Camper Van Beethoven – That gum you like!
Camper’s present-day incarnation began in 1983 at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Lowery was born in Texas, the son of an Air Force veteran turned pharmacist from Arkansas, and spent some of his formative years in the south. The family eventually settled in Redlands, a town in the Inland Empire (a conservative, once heavily rural region of Southern California just east of the Los Angeles area). He had formed an earlier version of Camper, then known as Camper Van Beethoven Border Station, back home with a lineup that included bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist/drummer Chris Molla, both of whom accompanied Lowery to Santa Cruz. Lowery eventually recruited Segel and guitarist Greg Lisher and abbreviated the group’s name to Camper Van Beethoven. (Drummer Chris Pedersen would eventually take over for Molla; both show up on New Roman Times.)
Then, as now, the band played an eclectic compound of rock, country-folk, ska, world beat, surf and pop marked by goofy lyrics, a surpassing sense of irony, a recurring distaste for hippies, and a profound pride in their own uncoolness. Lowery, a former punk rocker who grew up worshipping Black Flag and Tom Petty in equal measure, remembers mid-’80s Santa Cruz as a politically correct “freak show” where he never really fit in.
“When I was in Camper Van Beethoven in Santa Cruz, I was the one who was to the right of everyone else, but I wasn’t really that coherent about it. I feel like Walter in The Big Lebowski: ‘I myself once dabbled in pacifism.’ I was more apolitical than everyone else in the band, and I think it had something to do with my southern heritage. It always made me more moderate.”
Camper released four albums (1985’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory, II & III, Camper Van Beethoven, For Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart) and burned through several lineups before ultimately disbanding after the release of 1989’s Key Lime Pie. Thanks to a cover of the Status Quo’s “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” that became the group’s first mainstream hit, Key Lime Pie would become the group’s most successful release, albeit posthumously.
Depending on whom you ask, the Camper split was either wrenching or dispassionate. “The notion that Camper had this acrimonious breakup is a little overblown,” Lowery says now. “It was unemotional [more like], ‘Well, this doesn’t seem to be working.’ We were going off in a weird direction with Key Lime Pie. We were playing CBGB’s and not even selling it out. We just weren’t that successful. It was that more than the musical differences. There just wasn’t enough passion to hate each other at the end of Camper.”
Segel, who left the band more than a year before the end and had clashed with Lowery long before that, remembers things differently. “He sort of performed a coup,” recalls Segel. “I left the band because he’d said he wouldn’t work with me. He promised everyone else everything would be OK, and it wasn’t. You have to remember, we were in our mid-20s. Men in their mid-20s are basically assholes.”
Lisher, Chris Pederson and Krummenacher had already formed the more experimental side project Monks Of Doom. Post-Camper, Lowery launched Cracker with Johnny Hickman, a friend from his former hometown of Redlands. More melodically straightforward than Camper Van Beethoven, more inclined toward verse-chorus-verse roots-rock, Cracker had a string of alt-rock radio hits during the early-mid ’90s, including “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”, “Low” and “Eurotrash Girl”.
The two groups circled each other warily throughout much of the last decade, occasionally exchanging insults in the press (Lowery remembers it as “a healthy rivalry”) but otherwise giving each other a wide berth. Lowery followed a girlfriend to Richmond, Virginia, and stayed. He started up a recording studio, the Sound of Music, and began to work with acts including Sparklehorse and Joan Osborne.
After a few years of dealing with other artists, Lowery says, Camper started looking pretty good in comparison. “We might have thought we were dysfunctional, but compared to other bands we were the Ozzie and Harriet family,” he says.
Lowery and Segel, the most fractious of the ex-Campers, began to make peace sometime in the late 1990s. “Jon had been coming through town on tour with other bands. He’d played with Sparklehorse, so we were around each other a lot more,” Lowery recalls. “He had become this big Cracker supporter…and he and I had become much closer, and kept in much better contact with each other.”
During this period, the ex-members of Camper gradually began to make their way back into the fold, sitting in with Cracker onstage and eventually entering the studio to polish the 2000 odds-and-ends collection Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven. Live Camper shows followed. “Once we all started doing the first few shows, we were all pretty into it,” Segel says. “We’ve all learned a lot from [Camper Version One]. Definitely we all communicate a lot more.”