Listening to Lowery
A conversation with one of rock and roll’s most underrated songwriters
By Chris Jay 06/02/2011
Whether fronting the avant-garde, indie rock pioneers Camper Van Beethoven, or later with Cracker and alternative radio hits “Low” and “What the World Needs Now,” or even with his first-ever solo record released this year, David Lowery has been an important and original voice in modern American music. He’ll be bringing both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven to fittingly headline this weekend’s Indie West Fest in Ventura. The Reporter spoke with one of rock and roll’s most underrated songwriters to discuss his career, his bands’ influence on today’s music and how he may, someday, literally rewrite the book on indie rock.
VCReporter: Did you ever think you’d still be playing in Camper Van Beethoven nearly 30 years later?
Not just playing in Camper Van Beethoven, but if somebody told me 28 years ago I’d still be playing “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” I’d question their sanity. No, I never thought we’d be playing 30 years later. Almost 30 years. It’s crazy. The average life of most bands is seven years, you know what I mean?
If you were to recommend one record from the Camper catalog and one record from the Cracker catalog to a new listener who’s just learning about the bands, what would they be?
I’d suggest the first ones. The evolution of the whole thing. There’s an evolution to the bands that you don’t get as much if you don’t hear the first records.
There are certain songs of yours that people seem to connect with on a really special level. When you wrote something such as “All Her Favorite Fruit,” did you know you were writing something that would transcend a normal song? Was it something you were instantly proud of?
With that Key Lime Pie album that “All Her Fruit” is on, and other songs on it like “Sweethearts” and “When I Win the Lottery,” it seemed like we were getting to a different level. One of the things that was really hard about that record was, we wanted to keep it all on that level. We had to make it so that we had an album that surrounded those songs properly, set the tone and the mood; and that made that record kind of hard to make. So, yeah, I think we knew something was different about the songs.
With what’s happened to indie rock, both good and bad, is it weird to know you’re a forefather of it?
Not that many people will admit that we’re their forefathers. Yes, Isaac from Modest Mouse always throws out compliments to us. I know that Colin from the Decemberists will cite those Camper records influencing the Decemberists and, of course, Doug from Built to Spill. Otherwise, people don’t really talk about Camper Van Beethoven.
Does that make you bitter at all?
No. Well . . . that doesn’t make me bitter, but I wish that one of those books that were about the indie rock scene, yeah, I wish that we got better or more cred for that. More credit for being indie. We really were indie rock. We had our own label because nobody would put our music out because we didn’t fit in with what the different labels were putting out. We were outside that. We kind of showed people how to do it. So I wish we got more credit for that. It was actually physically dangerous. People talk about artists being brave. In their musical style, their musical tastes, the songs they write, etc. It was actually physically dangerous for Camper Van Beethoven those first couple of years. There was no indie rock scene. We had to play with punk rock bands, and some of the punkers were smart enough to get what we were doing. Jello Biafra took a liking to Camper Van Beethoven, so did the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, but a lot of people didn’t get what we were doing. There were nights where we were in physical danger because the skinheads wanted to kick our ass for singing “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” In Chico, California, playing for 800 skinheads with the Dead Kennedys, guys get on stage and want to punch you. It was really crazy, you know? (Laughs.)
You’ve been in two influential bands that are still recording and performing, you’ve had hit songs back when it meant something, you’ve produced other artists, including one of the Counting Crows’ best records, and you just released your first solo record. Your stamp is all over modern music, especially indie rock. Is there anything at all left in your career that you’d still like to do?
I want to write a book that retells the story of indie rock because I think it’s been retold wrong. I do. I really do think it was a California phenomenon, that a lot of the California bands have been written off because most of the writers come from the East Coast and they’re focused on their own local thing. I want to tell the story sometime but I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to doing it. I keep noticing these things. I read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, and I was like, a lot of this is plain old historically wrong. Not because people intentionally did that, but there’s this thing we do as humans where you sort of put the world, or remember, into a certain way. Really chaotic random decisions ended up being really important decisions. You didn’t think about it like that at the time. There was no narrative. When you go back to it, you put it on a linear narrative that makes it seem like people knew what they were doing. X led to Y when that’s not really the case. I’d love to tell it in a different way.
Well, I’m sure I speak for many when I say, I’ll be looking forward to that book.
Yeah, well, I don’t know if I’ll ever write it. (Laughs.)
Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker will perform at the Indie West Fest on Saturday, June 4, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. For more information and tickets, www.indiewestfest.com.