Camper Van Beethoven's prominence on college radio during its mid-'80s heyday stemmed in large part from its hazy hodgepodge of folk, world-beat, psychedelia, and brat-punk. Student DJs could spin a new Camper song every 15 minutes and not exhaust listeners. That eclecticism extended to subject matter and tone: The group knocked out novelty songs ("Take The Skinheads Bowling"), twisted instrumental experiments ("ZZ Top Goes To Egypt"), and good-time rock ("Good Guys & Bad Guys"), but the band's most enduring quality was its ability to craft catchy, funny songs with rich subtexts, like "The History Of Utah" (a recasting of the Mormon origin story as a hallucinatory reflection of American indolence), "Tania" (a Patty Hearst riff that doubles as a critique of pop decadence), and almost the entirety of the underappreciated 1989 album Key Lime Pie, a vivid, wise portrait of a culture where abundance has become stifling.
Camper Van Beethoven lost vital founding member Jonathan Segel prior to Key Lime Pie, and after the album's mixed-bag success (it produced a mini-hit in a cover of Status Quo's "Pictures Of Matchstick Men," but critics and fans grumbled about the record's dour turn), the group broke upand not exactly amicably. Throughout the '90s, though, as bandleader David Lowery enjoyed modern-rock radio success with his new band Cracker, the scattered members of Camper Van Beethoven began appearing on his and each other's records, and filling in on tours. Two years ago, the group re-formed for a mini-reunion and began hashing out songs for the concept album New Roman Times, a jaunty tour through a futuristic U.S. where the military-industrial complex dominates the citizenry. On the eve of the record's release, Lowery spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about New Roman Times' point of view, the origins of Camper Van Beethoven's style, and how it feels to return to a band and a lifestyle 20 years after he first attempted it.
The Onion: Did the concept for New Roman Times come before you started recording it, or did it develop in the studio?
David Lowery: Some of the songs were around before we got the concept. Camper has always had a sort of sideways commentary on politics. Even when we've tried to be direct, we corrupt it a little, like "Joe Stalin's Cadillac," where the politics are the background, or "When I Win The Lottery," where it's the context. So there was already an element of today's politics in some of the songs that we were writing. But the real impetus for doing this came when me and [Cracker keyboardist] Kenny Margolis met this guy in St. Louis who did kind of an Ali G thing 10 years ago. He made up his own Russian-American press organization and his own credentials and got interviews with people like Marilyn Quayle, where he'd ask a few softball questions and then, "Did you know your husband's IQ before you married him?" [Laughs.] So we're over at this guy's house, and he starts playing us his greatest hits. One of the biggest things he did was sneak into a Pat Buchanan rally and ask Buchanan, "Whom do you prefer, Hitler or Mussolini?" [Laughs.] Pat's brownshirts are beating him up and the crowd is chanting, "Throw him out, Pat! Throw him out!" Me and Kenny were watching this, and I said, "Man, it sucks being in a band," and he said, "Yeah. We should do records like this."
I started thinking about it and decided that the Camper record was going to be political in a way, but not a direct commentary. More an exaggeration of what's going on today. Eventually, with me and Jonathan Segel e-mailing back and forth, we sort of nailed down the background to the story, and then the details. Some of the songs already existed and got their words changedlike the right-wing militia song was originally a Unabomber song that we changed to fit the story. It was fun. It was a very Camper thing to do, to say, "Okay, now we're going to do a concept album."
O: Was the shorthand still there with your bandmates? Did you still communicate as instinctively as you did 15 years ago?
DL: Yeah, I feel like we picked up where we left off. What was really freakish is that we did a lot of the writing before the drummer, Chris Pederson, came over from Australia, where he lives now. We sent him some rough demos and he banged his parts out in two days. He's into the really complex, odd-time-signature, prog-rock stuff, but he nailed our stuff right away. Victor [Krummenacher] and Greg [Lisher] and Jonathan and I have played together so much over the last four years that for us to be at the same level with each other wasn't that surprising, but for Chris to show up and just naturally fit right back in was a little freakish. Especially because he doesn't even play drums that much anymore.
O: Was there any delicacy about being democratic, given that a lot of you have led your own bands since leaving Camper Van Beethoven?
DL: Actually, it was kind of a relief. It's kind of a burden being the bandleader and writing the songs. It was a relief to step away and say, "Okay, I'm writing the words, but Jonathan's already done most of the music." Or to take a song and say, "You mess around with this for a while." We wrote 30 songs or something in a relatively short period of time.
O: That hearkens back to your early days, when you guys were cranking out music at a ridiculously prolific rate.
DL: Yeah, but in the early days, we had the benefit of those songs being mostly short and twisted and weird. In some ways, it's fairly easy to write those kinds of records. This was different in that a lot of these songs were really developed and elaborate and intricate, much more like the later Camper Van Beethoven.
O: Why did the band go from putting out a lot of songs very rapidly to being more deliberate? Was that a progression you had imagined all along?
DL: It wasn't exactly a progression that we imagined, but we were glad we got there. We wanted to be like The Beatles. We thought we were in the tradition of the great classic rock bands, which is bizarre, because now we're seen as these indie-rock pioneers. But we came out of the hardcore punk scene and various post-punk bands, and in the early to mid-'80s, a lot of the bands only played one tiny subgenre of rock. We looked back at Led Zeppelin, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones... did I say The Beatles? [Laughs.] These guys played rock, but they were very eclectic. They threw other styles and influences into their music and made great rock. Camper wanted to be like Pink Floyd, you know? By the last couple of Camper records, we were getting a little closer to being viewed, if not as a traditional rock band, then at least as a serious rock band. We were very happy to get there. It wasn't like we were freaking out that somehow we'd ended up in this place.
O: You mentioned Camper Van Beethoven becoming more serious by the end of your first run. But what was behind the thematic jump you made between Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie?
DL: I wanted to make a record with one coherent mood. I'd become obsessed with this Frank Sinatra record, I think it's September Of My Years. I really liked the mood all the way through that. We recorded Key Lime Pie at Capitol Studios so we could follow that sound.
My subject matter... I guess that was the beginning of the Bush I reign, and I was fascinated with this sort of right-wing revisionist history, how Bush and Reagan looked back and made the past a lot rosier than it was, and then sold this idea to people. For Key Lime Pie, I was trying to make up characters and have them tell their stories, but set against this deconstruction of our past. Not that I could've really explained it that way back then, or even now. [Laughs.] But at the time, that's what I was working with. Not all the songs were like that, but the majority of the record, yeah.
O: How much research do you do when you write a song? On the new record, you've taken pains to get the military details correct, and older songs like "The History Of Utah," "Tania," and "Jack Ruby" are packed with historical tidbits.
DL: In the old days, I had to go to the library. Now, I just open up the PowerBook, get on the Internet, and browse around. Start asking questions. I do a fair amount of research, but I do a lot of reading anyway, and I watch really lame television like The History Channel. [Laughs.] So I'm not sure how deep my research really is. With this record, I might've done a little better, because Jonathan and I tried to build a deep background. We made an alternate history of the United States, where the United States has been broken up into four countries, and we went so far as to draw up a little map. Meanwhile, Jonathan zeroed in on this one Roman emperor whose life parallels our time. Also, I went on the Internet and found a chat room for U.S. soldiers, and I asked them to tell me about some of their weapons and what they liked about them. I explained to them what I was doing, and those guys were really cool. People gave me information that in the '80s, I would've killed for.
But it's good to get things wrong, too. Camper Van Beethoven always knew that if we tried to play, like, Balkan folk music, we weren't going to get it right. So we allowed ourselves to get it wrong, and that became part of our personality. I wouldn't say that we need our research to be absolutely perfect. It's art. It's our interpretation: We just change things if the facts don't fit with what we're doing. It's not like we're journalists. [Laughs.]
O: How has the touring circuit changed over the past 20 years?
DL: It's interesting. There's a lot of parallels to the early '80s, when we first started out on the road. We're playing pretty much the same clubs we were playing 20 years ago. A lot of them are nicer and more professional than when we went on the road, but it's remarkably similar. I notice, too, that the long line of bands with tour support has ended. What you were seeing in the '90s was bands that nobody knew somehow getting an album out on Warner Bros. and getting on a bus with a six-person crew, playing dinky clubs for 70 people. That never happened with Camper in the '80s, and when it began to happen to others, we in Cracker just laughed. We thought it was the hugest waste of money. Nowadays, with major labels not being as big as they were, and signing very few bands, there's not as many of these bands out on the road sharing the same circuit. Everybody's sort of back in the van, with the trailers, out on the road with two crew guys. That's pretty much what I've done for my whole career. We sort of went in a giant circle over a period of 20 years.
But it also has to do with how the record labels are now, too. In the early '80s, Camper Van Beethoven knew there was no way in hell we were going to be signed to a major record label, and at that time, the smaller independent labels were rigid in the style of the bands that they signed. So we knew we were going to have to do everything ourselves. There are a lot of bands out on the road now that are essentially in the same situationbands that tour and put out their own records, and just have a deal with an independent distributor. They sell their own records at shows and drive around in vans and play the same clubs that we played 20 years ago, and are still playing. It feels very familiar to me, and might be one of the reasons that Camper Van Beethoven is back together again. The economics of the music business right now fit our DIY aesthetic. The lessons we learned 20 years ago are valid once again.
O: Given the recent boom in jam bands and alt-country acts, it's too bad Camper Van Beethoven didn't come around about a decade or so later. Those two audiences might have been ideal for you.
DL: Well, Cracker is sort of on the borderline of being accepted by both of those scenes. We're on a lot of those jam-band festivals now, and have been embraced by that crowd. I've heard some make the argument that Camper was one of the first jam bands, or that we were one of the first indie-rock bands, or that we were one of the first alt-country bands. In a certain way, all of that is true. There's a fair number of jam bands that from time to time play Camper songs. I think we're a little too weird for the alt-country crowd, though. I find sometimes the alt-country crowd is a little too regimented for my taste. But we're accepted by a lot of those people. No Depression is doing a big feature on Camper Van Beethoven. They're fans.
The main thing that surprises me is that, you know, punk rock became like emo, which sort of got softer, and I don't know if it's indie-rock now or whatever. But anyway, we have a lot of fans in that world. We're probably going to go out with a couple of emo or indie-rock bands on this fall tour, because these bands really like us and their fans seem to know about us. If they don't know our music, they at least seem to know that we're part of that legacy. We skip between all these scenes and find attentive audiences. It's nice being Camper Van Beethoven.