How to succeed in rock without really caring | AspenTimes.com
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How to succeed in rock without really caring

Stewart Oksenhorn
The duo of Johnny Hickman, left, of Cracker, and David Lowery, of Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, performs an acoustic show at the Blue Door in Snowmass Village tonight at 7 p.m. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.
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So just how do you categorize a California punk whose music swings from cheeky, mildly offensive humor to serious political statements, from highly produced pop to outer-space instrumentals to raunchy garage sounds? And prominently features a violinist?David Lowery puts it squarely in the “classic rock” category, which places his two bands, Camper van Beethoven and Cracker, in the surprising company of Led Zeppelin and the Who. Lowery admits that neither band quite attained those classic rock heights – both Camper and Cracker would fit more comfortably into the status of long-running cult favorites – but it is where they were aiming.”I guess Camper wanted to be the Beatles; Cracker wanted to be the Rolling Stones,” said Lowery, who will feature songs from both his groups when he and Cracker bandmate Johnny Hickman play as an acoustic duo tonight at the Blue Door in Snowmass Village. “And the most we ever came up with was on the level of the Kinks.”Lowery is pleased, in at least one regard, with that self-assessment. Like the Kinks, Camper and Cracker have never seemed to compromise their music for the expectations of fans, the taste of critics, the style of the times, their own past, or even general notions of good taste.”The Kinks were never as calculated,” said the 44-year-old Lowery. “And Camper and Cracker – we never gave a shit. There’s no record out this year that sounds like our record [“New Roman Times.”] We’ve always done it just for ourselves. And we try to play things we can’t really play – so it came out new and our own.”

That dose of bite-me attitude stems from Lowery’s punk roots. Growing up in the Inland Empire – that expanse east of Los Angeles out to the Mojave Desert – Lowery was a punk music fan. He and his mates in Camper van Beethoven – including violinist Jonathan Segel, bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher and drummer Greg Pedersen – naturally gravitated toward the punk ethic of musical simplicity. But soon after forming in the Santa Cruz of the mid-1980s, Camper outgrew the confines of three thrashing chords played at maximum volume. By the time of their debut album, 1985’s “Telephone Free Landslide Victory,” there was an embrace of foreign sounds (the instrumental “Balalaika Gap,” a cross of central Europe and ska). Later albums added elements of country, psychedelia and classic rock. And their personality was nearly as eclectic as their sound, with moments of high camp, irony, broad humor, darkness and outrageous fun. “In Camper van Beethoven, we wanted to create a new music that included punk and ska and new wave, all the stuff we grew up on in the early ’80s” said Lowery, who has lived in Richmond, Va., the last 15 years. “We played in punk bands. But we all thought it was too dogmatic. We wanted to do what the Beatles or Kinks of Little Feat did – they melded all these things into what they did.”And we had this weird, ironic edge to us, so everyone thought we were joking. But we have a lot in common with classic rock bands. Like the Clash, who started out as a punk band, but became more of a rock band.”Camper van Beethoven’s wide scope didn’t add up to huge sales, and even less to band unity. From early on, there were numerous splinter groups coming out of Camper: There were a variety of solo projects, and in 1986, Krummenacher, Pedersen and Lisher, along with former Camper member Chris Lolla, formed the Monks of Doom, who would have a reasonably notable existence. By the time of 1989’s “Key Lime Pie,” there were serious divisions in the band over the use of producer David Henderson and general direction.”So we all came to a consensus that Jonathan should do a record on his own,” said Lowery. And in 1990, the band came to the conclusion that Camper was at the end of its road. “But I can’t even remember everything that went on. It was complex, and when it’s convoluted like that, the one-line sound bite can’t be made.”One later sound bite, though, did capture what Lowery thought about the band’s collapse. When Camper regrouped for 2002’s “Tusk” – a song-by-song recreation of the Fleetwood Mac classic – one reviewer commented that the original “Tusk” “exploded in a fireball of wife-swapping, whereas Camper van Beethoven just dissolved like a urinal cake.”

“That’s what happened,” said Lowery. “We just dissolved.”Lowery, however, remained solid enough to quickly form another band. Cracker, with Lowery’s childhood friend singer-guitarist Johnny Hickman as a co-frontman, was Camper van Beethoven’s country cousin. Cracker hit the ground running; its 1992 debut “Brand” featured the semi-hit “Teen Angst (What the World Need Now),” and its followup, “Kerosene Hat,” included the breakout “Euro Trash Girl.”Hickman’s country-rock licks gave Cracker a more accessible and predictable sound than Camper. But Lowery’s skewed sense of humor remained intact on songs like “Teen Angst,” with its chorus of “what the world needs now is another folk singer/Like I need a hole in my head.” And like Camper, Cracker shows no signs of bending to anybody else’s idea of what it should do. Cracker’s pair of 2003 releases were “Countrysides,” an album of covers of classic attitude-filled tunes like Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers” and Merl Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle”; and “O Cracker, Where Art Thou?” an album co-credited to Leftover Salmon that has the Colorado jam band backing Lowery on reworked versions of Cracker tunes.Meanwhile, Camper van Beethoven has been making one of the quietest comebacks in rock history. In 2000, a series of live shows featured a double billing of Camper and Cracker. In 2002, they announced their re-emergence with the unexpected “Tusk” project.The subtle hints of a reunion allowed Camper to reconvene without major expectations. “It was just us following it from a musical point of view,” said Lowery. “We needed to get used to playing together again. Which we had done in smaller combinations over the years.”The quietness was effectively shattered with the October release of “New Roman Times.” Sonically, the album is a continuation of “Key Lime Pie,” the last record of new Camper material. It is more tuneful and highly produced than the earlier work.



Thematically, however, “New Roman Times” is something new and unpredictable. The album imagines an alternate-reality 21st century America, but with many of the issues confronting the actual America. The character-heavy album draws on the many friends and family members Lowery has in the armed forces; the radio single “51 7” is written from the point of view of the album’s main character, a wannabe soldier volunteering for an elite military unit. In the world of “New Roman Times,” Texas has broken off to become the neo-facist Fundamental Christian Republic of Texas, and California has endured a civil war. Making his way through basic training, civil unrest in California and the fog of drugs, the soldier loses a foot and confronts American imperialism and corruption.Despite the seeming attack on the policies of the current administration, Lowery says “New Roman Times” was intended more to describe a country supposedly divided against itself. “The whole intent was never to be unsympathetic to soldiers,” he said. “It was to point out this division between red and blue states – which is sort of false. It seems more like a media invention.”To be sure his politics weren’t too easily read, Lowery throws into the mix right-wing ranters, an ode to hippie chicks, sounds that range from guitar noise to Balkan ska to Tex-Mex, and the dreamy, Beatlesque, Wilco-ish “That Gum You Like is Back in Style,” which has no apparent ties to sociopolitics. And then there is the sci-fi theme to “New Roman Times.””It’s not an anti-war, or anti-Bush record,” said Lowery, noting that the one negative review came from his hometown newspaper. (He attributes this to the conservative nature of Richmond.) “It was supposed to be a sci-fi record. More black humor, in the tradition of Frank Zappa, not so serious, like ‘Tommy’ or ‘Quadrophenia.'”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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