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Dissected: Camper Van Beethoven (with David Lowery)

A close seven-album reflection on the band's punk-folk-country-prog wackiness

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    dissected-logoWelcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Camper Van Beethoven, and with a little help from a friend.

    This is usually the part where we’d say, “Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalogue in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers.” But here’s a curveball for everyone: we’re gonna flip the script and let an actual band do all the heavy lifting. And perhaps there’s no other outfit better suited for this little experiment than California’s own Camper Van Beethoven.

    Formed in 1983 in Redlands, CA, Camper came of age in a time when every young male musician took their unkempt angst and joined a punk band. But before note one on album one, the band transcended such limitations, utilizing the unique station of their eventual home base of Santa Cruz (purportedly the surfing capital of the U.S.) to conquer the seas of many a genre. Punk, classic rock, country, folk, indie rock, prog, bluegrass, Norteño, ska: they didn’t just cite influences; they blended these living, breathing cultures in new and interesting ways from song to song, album to album.

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    Along the way, the group experimented with song structures and politically motivated content, displaying a childlike wonder and playfulness toward the ceaseless possibilities of music. While their recorded output may have put them in the category of faceless alt-rockers or jam band nut jobs, Camper Van Beethoven is a rare and mythical creature, with loyalties to nothing but where to go next.

    While their creative pursuits (not to mention inner turmoil) eventually led to their breakup in 1989, the band rebounded in the early 2000s, recording two new records, including January’s La Costa Perdida, not to mention logging countless hours on the road in the last decade. While plenty of fans and critics counted them out, the band is now celebrating its 30th anniversary (breakup be damned). For such a milestone, we recently sat down with frontman David Lowery for an exhilarating six hours.

    During the course of that master class on all things Camper, Lowery discussed the ins and outs of each album’s recording sessions, the band’s personal and political views, their slew of influences, who guided their career (SPOILER: it wasn’t really them), breaking up, getting back together, working with a major label, moving within the music industry itself, and even a history lesson or two. As a reflection of his band, Lowery is poignant and well-spoken, profoundly aware of his group’s oddball approach to music and fiercely proud of their persistent curiosity.

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    To Camper Van Beethoven: here’s to a wild and wonderful 30 years. We couldn’t have written it any better ourselves.

    Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985)

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    The Humble Beginnings: “This whole thing was plotted, in the sense that this was just a side project for everyone. This was much less serious to us. Most of us were still learning our instruments. I had always been a bass player in backing bands in Santa Cruz. We played less serious endeavors, like college parties. We were young, so we had a lot of time to practice around with our instruments. We’d practice every three days, so it was just the sheer volume of it. We would write stuff pretty quickly and try not to overthink it and just got inside of it.”

    Punk Rock Hippies?: “We were very much influenced by stuff like The Fall or Gang of Four. Those straight-up, hardcore bands that were very dogmatic. But were also hippies, sort of fake hippies. And we used this whole project to do what we weren’t doing in other bands.”

    Pacifying the Punks: “Punk covets style above everything. The ska element came in because, if we were playing in front of a punk band, we’d have them skank away to ska as a way to nullify the crowd. Guys like Jello Biafra got that we were not real hippies, but a lot of people did not get it. We were almost offensively putting that ska in. It was confusing to us, just a year-old at the time, of those who were in the business of being punk scenesters. We’re not real business people.”

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    Let’s Hear It for the Drummer: “Anthony Guess grew up playing everything: farm-type country, rock, Norteño. Anthony is the glue that holds that first record together. Once he got the beat figured out, we kinda understood what we should sound like.”

    A Little Help from SST: “Ray Farrell of SST turned us on to college radio and helped us to sell albums. He also said, ‘You guys’ songs are so much like Kaleidoscope.’ And when we heard it, we thought they were the ’60s version of what we were doing. So, Ray was making us tapes and it just about changes everything. What we were doing was in a tradition. It was a tradition, not just this wacky thing, and there was an undercurrent or thread to follow. It became more real to us. It was liberating to us. We were also uncovering more stuff, like Country Joe & the Fish and Eugene Chadbourne, that would be more prevalent in the second and third records.”

    Too Young To Sit at the Adult’s Table: “Everything our peers were doing, we were too young to be singing about such heavy things. We were all like between the ages of 17 and 22, so we said, ‘Let’s do things with laden wisdom and insight.’ ‘Sad Lover’s Waltz’ is a simple country song, and it’s almost embarrassing how it’s almost about nothing. With ‘Ambiguity Song’, it’s just simple observations. Asking questions without having answers seemed to fit the spirit of the band. We did realize pretty quickly that we’re punkers living in this idyllic world. Like, ‘What do we have to complain about?’ We didn’t.”

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    Getting The Kinks On: “With a song like ‘I Don’t See You’, I had that in two other bands before Camper. And I used to play the riff in rehearsal. It’s in that same sort of garage as early Kinks, that teenage rebellion vibe popular in the ’60s.”

    Prog Rock & Laundry Soap: ” ‘Club Med Sucks’ was something we found written on a Laundromat we used to visit. Musically, I don’t know how we all got there, but we were informed a lot by Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson. We also had some private prog tendencies toward Soft Machine.”

    No Laughing Matter: “People definitely called us a novelty band. But it wasn’t really fair, since it’s not like we were ‘Weird Al’ or something. Our peers were talking about smashing the state or something, pretending to have more gravitas. It’s like, ‘Explain to us what part of Camper Van Beethoven are you confused about?’ We have a different attitude than our peers. We just thought that songs should be easy to whistle to.”

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    II & III (1986)

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    Time Well Spent: “We were kinda screwing around on the first record. But with the second, we had enough money saved up for two days of studio time, and we just did what we could. What happened was that we recorded in one session, then got distracted, played some shows, and then we did the second session a couple months later. With these recording sessions, we felt like we had recorded two albums. Like, two albums submerged together, with the melodies getting weirder and weirder. A lot happened to us in that time: we were touring, playing shows, we even met the Dead Kennedys.”

    Fuck the Man: “Like with Kaleidoscope, what happened was that we got turned on to all this stuff, things like We the People and Chocolate. Our thing was, ‘We didn’t obey any rules the first time, so why would we do it this time?’ And it came out really organic, because we were basically just playing to our friends.”

    Returning to the Fold: “All of our songs feel alien, so we have to go back and get inside of them like you were there. I always try to imagine it’s the first time I’m playing it. It’s almost like you have to be a sociopath and lie to yourself till you believe the lie. Over the years, it sounds quite like it did on the album; it hasn’t changed too much live. You have to respect the audience and do it that way.”

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    The Power of Five: “I have a theory, though. You have a kind of rapport while being a group. There’s something that comes from the group, not the individual. Cracker is the same way, but it’s much simpler. It’s me and Johnny answering each other, and that dialoguing makes us write totally different songs.”

    The Literary Period: “With the first album, the reaction was more of a novelty, and it’s in this period that we start to shy away from that. We wanted to be like, ‘We’re like Thomas Pynchon singing about ridiculous stuff, like limericks and stuff. We like the whole Pynchon/Kurt Vonnegut thing, where you can be silly and absurd and still find another way to tell a story. It’s something we’ve done for the rest of our career.”

    Leaving the Pit Once and for All: “We were done with the whole punk rock thing, moving toward more of that pop-rock sound. At that time, it was a preposterous move to make that kinda music, but we thought it was a ridiculous enough goal that we might as well try it. SoCal is sort of known for the surf rock and psychedelic. But people had moved more inland, so it was like we revamped our own culture.”

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    BFFs with R.E.M.?: “Somewhere in that second album, IRS Records wanted to sign us. And this was right during their whole alt-rock movement with R.E.M. And we turned it down, because we weren’t sure we could make another album. We should have done it, ’cause our whole pop-rock round would’ve gotten that support. But we just asked, ‘Can we write more songs?’ In a way, it took the pressure of putting together an album. We weren’t ready for deadlines.”

    Making Mooo-ves: “We were making money on a label, which really liberated us. We borrowed some money from some hipster cattle rancher. We just got to make our own album, independently secure.”

    Camper Van Beethoven (1986)

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    Let the Drama Begin: “What happened was that the first album was done in two weekends and by the second record we started making money. So the second album we had a couple more weekends, where we could start layering stuff. We had more time and more tracks, and I think we were using two 8-tracks. But it was around that time that tension arose within the band.”

    Death to Posers: “We wanted to disrupt everything. If it’s all punk rock rebellion, then why are there all these rules? Wear these jeans, wear your hair like this. Let’s just stir shit up and be a disruptive force.”

    Exploring the Great Unknown: “Jonathan and Greg were big in that layering thing; they liked to sort of fill in the gaps. For Jonathan, it’s his strengths to the band but also a challenge. He’s a real, genuine ’60s hippie-experimental kinda guy. We were manipulating tape and sound, and we haven’t played that many songs live over the years. The reason is, we don’t know how they’ll come off live or that we don’t understand how to play them live. We were literally inventing who we were as a band, mostly for practical reasons, not necessarily stylistic reasons. We would have done it before on the first album. We embraced the whole west coast hippie movement, blending those roots with the indie and rock. But what we were doing was also sort of protesting the things that ’60s hippies protested.”

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    Medicinal Inspiration: “The ‘Peace and Love’ instrumental is one where Victor did that whole thing, but we thought, ‘Nah, that didn’t work.’ So we all sang a vocal part and had it all thrown together. I’m pretty sure we were stoned when we made this record.”

    Thank God for Technology: “We had to re-use tape back in those days. We flipped it upside down, cause someone told us it erased better that way or something. So, with ‘Surprise Truck’, ‘Folly’ comes in backward off the previous record. And it had that backward flute just because it happened that way. And ‘Ambiguity’ is just ‘Five Sticks’ backwards, because there was a piece of something from that whole score.”

    The Dichotomy of Man: “It’s the least consistent and most consistent record. It’s also the most intense and out there, and that thread kinda goes through the whole music. We’ve always had this idea of experimentalism vs. simplicity. We want to have that whistle-y stuff, that really basic stuff. We’re not making music like Sonic Youth, not into that territory, but we do stuff like reimagining parts and 1st chord structures.”

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    The Almighty Neil: “Neil Young is an artist who can go out and make that awkward record and then come back and make an amazing record. He can go make an insane record and then go and feel like a total maverick. Our attitude was one of ‘What have we got to lose? Let’s just do it.’ The only thing we were afraid of is being considered a novelty act. We’ll draw the line so that we don’t look like that.”

    It’s the End of the World as We Know It: “We got more into Mothers of Invention and Zappa. We were already pretty political, being from Santa Cruz. There’s a very strong libertarian, anarchist lean where we’re making fun of hippies. But there was also rallying against the whole sabre-rattling, that at any moment the U.S. and Russia could engage in nuclear war.”

    Playing with the Big Dogs: “We were on MTV on regular rotation thanks to ‘Good Guys’ and its simple, crude live video. We were not like the other bands, and there was nothing stopping us from being experimental. We could do any sort of styles or tones, and there was nothing to discourage us. Record labels have great control, but it’s like the whole Smiths line, ‘You could’ve said no if you wanted to.’ Record label guys and the radio guys didn’t have that influence.”

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    Anarchy for the Thoughtful and Concerned: “There’s also this streak of people who follow us who are very left and very libertarian. But it’s not something we set out to do, to gain a political following. There’s also a lot of political stuff read into at that time. Santa Cruz had a Marxist mayor at the time, but the federal government was very hawkish. So it was us making observations, and kinda asking like, ‘OK, where are the adults that see all this stuff that’s going on.'”

    Loving the Zep: “The stuff that was coming out of the ’60s rock, like Thompson and the Fairport Convention, was very radical stuff. We even re-evaluated Led Zeppelin, and we got to thinking that stuff was better than it was at the time. Those Zeppelin riffs all sounded fresh to me. Plus, classic rock then wasn’t on the radio yet, there was no format because it wasn’t quite old enough. Yet we started hearing that, and it started to be interesting to us.”

    Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)

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    Working for the Man: “We had a major label, so we thought we’d have a more traditional record structure. It was the first record where we started not putting out everything we knew how to do, and there was some focus involved. There’s also kinda two things coming in then: the sort of classic rock mocking and how we start embracing and blending that big rock sound. So many pop-rock songs are complicated in structure  with so many elements collected within. This album has more accessible songs than the other albums because we were weeding out more of the weirder ideas. We sort of went completely mainstream. We didn’t have a cover song on here because it was our first major label LP, and we wanted do it on our own strengths.”

    Getting Cozy with the Boss: “Rarely in my career has someone told me to do something, and if they have, I have said no almost all of the time. I can remember walking down the corridor with (Virgin head) Jeff Ayeroff right after we signed, and he said to us, ‘I’m not worried about you guys having a hit. You write so many songs that you’re bound to make a hit by accident.'”

    Major Labels Are Your Friend: “With Camper, there’s no editing, and we’re actually playing the way we want. And the label’s getting it right by providing us with advances. I go to tech conferences a lot now, and everyone is always ragging on labels. I had a friend once who worked at an indie, not quite large but well-known. And he went to these conferences and took all the name-calling, and people are still lining up to give them their demos. Labels have something people want: the ability to market, the ability to be in the hands of an expert.”

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    Turning English: “It wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, let’s just do pop-rock songs.’ First off, we wrote to please ourselves, and at the time we were listening to a lot of XTC and Robyn Hitchcock. I like to say that this was our English album. The English pop-rock has all these weird time signatures and is all over the place, and we were really into that.”

    Dennis the Accomplice: “The thing about Dennis Herring is that he was another guy that kinda fell into our camp, and we felt relatively artistically safe with him. Dennis won’t like what I say, but we had a huge influence on his style. Before he worked with us, he was doing stuff like the Flashdance soundtrack, but he had this quirky side with a great taste in music. With us, he kinda honed his producing chops and then got more producing gigs. Kinda represents the beginning of what he did with bands like Wavves and Modest Mouse. He sort of dovetails with more my taste, which is to not fill every single hole.”

    Can a Violin End a Band?: “There was a track where he muted the violin on the first verse, and it was kinda controversial. In fact, Jonathan almost quit over that. Jonathan had some solo thing he wanted to do that got voted off, ’cause it didn’t get done on a collaborative front. And it’s not something I don’t understand or empathize with, that undercurrent of being slighted. But, truthfully, it was us, not Dennis Herring, the lawyers, or the record label that said what songs went on the album. If I’d known then, I would have said to just put the song on there.”

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    Knowing the Role: “For a band to be successful, to make money, that band has to be self-regulating. What people don’t seem to understand is that record labels are like derivative traders: they’ll lose a lot of money and then make all of it back and more on one album. So, those one out of eight or ten bands subsidize the entire roster; the Nirvana’s subsidize the Teenage Fanclub’s. The winners of the world subsidize and pay for the losers.”

    Just Your Standard Love Song: “‘One of These Days’ was a song that had been floating around since the first album. Again, we really started to embrace love songs, partly because we had found a way to balance more of the weirder aspects. Camper as a whole likes to take normal things and then make sure we added in hallucinogenic drugs, conspiracy theories, and space aliens.”

    Cracking the Code: “We had finally figured out the simpler things, like love, longing, lost love. And we could make well-crafted songs and say things that others didn’t. One of my greatest achievements is utilizing more of that Kurt Vonnegut or Pynchon, who use that weird, wacky voice but still tell a serious story. And we couldn’t do it without the help of Dennis Herring. We got to do songs in that way and still be ourselves.”

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