Camper Van Beethoven at 25: from warm beer to funny ideas

A lot has changed since Camper Van Beethoven first launched in Santa Cruz during the fall of 1983. Selling homemade EPs on the road barely pays for a tank of gas in a tour van. Attention-crazed fans have swapped stage dives for YouTube tributes. And bands just don't write pop songs about bowling skinheads anymore.

But one thing has stayed constant: Camper Van Beethoven began on the fringes of the "alternative nation" it helped inspire, and that's where the band will always remain. It could've been like the Flaming Lips, Camper's contemporaries in superb pop absurdity, going from an eccentric college town act to a stadium standby performing in plastic bubbles. But the Santa Cruz students never came close to capturing the Lips' longevity and crowd hysteria, even though both acts intelligently tinkered with '80s pop culture. And why exactly didn't our beachbumming export make it big?

"One of the things that made Camper good is that we're sort of disorganized and unmanageable in a way," says frontman David Lowery from his summer home in Athens, Georgia. "We didn't turn into the Flaming Lips — with the psychedelic light show and dogs riding bicycles or whatever — because we can't get organized to do that."

Not to mention that by 1989, Camper Van Beethoven had broken up.

But Camper did spend six years and five albums making Lowery's math degree from UC Santa Cruz useless, helping stoke this whole "indie-rock" thing along the way. His band was one of the early acts to tour on the college/house party circuit — alongside peers like the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Dead Milkmen — playing music that confounded classification. It was just a ska-skate punk-surf rock–Gypsy folk–psychedelic-prog-pop act with a violinist and a Pink Floyd fetish, ya know. And the band members had an excellent sense of humor. Lowery's songbook included lyrics about getting wasted, being a spoiled brat, sending Lassie to the moon, and Joseph Stalin's Cadillac. And, somewhere along the way, Camper ended up getting airtime on MTV and signing to Virgin.

The end of the '80s brought the end of Camper Van Beethoven, though. Its members formed other bands – most notably, Lowery had Cracker. But in 2002, Camper tested the fan waters with a tour, followed by the release of fake "rarity" records. The band promoted two new releases, Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead: Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, and a cover of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, as "unearthed outtakes" because, Lowery says, they were nervous about how the public would respond to material from a re-formed band. After receiving positive reviews, the group came clean with a properly labeled "new" batch of music, New Roman Pop, in 2004.

This summer, however, is all about Camper Van Beethoven's early days. The band is hosting a 25th-anniversary celebration at the Fillmore on Saturday, June 28, and has packaged its greatest hits into a new comp called Popular Songs.

Going back through Camper's old catalog, it's impressive how well those songs have aged. The music scatters all over the map — geographically and genrewise — and still jells into a singular sound. To me they sounded smarter, or maybe it was just more smartass, than the average rock band, indie or otherwise. They bucked conformity with surreal lyrics like "Had a dream, I wanted to sleep next to plastic/Had a dream, I wanted to lick your knees/Had a dream, it was about nothing." They poked fun at the punks as much as they did the straight kids, siding with neither. (Another of my favorites: "Club Med Sucks," their hardcore track for snotty Valley boys.) Other times they would just trip the hell out, as on the violin and guitar instrumental jam "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt." But while their borders were open, their experimentations kept the hooks intact. And as long as it sounded like they were having fun, that made it on to the record.

It's an interesting time to do a career retrospective, though, as Camper's boom and bust follows that of the music industry itself. The methods the band held dear in the '80s are repeating in this rapidly changing music climate.

"People keep asking how are things different after 25 years," Lowery says. "Well, they're pretty much ... if not similar, you can at least make these broad analogies that work to how it was in 1983." He ticks off a couple examples. For one, in Camper's early days, independent record distributors broke the monopoly held by the majors. Today, the Internet has fueled that revolution once again, with artists from Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead on down circumventing labels completely. For another, the means of producing music was changing then, and it's changing again now. "In our day it was quite easy and inexpensive to manufacture vinyl and cassettes – you could take them to shows and sell them to people," Lowery says. Of course, now bands take advantage of digital technology to sell downloads of their songs.

But, hey, let's face it — things are a lot simpler for musicians in 2008. Lowery talks about the olden days of collecting fans' addresses for the typed-up newsletters Camper mailed out every couple months. Now those blasts have been truncated to band blogs and MySpace posts. He also muses about the simplicity of telephone communication, and its relationship to keeping musicians healthy. "One of the great [things] about cell phones is you no longer get colds from using payphones on tour," he says with a laugh.

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