I'm A Fan, Eurovan: Camper Van Beethoven bucked the trend by transcending its '80s identity and re-emerging with edge intact.
New Camper Times
Camper Van Beethoven proves that reunions don't have to suck
By Paul Davis
A beloved band's choice to release a reunion album is often met with trepidation from fans and band members alike. More often than not, reunion albums only serve to sully the reputation of the band, not advance it, and even when the album is well received, the whole process carries the taint of post-career backpedaling.
Keeping that in mind, it seems nothing short of a small miracle that Santa Cruz–bred indie rockers Camper Van Beethoven pulled off the seemingly impossible with 2005's New Roman Times, their first album in nearly two decades, and one that holds up to anything the band did in its heyday. The obliquely political album is an unlikely yet assured returned for some of Santa Cruz's favorite sons, an '80s group whose sound—dry and laconic vocals offering an ersatz mix of folk, pop, punk, country and klezmer—serves as a criminally underappreciated defining influence on modern indie rock.
The band reunited early in the decade, with a few one-off gigs that found Camper Van Beethoven sharing bills with Cracker, the chart-topping band that lead singer David Lowery formed after Camper Van Beethoven's dissolution. True to form, the band approached the reunion in a skewed manner. Its first post-reunion release was actually a 2003 tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, which it claimed at the time to have recorded in the '80s.
Lowery contends the group had its reasons for taking the unusual path to official reunion. The additional casual time, he says, allowed the players to develop a sound that seemed an honest progression not only from Camper Van Beethoven's previous work but from Lowery's work with Cracker and the schizo-Gypsy-prog of Greg Lisher, Victor Krummenacher and Chris Pederson's Monks of Doom.
"We were very quietly building a repertoire as writers so we could actually go forward," Lowery says. "We just waited until we had enough songs and went from there and just pushed it as far as we could while making something that would fit with our catalog as well.
"There are two mistakes that many bands make," he continues. "They try to do something that was just like their album they recorded at the peak of their career, which inevitably sounds awkward. The other mistake would have been to say, 'OK, let's make a modern indie rock record, we're indie rockers—what do indie rockers do now?'"
Santa Cruz remains the band's ad hoc home base, even though Lisher is the only player who still lives in town. According to Lowery, these sets mark a jumping-off point for Camper Van Beethoven as it prepares to make a new record. "We're very early in the songwriting," he notes. "We hope to have something by next year."
For a band that, if the press in the early '90s was to be believed, had a rather contentious breakup, that's a mighty positive prognosis. While Lowery cops to a certain amount of internal strife—particularly when the band ousted violinist Jonathan Segel—he denies any overdramatic, Metallica-style blowouts.
"There's a lot been made of the differences we had," he says. "I chalk a lot of that up to a good-natured, competitive rivalry between different factions of the band. I went on to do Cracker and achieved a level of success beyond Camper Van Beethoven, and some of the other guys went on to do Monks of Doom. It really wasn't all that weird."
Returning to the band's unexpected fascination with the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nick oeuvre, Lowery adds, "When the band broke up, it was almost as if it had dissolved into a bunch of different parts—it just sort of crumbled, but it wasn't some big explosive blowout, like Fleetwood Mac."
Chuckling with his trademark dry wit and self-deprecating streak, Lowery notes, "I think the New York Press said it best: 'Camper dissolved like a urinal cake.'"
CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN plays Friday, Aug. 17, at 7pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 adv/$18 door. (831.460.1800)
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