“There’s no real benefit to stopping!” A conversation with David Lowery.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
I’ve never really agreed with the famous quip (attributed to Martin Mull) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, Nick Kent, and many other fine writers have proven that the subject of music can, in fact, be explored quite effectively on the printed page. However, the California-based band Camper Van Beethoven, a ragtag ensemble celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, stands as Exhibit A of what Mull might have been talking about. Are they gypsy-prog? Folk-punk? Country-ska? Bluegrass-metal? Such attempts at categorization, playful as they might be, fall woefully short of describing the sounds you’ll actually hear on a CVB record.
It is slightly easier to talk about the various components that make up the band. Singer/guitarist David Lowery, with his signature Ralph Stanley-by-way-of Joe Strummer bellow, appears on every album, as does bassist/vocalist Victor Krummenacher. Guitarist Greg Lisher and violinist/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Jonathan Segel each fall one album shy of perfect attendance, yet both musicians are absolutely integral to the Camper sound. Expanding outward from this core combo is a bewilderingly large tribe of current/former/and-or part-time members, including drummers Chris Pedersen and Frank Funaro, as well as jacks-of-all-trades Chris Molla and David Immergluck. There is no “front man” as such, but Lowery sings the majority of the songs. In the early days of the band, the albums were fairly evenly split between short, punchy, vocal-oriented songs and equally short instrumentals of a decidedly improvisational bent. Gradually, the improvisational detours began to work their way into the vocal pieces, resulting in a more cohesive sound that still managed to scrape against the accepted boundaries of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be.
I wish I could say I was one of the cool folks who first got turned on to the band via the propulsive early single “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (This track, which Lowery has described as being “purposely structured so that it would be devoid of meaning,” became an underground hit upon its release in 1985). But no, I–along with many other couch potatoes–discovered Camper Van Beethoven on MTV in 1989, in a video that starred a charismatic slinky. I am of course referring to the clip for “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (a cover of a Status Quo song) which got a lot of people fired up about Camper Van Beethoven just in time for the band to break up.
Listening to Camper’s back catalog in the aftermath of that split, and observing that every single album seemed to contain both the excitement and the tension of The White Album, I wondered less about why they had broken up and more about how they had ever managed to hang together in the first place.
“Our relations were not as hostile as you think,” Lowery says. He is speaking from Athens, GA (where he lives with his wife/manager Velena Vego) on the eve of Camper Van Beethoven’s impending thirtieth anniversary tour. Yes, the once-fractious band is in the midst of a successful second act, and the singer now feels he has a better perspective on the “creative tensions” that pulled the group apart the first time around. “After producing other bands for nearly thirty years, I now think of the disagreements in Camper Van Beethoven as if they were some kind of argument that the Cleaver family had in Leave It to Beaver. That is, compared to the kinds of things that happened in other bands. But I don’t know…for some reason we were more public about it or something. If things are set up right, it’s a very creative ensemble of people.”
A few words on Mr. Lowery before we proceed: In addition to his work with Camper Van Beethoven, he also fronts the band Cracker, which achieved considerable success in the 1990s with the singles “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Low.” Perhaps as a disclaimer to potential interviewers, his website offers the following helpful information: “I know I’m the lead singer of two bands but I am not very extroverted. I am better suited to be the proverbial mad scientist working alone in his laboratory. I do enjoy performing but I don’t party and I’m not much interested in talking about rock music. (mathematics, economics, military history, and amateur radio is another matter). I am grateful to the fans who have made my life so rewarding but sometimes I’m pretty awkward when I have to interact with people. Thanks for your tolerance.”
This statement, coupled with his somewhat strident online persona (he is famous for his stinging takedown of Emily White–the hapless NPR intern who blogged about having only purchased fifteen CDs in her lifetime while ripping thousands of others) made me a little anxious about our impending interview. I worried I might accidentally say something that would put me on his bad side.
But now, as our conversation unfolds, I find the person on the other end to be sweet, engaging, and, if anything, over-eager to discuss music, which is great, because I really want to talk about Lowery’s composition process and the influences that fuel it. Although initially regarded as a quirky, nonsensical writer, by 1989’s Key Lime Pie Lowery had penned the lyrics for the song “Sweethearts,” which ambitiously attempts to map the contours of Ronald Reagan’s inner world. The results of Lowery’s excursion are unsettling, surreal, and oddly beautiful. Some excerpts:
‘Cause he’s living in some B-movie
The lines they are so clearly drawn
In black and white life is so easy
And we’re all coming along on this one
And on a mission over China
The lady opens up her arms
The flowers bloom where you have placed them
And the lady smiles, just like Mom
“I identify with Kurt Vonnegut,” Lowery says. “When he started out he was considered this wacky, kind of humorous, cynical, non-serious science fiction writer. It wasn’t considered serious fiction, but he just kept doing it, he kept refining it, and he got better and deeper and eventually he started writing stuff like Bluebeard. And people were like, ‘This is serious literature.’ I was recently going through some boxes and found a bunch of old reviews of Camper Van Beethoven. They all called us ‘humorous,’ ‘eclectic,’ ‘sarcastic,’–you know, it was in the beginning, right? ‘These wacky guys.’ But the way we have been portrayed over the years has really changed, to the point where you’ve now got people like The Decemberists, Built to Spill, or Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse saying: ‘You’ve gotta check this shit out.’
“I like Thomas Pynchon’s writing, because he would write about shit that was completely over everybody’s head and he wouldn’t care. He would go off on tangents. Camper Van Beethoven is the vehicle where I get to do that. There’s a song on the album Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven where I tell the story of the obscure postal engineer Thomas Flowers, who built the first computer but had to keep it secret his whole life because it was part of the Bletchley code-breaking project in England during World War II. I get to write a song about that guy, and it fits right in.
“Lately the writer that’s freaking me out is this guy Nassim Taleb, who’s sort of a philosopher/derivatives trader/cultural critic. He wrote the book Black Swan (no relation to the movie). He’s real controversial in all kinds of circles; he manages to piss people off. So his new book is called Antifragile and, I mean, you don’t know what he’s talking about unless you’ve read his other two books. And he doesn’t really bother explaining it to you. If he wants to go off on a tangent about how he doesn’t like peaches because they never had them in Lebanon when he was growing up during the civil war, he’ll just talk about peaches for two paragraphs and then get back to his philosophical money/logic/finance/civilization ruminations. Then, if he wants to write the same chapter four chapters later because he didn’t feel like he wrote that chapter four chapters ago right, he just does it. I love people who have the balls to do that. So many people claim to be real artists and claim to be edgy and provocative and challenging of the status quo, but they really aren’t. At times, I want to really break the rules. And other times I don’t; other times I want to stay within the conventions.
“Here’s something I’ve been doing for the last six or seven years: when I come up with an idea for a lyric, I’ll email it to myself. At one point I discovered that, among all the Google Ads that pop up around my message, there’d always be these weird outliers. Sometimes you can get some really amazing stuff out of that, when Google AdWords is amplifying a minor point in your sentence and spinning it off into some random ad.”
I mention that when I first heard the new Camper Van Beethoven song “Too High for the Love-In,” I mistook the lyric to be “I was too high for the lovin'”–which, in my mind, altered the subject matter considerably.
Lowery laughs. “Too high for the lovin’? There was actually a debate about that. Jonathan understood that I was singing ‘too high for the love-in.’ But I think Victor and Greg thought we meant lovin’. We had a debate because it was a great title either way. That’s not the first time something like that has happened. Our first album Telephone Free Landslide Victory was actually supposed to be named Telephone Tree Landslide Victory. When Bruce (Licher, Independent Press Records founder) set the type, he thought our handwriting was an ‘f,’ not a ‘t,’ and he thought that made much more sense. You see what I’m getting at? There’s fun in getting it wrong.
“But back to influences: The magazine American Songwriter asked me who my songwriting heroes are. It’s really hard to say, but mine would have to be: Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Randy Newman, and Captain Beefheart.”
I’ve always admired Lowery’s and his bandmates’ outspoken love for artists who may not be on the typical “approved” list for indie/postpunk bands. During their early days, Camper Van Beethoven extolled the virtues of the Grateful Dead to their stupefied punk peers. They went on the public record, frequently and loudly, with their unashamed loved for prog-rock. In a Musician interview in the early ’90s, Lowery even got a little misty-eyed over the music of Ted Nugent.
I ask David about that prog lineage.
“This is where Jonathan Segel and I really overlap,” he says. “You go way back to Fairport Convention–stuff that was sort of English folk but was leaning towards the prog-rock stuff. And then there was stuff that was kind of blues-rock but leaning towards prog. I’m still really fascinated by that era. Ultimately, though, I think it is probably the other guys who are a little more influenced by straight-up prog rock than I am. But our song ‘Summer Days’ (off the new album La Costa Perdida) is a song in the vein of early Genesis or early King Crimson. We used to just call it ‘King Floyd’ or ‘Pink Crimson.'”
This prompts me to wax philosophical (geeks seek their own level) about the period in the late ’60s and early ’70s before experimental art rock had calcified and become progressive rock: those golden days when Jimi Hendrix wanted to jam with King Crimson and Rick Wakeman played on Lou Reed recordings. I muse aloud that Camper Van Beethoven seems to exhibit that same willful disregard for genre boundaries. This gets David going on the protean, pre-Dark Side of the Moon incarnation of Pink Floyd.
“That earlier Pink Floyd stuff was a big part of what we did. We like that weird, sort of lost Pink Floyd era: Meddle and Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. That, King Crimson, and probably even some Genesis. Yeah, looking back on it, there’s gems from all those bands.”
It could be argued that this collective fervor, seemingly at the cellular level, for obscure and/or certifiably unhip music is what eventually brought the members of Camper Van Beethoven back together. In 2001, in a test-run to see if they could collaborate again, Lowery, Segel, Krummenacher, and Lisher convened to record their own version of Fleetwood Mac’s double-LP Tusk in its entirety. In doing so, they tapped into new wells of madness in an album that was already bonkers to begin with.
“Now (the Fleetwood Mac) Tusk has been resurrected as a great album. But, you know, at the time we did it, it was thought of as a clusterfuck. We were always big supporters of that. Yeah, sure it’s screwed-up, but what’s great about it is they’re getting closer to their inner Syd Barrett. I think it was Johnny (Hickman, from Cracker) who said to me, ‘You have to go beyond inspired to disturbed.’ That’s kind of what’s going on with us.”
The Tusk project led to some successful reunion shows as well as a proper new album: 2004’s New Roman Times: a sprawling, gloriously batty and wholly wonderful concept record whose alternate-universe plot vaguely concerns a war between Texas and California.
Now, after another long pause in recording, Camper Van Beethoven are set to roll out the most polished, cohesive, and just-plain-gorgeous collection of songs of their career: La Costa Perdida. Again, it’s a concept record of sorts, but this time the music is bound together by a general theme rather than a storyline.
“The title refers to the Lost Coast,” Lowery says, “which is a really specific geographic area of California that’s north of San Francisco. Sometimes the locals refer to the whole broad northern coast as culturally lost: lost in time, a lost place.”
I ask if it’s true that the somewhat obscure Beach Boys album Holland served as a sort of template.
“Yeah. Jonathan and I had this obsession with that album back in the early days of Camper Van Beethoven. I don’t know if the Beach Boys wrote that stuff at Big Sur or they were just obsessed with Big Sur, but there’s a song on it called Big Sur Trilogy. A couple years ago we were supposed to play in Big Sur, which re-kindled our interest in the album, but the show got rained out and was postponed for a week. So we went back to Oakland to Jonathan’s house and I just hung out and Jonathan and Victor would come over after work and Greg would come over and we would all get together and try to write songs. We thought if we came up with three or four, that would be great, but we came up with this big batch of songs and a general idea of what the lyrics were about. And I think because we were listening to that Big Sur period of Beach Boys and a few other artists from that time, we decided that that would somehow influence the album.
“Big Sur is actually on the central coast. But it fits the Lost Coast idea: it’s one of these weird, isolated places left over from another era. It wasn’t just Henry Miller that lived there. Kerouac and Pynchon had connections to the place. Captain Beefheart went up there. There were just tons of these arty sort of weirdo freaks that we admire and we would like to claim kinship to. But we’re almost a little bit too calculating to truly be freaks. We can pass in regular society to a certain extent.
“We put the title in Spanish because, mixed in with all of that, there are cultural influences from northern Mexico. The state of California, even in the wine country, is so intertwined with the country of Mexico. Musically, too, the two cultures are intertwined.”
With La Costa Perdida, Camper Van Beethoven have learned to blend their disparate ingredients seamlessly. The music is more textured than on previous efforts, due in no small part to the exquisite interplay between Lisher, Krummenacher, and Segel. Lisher lends further cohesion to the album by maintaining a clean, bell-like guitar tone throughout.
“He wanted it to remain the same,” Lowery says. “He literally used the same guitar, the same cord, the same two effects pedals and the same amplifier. He just said, ‘I’m going to do it this way.’ And that’s the thing with Camper Van Beethoven: the rest of us say, ‘Okay, you’ve got to do it that way…so let’s go with it.’ And it’s great. I think it sounds really good. It’s just all in his hands how the tones change and stuff like that. And Greg of course is the man of a million instantaneous riffs. I don’t know if you noticed on this record but so much of the vocal melody is coming from Greg’s guitar riffs. In ‘Northern California Girls’ that whole vocal melody is mapped in the opening guitar line.”
So, I ask, what can we expect during this thirtieth anniversary year?
“Well, with this second stage of Camper Van Beethoven, we have a different philosophy than we had during the first era. We decided that we really shouldn’t make it a full-time band. We’re not going to jump into a van and do 200 dates in the next eighteen months. We said, let’s just not do that anymore and see what happens. But we will play shows. Over the next few months we’ll cover North America and we’ll get to Europe in the summer. I suppose we’ll do something on the actual day of our 30th anniversary, which is sometime in June. And we’ll go to Australia finally. Every time we tried to go before, something bad happened with those Cracker and Camper tours so we got superstitious and stopped trying to go. We’re a strange band. Even though we’re all kind of scientists, we have some deeply ingrained superstitions.”
Does he see himself continuing on with Camper Van Beethoven into the foreseeable future?
“Sure. Why would I stop? There’s no real benefit to stopping.”