Music News

Camper Van Beethoven Embraces Its Place Among the Hippie Ruins

If David Lowery were allowed only one word to describe his punk, Middle Eastern, folk, ska, Slavic, Indian, Spanish, psychedelic, country, rock band Camper Van Beethoven, it would be "weird." Weird that a band with a catalog of entirely dissimilar albums has survived 30 years. Weird that influences include hippies, Gypsies, and Ravi Shankar. Weird that fans run the gamut from punk rockers to indie hipsters, cowboys to old stoners. Weird that band members typically create more "conventional" music in other projects.

"It's weird, isn't it?" Lowery asks, while driving to a documentary film shoot (about him) in Virginia. "I mean, we're such a weird band. There's a punk rock element to it, but there's so much in there — from the Beach Boys to the Grateful Dead, Eastern European to Spanish-sounding at times. It's just a weird collection of individuals. None of us makes music like that separately. We make odd music together. We're not hugely popular; we're still a cult band, but we happen to have people all over the world who like what we do."

It is those "people" who have allowed CVB to thrive outside the conventional rock 'n' roll parameters since the earliest incarnations of the band. Original remaining members Lowery and bassist Victor Krummenacher formed the band in 1983, during their college days in Santa Cruz, California. Current guitarist/violinist/keyboardist Jonathan Segel joined in 1984; guitarist Greg Lisher in 1985. The band has always operated with a DIY attitude, from drawing up gig posters and album art to spiking songs with unexpected influences.

"There was a punk rock, anarchic, anything-goes ethos in the beginning, and that was kind of what started it. We'll do this; we'll do that," he recalls. "This was the first kind of remix mash-up, before there was a word for it, and [we were] doing it with live instruments. But we were doing it in the punk world. All those Eastern European instrumentals that are based on ska beats? The reason we did those was to keep the skinheads dancing instead of wanting to beat us up.

"I think because, individually, our tastes are odd and there is a kind of — for lack of a better word — a serene element to what we do as players," he says. "Ultimately, the combination of four to six people playing this together came to sound like us."

In time, those individual ideas became difficult to juggle and internal struggles ensued. Despite minor successes with the quirky "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and the countrified Black Flag cover "Wasted" — from their Telephone Free Landslide Victory — MTV-favorite "Eye of Fatima" from Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, and the psychedelic Status Quo remake of "Pictures of Matchstick Men" off Key Lime Pie, Camper Van Beethoven split up in 1990. Lowery formed the country-flavored Cracker, and it was nine years before several original Camper members found themselves together again, compiling the rarities album Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven.

"We came together to finish up those oddities," Lowery recalls. "It was called an oddities record, but it really just had all this unfinished stuff. We just finished them and then realized we all missed playing together."

The band reformed, bringing in Cracker drummer Frank Funaro and doing selected live gigs. In 2002, the band released Tusk, a reimagining of Fleetwood Mac's album of the same name. Though various members claimed Tusk was an unreleased 1987 session, it was in fact recorded in 2001 as a test to ensure that Camper's band members could indeed again co-exist.

"After we spent some time together [as a band again], we wrote some songs," Lowery says. "There really is a dynamic in Camper Van Beethoven whereby if everybody is in the same room and can focus for two or three hours, we can make up a lot of music. And that's what we did."

The band's first proper album in 15 years, New Roman Times, received critical praise. Lowery, however, can't recall from whom.

"There was a journalist who said it was one of only four successful reunion records ever. I can't recite what any of the other reunion records were, which is kind of funny, but ours was weirdly embraced," he says with a laugh. "It was like, 'It's not like the original Camper, but it's out there.' It was everything we wanted it to be. It's a science fiction rock opera about space aliens and a sort of war between the republics of Texas and California. It was kind of crazy. I just don't understand why it took us [so long] to make another album."

La Costa Perdida, Camper's latest album, is comparatively laid-back and in many ways reflects a band mellowing and maturing into old age. There's the breezy, Spanish-influenced title track, as well as a handful of Americana-tinged numbers (a couple sporting stinging Wilco-like guitar upheavals). Yet the strange mash-up of styles and unexpected influences remain and appear, naturally, when least expected. The band taps into some heavyweight prog ("Summer Days") and psychedelic influences (notably, the sonic psych freak-out of "Aged in Wood") and even acid-inflected surf (the band practically channels the Beach Boys on "Northern California Girls"). In Lowery's eyes, Camper has become more like the old hippies the band once mocked and often saw walking through its California neighborhoods.

"Most of our careers, we've been trying to be ex-punk rockers becoming an indie rock/alternative rock band. But we were living in the ruins of the old hippie civilization. Like living in Roman ruins, but it is hippie ruins," he says. "Country Joe and the Fish, or the Grateful Dead, or someone from the Jefferson Airplane would literally be walking down the street as we were heading to rehearsal space or something. In a way, we started out playfully mocking that culture and taking elements of, like, that Grateful Dead stuff. We weren't real hippies, but by the time we get to this album, we're no longer putting [that hippie culture] down, we're lovingly embracing it."

This embrace helps explain the album's title. It's not, Lowery explains, about the rugged and mostly inaccessible section of the California coast that spreads across the famed pot-growing regions of Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Instead, the album is a celebration of the unseen collateral damage of being a band of anything-goes musicians surrounded by the storied remnants of California's rich musical past.

"The Lost Coast is used to describe not just a geographic area," Lowery says, "but the remains of that lost hippie culture along the coast of Northern California."

Is this newfound maturity the next step in the band's evolution, or yet another strange detour in the unexpected/expect anything world of Camper Van Beethoven? Probably a combination of both.

"We've always taken a little of this and a little of that," Lowery says. "We don't try to get it right."

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver