Catching up with former Cruzan and beloved, revolutionary sweetheart David Lowery
Cause what the world needs now/ is another folksinger/ like I need a hole in my head,” sang Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman, David Lowery on Cracker’s 1991 hit “Teen Angst (what the world needs now).” For 20 years Lowery lived up to his word. Now, with the recent release of The Palace Guards, Lowery hasn’t necessarily gone folksinger on his fans nor gained another hole in his head, but there is a noticeable dent.
Among the last in the Camper Van Beethoven clan to spawn a solo recording, David Lowery’s The Palace Guards is a vitalizing, thoughtful collection of songs that are not merely B-sides or out-takes of material intended for his two working bands. Instead they fall somewhere in-between the generous confines of both, showcasing a songwriter that has matured without losing his buoyant, crackling wit.
Except Lowery isn’t technically calling it a solo effort.
“I actually have a couple of versatile eclectic ensembles, each in their own way,” Lowery says from his part-time home in Athens, Georgia. “If a song, riff or idea didn’t fit with one band it usually fit with the other one. And if it didn’t quite fit, we still did it anyway.”
Lowery began setting aside songs around 2006, thinking that if they didn’t work with either band he’d just hold them back and work on them himself. “I’ve hung out with these guys in my studio for the last 15 years and I’ve developed a rapport with them. And that’s how this record came about.”
Well sort of … with the recording industry lost in thickets of pain and searching out new paradigms, Lowery wasn’t even planning on releasing The Palace Guards in the conventional album form. So he started uploading some of the songs complemented by videos out on YouTube.
“Let me explain,” he wrote on his 300 Songs Blog (davidlowerymusic.com), a sundry, well-written collection of musing that is as eclectic as any early Camper Van Beethoven record. “Robots have recently colonized our planet and made us slaves. As a result we humans have been reduced to sitting in little cubicles emailing YouTube videos back and forth to each other. Most people call this “their job.”
People didn’t get it, he says. “They’d look at me funny. ‘You know the place with all the cute cat videos and rednecks waterskiing on trashcan lids.’”
Ultimately, though, Lowery found a label to release the record and rescued it from lurid associations with the cats and rednecks, although the slim chances of that happening were remote. Take the video for “Deep Oblivion” where images of the sea and snow are montaged over a bearded Lowery reading a thickish book, playing an acoustic guitar, or, heavens, sweetly kissing his wife. YouTubed be damned.
Lyrically, The Palace Guards is wrought with the same droll irreverence, unreliable narrators and off-kilter word play found in Lowery’s work with Camper and Cracker, but this time out there’s some more genuine emotional seriousness in the sardonic smile.
He sings in the chorus: “We were crossing English Channels/ in Victorian times/ in midget submarines/ with parasols entwined/ and I was going under/ in some deep oblivion/ you bravely took my hand/ and sweetly came along.”
When I tell Lowery that The Palace Guards has a distinctly literary bent, there’s a noticeable wince. He tells me he doesn’t understand why it is necessarily groundbreaking to have a wide range of narrative styles in rock music. By way of explanation, he tells a story of when Camper was doing one of their first tours in Europe. Lowery’s British aunt came to one of their shows in London and afterward said to him, “That’s a dangerous business you’re in.” Lowery, who was 24 at the time, thought she must have been talking about the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and began to explain to her that they were, in fact, nothing but sensible young lads. “No. I’m not talking about that,” she said, “I’m talking about using irony in America.”
The title track, “The Palace Guards” is about a superhero dictator of sorts that oddly sounds a lot like a combination of Hosni Mubarek and Muammar Gaddafi. The narrator in the song begins his rant in first person, but by the chorus is screaming in third-person. And though written before the Middle East blow up as of late, Lowery says that when dictators talk in the third person “it is a really good sign of madness.”
“I hope that you emphasize with the guy at the end (of the song) and my point is once you empathize with the crazy character, then we’re all crazy.”
Lowery now splits his time between Richmond, Virginia, where he has his studio, and Athens, Georgia where his wife, Velena Vego, is the manager of the Camper and Cracker, and head booker at the famed 40 Watt Club.
Another reason to be in Athens is—besides it being an alternative universe where everyone seems to have died and gone back to college—Lowery is currently teaching a class in music business at the University of Georgia—long last putting his mathematics major at UC Santa Cruz to work.
“It’s been useful to me to have been accidentally sort of successful,” he says, “going my own or blazing our own path because it was sort of the only thing we could do with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. So we kinda keep doing that, we keep doing ill-advised things in both my bands and also in my solo career. I do ill-advised things. I have to be careful there with those pronouns.”
Photo caption: Camper Van Beethoven alum David Lowery delivers a thoughtful collection of songs on The Palace Guards.