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"When I was in England once, my aunt said to me, You know, that's a dangerous business you've got there.'"
David Lowery pauses. The highest-profile member of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker -- touring together now -- wants us to know his mother and her sisters are "working-class intellectuals" from England.
He resumes: "I misunderstood her, thinking she meant rock: the drugs, the drinking, the traveling around. But when I asked what she meant, she goes, Using irony in America.' And that really stuck with me."
Asked a few minutes before whether Cracker's song "Can I Take My Gun Up to Heaven?" is ironic or not, Lowery wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. He's not alone right now in feeling that way. An economy that wipes out jobs for growth; media that delight in bad news; a war that became more dangerous after it ended. Irony is all around us.
The time seems ripe for Lowery's storied indie ethic to make a comeback.
There's an exhilarating sequence near the beginning of 2002's Bowling for Columbine when documentarian Michael Moore walks out of a bank with the free rifle he's just received for opening an account. A smile plays across his lips as we hear the bouncy opening chords of Camper's 1985 classic "Take the Skinheads Bowling." Then the music carries us through the credits, superimposed over old footage from 1950s-era bowling alleys. Teenage Fanclub performs it in the movie, but the effect is pure Camper.
Years of wasting his wit on people who take everything literally had left Lowery a little, well, gun-shy. But he perks up after hearing praise for Key Lime Pie, the original Camper Van Beethoven's band-breaking 1989 effort.
"You'll love the next Camper record," he says. "We're trying to do a modern protest record. Except that we don't want to be bound completely by facts. Politics is more fun if you can go with all the conspiracy theories."
The songs, says bassist Victor Krummenacher, are "reminiscent in an odd way of '70s prog-rock, which is cool again. That's what we grew up on. That was our unspoken geeky side: Don't tell them you like King Crimson!'"
Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel speaks of pulling radical political manifestos off his bookshelf to sneak into the liner notes. And Lowery makes it sound like the new Camper album's ambitions -- it's slated for release in time for this fall's presidential election -- are fused in a concept worthy of Tommy: "The record is set in an alternate North America, in which the Republic of Texas has troops in California. It starts out with a really gung-ho soldier who gradually loses his faith. And, of course, it's meant to be applied to exactly what's going on today."
Lowery quickly adds: "It's playful!"
Playfulness was something many people found lacking in Key Lime Pie. Camper Van Beethoven was a mainstay of the day's burgeoning alternative rock scene. The band's 1988 major-label debut Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart landed them a spot on NPR's Fresh Air, not to mention in large touring venues. But Key Lime Pie was too dark with portent for some listeners. Lowery sent his words on an extended trip to the whetstone, and they cut to the bone.
"There were people who knew about us because of Take the Skinheads Bowling' and other funny songs and thought of us as this novelty-ish humor band," Lowery says. "But what we realized after a while was that there was also a group of people who liked the ballads, the country stuff, and the weirder experimentalism. I remember after the Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart tour, a lot of people liked songs like One of These Days' and Oh, Death.' We knew we could write songs like that, but we always used to feel like we had to have a Take the Skinheads Bowling' on each record."
Considering the acrimony that accompanied Camper Van Beethoven's collapse, it's surprising that the band ever reunited. They've played a short tour so far and have released Tusk, a strange song-by-song cover ode to the Fleetwood Mac science project they had begun working on in the late '80s.
"With David and me, it's like we're brothers," offers Krummenacher. "Our relationship goes back to 1980. He taught me how to play bass. We had a very bitter falling out. But he's been very loyal to me for a long time."
It's the rare band that returns to the studio without damaging its legacy. But even artists who have managed sustained comebacks, like the Buzzcocks, have been a wee bit more conservative. Listening to Krummenacher, Segel and Lowery talk about their new project, though, you get the feeling that they might be able to pull it off.
Segel complains, "People put such a value on the primacy of youth that they act childish in order to regain it. But the thing I realized by the time I got to be 30 -- I'm 40 now -- is, why would I want to listen to a band of 18-year-olds? What could they possibly have to say that would be realistic?"
With a revived Camper Van Beethoven in the works, you'd think that Cracker is getting the short end of the microphone stand. But Lowery doesn't seem concerned.
"Since [1996's] The Golden Age, Cracker has really drifted back into the same territory that Camper was in," he explains. "We started trying to be even more eclectic. I feel like Cracker has developed its own mélange-of-music approach now, like Camper had.
"I automatically go into a different role with Camper because there are so many long, instrumental sections," he says a few moments later. "Because there's a lot of call and response, I try to stay on the side of the stage, so we're flat across the front in Camper, whereas in Cracker I'm in the middle. Maybe that's part of the method acting: I feel like I have a different personality onstage." He uses another metaphor to drive home his point: "One band's alcohol and one's pot."
Maybe the unexpected success in the past couple of pointed volleys like Bowling for Columbine is a renewed sign that we need to go back in order to go forward. If people in the 1980s could resist the overwhelming popularity of Ronald Reagan enough to make the Iran-contra hearings happen, and if they could turn the synthesized atrocities of Van Halen into inspiration for a musical subculture with attitude and hope, perhaps this generation can do the same. But we'd be a lot better off listening to bands like Camper Van Beethoven than going to '80s night at the strip-mall dance club in channeling the era's rebel glory.
Yup, irony truly is a dangerous business.