Mongrel Music Is the Direction of Camper Van Beethoven's Revolution

Two words kept jumping out of the hopper of David Lowery's vocabulary as he spoke about his band, Camper Van Beethoven, one of the few American alternative rock groups that has begun to percolate out of the underground and into the pop limelight.

One was "weird." In Lowery's lexicon, its meaning is closer to "unexpected" or "unusual" than to anything having to do with Boris Karloff or the opening scene of "Macbeth." Coming from the mouth of the Camper Van Beethoven singer, "weird" has positive, rather than horrific connotations. Over the phone this week before a show in Salt Lake City, Lowery, 27, used it several times in explaining the band's musical approach.

How does he account for a mix-and-match sound that finds room for everything from spacey '60s psychedelia to sweetly melancholy Gypsy violin melodies?

"We're just trying to make this weird hybrid," Lowery said. "Pop music has always been this kind of mongrel."

And what prompted the song "Tania," in which the tale of Patty Hearst is set, oddly but fittingly, to violin strains evoking a fin de siecle Parisian cafe?

Greg Lisher, the band's lead guitarist, "was writing this sort of weird chord progression. For some reason I'd been talking about Patty Hearst that day, so I started this rant about Patty Hearst, retelling the story from this weird viewpoint."

The resulting lyric spawned the title of Camper Van Beethoven's latest album, "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart." The viewpoint is, if not exactly weird, certainly interesting: It isn't so much a commentary on Hearst as on the ennui of the song's narrator, who reflects with rueful nostalgia on the days when Symbionese Liberation Army gunplay gave extra spice to the news.

Oh, my beloved revolutionary sweetheart, I can see your newsprint face turn yellow in the gutter. It makes me sad, How I long for the days when you came to liberate us from boredom .

If "weird" is a word Lowery associates with creativity, "fashion," another of his most frequently used words, is its antonym. Fashion, after all, is a set of expectations. Lowery said that he'd rather not have Camper Van Beethoven, which plays Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, be limited by the fashions of the marketplace or the expectations of hip tastemakers from the underground rock scene.

"I don't like listening to contemporary music too much," he said, "because you start dealing with fashion more than music. You become aware of all the trends. For that reason, I've listened to a lot of older bands."

Among the relatively hoary influences cropping up on "Revolutionary Sweetheart" are the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and folk traditions from both sides of the Atlantic.

Lowery said underground fashion is something Camper Van Beethoven has had to buck in its recent major-label signing with Virgin Records. Until now, the Santa Cruz-based band had followed the do-it-yourself path valued in the underground, setting up its own label, Pitch-A-Tent Records, to put out its first three albums and an EP.

Lowery said the move to Virgin for "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart" made possible a recording budget 10 to 20 times greater than the $2,000 to $3,000 the band typically spent on each of its previous releases. The move appears to be paying off: Camper Van Beethoven has held onto its college radio support and is making its first inroads on the pop charts. "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart" has moved to No. 141 with a bullet on Billboard's latest Top Pop Albums list.

Lowery said Camper Van Beethoven has been subject to the sort of backlash in alternative quarters that befell underground darlings Husker Du and the Replacements, two Minneapolis bands that tried to broaden their audience by tapping into the more powerful marketing and distribution push available through a major label.

"What bugs me about the independent/alternative music scene is this trend that as bands become more popular, the people who are instrumental in the scene--the journalists, the people who work in the record stores--start to resist them," Lowery said.

"Most of the time it has nothing to do with the music, with changing the sound. It has to do with who likes the band, with what segment of the culture is listening. It's all (based on) fashion, and not music."

When Camper Van Beethoven started five years ago at UC Santa Cruz, Lowery said, "part of the reason we took the name was it wasn't a cool name--what a hip, underground band at the time would name itself."

The band's 1985 debut album, titled "Telephone Free Landslide Victory" in keeping with a penchant for absurdist nomenclature, featured songs that endeared Camper Van Beethoven to the hip, underground scene by poking fun at punk-rock stereotypes. As if to confound being stereotyped itself, the band interspersed the barbs with instrumental interludes that offered straightforward, competently played renditions of what sounded like Greek folk-dance songs.

While continuing to draw on diverse and sometimes unexpected musical sources, Camper Van Beethoven has developed a more cohesive, less gimmicky approach over subsequent records.

"Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart" includes hard-hitting rockers, psychedelic excursions ("The Fool" sounds like a hybrid of two Beatles psychedelic workouts, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy")), anthem-like pop songs and folk-based material--all without turning into aural patchwork.

Lending unity from song to song is the sense that CVB is trying to make sense, with limited success, of a world that is daunting, but also compelling, in its weirdness.

Several songs on "Revolutionary Sweetheart" and previous Camper albums suggest that it's anything but healthy to have a life that avoids weirdness and seeks a safe, settled and easily intelligible routine. On "Never Go Back," a bright anthem with an appealing, chunky beat, Lowery vows to shake off routine when it sets in:

If you see me sittin' around, thinking the same old thoughts over and over again, Or going back to old ways I'd long ago abandoned, please tell me, 'Never go back.' "I think that's a prevalent (concern) in people our age," said Lowery, whose band mates--Lisher, bassist Victor Krummenacher, drummer Chris Pedersen, and the multi-instrumentalist, Jonathan Segel--range in age from 23 to 28. Routine is "just something you start worrying about. It's in evidence in my everyday life, the whole thing of 'I don't want to get old, I don't want to do the same thing, I don't want to settle into a rut.' I can't talk to my old friends, hardly. They're all settled in. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not what I want."

And what does he want?

"I want an audience that's not fickle, that isn't related to any musical scene or trend," Lowery said. A solid cult following would be nice.

"And I want to make a living off of music."

Camper Van Beethoven has been financially self-sustaining for the past 2 1/2 years he said, with its independent record sales and frugally budgeted touring. "It was a pretty shoddy living for a while," he said. "I should go back to driving a produce truck (Lowery's job before the band) if I wanted to make more money. But this is more fun."

Camper Van Beethoven and Frameworx play Friday at 9 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. Tickets cost $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.

NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND: Jeremiah's Underground, the Huntington Beach restaurant and nightclub that had been experimenting with Thursday night original-rock shows, will close for renovations after tonight's show by the Tearjerkers, a Los Angeles band with a Bangles-style sound based on female pop harmonies.

When it reopens after Labor Day, it's doubtful that original rock will still predominate. Allan Gassman, entertainment director for the Underground and Jeremiah's, the more established restaurant and lounge upstairs from the Underground, said original-rock bands "have been drawing, but it's drawing a crowd that isn't quite right for the restaurant."

"It's not that there was a particular problem with the crowd that was here. It just didn't meld with the restaurant in the way we wanted it to."

Patrons of the upstairs venue, which features softer Top 40 pop and jazz, are being questioned about entertainment preferences for the downstairs operation, Gassman said, the idea being to have something that will appeal to the upstairs clientele. The aim is to do original entertainment, he said, but the focus may shift to comedy and cabaret music rather than rock. The free Tearjerkers show is at 9 p.m.

LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale today for two upcoming shows at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana: Doug Kershaw on Aug. 29 and Kathy Mattea on Aug. 30. . . . John Boylan, a record producer who has worked with Linda Ronstadt, Boston and Charlie Daniels, among others, will be the speaker Aug. 7 in a monthly series of songwriters' evenings at the Crazy Horse. Admission is free. After the seminar, which begins at 6 p.m., audience members who belong to its sponsoring organization, the National Academy of Songwriters, can submit their work for review by a panel of professionals that includes Boylan, music publisher Michael O'Connor, and songwriter Harriet Schock.

Information: (800) 334-1446 or (213) 463-7178.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°