Camper Van Beethoven has returned
Finally it can be told: Camper Van Beethoven is back.
“We didn’t want to jump right back in and make that ‘Bad Reunion Record’ that most bands make when they try to reform,” said David Lowery of the return of the band from an extended gestation period. “We were more concerned with getting used to each other and figuring out that we could still make music together, before we made a big deal out of announcing that we were back.”
The result is their latest album, “New Roman Times,” Camper Van Beethoven’s first album of new material since reuniting after a decade-long hiatus.
The album is Camper Van Beethoven’s first major recording project since the band quietly reunited in 2000 to share some live bills with Lowery’s popular post-Camper outfit, Cracker.
“We just wanted to make sure it was gonna work, before we actually came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re a band again,’ ” said keyboardist Jonathan Segel. “The thing that was nice was that when we actually did start writing and playing and working together in the studio again, it came together really quickly.”
In the second half of the 1980s, Camper Van Beethoven (Lowery on vocals, guitar), Victor Krummenacher on bass, vocals, Greg Lisher on guitar, Segel on violin, guitar, keyboards and Chris Pedersen on drums, plus late addition David Immerglück on guitar and various stringed instruments) was one of the era’s most original and influential indie rock bands. The quintet effortlessly combined an iconoclastic, irony-laced lyrical stance with a free-spirited eclecticism that encompassed an array of stylistic influences, from punk to folk to psychedelia to all manner of world music.
The qualities that originally made Camper Van Beethoven such a significant force are prominent on “New Roman Times,” from the modified arena-rock of “White Fluffy Clouds” to the country-psychedelia “That Gum You Like is Back in Style” to the smooth Balkan ska of “Might Makes Right” to the jittery hoe-down of “Militia Song.”
“New Roman Times” is perhaps Camper Van Beethoven’s most musically accomplished and conceptually ambitious effort to date. The album – on the band’s own Pitch-A-Tent label, the same imprint that issued much of Camper’s seminal ’80s work – is a vivid, emotion-charged song cycle that merges the group’s sense of musical adventure with a fanciful rock-opera storyline that’s rife with parallels to America’s current political landscape.
The resurgent combo’s performances were well received by longtime fans and new admirers alike. But, rather than rushing to cash in, they chose to wait before recording a new album, instead releasing a pair of unconventional archival releases. Those discs -1999’s “Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead,” a collection of rarities and live tracks retooled into a suitelike sonic opus, and 2002’s “Tusk,” a distinctive song-for-song remake of the Fleetwood Mac album of the same title – functioned as a test runs for the reunited bandmates, allowing them to rekindle their collaborative rapport in a relatively low-key manner.
“It didn’t pick up where it left off,” Lowery points out. “It picked up as if there was 15 years of us making records in between. Because that’s what we were doing, we just weren’t doing it together. So it’s as if we had this imaginary band history in between Key Lime Pie and New Roman Times, and all of the stuff we’d been doing in the interim is reflected on this record.”
“New Roman Times” was recorded over the course of a year, both in the band’s home state of California and at Lowery’s Sound of Music Studios in his adopted home base of Richmond, Va. In a nod to Camper history, fabled early member Chris Molla (“He’s our Syd Barrett,” according to Lowery) contributed the instrumental theme “Sons of the Golden West.” In a nod to inter-band solidarity, Lowery’s Cracker partner Johnny Hickman contributes backing vocals. And Lowery’s studio partner Miguel Urbiztondo provided additional drumming after Pedersen – who currently resides in Australia – had to head home.
“New Roman Times is probably bigger and denser than your typical record label would have advised us to make our reunion record,” Lowery said. “Having five or six people making decisions in the band is always a challenge, but it’s also a great thing. With this record, we didn’t want to fight about it, so we just left everything on there. And I think that actually helps us, because nobody is making records like this now.”
Camper Van Beethoven’s influence grew even stronger during the years in which the band was inactive.
“It’s like the best career move we ever made was to go away for awhile,” Lowery said. “Camper Van Beethoven has sold more records since we broke up than we ever did when we were together. We’re now known the world over; I’m talking about India, Indonesia, Chile, Panama. Our songs have been covered by all kinds of different bands in all kinds of different ways. We’ve kind of been embraced by the hippie/jam-band thing, with people like Phish and moe. playing our songs, and there’s a certain thread of the punk-rock/emo bands that have cited us in interviews or covered our songs.”
Indeed, the times seem to have come around to Camper Van Beethoven’s way of thinking.
“I think it’s a great time for us now,” Segel said. “We can run our own labels and make the music that we want to, without worrying about convincing other people that it will sell. And we’ve got the freedom to do other things. David can still make Cracker records, and I can go play improvised electronic noise music. We’re just having a lot of fun making music together. We’ve had our personal differences, but we’re over them now. We were young men, and young men are assholes, and if you’re lucky, you grow out of that. When you start out, being in a band is like being in a gang, but we’re much more like musicians now. We couldn’t have written this record in 1985, and we definitely couldn’t have played it then.”