Twenty-five years is a long time to be together whether you're talking about a marriage or a band. And while Camper Van Beethoven will be celebrating this upcoming achievement at the Fillmore, (despite not having been together during that whole time), founding member David Lowery will be the first one to point out the unlikelihood of reaching such a milestone.
"I think it's an amazing thing that any band can stay together more than a year," Lowery said with a laugh from his home in Richmond, Virginia, noting that the band lasted seven years the first time around. "I used to think that there was some kind of scandal or drama involving Camper Van Beethoven, but having had a studio for like fourteen years, which has three rooms in it and at any given moment has two to four bands ... recording a day and having literally produced over a hundred records and toured with so many bands, Camper was really, really mellow compared to those bands."
Perhaps, but their music wasn't. Back in the pre-Nirvana '80s, indie rock was a hardcore DIY affair that involved plenty of self-booking, piling into vans, and playing loads of college bars and other like-minded venues sympathetic to hosting musical misfits like Camper Van Beethoven, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and the Meat Puppets. With UC Santa Cruz as its home base, CVB was a musical collective whose love of surf and world music resulted in seminal albums like Telephone Free Landslide Victory and a quirky mish-mash of oddball songs like "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" and "Joe Stalin's Cadillac," often marked by violinist Jonathan Segel's Eastern European-flavored influences and Lowery's nasally snarl. "There were a lot of bands who really tried to take the nuances of world music and then they sounded like dilettantes," Lowery replied when asked about CVB's fascination with international music. "We listened to surf music and Kaleidoscope and said they got it all right because they just fucked it up. That's what you want to do, you want to get it wrong."
As the decade closed, Camper was signed to Virgin Records, but by 1990 its members scattered on to different projects. Lowery remained on Virgin by way of a favored members clause that found him acquiring the debt leftover from Camper's two albums in addition to costs incurred by his new band Cracker. Blending rock with more of an Americana and American roots music bent, Cracker had a five-album run on Virgin before parting ways in 2002. Two years prior, Lowery's old band reunited under the guise of a hoax, in which Camper claimed to have found a tape of their song-by-song recreation of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk that was supposedly recorded in 1986.
The result was four days of recording before New Year's Day, 2000. "We were very music-like method actors where we said it was a songwriting session that resulted from us not having anything to do after the drummer broke his arm in a makeshift toboggan accident," Lowery recalled. "We just made all that shit up. It was kind of funny being in a band and not telling anybody we'd reformed. It was very Andy Kaufman. All we had to do after that was wrestle somebody."
Since that time, Lowery has been balancing both groups, touring and recording — the most recent efforts being Camper Van Beethoven's 2004 reunion concept album New Roman Times and Cracker's 2006 Greenland. All this while being an in-house producer for Sound of Music Studios, a Richmond business he's partnered in for the past fourteen years, and focusing on a considerably lighter touring schedule anchored by a smaller number of annual dates and events. The multi-day Camp Out at Pioneertown, California, is going into its fourth year (this year's is September 11-13 and includes guests Built to Spill and Quasi, along with Cracker and Camper), plus a fourteen-day European fall swing, and dates they book in the Bay Area between Christmas and New Year's Eve every year. Also forthcoming is a greatest hits CD, Popular Songs, due to drop on June 24.
Yet, along with recording dates looming on the horizon for both bands and a long-awaited solo outing, Lowery is most excited about this upcoming anniversary show. "San Francisco is our hometown as much as any place is, and we have a big history with the Fillmore," he said excitedly. "I think it's pretty amazing that people still care about the band after 25 years, even though we were never that popular...."
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