Feature: Camper Van Beethoven (Boston Phoenix, 1.11.11)

Posted on April 18, 2011

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It was on a whim roughly 25 years ago that a young David Lowery called up a friend at SST Records to see how SST had been promoting records that year. “He just said, ‘Hey, we’ve been sending a lot of our stuff to college radio stations, and they seem to be playing them a lot.’ I mean, this is literally like how this all started.”

Lowery’s band, Camper Van Beethoven, had just self-released their first album, and he was glad to hear that he could borrow the contacts if he wanted. He made the trek down the California coast from Camper quarters in Santa Cruz, figured out who was playing new records by the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, and spent the next two days copying it all down into a legal pad. A few days later, they mailed swarms of LPs out into the great unknown. “To me,” he says, “that was a very key moment in how indie rock came in.”

Lowery has crafted one of the more unlikely careers you’re bound to run into in the circuit of over-40 indie-rockers. It’s been nearly 10 years now since he reunited Camper, who have sailed on into middle age in a rare coexistence with his far more successful alt-rock project, Cracker.

For most of the naughts, the two bands have made a sort of aged indie-rock curiosity, both of them releasing compilations and new work, and hitting the road — together in some cases, but often opening for bands who probably grew up listening to them (like, say, Modest Mouse). Always commanding a respectable following between them, the bands have resisted the urge to go the Nick at Nite rerun route with an old record.

That’ll change this weekend, when they embark on a three-day trip through New York, Cambridge (playing the Middle East Sunday), and Toronto, Camper hauling out the goods from Key Lime Pie (1989) and Cracker doing their big second record, Kerosene Hat (1993). For Cracker fans, it’s a chance to celebrate an era-defining record that spawned the summer stoner jam “Low.” But for those stalwart Camper fans, it’s a much needed opportunity to revisit one of indie rock’s bona fide founding documents.

With its snaky structures and an uneasy balance between the down-home and the dissonant, Key Lime Pie has remained a challenging listen. When the disc came out, jangly independent pop from R.E.M. to Uncle Tupelo and Dead Milkmen had already staked its claim on college radio. But even in terms of indie pop, the thing was a freak. “It’s definitely difficult music,” says violinist Jonathan Segel. He had quit the band right before the Key Lime Pie recording sessions. “It wasn’t really highly critically rated at the time, but it’s really deep. It’s strained in a way, less sarcastic and less oblique than a lot of the other stuff.”

Camper were a motley collective of Bay Area weirdos who’d been there from the beginning of the whole movement, inadvisably yet irresistibly mixing up ska, folk, and punk, with a full-time violin player to boot. They jumped ship from the indies to Virgin Records, and their major-label debut, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988), earned them a few more fans and a little exposure on MTV. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t anything that would outshine their scrappier early material. (“Take the Skinheads Bowling,” released in 1985, is probably still their most played song.)

By the time Key Lime Pie came out, the group had jettisoned two of their earliest members, guitarist Chris Molla and Segel, with the parts Segel had written for the album’s demos having been tossed in favor of in-studio bits by his replacement, Morgan Fichter. After about a year of touring, the band collapsed.

That was around the time Segel finally gave the record a listen. “I sort of hid from it for probably a good year. I think I was in [Bay Area music attorney and manager] Barry Simons’s office, and he had a cassette of Key Lime Pie sitting there, like a promo cassette from Virgin. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard it,’ and grabbed it. He’d already listened to the first side, so when I put it in the car stereo, the first song I heard was ‘June.’ I thought it was the best thing that Camper had ever done. I was really bummed not to have been a part of that.”

Segel wrote Lowery a letter to let him know as much, but it sat unopened at Lowery’s home while Camper were out on the tour where they imploded for good. “He got back from all that and got this letter and thought I was making fun of him because the band had just broken up.”

Although Segal had had a hand in getting the songs together, the final product was new territory. Fans will naturally have a soft spot for the quirkier stuff in Camper’s earlier days, but this was a band finding their footing. Styles didn’t hop around so much. Songs looked somberly inward through tangles of Pynchon-esque allusion and sarcastic po-culture references, trying on personas that were a little exotic but never too far from home. The political-conspiracy theory, the trailer-park lotto junkies, and the British couple playing croquet in the colonies never seemed so neighborly.

If this sounds familiar, it should — it’s all the ingredients for a long line of subsequent ragtag, kitchen-sink rockers, from Neutral Milk Hotel to Wilco to the Arcade Fire. In a larger sense, it’s right there with other post-postmodern attempts to wring some honest meaning out of the irony and genre-splicing stunts that had become second nature by the ’90s, from David Foster Wallace to P.T. Anderson.

After the break-up, Lowery went on to form Cracker, who tossed out most of Camper’s eclecticism and focused on wry, shuffling trucker-hat rock. They blew up thanks to a handful of slacker anthems and top-notch Americana ballads. Kerosene Hat caught them at their messy roots-rock apex, and the group have earned their place in mainstream America by just kind of accepting it. They even humbly performed a round of shows for US troops in Iraq last year.

Meanwhile, Lowery’s been hunkered down in Richmond, Virginia, for 20 years, producing everyone from Sparklehorse to Daniel Johnston and Joan Osbourne, and slowly working on a solo album (the unsurprisingly great ThePalace Guards, out next month on Savoy/429). He’s also been busy with a fascinating blog called 300songs, in which he takes a Camper or Cracker song as a jumping-off point in each post to talk about anything and everything — from old album-production tales and music trends to 1800s Texas bohemians. (He promises a book out of the project in the near future.) All of that somehow, on the fans’ end, constitutes these two bands’ ongoing adventures.

“We’ve always played with this notion of ‘What exactly is a band?’ ” he explains. “We have our thing we do. It’s a loose ensemble, an alliance.”

You could say Camper are cynical about the music industry, but since the beginning, that’s never been their attitude. “Bands we knew [in Camper’s early days] were just trying to play classic rock for our own generation,” Lowery concludes. “We had no one to really look up to. The closest thing we could do was kind of look at the punk-rock scene to see how they toured and how they got around the country and where they played. Otherwise it was quite uncharted.”

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Originally published in the Boston Phoenix here.

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