Journey Through California Culture with Camper Van Beethoven

Camper Van Beethoven
Camper Van Beethoven
Courtesy photo

Camper Van Beethoven were born to be wild. Begun during the early '80s, the violin-led Bay Area quintet were initially a reaction to hardcore punk, but quickly moved afield stylistically. Like the Talking Heads if they'd dropped acid and grown up on the other coast, there's a goofy, sardonic irreverence at the core of their art-damaged psych-folk. Their loose, rollicking, eclecticism evokes don't-give-a-damn freedom, but it's never like they don't care. CVB self-destructed in 1990 after five albums in seven years.

Singer/guitarist David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman started Cracker afterwards with the understanding that they'd be the core, avoiding Camper's sometimes crippling democracy. Cracker's self-titled 1992 debut enjoyed immediate success with "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," accurately presaging Nirvana. The 1994 follow-up Kerosene Hat produced the ginormous radio hit "Low." Afterwards, Cracker descended to lower orbit where they continued to play their clever, rootsy, alt-pop/rock. Meanwhile Camper's cult appeal persisted, prompting them to reunite around the millennium to cover Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. The band made the terrific 2004 future dystopia/concept album, New Roman Times, then went on another hiatus. But they returned last year with the freaky, chilled-out La Costa Perdida. The harder-charging El Camino Real arrived in June. The discs loosely represent and speak to the cultures of Northern and Southern California, respectively.

We spoke to Lowery while he was in Athens, Georgia, where he lives and teaches at a state college. He spoke about the two bands' similarities and how they a similar creative outlook.

"Both bands only play music for themselves. There is nothing calculated about what we did. We really just played music we felt was cool," Lowery says. "This goes back to the fact that when we were in Camper Van Beethoven, we were in other bands and we said, 'Let's see what songs we like together - what do we want to listen to?' And there was a feeling that we know this may not be what everyone else likes, but there have to be a few other people out there that share our taste. They'll think this stuff is cool. And as long as we can find those people we will have some small career. Cracker was the same way."

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The two albums represent Northern and Southern California. Lowery feels they're pretty different culturally.

"Southern California is more this polyglot culture. Not to say San Francisco isn't diverse, but Southern California and the whole mega-opolis of Los Angeles sort of sprawls from Santa Barbara to pretty much to Ensenada, Mexico. It is its own city-state. Driving along [42.8 mile] Sepulveda Blvd you literally take a trip around the world .... There's crazy little communities, like we're in the Azerbaijani section of Los Angeles. It's this world city. It's frenetic. Lots of traffic and urban sprawling mess. It reminds me more of Shanghai than something in the U.S. It's not that the records are totally dissimilar but you have this little more frenetic, urban thing and some of the stuff is a little darker, but it also overlaps."

Yet going from La Costa Perdida to El Camino Real definitely takes the listener in a different direction. It's not only a pun to say things go south; it's just a tenser, more paranoid album.

"Oh absolutely more paranoid and more tense. I don't know how we got fixated, but it seems like over the last few years we were always staying at this hotel in El Segundo next to LAX airport," he says. "There's this whole military espionage base along the coast, all the defense contractors and all these weird little military installations, satellite manufacturers and the aerospace companies. All that stuff. So that's kinda in 'Dockweiler Beach' and more so 'Classy Dames and Able Gents,' that whole military industrial complex along the coast."

Lowery's said before that having both bands has led to some cross-pollination with Cracker making Camper rockier, and Camper making Cracker more groovy and psychedelic. It's even led them to switch things up from a personnel standpoint.

"A lot of times when we bring both bands out we sit Camper on top of Cracker's rhythm section. This time we're doing the opposite. We're sitting Cracker on top of Camper's rhythms section so it's Chris Peterson, the mainstay drummer for Camper and Victor [Krummenbacher] will be the rhythm section," says Lowery. "We've also been doing this acoustic thing the last few years, but it's not really acoustic. It's me and Johnny but he plays electric; it's sort of loud. We're going to interweave some of that into the show too. So it should be different than the last time they saw it - though we still play the hits."

We mentioned to Lowery about FXX's Simpsons marathon spanning from the first episode to the last on FXX for 12 days straight in last August and early September. Witnessing the decline in quality over the marathon's course we wondered if a collaborative creative endeavor necessarily loses its edge by the sixth or seventh year and becomes a softer, paler imitation.

"Well, that's possible, though on the new Cracker album that comes out in December I feel we pretty much call for people to come out with torches and pitchforks to right the wrongs," he says. "So I don't think we got that memo."

Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven play Saturday, September 6, at Crescent Ballroom

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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