Camper Van Beethoven - Biography
American indie band Camper Van Beethoven formed in Redland, California in 1983, when lead singer and songwriter David Lowery (then on bass) joined forces with multi-instrumentalist Chris Molla, drummer Bill McDonald, guitarist David McDaniel, and harmonica player Mike Zorn. The following year, the band — at this time calling themselves Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol — relocated to Santa Cruz. Soon, Lowery and Molla were the only remaining original members, with Victor Krummenacher joining on bass (and allowing Lowery to switch to rhythm guitar), string man and keyboardist Jonathan Siegel adding a new sonic dimension, and Richie West replacing McDonald, who departed for the L.A. punk scene. In 1985, the group shortened its name to Camper Van Beethoven and replaced West with Anthony Guess.
This incarnation of the band entered the recording studio and emerged with Camper Van Beethoven's debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985 Independent Projects). Originally, the title's second word was "Tree," but a typo resulted in the LP's current name. Musically, the album is an eclectic hodge-podge of post-hardcore cowpunk (à la Meat Puppets), indie rock, and world music. Though best know for the single "Take the Skinheads Bowling," that track's straight-ahead college rock sound barely hints at the breadth of material on Telephone Free Landslide Victory, which includes African folk-pop ("Tina"), tejano ("Border Ska"), Eastern-tinged avant garde jam rock ("9 of Disks"), violin-led Eastern Bloc polka ("Vladivostock"), and, in a bizarre medley, bluegrass and punk ("Opi Rides Again - Club Med Sucks"). Robert Christgau awarded the album an A-, while Rolling Stone was more modest in their praise, doling out three stars. In any case, it remains an indie classic and a fan favorite.
Between albums, Guess departed, leaving Camper Van Beethoven drummerless as they began recording their sophomore effort, the confusingly titled II & III (1985 Pitch-A-Tent). Molla and Lowery took turns behind the trap set, laying the beats behind another set of oddball indie tunes. Guitarist Greg Lisher also joined the band in time for these sessions, although it's Siegel's pan-stylistic violin playing that steals the show, as the band careen from country ballads ("Sad Lovers Waltz") to gypsy stomps ("No Krugerrands for David") and "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" (which actually sounds more like Dick Dale and a cat in heat). While even weirder than their debut, Camper Van's second album feels more confident and grounded. Christgau proffered another A- grade, while Rolling Stone upped their rating to four stars.
Soon after the release of II & III, drummer Chris Pedersen joined, further solidifying Camper Van Beethoven's lineup. The sextet immediately took to the studio, joined by guest banjo player Eugene Chadbourne. A veteran of outré recording sessions (he'd worked with John Zorn and Henry Kaiser by this time), Chadbourne lends his fluid picking skills to the group's self-titled third album, Camper Van Beethoven (1986 Pitch-A-Tent), especially on "Joe Stalin's Cadillac." David Lowery steps to the fore on this record, his ragged vocals revealing a burgeoning confidence in his role as a frontman. Camper Van also rein in their world music dabblings. Rather than building entire tracks around Eastern modes and techniques, they use these to adorn their increasingly formidable rock songs. "Surprise Truck," in particular, is a ballsy, thrumming, psychedelic barnburner. Though less quirky, the merits of LP number three would earn the band a major label contract, along with an A grade from Christgau and positive reviews elsewhere.
After one more indie release — the generally forgettable Vampire Can Mating Oven (1987 Pitch-A-Tent) EP — Camper Van Beethoven followed in the footsteps of fellow college rockers The Replacements, R.E.M., and Hüsker Dü by signing to a major. Their fourth album, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988 Virgin), marks a natural progression for the band toward more fully realized songwriting, tighter interplay, and higher production values. At the same time, Camper sacrificed none of what makes them unique. Lead track and MTV 120 Minutes staple "Eye of Fatima (Pt. 1)" blends Southern fried rock with spacey violin glissandi, perfectly matching Lowery's lyric, "And cowboys on acid are like Egyptian cartoons." On "Change Your Mind," the band match guest horn players with Siegel's fiddle for a wistful country polka. Mining the blues, Camper Van resurrect the traditional "O Death." The album's standout track, however, is "Tania," a Hungarian ska-rock lament for Patty Hearst. Though Christgau cooled his praise to a B+, Rolling Stone upped theirs to 4.5 stars. Despite the band's ascendancy, Jonathan Siegel quit after Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
The following year, Camper Van Beethoven released their fifth and, for more than a decade, final album, Key Lime Pie (1989-Virgin). Just a handful of years past their first LP of rickety and kooky indie ditties, the band here sound powerful and pissed off. After an extended instrumental intro, "Jack Ruby" is a seething portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald's killer awash in Hendrixian guitar. Throughout the album, Lowery stares hard into the heart of Reagan-era America. "When I Win the Lottery" is a loping and Morricone-esque investigation into the tangled web of contemporary values, while the easygoing and almost tender country rock of "Sweetheart" complements Lowery's caustic look inside the mind of Ronald Reagan, where "wheels turn and gears they grind." More intimate and personal is "All Her Favorite Fruit," a weary domestic daydream about an ex-lover's new life. Oddly, Camper Van's big single from the album was a cover — the band's take on Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" hit #1 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart. Key Lime Pie also dented Billboard's Hot 200, peaking at #140.
Despite this recognition, plus more critical praise, the band had become fractured. Following a 1990 tour, Camper Van Beethoven broke up. David Lowery teamed with Johnny Hickman (with whom he'd played in Redlands, pre-Camper) to form Cracker. Meanwhile Krummenacher, Lisher, and Pedersen concentrated on Monks of Doom, a side project they'd begun in 1986 with multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück. Throughout the 1990s, the only "new" Camper Van album to see the light of day was Camper Vantiquities (1993 I.R.S.), a compilation of non-LP cuts (including the Vampire Can Mating Oven EP), assembled by Krummenacher.
In 1999, Camper Van Beethoven showed its first sparks of a rebirth, when the members gathered to assemble a rarities compilation, Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven (2000 Pitch-A-Tent). Krummenacher, Lisher, and Siegel subsequently joined Cracker on tour, with set lists featuring songs from both bands. In 2002, Camper Van Beethoven officially reformed to play shows and to record Tusk (2002-Pitch-A-Tent), an album-length tribute to Fleetwood Mac's most experimental album. This met with mixed reviews, but continued to re-invigorate the band, who headed back to the studio to record their first record of new material in fifteen years, New Roman Times (2004-Pitch-A-Tent). The line-up here consisted of Lowery, Krummenacher, Lisher, Siegel, Pedersen, and Immerglück. Musically, the album touches on every stage of Camper Van's '80s sound, as psychedelicized indie rock meets world music and dashes of country. Lyrically, Lowery spins a speculative tale of an alternate United States, wherein Texas and California are at war; thus mirroring the politically fractured climate of America in the early 21st century. Reviews were generally positive, if not effusive with praise.
The following year saw the release of an October 2004 concert, Discotheque: CVB Live in Chicago (2005 Pitch-A-Tent). Three years later, the band issued a career-spanning compilation, Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty (2008-Cooking Vinyl). However, due to contract issues with Virgin, the group had to re-record tracks from their two LPs with that label. Despite no new studio material from the band in recent years, they continue to combine touring with the more consistently productive Cracker. Moreover, their unique body of work from 1985-89 is among the most compelling of the college rock era and continues to endure.