in a studio being my natural introverted self.” Not that anyone would have guessed this gutsy voice belongs to a man much shyer than his onstage persona. A man who believes it was a series of accidents that led to his singing career.
For the first time in 27 years, Lowery was able to write without any hesitation as to how the songs might fit into Camper, Cracker or live performances. That sense of liberation shines through on all nine tracks. The first country jam, “Raise ‘Em Up On Honey” has the hoot n’ holler rawness of Cracker — as if to remind us that Lowery hasn’t forgotten his roots. His knack for changing moods as quickly as he changes cords is apparent on the title track, which starts out like a Jack Johnson folktale, but takes a dark turn and keeps plummeting – leaving us hanging onto each word to the bitter end. The ethereal ballad, “I Sold The Arabs The Moon” is reminiscent of a haunting, Irish poem and a beautiful departure for Lowery. Whereas, “All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me” ropes us back in to his sardonic wit that we’ve all come to know and love.
Lowery recorded the album in his Virginia-based studio, Sound of Music with Miguel Urbiztondo (drums), David Immergluck (guitars/bass), Craig Harmon (organ) and Ferd Moyse (upright bass/fiddle). Cracker mates Sal Maida and Johnny Hickman make guest appearances, as well as the late Mark Linkous who played keyboards on “Big Life”. The Palace Guards, releasing February 1st via 429 Records, comes on the heels of Cracker’s Sunrise In The Land of Milk and Honey. Less than a year and a half later, Lowery has a whole new set of songs and much more to discuss.
Last time we spoke was about a year and half ago. You just released Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey and you were gearing up for this album’s release. I thought that was pretty inspiring…
Well, I more or less had it done. I was just trying not to put them out on top of each other.
How do you keep track of it all between Cracker, CBV and now your solo work?
In a lot of ways it all overlaps. It’s like different teams or sub-groups of other groupings of people working together. Yet it’s all the same big family of musicians. The solo record is basically done with the guys from the studio. But they’re in the background of Cracker and Camper records for the last 15 years.
If you had to differentiate between the three how would you?
Well, there’s a certain sort of song that Cracker does very naturally…the rootsy, country rock n’ roll thing. Then there’s a kind of weird, psychedelic thing that CVB does. As for my solo work, it has a little more of a crazy, mad-scientist element. If I’m doing it by myself and I tell the guys from the studio what to do and I stay in my own little world, the songs have a different flavor.
Tell me about the song, “All these Girls Meant Nothing To Me”. Are you putting yourself out there with this one?
No, it’s not about me. (laughs) It’s this loser character. I got the idea from a celebrity who got caught with prostitutes and I don’t remember who it was…
Or you’re just pleading the fifth…
Exactly (laughs). I was talking with a friend about it and I said, “What could you possibly say after that? ‘Oh baby, all those whores meant nothing to me’??” So I had this little piece of music and it couldn’t possibly be named “All Those Whores Meant Nothing To Me” (laughs) so I substituted it with “girls”. The other part of that song is that I’m repeatedly saying the same five or six lines in different ways. First I say them pleading, then angry, then disingenuously. I don’t know if anyone gets that. Certain artists can use a few words and put different meanings and gravity on them. Iggy Pop is really good at that. I don’t know if he’s even conscious of it. So that’s how this song evolved.
What inspired you to write the song, “I Sold The Arabs The Moon”? It’s quite poetic…
That’s what happens when you listen to Cat Stevens in Iraq. We did a USO engagement and wherever you drive or fly around, everyone’s listening to the radio all the time. We imported our own radio stations over there and they have formats for the stations but they’re a little more freeform about what the DJ’s are playing.
When were you there?
November 2009. It was the song “Yalla, Yalla” on Sunrise In The Land Of Milk and Honey that got us there. Certain people picked up on that song and that’s how we ended up there. What was odd about the trip was how many people were there besides infantry-marine guys. There were contractors, National Guard, etc. that were our age and completely knew Cracker from the ‘80’s. It was great. The first show we played in Kuwait this really young infantry kid came up to us and said, “Are you guys really Cracker? Not Uncle Cracker, right?” We said yes and he was so excited like, “Dude, I gotta get a picture with you guys ‘cuz my parents are gonna freak out when they find out I met Cracker!” This was like a 19-year-old gung-ho Infantry PFC, you know?
So there you were playing to generations of people in a completely foreign environment. How cool…
Yeah, what’s amazing is as foreign as it was in every aspect, there was definitely some weird similarities between being in an infantry patrol unit and what we do as musicians. Not that we’re doing anything nearly as dangerous, but there are some interesting parallels. There’s the same sort of camaraderie and for lack of a better word, shit-talking that goes on. We spent a lot of time on the ground convoying around Baghdad and it was always with the same fourteen guys from 82nd Airborne. And we all had headsets and radios on. Because we were outside the wire, we had to wear Kevlar helmets and first aid training— one step short of them giving us weapons (laughs). So we’re driving around with these guys and everyone’s kinda talking trash to each other. And this is exactly what we do in the van when we’re on tour. You’re with the same people for like six weeks on the road and we’re just constantly giving each other shit.
Were you talking about the soldiers when you said, “I rip my heart out everyday for you” in the song “The Palace Guards”?
Not really, although there’s this one point where I reference the Baghdad experience, “I work my fingers to the bone to keep the little piggies safe in their little straw homes.” While we were with these troops in Iraq, one of them looked at a civilian and said, “It’s alright…you don’t have to thank us. We’re just keepin’ ya safe.” He was talking shit, but he was saying it in a friendly way, and yet it was sort of like, ‘don’t worry about us’. Yet the song really is about super-heroes who cross the line from protecting people to actually becoming stalkers and needing restraining orders. As my eleven year old said, “Hey, didn’t this start out as more of a children’s song? But now it’s more like an ‘adult swim’ song.”
Is “Big Life” a testament to your own journey?
Yeah, it’s a reminder that in the big scheme of things, you’re not getting caught up in the small setbacks. You know I’ve had a lot of experience, as do most artists, with failure. Most of the songs you write are not hits. Most of the albums you make are not successful. And that’s true for most artists, right? You have a lot of short-term failures or setbacks. But if you step back away from it, you can see the big picture and everything is sort of moving forward. It’s a hard thing to remember. In Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s book, “The Black Swan”, he talks about artists living in the anti-chamber of hope.
What exactly is the anti-chamber of hope?
As an artist, you’re always in the waiting room…waiting. And most of the time you’re disappointed. That’s actually a very hard way to live. If you’re constantly creating songs, about half of them don’t even make it to the recording studio…and maybe only half the demos make it to an album. And in retrospect, the hits are often songs you would never expect to be hits. Fans will say after the fact, “Of course that’s a hit…that’s a great song!” but it’s never really obvious to us which song will be a hit.
Not even “Eurotrash Girl”?
Not really. We spent a lot of time working on that song and “Low” as well. We put it as the first track of the album – because it was our favorite song, so the fact that it actually was a hit was great. But there were two other songs on the record that we spent a lot of time re-cutting with the producer and those were seen as the most likely to be hits and in the end they weren’t.
“Let’s Go For A Ride” and “Sick of Goodbyes” which a lot of people liked, but they weren’t hits. “Get Off This” was the third hit on that album.
Were you surprised with that one too?
Hell, yes! I don’t think any of us thought any of those songs would be hits. First of all, “Eurotrash” is eight minutes long. The record company said, “That was already on the little EP you gave us and its too long so just leave it off the record.” So, the easiest way to put it on was just not to tell them. That’s why it’s a hidden track. You gotta remember when that album came out we were at the height of the grunge wave. “Get Off This” is not a very grunge-like song, maybe “Low” could pass as one, and “Eurotrash Girl” is a country song, really.
What did you learn about yourself doing a solo album?
I learned that I’m much more of an introverted person than my role actually allows me to be. The main reason I have the courage to get up on stage and be the lead singer is because there are other people up there playing with me (laughs). It’s more accidental that I became the singer …partly because when we first started I acted as the band manager, then the arranger and then I started writing the songs and feeding them to the singer. It got to the point where I just found it easier to do it myself. But it wasn’t really a role in life that I would have taken.
Do you suspect other lead singers feel the same way?
Well, I think David Bowie is probably more introverted and reserved than what we see on stage. The persona on stage is never him. He always plays a “character” as if to put a shield over his real self. Whereas, Mick Jagger was born to be up there in the front. I think when you see Mick perform, it’s truly him. You know what I’m saying?
Definitely. That may be surprising to your fans. What else might surprise them?
Well, I’m most creative very early in the morning…before the sun comes up. Someone told me a long time ago that if you listen to music when you first wake up or play your guitar it’s the same experience as smoking pot. Truth is when you smoke pot, you hear music differently. That’s why a lot of musicians do it. So, when my kids were really small, I found myself getting up very early and picking up the guitar. It was like wow…a lot of clarity. So I almost never work on anything after about 10:30 a.m. I do all my songwriting before 9:00 in the morning. I think it also has to do with the fact that the world starts intruding after nine or ten in the morning, and the text messages start coming in, etc. Just another weird thing you learned about me today…
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and freelance writes about music and the arts for other websites. She can be reached at [email protected]