From their hyper-clever name to their quirky lyrics and thrift-store sound, Northern California's Camper Van Beethoven was the quintessential college-rock band in the second half of the '80s, beloved by the blossoming alternative nation, championed by college radio and the underground press, and proudly flying their freak flag just below the mainstream radar. After their breakup, frontman David Lowery found himself on the other side of the fence, leading '90s hitmakers Cracker to alt-rock glory. But old habits die hard, and in 2002 Camper Van Beethoven began storming stages once more, and released – in signature left-field fashion – a song-for-song cover album of Fleetwood Mac's notorious "experimental" record Tusk. Two years later, CVB added to their catalog of cult-classic albums like Telephone Free Landslide Victory and Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart with New Roman Times, their first batch of new tunes in 15 years. Now they've finally followed it up with La Costa Perdida, just in time to hit the road for a string of 30th anniversary gigs. Though Lowery's most publicized activity of 2012 was his controversial, epic online reply to the infamous NPR intern's blog post about illicit downloading, this year should find him in the spotlight for the right reasons.
What caused Camper Van Beethoven's initial split-up in 1990?
First, we basically kicked Jonathan out of the band because we got to the point where we didn't feel like we could function with him in the band. He just made a lot of ultimatums, and there was literally no way the band could function. So he was asked to leave, and then Victor and Greg had the Monks of Doom prog-rock project, and I was heading in another direction. And when [1989 CVB album] Key Lime Pie came out, that didn't get great reviews, so I think in a lot of ways it seemed like we'd made a wrong turn. If we'd been clearly successful on that album, I think we could have got past our differences, but it didn't seem like we were successful. So I think it was really easy for everybody to split apart. The record label wanted me to continue on as Camper Van Beethoven and I refused to do it. I just started a different project.
What's your theory about why Cracker had more commercial success than Camper?
Everybody's playing at once in Camper Van Beethoven, not everybody understands that kind of music. You have to look at this, too: Camper Van Beethoven had an album that came out in 1989 and we got played on virtually all of the modern rock/alternative stations, which was maybe 40 stations in the United States. When Cracker's
"It turns out if you piss off people who don't buy albums anyway, as an artist, nothing bad happens."
first record came out, we got played on most of the modern rock/alternative stations, but now there was like 250 of them, and by the time [1993 Cracker album] Kerosene Hat comes out, there's about 400 of those stations. That's the other reason.
What finally sparked Camper Van Beethoven's reunion?
I think enough years had passed and we had done some live shows together, and we started to write some songs together and it seemed to be clicking. We started making albums – this is sort of the first album where we're fully back together, because New Roman Times sort of came together as we organized ourselves as a band again.
Camper Van Beethoven's penchant for filtering folk and world music influences through a sort of underground rock sensibility was initially influenced by the '60s West coast psychedelic band Kaleidoscope, right?
We did the first Camper album not knowing Kaleidoscope, and then the second album is discovering Kaleidoscope, and if you know that fact, you can completely hear it. That's where the sort of '60s hippie violin/gypsy craziness mixes with the punk rock gypsy/ska craziness. Yeah, Kaleidoscope turned out to be an influence on us. I didn't really know anything about Eastern European, klezmer, Balkan music, or any of that stuff. The idea of Camper Van Beethoven was like what the surf bands did … like, "Oh, well this is our idea of what Ali Baba sounds like," where they played it on surf guitars. So this was like, "Well this is our idea of what Eastern European music sounds like, we're gonna play, like, fake Eastern European music." The whole point was getting it wrong and creating something new.
That side of things is still evident on the new album, with tracks like your Euro-prog-reggae reboot of the traditional tune "Shady Grove," which you retitled "Peaches in the Summertime."
Victor [Krummenacher], he came up with the music for that, some sort of '70s Turkish folk/prog-rock, his bass riff was sort of inspired by that. When we listened to it, we said, "It's really more Appalachian," so we put "Shady Grove" to it over a Turkish bass riff, we turned it sort of punkish ska or something, very much back to Kaleidoscope. We corrupted it enough, and the way we registered it is that it's an arrangement of "Shady Grove" but we call it "Peaches in the Summertime." There's a bunch of variations on that song, and I always loved the version that was like, "Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall," so we called it "Peaches in the Summertime."
Some of the songs on the new album, like "Northern California Girls" and "Too High for the Love-In," seem to continue that thread that's always run through the band's music, of eulogizing the '60s West coast hippie dream that crashed and burned in the early '70s.
Yeah, we kind of mine that don't we? Yeah, here we were in Santa Cruz, a total hippie town, we're sort of punk rockers, but we didn't subscribe to the dogma and fakeness of the punk rock thing, we wanted to embrace the hippie thing but it was kind of over and disillusioned, so what we picked up from the hippie thing was the damaged, discarded version of the California '60s ideals that turned out to be a wonderful vehicle for us to express our musical ideas…back a ways to '66, '67, bands like Chocolate Watchband, Kaleidoscope, take that and base our music on that.
Is that part of the lost coast concept of La Costa Perdida?
Lost Coast is a geographic area of California where these sort of lost hippie psychedelic musician ideals ended up, and they're laying around in this cultural junkyard there, sort of rotting, but it's rich in history. People like Captain Beefheart moved to Lost Coast, up by Eureka. The Grateful Dead moved from San Francisco north to the wild lands of Marin…it's sort of a cultural area of California to us, and these songs get infected by all of that.
In the latest Judd Apatow movie, This Is 40, Paul Rudd wears a vintage Camper Van t-shirt that apparently came from his own collection. Does it surprise you when things like that continue to happen?
I think we were the most recent NRBQ, a band that was never really that popular, but whose fans were kind of famous and influential, and it helped our career. Those kinds of things happen a lot. I was watching Squidbillies one night and they started talking about Camper Van Beethoven. It's cool. It's kind of like this thing with Cracker where "Low" and maybe a couple of the other songs, in movies and television when they want to establish the '90s, they use Cracker right now. We're in Young Adult, Perks of Being a Wallflower, it's just been nonstop for the last two, three years. So Camper is sort of the next thing underneath that.
With the benefit of hindsight, what's your perspective on the fallout from your open letter to the notorious music-downloading NPR intern last year?
It turns out if you piss off people who don't buy albums anyway, as an artist, nothing bad happens. Actually, there was a marginal increase in the sales, radio rotation, and attendance for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven as a result of that. In the digital mythology, they took Lars Ulrich's head and put it on a stake outside of the city gates, right? Sure, he had to put up with a lot of abuse from people who weren't buying his records anyway, but did that really hurt him? It didn't.
In addition to releasing the new album, Camper is doing a 30th anniversary tour. What would you have said 30 years ago to someone who predicted this kind of future for the band?
If they told me that Camper Van Beethoven t-shirts would be in movies, songs would be in commercials, and that "Take the Skinheads Bowling" would still be played on the radio, seriously, I would ask what they were smoking.