David Lowery, frontman of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, professor at the University of Georgia, and general music-business-Renaissance-man, is preparing for the 17th annual Camp In festival taking place at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA.
Although previously located in Pioneertown, California, at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, Camp In has taken place at 40 Watt Club for the past four years.
Lowery claims that this festival is geared specifically toward CVB and Cracker fans; there are multiple sets with different reincarnations of the bands, unique combinations of members, and re-imaginings of original material.
In keeping with the tradition of Camp In, Lowery says that there will be a variety of combinations of musicians playing sets during the festival. Performances will include a solo set with David Lowery (which he excitedly informs me is also a pizza party), a performance by Johnny Hickman at Hendershots, and an acoustic set with Lowery, Johnny Hickman and Peter Case “Pistol” (the “Trippy Trio,” as Lowery calls it)—which plays some reinterpreted, abstract approaches to Cracker songs. There will also be performances by Edward David Anderson of Backyard Tire Fire, The Heap, The Darnell Boys, Ike Reilly, Peter Case, Daisy, Eric Bachman and The Drapes.
When it comes to playing with two bands, Lowery explains that basic differences lie in the songwriting of CVB and Cracker, and therefore in the music itself. CVB, for one, tends to be more instrumental. According to Lowery, CVB began as a side project for the members, so each musician chose an instrument other than their primary one to play. (Lowery switched from bass to guitar/lead vocals.) He adds that their songs began with a simple structure and then gradually became more complex over time.
“When I’m writing, I’ll wake up in the morning, grab some coffee and just go through the lyrics or melody motif over and over until I find something,” says Lowery. Then, with a general idea for the song hashed out, Lowery would meet with the rest of the band to develop the idea by co-writing or recording a demo.
When it comes to Cracker, however, Lowery says the songwriting stays more in that second stage of co-writing with the band. He observes that there tends to be “more formal co-writing,” and he will also occasionally go to Nashville for sessions with songwriters to co-write material with him.
Over the years, Lowery says songwriting with his bands has remained very much the same, although writing his new solo album Conquistador took him on a completely different path. The central concept for the album had been on his mind for around 10 years. “There were lots of false starts. Then one day, I just had a bass drum—a marching band bass drum—and a mic, and it just sort of came together.” With the instrumentation in place, Lowery began reading the lyrics more like poetry or spoken word, and his abstract ideas finally solidified.
It seems nonsensical to talk to David Lowery (someone very outspoken about digital advancements and their relationship with musicians’ rights) and not to touch on streaming, so I asked him about how (and if) it affects his songwriting.
“It definitely makes it more challenging,” he tells me. “In the past, we would get a recording advance. Now, it’s not so much a priority to put out an album. We won’t set aside time to do it. Instead, I just try to squeeze it in the margins.”
Since releasing an album isn’t as lucrative as it once was, Lowery says he doesn’t actively take time off from his responsibilities of teaching or touring for creating an album; instead, he fits in writing when he can or when ideas come to him.
Shifting back to the festival scene, Lowery recalls a favorite memory of Camp In. “I pulled my wife up on stage and played this song ‘Palace Guards’ to her. It was almost like a stand-up comedy routine. I posed it like a love song—the audience loved it and thought it was funny. She had tears in her eyes; it was too funny. Now it’s hard for us to keep playing that song and take it seriously.”
Be sure to catch Camp In featuring Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven in Athens, GA at the 40 Watt Club from today, January 19 through Saturday, January 21. Tickets are available at crackersoul.com and 40watt.com.