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January 6th, 2009

Interview: Camper Van Beethoven’s David Lowery

Formed by singer-guitarist David Lowery in Santa Cruz, California in 1984, Camper Van Beethoven was integral to the formation of what we now call “indie-rock,” with their witty, sardonic lyrics and experimental fusion of everything from punk to psych-rock to country and folk music. After CVB split somewhat acrimoniously in 1990, Lowery put together Cracker, which enjoyed big album sales and several radio hits; in 2000, Camper Van Beethoven reunited and has since recorded two studio albums, and has plans for more. This year the band is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a handful of special career retrospective shows around the U.S., one of which happens Wednesday night at World Cafe Live. This afternoon, we spoke with the 48-year-old Lowery over the phone from his homebase of Richmond, Virginia, where in addition to his ongoing work with CVB and Cracker he runs Sound of Music Recording Studios.

Do you have any particular memories of playing in Philadelphia over the years?
Well, I mean, not really any specific memories. Philadelphia’s always been a good place for Camper Van Beethoven to play because, I dunno, maybe because we were always played on WXPN and stuff like that so it always seemed like we had an intelligent crowd that was well-versed in not just our singles, but our album tracks, too, so it’s always been a great place to play.

I suppose generally you get a combination of the diehards who know all the obscurities, and people who come out who maybe just know “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and a few of the other hits…
Yeah. I mean, it’s good to be noticed for the more subtle things you might have done. We’ve done this 25th anniversary thing in San Francisco, and we did it in Chicago, and now we’re doing D.C., Philly and New York, and after the Chicago show I was talking to people who didn’t really know that much about Camper Van Beethoven but were pretty blown away by a lot of the other tracks that we do. Both types of fans are cool.

Camper Van Beethoven has put out new albums recently, so you’re not really a “nostalgia act,” but you are doing this 25th anniversary retrospective tour — is it a strange position to be in, looking back and forward at the same time, being pulled in different directions?
Well, I think as an artist you should always .. well, never really discount what you did in the past. But some artists, especially as they go along in their career, you know, 20, 25 years, they go, “Oh well, that’s pretty much all people care about is the older stuff,” and then they just sort of focus on that, and we’ve tried not to do that. We try to look forward and make new records, maybe not as often as we should, but, I mean, it’s really important to us in Camper to feel like we’re a part of the scene now and it’s not just a historical effort. And that’s a real challenge because sometimes people do just want to hear the older stuff. I feel like we have a pretty good balance, you know, especially with these 25th anniversary shows — we’re playing basically a little bit off of every record so it tends to be the older stuff because there’s more records from then, but there’s new stuff. We try to balance it between every record.

What were your goals for Camper Van Beethoven when you started out 25 years ago?

Well, just to continue to make music professionally, and I think we’ve done that. But also to continue to make music professionally playing the music we want to play, and I believe we’ve done that. I think it’s pretty amazing, most bands don’t last as long as … 25 years is a long time for Camper Van Beethoven to be around.

Do you remember the very first Camper Van Beethoven show? How old were you?
Umm, yeah I do. We played a house party at [bassist] Victor Krummenacher’s parents’ house. I wasn’t that young, I had been in other bands before. I was 23.

What was the vibe like? Was it nerve-wracking?
A little bit, because the way Camper Van Beethoven started was most of us were in other bands and this was the band where … like, I was the bass player in several bands at that point in Santa Cruz, I was the bass player in town, but it was never exactly my band. So I had been playing guitar off and on for years and I wanted to do more of my own songs and be the singer, and the way to do that was I sorta gathered people around me who were musicians but they were sort of learning new instruments. I mean, Jonathan [Segel] wasn’t really a violin player, he was a guitar player, and Chris [Molla] was a good guitar player but he was playing drums at that time and that’s how we did it, and yeah, it was a little nerve-wracking because I hadn’t been the main frontguy ever.

In those early days, did you feel like the band would continue for a while, or did you just take it sort of day by day?
We were definitely living day to day, week to week the first couple of years because we were all in other bands, and at some point Camper Van Beethoven sort of became more popular than our other bands. We realized other people were grabbing on to what Camper Van Beethoven was doing and gradually we stopped playing with our other bands and then it sort of became more focused. Or maybe it focused itself and we just sort of realized that, and it went on from there.

Do you remember ever getting any key pieces of advice from anyone about the music industry or how to go about things when you were starting out?
I can’t really think of any real specific advice. There were certain key people that helped us out like Ray Farrell, he was one of the main early people at SST who kinda told us where we needed to play and who we needed to send our records to, stuff like that. But there was no “indie rock” then. And we were making it up as we went along. We were the ones who had to figure out, like, I went around to various little record labels and collected names of journalists and college radio stations and stuff like that for us to send our albums to, and we literally mailed a lot of those out ourselves. Things were really in transition at that time. It was only then that there was beginning to be independent record distributors and nobody was really promoting to college radio stations specifically at that time, but that’s sort of what we did. We always just sorta had a simple rule that we were going to play the music that we wanted to play, with the idea that there were other people across the country that were like-minded that would enjoy this music. It wasn’t like we were gonna ride any trend or anything, we were just gonna try to go city by city and find those people, and largely we did that by going and playing little college towns and trading shows with other bands who were doing something like what we were doing. We did that, and it sort of became a formula that a lot of other bands followed. I mean, we weren’t the only ones doing that, but that’s what we did.

By establishing that network and doing things so hands-on, did you feel a certain kind of kinship with other bands or part of any regional or national “scene”?
Well, you know, a lot of the hardcore punk pioneers, people like Jello Biafra, they kinda latched onto us early and gave us shows opening for the Dead Kennedys which was, we thought, pretty surprising because we thought we were doing something pretty different, but it ended up clicking with a lot of people who were into that. And then we played shows with the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen and Husker Du who, yeah, they were coming out of the hardcore scene but that was at the point when they were all sort of changing and becoming just more rock bands and things were really opening up in that scene, and that was very helpful that we were around those people and played shows with them. I mean, that to me is the beginning of what people call “indie rock,” when Husker Du puts out Zen Arcade and the Meat Puppets do Up on the Sun, that all happened right at that time and that’s sort of what became indie rock, and we felt like a part of that.

After 25 years, what’s been the best part of all of this — the music you’ve created, the relationships you’ve established, the friends and fans you’ve made…?
It’s all of that. Absolutely the friendships you’ve made over the years, but we’ve kinda gotten to live interesting lives, you know? Just creating our own music and not really having to make real compromises in our art. That’s pretty cool. Most bands don’t get to do that, and people in their real lives don’t get to do that.

Was the dream of being able to do this for a living something you thought might actually happen?
Well no, I just always wanted to make it so that I would always be able to play my own music and play shows and just enjoy it. I didn’t think I would ever really make a living off of it. I mean, it was my goal, but I went to school for mathematics, I have a degree in mathematics. I assumed I would be a mathematician of some sort, you know, be a college professor or work at an operations research firm or think tank or something.

Do you think you might end up doing something like that as you progress in life, or do you want to play music until the day you die?
I’d like to. I think it’s a little more challenging as we get older and our fans get older for us to every day play music. I’ve done a lot of other things related to music, you know, producing peoples’ records, running a studio, stuff like that. So generally, yes, but actually in the last year I went back to my mathematics and computer programming skills. I didn’t really wanna produce anybody else’s record, and there wasn’t really anything else going on, and I actually worked for a derivatives trading firm off and on last year.

Really? Did you enjoy that?
Yes I did, and that’s something that I’ve always been interested in since I’ve been doing math, this exotic sort of options and derivatives pricing and volatility trading, and the past year was sort of like the World Series of that! It was interesting to get involved in that even as sort of a part-time thing — a friend of mine does it and is very successful at it. But that will eat up so much of your brain and consciousness when you’re doing it that it’s a little bit difficult to play music, but it was a good thing to do to take a break from music for four or five months and do that, and to sort of exorcise this other life that I have that nobody knows about — that I was a really good mathematician at one point.

Has your relationship to Camper Van Beethoven songs changed over the years, where maybe something either takes on more meaning and you have a greater understanding of it over time, or you feel more detached emotionally from something you wrote a long time ago?
Yeah I think there’s some songs I listen to and I go “Ehhhh, you know, I dunno, I’m not crazy about my words on that one…” or whatever like that, or somehow there’s a little dishonesty in what I’m singing or something, but there’s always a balance in that — I’ll go back and listen to some Camper Van Beethoven tune we thought at the time was a throwaway and go, “You know, that’s a pretty magnificent little twisted two-minute song.” It changes always with time. Sometimes songs that you really didn’t think that much about become important over the years or mean more to you. Theres this kind of really simple country thing on [1986's] II & III called “Sad Lovers Waltz” and that was just kind of like “Hey, here’s a country song!” But ya know…we keep playing that one 24 years later and people just really seem to like it and it sits in the set really well and it’s just a real pleasure to play.

Certainly a lot of critics and fans like to say that Camper Van Beethoven was “ahead of its time” — do you ever feel that way?
Every once in a while — and I mean very rarely, because I think a lot of people get really bitter doing this — it’s nice to sit around and listen to a Modest Mouse song on the radio or hear a Built to Spill track or hear a Sufjan Stevens thing and go, “You know …” Well, I know in the case of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse that they were very influenced by Camper Van Beethoven because they took us on tour, I don’t know for sure about Sufjan Stevens. But I listen to some of that stuff and go, “You know, I think we had something to do with this stuff that I like listening to now, I think we had an influence on it,” and that’s very nice.

That doesn’t seem like bitterness, though, it seems like more a point of pride.
Yeah, but I think that some people can get bitter about it, you know: “We were doing it first and we never got the credit for it.” That’s a real problem for a lot of bands of my generation.

You don’t feel that way.
No. It’s partly that I’ve had success with Cracker and I have platinum records I’ve produced, stuff like that. I think I have a bigger picture of it. I’m not painting houses somewhere going “Goddammit I wish we had gotten our big break!” It’s a little easier for me to be philosophical about it, so I don’t wanna lord that over anybody.

When people look back on Camper Van Beethoven 100 years from now, what would you like them to remember about the band?
I think that I would like people to see that we really did go our own way. We made the kind of music that we believed was cool and was good and that we liked without really paying attention to like what the press was writing about at that time, or what was popular. We really just sorta stuck to our guns and did our own thing and you know, that’s a hard thing to do. It was much harder than people think.

Camper Van Beethoven plays World Cafe Live on Wednesday, January 7th at 9 pm. Tickets are $25-35.

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