Bowling for strikes: Camper Van Beethoven rises again

By Mark Guarino

David Lowery is enjoying something parents never experience: watching his child’s rebirth.   

Camper Van Beethoven, the band Lowery helped front for most of the ‘80s, was largely forgotten the next decade but these days is undergoing a rediscovery. Over five albums, the Northern California band mixed gypsy music, reggae, surf punk, novelty, folk and pop into a uniquely surreal sound coated with humor and hippie hubris. Although they scored a hit song off their first album, it took their last album to fully break into the mainstream. By then, the party was over; after witnessing the band achieve more popularity than they had ever imagined, the founding members had had enough of each other. “Key Lime Pie” (Virgin), Camper’s most successful album, also became their swan song in 1989.   

Lowery spent the ‘90s fronting the more fortuitous pop band Cracker while moonlighting as a producer for hire while the other members released solo albums. In the meantime, Camper’s legacy was manifested through the music of genre-benders Pavement, Beck, Ween, They Might Be Giants and Phish, though the band’s own music was appreciated behind closed doors. Part of the reason was Camper never had a single identifiable sound, it had many. Also, there was never a star singer, and the subjects the band chose to write about — lottery winners, skinheads, Lassie — were not exactly mainstream radio fare.   

So it makes sense, then, that the nature of Camper’s current resurgence would be just as odd. The band recently regrouped to tour, touting a five-disc boxed set (“Cigarettes & Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years”) compiling its first four albums plus live material. But also newly available is an unearthed recording of “Tusk” (Pitch-A-Tent), a song-by-song cover version of the 1979 double album from Fleetwood Mac. Then there’s “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” the band’s best-known song. It was dusted off to serve as the opening music for Michael Moore’s current film, “Bowling For Columbine.”   

This weekend, the band plays three shows at the Abbey starting tonight.   

Unlike most reunion tours, this one is not exactly playing to old fans. Since their breakup, Lowery discovered Camper quietly gained an entirely new fanbase of teenagers and twentysomethings, more fans of exploratory-minded jam bands than radio friendly rock groups. That lineage recently became tangible last fall when the bluegrass combo Leftover Salmon recorded an album with Cracker and the jam band moe. asked Lowery if Camper would be interested in recording an album together in the future.   

Lowery said Camper’s early musical ambition was perfectly aligned with the new crop of jam bands.   

“To us, in 1983, punk was dead. There were no rules, we were trying to find out what the rules were,” he said by phone recently from his studio in Richmond, Va. “We said, ‘let’s play in different time signatures, let’s do a long song, let’s jam’. So we just did what we thought was interesting and innovative to us at the time and I think, in a lot of ways, the bands that skipped the whole punk rock era found a kindred spirit in what we do.”   

Another link is shared business acumen. Based in Santa Cruz, Camper promoted their early records up and down west coast college towns by themselves with the goal of “finding people like us,” said Lowery. “The lesson we learned about the music business was to find people that share our taste,” Lowery said. Back then, that involved mailings, hitting up journalists, in-person promotion and endless touring. If Camper had the benefit of the internet at its disposal, “we would have been as big as Phish,” he said.   

Camper’s first album, “Telephone Free Landslide Victory” (Rough Trade), became a college radio staple in 1985. It established the band’s vibrant eccentricity, adventuresome arrangements, fiendish musical chops and irreverent sense of humor. At a time when punk had adopted a stone-faced sobriety, Camper wickedly took potshots, recording a psychedelic country version of Black Flag’s “Wasted” and referencing skinheads with the goofy impiety of a stoned surfer. On the other end of the spectrum, they distanced themselves from hipsters by announcing their admiration of the Grateful Dead.    

For them, the coastal lineage made perfect sense. “We didn’t want to be a serious band in the way that Sonic Youth was a serious band. We were from the west coast. New York gave us the Velvet Underground. They just had this sort of art pretension to them. Whereas the (San Jose ‘60s garage rock group) Chocolate Watch Band were tweaked-out bearded hippies. So in a way we were laboring under that,” Lowery said.   

At the time, Lowery admits the band genuinely thought they had a chance to “be the Beatles” by breaking the rules so thoroughly and juggling so many musical styles. “We listened to the Beatles and were like, ‘they played all these (expletive) styles and … look how big they were!’”   

Near the end, the band fell to an ego clash and an earthquake. The 1987 quake disrupted the band’s homebase and worked to dispatch bandmembers to different parts of the country. Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, whose mandolin and fiddle playing had given Camper its trademark gypsy flair, was let go not long after the band signed to Virgin, a major label. “We essentially kicked him out of his own band,” Lowery said. “We could have done it in a nicer way.” Soon after “Key Lime Pie” (Virgin) was released, bassist Victor Krummenacher, drummer Chris Pedersen and guitarist Greg Lisher left to form the band Monks of Doom.    

The entire band is currently reconciled, but have no plans yet to record new material. Although Lowery admits the current political and social climate makes the band “sort of weirdly relevant again.” The American roots music made by Camper may have sounded as if channeled through the fried mind of a Bay Area beach bum, but underneath, the music was a satiric critique of the American middle class grown comfortable and clueless in the ‘80s.   

“We kind of wound our way back to that,” he said.

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