From MONDO 2000, Issue Number 2, Summer 1990:
Camper Van Beethoven's Weird Angles
An Interview With David Lowery
by Mark Laidlaw
Camper Van Beethoven--let's make this personal--is my favorite band. I speak not only of a cerebral appreciation of various effects, ingeniously contrived yet as spontaneous-seeming as a music-camp jam, nor of undersea tone-currents to which my body sways as helplessly as a piece of kelp; for there is something deeper even than these things...something I love. It's not that all the words and music arrow straight to the heart either, for some of the songs are goofier than a surfer's left foot, while others are moody and morbid as the darkest night of a Saturnalian poet's soul. The fact is, Camper Van Beethoven's sound is so well-rounded, so full of surprises, that--the first time I heard it--the music already seemed like an old and favored friend--unpredictable, ever-changing, but good and deep and true.
This many-faceted persona is currently the work of five musicians, though it remains the evolved product of many individuals who have played in the group and left their stylistic marks on it over the years. Sadly--although perhaps luckily for my primitive interviewing skills--I was able to corner only one of the five at San Francisco's Warfield Theater on December 15, 1989, the last night of their Key Lime Pie Tour.
David Lowery, spokesman and chief lyricist for CVB, is a lanky blond with features that Rudy Rucker says remind him of someone who has been buffeted by countless cosmic storms and spent hard nights in the outer gulfs of existence or perhaps East Texas: a face honed down to rugged essentials by the elementary action of visionary weather. I don't know about all that, but Lowery definitely has developed a unique approach to life and those things in it worth singling out as significant. Like all the best artists, he shows us the strangeness in familiar things, and vice versa. In fact, the word "strange" recurs frequently in conversation with him: strangeness as a signifier, a key to those weird doors that open so rarely and memorably in the claustrophobic corridors of our lives.
The music of Camper Van Beethoven, spiced and heightened by Lowery's surreal yet pointed imagery, is itself a most effective door to those other realms. Drop the needle on any CVB album, enter an auditorium where they are playing, and you are instantly immersed in a new environment--one infinitely varied, ultimately strange. From track to track, these sounds and songs are similar in their strangeness--otherwise they are whole new and wholly different worlds. The thread of Lowery's lyrical sensibility seems to offer some continuity as we venture through these liquid dimensions--but it's fleeting and multiform, as textured with strangeness as the music itself.
I shy away from describing the music because while words can approach other words (I can, for instance, quote Lowery's lyrics) the sinuous sounds of the instruments are elusive, indescribable. The electric guitars solos are almost literal in their authority. The fiddling gets into my marrow and chills, electrifies it; sometimes a soulful mourning, sometimes a cold jolt of reality adding to the ecstatic tension of the evocative sound-pictures Camper Van Beethoven paints so deftly that I often look up expecting to see planets detached from their orbital dreams and softly plunging down like cooling hot-air balloons to bounce from the surface of my skull. There is a constant atmosphere of surprise: you realize, listening, that the musicians are getting away with things you never dreamed possible--and doing it with incredible, easy grace.
But words really are no good here. The lyrics are only part of it, more than a fifth but far less than the whole. And this word-bound interview is served up mainly to point you to the transcendent five-fifths-plus of the full sound; to the fused talents of these artists dreaming new, irresistible words for our pleasure, turning keys in doors of ivory and smoke. Buy an album--or better yet, a ticket. Open your ears as the needle drops, the first drumbeat kicks in, and pass on through...
DAVID LOWERY: A friend of mine who spent his life making dinosaurs, got a job designing sets for these guys who do bizarre independent television shows; I don't know if they're successful but they've come up with some great, crazy pilot ideas. So he called me up one day and said, "Hey, I'm designing this set, do you want to come down to LA for the shooting and hang out?" So I went down there and it turned out these guys were doing a pilot for a Robert Anton Wilson talk show that would have aired at 12:30 AM. I watched the whole thing and it was great; and I talked to Wilson afterwards. Having read all his books, I wanted to ask him some stuff. Well, I recognized the producer of the show from the place where I always eat breakfast, and he said, "Hey, you're familiar." So I said, "You probably know me from Camper Van Beethoven." But it turned out he didn't recognize the name or anything. It was good to be humbled a little bit. So I kept seeing him at this breakfast place, and one day he said, "I heard some of your music and I was wondering if you would do the theme song for the Robert Anton Wilson show, submit some music." I said, "Sure, I'd be into that." So I wrote the opening theme, which is "Opening Theme" on our latest record, Key Lime Pie. I guess nothing ever happened with that pilot.
MONDO 2000: Do promoters have trouble presenting you, because of your diversity?
DL: They did in the beginning, but now we're known for it. In fact our new record has been criticized because too much of it sounds the same. It sounds like we've got a style now. But that's not really true. Those are just the songs we chose for the record. We made a very deliberate decision to give this album a particular mood. Although compared to anybody else's records, it's still pretty diverse.
M2: Does that reflect the band's eclectic interests?
DL: Yeah. Originally, the great rock bands realized that pop was this mongrel, a meshing goulash of cultural influences. It wasn't a pure musical form. But now every band has one subgenre that they choose as their style. In everyday life I think most people listen to a lot of different kinds of music. We listen to different styles of music, so there's no reason not to play various styles as long as we either play them well, or we try to make it something different, new--and accept it for what it is. That's the whole history of rock 'n' roll, which is something that people have forgotten. If you look back at the bands that people consider the classic great rock bands, they all did that. The Beatles had this weird English pub music and brass band influence, with a little bit of country, and they were trying to do American rock. To me, all the great bands were really eclectic.
To play in a rock band is to participate in this live, vital musical form. That's why I don't play classical music. I don't think it's alive. I don't think it's vital. We don't have folk music in this country anymore, so that's what rock music is. There's got to be a vital interchange and interaction between the culture and the band. So we do things like, "Well, we don't know what fucking Russian music sounds like so let's make it up and turn it into something new and we'll let that change our sound. We'll make a Russian sound that we like."
PARANOID FOR THE FUN OF IT
M2: What are some of your non-musical influences?
DL: Science fiction, because it experiments with ideas about all human culture, not just our culture. I read a lot of Philip K. Dick when I was younger, and naturally, I've read William Gibson, who's sort of an extension of what Dick was trying to do--science fiction about culture. I really love Thomas Pynchon. He has something in common with a lot of the new science fiction writers. He was really writing about culture in a more overt way, treating it as an object rather than a milieu...like the best SF. I've read a lot of Robert Anton Wilson. I loved the Illuminatus trilogy.
M2: Are there any clues to those things in your songs?
DL: About six months after our first record came out, we went on a big tour of the U.S. and I started rereading the Illuminatus trilogy, because it seemed like a good thing to read in the van, where you sort of read for five minutes and then put it down. And we started getting really paranoid. We had this whole string of events happen to us that seemed vaguely related to the Illuminati conspiracy theory. It all culminated one night when we were eating at this place called the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's a restaurant with a club in the back where we were playing. Jonathan remembered that there was a relation between the Blind Pig and the Illuminati in Wilson's trilogy, but I wasn't really thinking about it. I just noticed that we were in this booth with a big eye-in-the-pyramid above it, and there was a picture of Dutch Schultz on the wall. The restaurant had a gangster theme. At that time, we'd all stay in one hotel room, and we kept getting room #23. So we named our second record II & III, and that was our reference to that. Then there was the "Take the Skinheads Bowling" single, which contained all these symbols from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The references are all sort of vague, though.
THE WEIRD AND THE MUNDANE
DL: My primary lyrical influences are two writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for the way he talks about reality, and this strange poet I grew up with in Santa Cruz and Southern California named Eric Curkendall. I was in a band with him. He was the singer and heavily influenced me in the way he would blend all kinds of pop culture imagery into his lyrics. He was basically into images of death and eating. But it wasn't the clichéd, stupid '80s-alternative-band grotesque horror images of death. He was really tuned into it. He was influenced by folk stories. So all his stuff was about food and death and the fecundity of life. In a way, Marquez is about that too. He has that dreamlike way of talking about...well, stuff. That--for lack of a better word--dreamlike way of talking has been a big influence on me. I remember when I was a teenager and I realized how weird it is that people divide the world into good things and bad things that happen to them--or happy times and bad times. I decided that a much better idea is to divide experience up into the mundane everyday things that happen to you and the weird things that happen to you. If you only look at things as good and bad, or happy and sad, you miss all the shit that's really great! To me, a lot of what we've been doing in Camper Van Beethoven is showing a world made of all the strange things that happen, all the bizarre stuff...
KEY LIME PIE A LA MODE
M2: Could you tell us a little more about how some of the songs on Key Lime Pie came to be written?
DL: To start with "Jack Ruby," I'd been fascinated over the last year with the American folk ballad form--the ballads about bad guys and bank robbers and how they're amoral--told in a way that engages the listener to interpret them. Think about all those bank robber ballads--and there're all kinds of 'em in American folk music--where they're not quite heroes, but there's something interesting about their freedom and the way they get away with what they're doing. Or maybe they get punished but their lives are poetic. Also, I like the way they go on for twenty verses and there's no chorus, there's just these stories. So I came up with this folky chord progression, and I thought it should have twenty verses about some kid who goes around robbing 7-11s. At first I came up with all this vague, clichéd, folk-ballad imagery. Then I was sitting in my studio in Santa Cruz, and I had this little photo on my desk of Jack Ruby before he shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. I thought, "this is something to sing about!" So I tried to do it in that folk-ballad form, portraying him the way you might one of those old anti-heroes.
In "When I Win the Lottery," it was very obvious that I had created a character, so I treated it the way you would if you wrote a short story. You get into the characters and let them say what they want to say. I wrote shitloads of things this character would say, and then edited it down to verses. My character was actually more racist, but I decided I had a little bit of responsibility. I knew people wouldn't understand that I'm playing a character because that's not the way people listen to music. So I left out all the racist stuff, even though, in some ways, I was editing past of my artistic integrity. That's kind of a fucked character, but he also has some scary sort of insight into the world.
"All Her Favorite Fruit" came from a line, "and does he ever whisper in her all her favorite fruit?" that just popped into my head. So I said, "OK, what is this about?" That's pretty much how I write all the songs. There's not too much premeditation.
WHERE THE HELL BILL IS
M2: Are you interested in the Surrealists, or does your imagery stem from another source?
DL: My ex-girlfriend studied modern french history and was into the Surrealists and Dadaists, so I was exposed to a lot of it. But the elements of the absurd in our music come more from being a teenager playing in punk bands. I don't think you come any closer to the truth about life by being heavy and serious. By being funny, absurd, and insane, we're also approaching the truth--maybe even in a better way.
M2: Your topical songs tend to be humorous, while the songs that you treat seriously are more abstract.
DL: We don't do many topical songs any more. How long do you want to listen to me commenting on a very specific, narrow band of white-boy pop culture? It gets tiring. There are so many other aspects of our music that it was really easy to leave that behind. The problem with topical stuff is that it's very superficial. Political cartooning is great, but you wouldn't want to run the world by the wisdom taken from political cartoons. My interests just naturally lie in the more weird, as opposed to the mundane, in terms of my dichotomy of the world again. That's what interests me, and that's what comes out. For example, we've played "Skinheads Bowling" almost nonstop for five years now, while "Where the Hell is Bill," which is really topical, wore out fast. And while "Take the Skinheads Bowling" was slightly topical, it was really fucking absurd. That was my anti-pop song. Nobody could read any fucking thing into it. Whatever I thought of saying, I just said. For a while there, it didn't have set lyrics, but I came up with my favorites and kept those. That one lasts because of its absurdity.
VIDEOS OF MATCHSTICK MEN
M2: You've got your first commercial hit with "Pictures of Matchstick Men," which plays frequently on MTV and has attracted the attention of the teenage crowd. How does this success compare with the praise of so-called sophisticates like Greil Marcus?
DL: The urban, intellectual, semi-educated culture is often more closed-minded than your average teenager who doesn't know fucking shit. When there's a big teenage faction in our audience, we can be way more experimental than with the average twentysomething crowd who lives in the big city and knows all the cools bands like Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Camper Van Beethoven. We can get away with so much more because there are no preconceptions. Some of them just don't get it, of course, but when teenagers do get something, they understand it more deeply that the critics who are writing about it. The critics have to look to the teenagers. Teenagers are the validation of rock 'n' roll. Rolling Stone may have declared us one of the best bands of the '80s, but if nobody who plays the vital, living rock of 1990--the 17-year-olds of today--is ever influenced by us, then it didn't mean anything. It sounds whorish to some people to say that you have to appeal to teenagers in order to be a valid rock band. But rock isn't dead like classical music or highbrow fiction. It's a live, vital part of our culture. And if you're going to play it, you should participate in it.
And as we were going to press, word had it that Camper Van Beethoven had broken up. David Lowery, however, has not--as far as we know--broken up and we're sure we'll be hearing more from him soon.
Interview © 1990 Fun City MegaMedia/MONDO 2000.
Typing/HTML/Graphics by John Salmon.