In the late 1980s, one of the coolest music scenes on the planet was MTV’s 120 Minutes. It aired late on Sunday nights and took its playlists from college radio stations, running videos by punk, New Wave, and less categorizable bands like R.E.M., XTC, Midnight Oil, and the Angry Samoans. In the mix was Camper Van Beethoven, an offbeat surf-punk/world music/Americana band from Redlands, California, who rose to fame in 1985 with “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” a single off their debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory.
In 1988, when Camper Van Beethoven was touring for its fourth album, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart — the band’s first with a major label (Virgin) — MTV host Kurt Loder interviewed front man David Lowery. Loder called the new record delightfully eclectic, and introduced the group as “the biggest cult band in the land.” He then declared that on this tour, Camper Van Beethoven was trying to shake off the “art-fringe image that they’ve built for themselves.”
Oddly, nothing in the interview supported Loder’s assessment. In almost direct contrast to this idea, Lowery told Loder that people seem to forget that rock and roll has always been a mishmash of influences. There is something reassuringly consistent about the fact that this is almost identical to what Lowery told Pasatiempo three decades later, as he prepared to embark on a 2019 summer tour with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, the band he formed the year after Camper broke up, in 1991. (Camper got back together in 1999.)
“Rock music is essentially a hybrid type of music that incorporates elements of folk and blues and country and gospel and whatever, like that. Camper has a broad palette of styles that it incorporates. We get into the Eastern European stuff, all the surf stuff that was heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music,” he said.
Cracker veers more strongly into Americana, dropping the world-music elements and picking up roots and country rock. Cracker’s biggest hits include “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” from 1992, an ironic, anthemic tribute to the faux-profundity of sensitive artsy guys, and 1993’s “Low,” a slightly depressing song that feels apiece with the era’s embrace of heroin chic.
Lowery answered questions about Camper and Cracker from his home in Georgia as he went through his morning routine — brushing his teeth and drinking coffee — and chatted amiably about the past.
Pasatiempo: In hindsight, the early days of Camper Van Beethoven sound a little like Americana and a little like college rock, but weirder than both. What were you guys trying to do? Who were your contemporaries?
David Lowery: We were playing in punk-rock clubs and opening for punk bands. We were covering some of their stuff, but we would do it in this sort of this hippie, garage-rock style. Hence the violin. There were a few bands we really liked, this ’60s hippie band called The Chocolate Watchband. Another one was called Kaleidoscope. These were garage band albums you’d just find in thrift stores — that’s how we came across this stuff. A lot of that early garage psychedelic stuff is, like, really brutal. It’s really primitive sounds and it had something in common with punk rock. There were other bands out there that were doing similar things. The Hoodoo Gurus from Australia, Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys, The Fleshtones, maybe. Green on Red. The Dream Syndicate.
Pasa: Camper, which was formed at the end of the Cold War era, had a political bent to its lyrics. Did you see yourself as a political band?
Lowery: Some of that we were just playing with. What is patriotism? Who is the real American? We were pretty much anarchists, so we didn’t really believe in anything at that time. We sort of made fun of everything. So there’s a lot of political stuff in there, but I can’t say it’s always actually saying anything. We were almost kind of trolling our audience with all that stuff.
Pasa: And yet, “Take the Skinheads Bowling” seems potentially profound in 2019. Maybe that’s the solution to our great national divide.
Lowery: Skinheads were a problem at our shows back then, although not all of them were racist. Some were the opposite. But we were making fun of the racists, what we’d call “white nationalists” today. We were making fun of them because that’s what we thought was the right thing to do: Not confront them but call them a joke. The song doesn’t really mean anything. The absurd thing about it was that all the skinheads would come to our shows and request that song. And we’d play it. All these skinheads in their green bomber jackets were dancing and singing along to our songs.
Pasa: Cracker emerged at the beginning of what became known as alt-country. Did you appreciate this label?
Lowery: I prefer the term Americana to alt-country. We’d grown up with The Clash, the Talking Heads, and R.E.M., but just as much, we were listening to The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Little Feat, and Led Zeppelin. We learned about American country roots via English people.
Pasa: What can audiences expect to see at your shows on this current tour?
Lowery: When we do Cracker and Camper together we do a retrospective across both bands’ careers, usually something from every album. It ends up being eight musicians between the two bands, and about two and a half hours of music, minimum.
Pasa: You’ve continued to put out albums over the years, but some people know you from just a handful of hit songs. Is it hard to keep from feeling like a relic?
Lowery: It’s not like our sound has radically changed, but each album is a little different than what we’ve done in the past. Generally, there’s new ground broken. We don’t ignore our past songs; we just try not to be a cliché. We don’t have our hair dyed black and we’re not wearing the same tight black jeans we were wearing in the ’80s. Although I might do that this tour. ◀
▼ Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18
▼ The Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing, 37 Fire Place; 505-424-3333
▼ $30 in advance, $35 day of show; 505-886-1251 or holdmyticket.com/tickets/339553