The geographic distance between Berkeley and Bakersfield, California is 276.4 miles. For David Lowery, it's also a stretch of land influential enough to the sound of his band that Cracker recently released a two-CD set entitled Berkeley to Bakersfield.
The first CD crackles with guitar-driven alt-rock like the jangly "Beautiful" and the stomper "Life In the Big City."
Move on to disc two and out comes the pedal steel and fiddle, whether it's on the twangy "Almond Grove" or the honky-tonk shuffle "King of Bakersfield." And while this combination may seem odd, that combination of roots-rock and country riffing has been a hallmark dating back to the band's 1992 self-titled debut, when Lowery's guitar-playing creative partner Johnny Hickman juiced up songs like the defiant "Can I Take My Gun to Heaven" and the anthemic "I See the Light" with riffs that pulsed with the influence of Bakersfield legends Buck Owens and Don Rich.
"The country thing is something that's been around throughout our whole career," Lowery explained in a recent interview. "So in 2004 we put out [the album] "Countrysides" as a way paying homage to our roots in that way. In 2013, we thought it was time to touch on that again, so I started writing these songs that were largely sort of country-based, which was sort of the idea for the next Cracker record. It was going to be a sort of Americana record."
Around this time, the Texas native had also been working with drummer Michael Urbano, who not only played with Lowery in his other band, Camper Van Beethoven, but also an earlier Cracker lineup. Joined by bassist Davey Faragher, the trio recorded nine songs of original material that were distinctly different from the nine songs Lowery had started recording earlier for this project. It proved to be an interesting conundrum according to Lowery.
"[Berkeley] was this sort of three-day, songwriting demo session with me, Davey [Faragher] and Michael that's not exactly perfect," he recalled. "When we listened to it back and compared these two batches of songs, they seemed different enough that they were two different albums. So that's what we did...It sort of explains who our rock and country roots are."
While Lowery has been pulling double-duty spearheading Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, dating back to the latter's regrouping in the late '90s, he's also developed an interest in using the geography of his adopted state of California to drive his most current wave of songwriting.
More recently, it came via the most recent CVB albums, 2014's El Camino Real, which draws its inspiration from southern California, and 2013's La Costa Perdida, which is more about the northern part of the Golden State.
But for Lowery, who currently teaches a course on the economics of finance in the music business at the University of Georgia and is working on his long-delayed mathematics doctorate, his geographically-driven creative urges were stoked by authors Joan Didion and William Vollman.
"I've become fascinated with writers like Joan Didion," Lowery said. "[She] wrote this wonderful book made up of essays on the grimy part of California called Slouching Towards Bethlehem about the end of an empire. And then I got fascinated by William Vollman who is a really hard-to-describe author. He'll write a 1,300-page book that's really a loose collection of long and elegant essays that spans 400 years that's about the Imperial Valley of California, which is both in California and Mexico."
"So I wound up being fascinated by this writing style and I started out doing that with the Camper records," he said. "I looked at it as being our Didion phase. I haven't taken this geography thing that far, but it's definitely part of something that I've been thinking about for the last four or five years. The songs aren't really about the geography. They are just excuses to tell other stories."
5:30 pm, Thursday July 9
Free (part of the Munch & Music series)