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Camper Van Beethoven: California Screaming

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Camper Van Beethoven celebrates its 30th anniversary by uncorking its weirdest album in decades.

“Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out” (download):

“Should I call you professor?”

Uttered in jest, the question has been posed to one David Lowery in an attempt to get him to open up about his thriving side vocation at the University of Georgia.

“Well, sort of,” says an apparently taken-aback Lowery over the phone from Athens, Ga., after an uncomfortable few seconds of dead air. “You know, uh … getting to teach kids about the music business—especially the finance side of it, which is sort of my specialty—is pretty cool, because mostly these people don’t get good advice. Most of the stuff you read online is pretty crappy.”

The number-crunching angle certainly makes sense. When he wasn’t stirring up trouble in sundry early-’80s incarnations of Camper Van Beethoven, Lowery was studying to be a mathematician at UC Santa Cruz. And the onetime-alt-rock-fixture-turned-campus-scholar has had his share of real-life industry run-ins, coming away relatively unscathed—or at least in better shape than many major-label castoffs. “Most of the usual suspects giving young people advice don’t actually have any experience,” he says. “I feel like I’m doing a public service. The digital revolution is not a people-empowering revolution—it’s actually a corporate-empowering revolution, and kids need to think about that. The people who create the content need to be compensated fairly, whether it’s a writer, a photographer, a moviemaker or a musician.”

Nowadays, the 52-year-old Lowery is enlightening a few hundred students in “several” courses, while shuttling back and forth between Georgia and Richmond, Va., where his two sons live with his former wife. In 2010, he married Velena Vego, the talent booker for Athens’ legendary 40 Watt Club. Vego also manages CVB and its more conventional spawn and (now) co-headliner, Cracker. A year later, Lowery squeezed out a pretty respectable solo album, The Palace Guards—his first, mind you. “I did about 70 shows last year,” says Lowery, which he says is about average these days.

For a guy who’s staring at the back half of his existence, Lowery is stretched pretty thin—and, at the moment, he’s losing patience with the line of questioning: “We have the new Camper record coming out, and I don’t really have a shitload of time here, so can we talk about that and not about school?”

Lowery is referring to La Costa Perdida, which kicks off CVB’s 30th-anniversary year amidst an orchestrated (if deserving) surge in recognition for the group—everything from Paul Rudd donning a vintage Camper concert tee in the film This Is 40 to glowing quotes from members of R.E.M. and the Meat Puppets. “They’re not touted like the Pixies or Pavement, but they mixed all these genres in a way that seemed natural and effortless and fun,” says Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger, a longtime fan. “They weren’t one of these bands that spawned a lot of imitators, because it would just be hard to try to copy their sound.”

Out now via 429 Records, La Costa Perdida is CVB’s first album since 2004’s New Roman Times. In the interim, the group has been in a fitful state of hibernation. Guitarist Greg Lisher is living in Santa Cruz and prepping his third solo effort. Bassist Victor Krummenacher resides in nearby San Francisco, where he works as a graphic designer for Wired and recently eked out his seventh solo release, I Was A Nightmare But I’m Not Gonna Go There, a Kickstarter-funded, vinyl-only collection of covers featuring songs by the likes of Rowland S. Howard, Jeffery Lee Pierce, Kate Wolf and Bill Morrissey.

Both gents take part in the long-running post-CVB project, Monks Of Doom, which will emerge with a new album—its fifth in 25 years—later in the year. The group also includes two on-again-off-again Camper members, drummer Chris Pedersen (who plays on two La Costa Perdida tracks) and guitarist David Immerglück (also with Counting Crows).

CVB multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel has had the most colorful life of late. He had been teaching music theory and “desktop musicianship” at two Bay Area colleges, until a recession-induced layoff prompted him to accept a job as a listener advocate for Pandora. “I got fired there this past spring for not shutting up about decision-making I didn’t agree with,” he says.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Segel, with a wife at home and a new baby. After losing their house in Oakland, the family relocated to Sweden this past June. “I’m an immigrant, trying to learn a new language and figure out how to get a gig here,” says Segel, who released his “guitar-heavy” second solo album, All Attractions, last year. “But at least my daughter has health care and great schools.”

La Costa Perdida was mostly recorded at Segel’s home studio a year prior to his move, and finished at Sharkbite Studios, with Michael Urbano filling things out on drums. “The process was similar, perhaps, to the recording of Camper’s third album, in that we could experiment and had time to work on things,” says Segel. “The first two CVB albums were recorded in a weekend.”

Fittingly, La Costa Perdida should resonate with fans of the group’s early incorrigibility—and mostly frustrate those who embraced the more-focused late-’80s CVB. Perdida is rambling, silly, occasionally obnoxious, sometimes beautiful and almost always weird. Unlike the frenzied, stylistic clusterfuck that lent a trailblazing, cerebral heft to even the group’s most esoteric mid-’80s music (some Eastern Bloc folk dirges to go with your ska-punk, comrade?), Camper’s eighth proper LP is the work of a band with nothing else to prove, and certainly no one left to impress. It has the up-and-down pacing and hit-or-miss feel of a living-room jam session among old friends—and that’s pretty much what it is. “It was chaotic,” says Krummenacher. “We seem to bring the chaos sometimes.”

And with that chaos came one fundamental difference. “Back in the day, David would bring in chord progressions and lyrics, and the rest of us would write our parts,” says Lisher. “This time, we wrote the songs as a band from the ground up. Someone would start playing something, someone else would start riffing on that, and so on and so on.”

“This album was a relaxed, organic growth—like growing vegetables,” says Segel. “Some of us had small germs of ideas we’d shared as far back as 2010. But they didn’t really germinate until we all had a week together at my house.”

Predictably, the cloistered collaborative conditions amount to a mixed bag. It’s tough to explain away a line like “Bring to me the anti-venom, and make me a sandwich”—uttered not once but multiple times on the insufferably bizarre (albeit fitfully amusing) “Too High For The Love In”—or shrill faux-blues rant “You Got To Roll.” By contrast, languid opener “Come Down The Coast” ranks among the prettiest songs Camper has ever concocted, while the title track is a charmingly demented lowlife tale.

“There was a push to make the new songs longer—trying to be hippie in sort of an acid-damaged way,” says Lowery. “We were reacting to what we were hearing around us—an antidote to what the indie-rock kids are doing now—which is how Camper has always worked.”

Perdida tops out with the wistful, casually ornate “Northern California Girls,” the closest to Brian Wilson’s wheelhouse Camper is likely to ever come. “I was trying to overdub the bass part while David sang it at the top of lungs and screamed coaching tips … ‘Lay out. Cool. Now play like James Jamerson—gimme some Marvin Gaye. OK, Brian Wilson,’” says Krummenacher. “It was confusing and kind of irritating at the time. In retrospect, though, I love it because the results were good. It said a lot about how we can push each other to do things.”

Decades later, accounts still differ as to the details of Camper Van Beethoven’s initial disbandment. A popular take among outsiders was that Lowery’s increasingly more refined songwriting approach and pop-leaning proclivities had alienated the rest of the group. Looking back, though, it wasn’t that cut and dry. “In a lot of ways, Key Lime Pie was me and Greg’s album,” Lowery says of the group’s 1989 release, which would be its last for 15 years.

Lisher blames the road. “We were all really young and had been going nonstop. We just started to burn out,” he says. “If the touring wasn’t as crazy as it was, we could’ve lasted longer than we did.”

Camper’s finest album top to bottom, Key Lime Pie would’ve been one hell of a parting shot. By then, the band’s working relationship with producer Dennis Herring had moved beyond simply tightening and fattening-up the group’s sound. He’d done as much a year prior on CVB’s major-label debut, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, a slightly disconcerting sonic leap for some fans. “If the argument is: ‘Herring cleaned up Camper,’ I don’t really agree,” says Krummenacher. “We were headed there already.”

It was all enough to send Segel packing in early 1989, while the band was demoing tunes for Key Lime Pie. “Jonathan had kind of a whiny shit-fit about the first (Herring) album because his violin parts got muted in a few places,” says Lowery with a chuckle. “He’d talk about how he hated all the reverb on it. It was weirdly negative. I was always like, ‘Dude, that’s our album.’”

There were plenty of fans who welcomed the upgrade. “When a lot of the indie bands of that time signed to a major, they’d polish the sound too much and lose the charm that made them endearing in the first place,” says Elf Power’s Rieger. “But I really felt it was the opposite with Camper. When they tried to take a step up, it really worked. The songwriting was better; the production was better. There was still some humor, but the throwaway, jokey songs were gone, and it felt way more thought-out and conceptual.”

Rieger also believes Camper would’ve accumulated more style points as innovators if they’d hung in there through the ’90s. “David picked up on some of that momentum with Cracker, and Camper probably would’ve done the same thing,” he says.

What some fans might not know is how close Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman came to becoming an official member of Camper Van Beethoven. “David, Chris Molla, Mark Phillips and I had a loose side project called the Estonian Gauchos (in Redlands, Calif.) that was the seed that eventually grew into Camper,” says Hickman. “David went north to enroll at UC Santa Cruz, where the band grew. When Chris left, David called and asked if I wanted to come up and play guitar, but I’d just signed a record deal.”

Even with Cracker enjoying more commercial success than Camper ever had, Lowery can recall only two years when he wasn’t actively communicating with at least one member of CVB. “We had all kinds of business stuff to do in common,” he says.

Krummenacher concurs, though with this caveat: “After 23 years, I think everybody is going to have a different memory of what happened. Memories are what they are, which is to say biased. I leave it at this: We broke up when we couldn’t get along, and we got back together when we could.”

If Lowery has his way, there will never be another official CVB breakup. He doesn’t see the point. “We grew up with each other,” he says. “It’s kind of hard for us not to at least talk.”

—Hobart Rowland

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