Photograph by Stephen Laufer
Get in the Van
Without Camper Van Beethoven, there would be no indie rock. They're really sorry about that. But the good news is they've gotten back together to put all the whining alt-pop imitators to shame.
By Steve Palopoli
Everything seems to be up in the air at this time
Everything seems to be up in the air at this time
One day soon, it'll all settle down
But everything seems to be up in the air at this time
-- "The Ambiguity Song," Camper Van Beethoven
When those lines debuted on Camper Van Beethoven's first record in 1985, there was no way anyone could know they would also serve as the band's epitaph. But five years later, they became just that, as Camper closed its final set with "The Ambiguity Song" before leaving the stage for the last time in the midst of a collective nervous breakdown that brought one of the first and foremost American indie-rock groups to an abrupt end on tour in Europe.
As final exits go, it was in its own way right up there with the Sex Pistols' parting shot at Winterland in San Francisco in 1978. It was a clever, funny and poignant goodbye from a band that made its reputation by consistently being all three. And it added a final ironic twist to an already ironic song--this time, things weren't just up in the air. This time, everything seemed to be unambiguously fucked.
"We never did anything without some sort of design," remembers lead singer David Lowery. "We had to pick what the last song was that Camper was going to play."
Unfortunately, the fans who would have most appreciated the irony were an entire continent away. In Sweden at the time, as part of a tour to promote its second major-label album, Key Lime Pie, Camper Van Beethoven was thousands of miles from its longtime home in Northern California when everything fell apart.
In fact, the breakup had actually occurred the night before that final gig, but a pissed-off road manager--already calculating the financial nightmare of an uncompleted European tour, no doubt--convinced the band to play one more show to cover the cost of little things like transportation back to the United States.
It was a tense and awkward way for the band to end, says guitarist Greg Lisher.
"We'd been going really hard, and the tour was really long. It was too long for us at that point, and to be in Europe, too, really far away," says Lisher. "I didn't really believe back then that we'd ever get back together, to tell you the truth."
He has, however, managed to since block out many of the details, including that fateful selection of "The Ambiguity Song."
"If that was the last song," says Lisher, "it was appropriate for the time."
Back In The USA
Fourteen years after that disastrous tour, the ironic twist has another ironic twist: Camper Van Beethoven is back together again. And not only are the guys gigging together regularly enough to convince longtime fans they're serious, they have a brand new record, New Roman Times, coming out in September.
As twists go, it seems on the surface a rather unlikely one, considering that almost everyone involved threw themselves into other bands and solo records immediately after the breakup. Fans felt that Camper's legacy had fractured, with Lowery's follow-up group, Cracker, owning the smart-rock instinct and Monks of Doom--featuring Lisher, Victor Krummenacher and Chris Pederson--carrying on the arty experimentation.
"This idea that there was this huge split between all the guys in the band was sort of overdone," says Lowery. "I mean, obviously there were some issues there that made it so we didn't want to play together, but the biggest split was between me and Jonathan [Segel], which had occurred long before Camper broke up. There was some healthy competition, I think, between the Monks of Doom camp and the Cracker camp, but nobody hated each other or anything like that."
Monks of Doom never found their niche and broke up in 1993. Cracker, on the other hand, found mainstream success with hits like "Low" and "Get Off This," when the rest of rock suddenly caught up to where Camper and college-rock contemporaries like the Pixies had already been.
No White Cake
The Pixies, of course, are playing together again, now, too--they play the Greek Theater at UC-Berkeley in September. And, yes, there's plenty of irony to go around when a band that couldn't crack the charts with the incredible Doolittle--just two years before Nirvana would steal one of the songs from that very record ("Gouge Away") and tweak it ever so slightly into the megahit "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--is selling out stadium shows in three minutes flat.
But on the other hand, that's the whole reason bands like the Pixies (and the Velvet Underground and Sex Pistols before them) do reunion tours: namely, revenge. They have something to prove: they did it first, they did it best and they shouldn't have to live off the music industry's culty scraps in solo careers while hundreds of bands get fat and stupid imitating them.
It's a lot different with the Camper Van Beethoven reunion, though. The members of the band don't seem to have a chip on their shoulder--they never got rich off Camper, but neither are they expecting to with this reunion. And they don't have anything to prove, having had fairly mainstream success without losing their cred.
"I don't know if we have anything to prove," says bassist Krummenacher, "other than, like, you know, we're really contemptuous of slacker, white-boy indie rock. I can't think of anything more wretched on the planet."
Said SWBIR is exactly what Camper is often credited with having spawned. Or rather, accused.
"[Cracker guitarist] Johnny Hickman and I have this joke, the ‘Look what you have wrought' joke, you know, when you have something that's just obviously Camper-derived," says Krummenacher.
"Like, we played with Cake ... God, it's like they couldn't have existed without us, and I hate them so. They're just completely contemptuous of their audience--I just feel like John McCrea exudes that attitude. I don't care if he reads this and sees me saying horrible things about him. I think he sucks. I think many things kind of suck these days. I don't see people pushing the musical envelope very often."
But the reformed Camper has put an incredible amount of work into the new record--two years of on-and-off recording--in an attempt to change that. If you saw Camper play at its recent Warfield show with Cracker (the two bands share members), you know that, unlike most reunited bands, Camper sounds better than it ever did in its first incarnation, despite for the most part not having played the band's songs for over 10 years.
This is partly a function of the fact that seemingly all of the band members continued to play in other projects and/or release solo records over that time, and partly the reality that when this particular group of people make music together, there's nothing else quite like it.
"It's a pleasure and a responsibility and a burden and a joy and money and a job all at the same time. It's a really complex thing," says Krummenacher. "There's a really unique chemistry to Camper that's hard to replicate. If you don't have the right group of people there, it's not it."
It was Lowery who got the Camper Van Beethoven reunion rolling when he invited Segel to play violin on Cracker's recording of "White Riot" for the 1999 Clash tribute album. Not coincidentally, Camper had been playing that same honky-tonk version of the song for years.
From there, everything just fell into place.
"We started doing this ‘Apothecary Tour' when we first started playing together again," says Lisher. "Me and Victor and Jonathan would play with Cracker--we'd play Camper songs with Cracker, and then we'd play Cracker songs with Cracker. That was how we started getting back together originally.
The reformed band even conquered one of its biggest demons with a trip to Europe, returning intact from the same place that once finished it off.
"It was like going back into the hornet's nest, but this time just for two weeks," says Lisher. "This time, it was great. It went really well, and we're all getting along."
I Was A Hippie for the Punk Rock Underground
Last year, the band released the box set Cigarettes and Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years, the title a tribute to the place the band was born when a few transplants from L.A.'s Inland Empire found themselves let loose in the redwoods of UCSC.
"My idea was just to call it Cigarettes and Carrot Juice," says Lowery, "but nobody understood what that meant. That was sort of our fake Cockney rhyming slang for ‘Santa Cruz,' but it doesn't quite work."
Santa Cruz provided the eclectic Camper Van Beethoven with an environment it could both thrive in and rebel against.
On the plus side, says Lowery, was "the kind of hippie aesthetic laid onto punk rock. Because, you know, half the kids that were little skateboard punk rockers in town, their parents were hippies living in, like, a geodesic dome up in Bonny Doon or something like that. It was just a weird thing."
On the other hand, the bucolic hillsides of the UCSC campus were just littered with sacred cows waiting to be slaughtered.
"There was sort of that political thing that we were in many ways mocking," says Lowery. "It was a very strongly lefty, sort of '80s political town while we were there, but it was, like, too far. The excesses of political correctness are very rarely true, except maybe in the case of Santa Cruz. So we were sort of reacting to that."
There was also a thriving music scene there at the time, made up of equally quirky bands like Joe Cuba and the Tokyo Negroes, Spot 1019, Wrestling Worms, Jaws of Life and Lowery's other band, Box o' Laffs.
"It was an anti-underground sort of thing that was going on in Santa Cruz--we were already over being underground and cool," says Lowery. "By the time hardcore was really catching on in the United States, we were already with Camper going, ‘Oh yeah, we're hippies, we have long hair and we play folksongs."
It's only out of such a situation that Camper's earliest songs could have arisen, with rock, punk, ska and all manner of international traditional styles applied to tunes like "The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon," "Where the Hell Is Bill?" and, of course, "Take the Skinheads Bowling," the completely out-of-left-field college-radio hit that put Camper on the map and remains the band's most famous song today.
"It's probably the weirdest song to have something like that happen to it," Lowery admits. "It's purposefully just obscure what we're talking about, and everybody reads all this stuff into it. It's hilarious."
It was around this time that Lisher--the only Camper who actually grew up in Santa Cruz--joined the band, and he could see early on that the "wacky" tag was going to be trouble.
"When we started out, a lot of people took us for a novelty band, where it's all ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling,'" Lisher recalls. "That's a great song and stuff, but there's definitely a serious side to our band. There's both."
No More Bullshit
These multiple sides of the band kept it from being easily pigeonholed, but also meant critics and even fans sometimes simply didn't get what they were doing. This was particularly true for Lowery, whose lyrics were often very complex character sketches rather than the straightforward sentiments of a typical pop songwriter.
"I remember when Key Lime Pie came out, some big magazine--I don't remember if it was Time, but it was something really big--said something about "Jack Ruby," that it was in poor taste to make a song celebrating Jack Ruby," says Lowery. "It was like, 'God, you're a writer, and you can't understand the narrative of this song?'"
Another songwriter who has employed the same lyric methods and encountered the same sort of problems is the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra, so it's not too surprising that Biafra was one of Camper's earliest champions.
"Jello Biafra was really the first guy who was sort of somebody big who 'got' Camper and took us out to do some shows with them," says Lowery. "Before we even had a record out, I think."
Though it's a little hard now to picture Camper opening up a DK show in front of a typical hardcore crowd, Lowery says at the time it was a natural fit.
"At first, we didn't make a lot of sense unless we had the foil of a hardcore punk rock crowd to play to, because most people didn't know the songs we were covering, like [Black Flag's] 'Wasted' and 'White Riot' and stuff like that. So that was the only way it made sense."
For the reunion, of course, it's a different story. Fans have had more than a decade post-breakup to make sense of Camper's work, especially their last two records, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie, which are two of the best rock albums of the '80s. The result is that people are coming to hear different things than they did back in the day.
"What our set list looked like then and what our set list looks like now is totally different," says Lowery. "When we were together, it was a much more conservative approach to what we did. And now it's really much more free-ranging. Yeah, there are people there that just know "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Skinheads Bowling," but now people are there to hear other stuff, like a lot of the slower ballads."
Judging from initial reports about New Roman Times--Lowery has described it as a "sci-fi rock opera, in the grand tradition of classic '70s rock and prog rock--the only thing that you can predict about Camper's new songs is that they'll be as unpredictable and trend-free as their old ones.
"There was always a certain amount of us ending up in a place that was both one step behind everybody else and one step ahead of everybody else at the same time," says Lowery.
But at least they've ended up somewhere. Could this reunion really turn into something long-term, or even permanent? Naysayers have their doubts, but while Camper once used "The Ambiguity Song" to describe the state of the band, maybe "Life Is Grand" is now, finally, more appropriate: "And life is grand / And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor / With those of you who have appointed yourself / To expect us to say something darker."
Camper Van Beethoven appears Saturday (July 3) at Day on the Meadow with Switchfoot, Lit, Sugarcult and Apollo Sunshine. The concert, which kicks off the July 4 America Festival, is a benefit for Our House, the Emergency Housing Consortium's services for homeless youth. The concert takes place at Discovery Meadow, Woz Way at West San Carlos Street, San Jose. Tickets are $10.49. (408.294.2100, ext. 333)
A Camper Van Beethoven Primer
By Steve Palopoli
The following are some helpful hints for understanding a few of Camper's best and best-known songs. New fans should study up with the actual source material; longtime listeners may still learn a thing or two.
'Take the Skinheads Bowling'
From Telephone Free Landslide Victory, 1985
This song is so surreal that, contrary to popular belief, it's not even about the practical uses of a skinhead's big, round noggin' on the bowling lanes. ("Or maybe it is," says Lowery. "I don't even remember.") In any case, it's an early and outstanding use of the driving three-chord jangle-rock that would become a staple of the later Alternative Nation. Lines like "There's not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything/ Had a dream last night, but I forget what it was" are funny the first time, but it's really the truly weird stuff like "Everybody's comin' home for lunch these days" and "Had a dream, I wanted to sleep next to plastic" that keep giving and make this a weird masterpiece.
From Key Lime Pie, 1989
Full of creepy imagery that mixes war and motherly love, quaint Americana and train wrecks, this song represents some of Camper's most stinging social commentary and most elegant guitar rock. "That started with reacting to the Reagan and Bush thing of a false nostalgia, this past that had never really existed," says Lowery. "And also, their warmongering thing was a little frightening to me at the time, although it turns out the offspring of all of them, G. W. Bush, is much more frightening than either of them were. Anyway, you had this really romantic notion of war, because you had these people who hadn't fought in a war since World War II. 'The lady opens up her arms' is the bomb bay opening and the airplane dropping the bombs, and 'The flowers bloom where you have placed them' is the explosions, and it's completely alienated from what's really happening."
'When I Win the Lottery'
From Key Lime Pie, 1989
Funny and genuinely subversive, this is Lowery's best story song. "People have taken that as an antiwar thing, which I guess it is," he says. "It's more of a really complicated character sketch, and it's based on this time we were driving Jonathan's car up to San Francisco and we got in an accident. We ended up with this tow truck guy who I guess was like an early pro-militia-type dude, and he went on about the government and all this stuff. I took it from there and painted a few things into the character."
'Life Is Grand'
From Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, 1988
One of the best hipster-baiting songs on record: "And life is grand/ And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor/ With those of you who have appointed yourselves/ To expect us to say something darker."
'Pictures of Matchstick Men'
From Key Lime Pie, 1989
Originally by Status Quo, this song is said to be about L.S. Lowry, the 20th-century British painter known for industrial scenes in which the human figures look somewhat like matchsticks. "There were at least three bands in Santa Cruz that were covering that song, and there was sort of a contest or something to do a better version of it," says Lowery. "But you can't understand half the words, and [weren't] printed. So we had to change the words to what we thought they would be."
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