The Popdose Interview: David Lowery
Hearing the stories behind how the new Camper Van Beethoven album came together, we’re not surprised to find out that God is a CVB fan. And as you listen to La Costa Perdita, the new Camper album which landed in stores on January 22nd via the fine folks at 429 Records, it’s a safe bet that He has a permanent spot on the guest list whenever the band comes to town.
David Lowery and the members of Camper Van Beethoven were set to play a show at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur in June of 2011 when rain — an unusual visitor for that particular time of the season — forced the band to postpone. With the unexpected opening on their schedule, the band decided to seize the opportunity to launch into the writing process for what would become their first album of new Camper material since New Roman Times in 2004.
The moments of collaboration were fruitful, birthing enough material for an album and then some. There’s a distinctive Northern California tint to the songs, something that was an intentional homage on Lowery’s part, while CVB violinist/guitarist/keyboardist Jonathan Segel adds (via a press release about the album) that the feeling of the material carries themes that remind him of The Beach Boys 1973 Holland release.
La Costa Perdita is perhaps the most accessible Camper Van Beethoven release to date and as we spoke with Lowery about the new album, it became very clear that as much as they’ve learned about how to work together to produce the results that they desire collectively, it’s a learning and exploratory process that is always in motion, with no end in sight.
The writing sessions for this album produced nearly two albums worth of material. The stuff that wound up on this album hangs together really well as a record. What’s the plan for the rest of the material that’s not on here?
There’s bonus tracks – we ended up using kind of the acoustic demos for that, because it just has this cool weird shambly kind of feel. So that takes a couple of them that we didn’t use. But the other ones, I think it’s the other half of an album, basically, and we’re just figuring out when we’re going to do the other half.
We learned a lot doing this first half. But that’s sort of why I think this kind of holds together, is because we actually just pulled out the songs that we felt fit together and then added a couple that didn’t for contrast. So I think that’s why we were able do this is.
For so long, Camper has always put 14 to 23 songs on an album and our response to music being file shared is “okay, well we’ll give you less at a time.” [Laughs] That’s our response.
It flows at a good pace. I was surprised to see that it’s actually 43 minutes. It goes by very quickly and before you know it, you want to take another trip through it again. It doesn’t lag at any point.
That to me is the sign of a great record, you know? I remember when Dolittle came about, by Pixies. I was driving across Nevada and I think I was just leaving Reno and I had gotten barely outside of town it seemed like, before the album was done. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known it was so short. It was just totally engaging, you know what I mean?
That always has stuck in my mind. One of the Weezer records that I like is really short too and I always kind of enjoyed that. It’s long enough to be an album, but it doesn’t just drag on. I think the CD actually was not necessarily great for bands, because you didn’t have to make the hard choices, like [you did] when you were making stuff for vinyl.
There’s some really lush sounding material on this album, “A Love for All Time,” for example. With this band and the variety of instrumentation involved, how easy or complicated was it to put the wraps on a song and know that it was done?
Well, I’m always leaning towards less things. Some of the guys in the band lean towards more things and you know, that’s just being a band, you’ve got to come to that compromise. I don’t have a problem having a song finished with two guitars, bass and drums. But it’s not just my band. We have five people in the band and [the music of] Camper is very interesting, because there’s so many little nooks and crannies that get filled that other bands don’t do and that’s part of the dynamic. So in a way, I don’t want to stop that. But I think that actually is a difficult thing for Camper. Camper has always sort of worked like somebody who has a notebook and they’re doodling on it and they’re filling in every little nook and cranny and that’s been sort of our strength and challenge.
So making that work is always really interesting. A lot of the credit I think actually goes to Drew Vandenberg who mixed this, for just figuring out how to make it all fit together. Everything is complex on this record, from the drumming – I mean, Michael Urbano and Chris Pederson are just fantastic on this. They completely overplay the whole time, but it doesn’t sound like it – which is really hard to do! I’m praising that, as much as I said that I have an easy time just stopping at two guitars, bass and drums, you know, with a couple of drum fills? But that’s what’s fantastic about things like “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out,” Michael Urbano pretty much plays a drum solo the entire time. He’s like Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell, from the Jimi Hendrix Experience [combined] through the whole thing and that’s really cool.
So that’s what I mean. That’s sort of the strength, to be able to overplay like that and I really think a lot of credit goes to Drew for making it sound simple when it’s really, really complex.
I love things like on “A Love For All Time,” Victor [Krummenacher] and Michael have the biggest and most complex bass and drum thing going against what sounds like a really simple melody. And then me, Jonathan and Greg [Lisher] are changing keys the whole fucking time. You know what I mean?
But it’s supposed to be like this little pop thing and I don’t know, to me, that was really….and then Jonathan and his wife Sanna [Olsson] were killing with the background vocals….that one, I can’t believe we actually pulled that one off with the amount of shit going on and the amount of key changes and dissonant notes. Even the drums and bass all had these overtones that conflict with other things we’re doing, but actually in other ways make a melody [that works].
Since you mentioned keys and interesting things like that, I’ll ask a question from one of my Popdose comrades. He was talking about sitting down to learn Cracker’s “Low” and discovering that it’s in a major key and that there’s no minor chords in that song. He wondered if that’s your strategy, to find non-standard solutions for standard songwriting challenges and in doing so, coming up with things that do the job of “rock and roll songs” without resorting to those traditional rock and roll cliches and structures.
I can answer that indirectly, but it gets to the point of it. I love the constraints of a song structure [in its] traditional form. Like taking the limitations of the song form, like blues rock or something like that and then just breaking a few of the pieces. I think Camper does that really, really well and I think Cracker does it in a different way. A lot of it has to do with the notes that Johnny [Hickman plays] – he’ll take it one blue note too far with Cracker. There’s one kind of non-traditional wrong note in a lot of our riffs and grooves and to me, that’s much more interesting than saying there are no rules. This is pop music – it’s not like we’re making great art. This is part of like a cultural dialogue, so it’s so much better to work within some rules and violate a couple of them. That’s more interesting, to take a couple of those things and just break them.
It sounds like things came together really organically. Hearing Greg talk about how you would bring in material in the earlier times of the band that already had a defined structure – it sounds like there was more of a loose approach this time around for the songs on this album. Having both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven active at relatively the same time now, have you seen your process change as far as your specific songwriting approach for each band?
Sort of. The songwriting thing, there’s never been a usual way that we ever did a Camper and a Cracker record. I don’t want to totally contradict Greg, but I’m going to contradict him a little bit. Some of our albums have been just completely us jamming in the studio – or a lot of the songs are – or in the rehearsal space and they just sort of come together. Some of them have been people bringing in songs completely written with every note. Like Jonathan has done that, Greg has done that, Victor has done that [and] I have done that. There’s not really a pattern. The thing that we did with this album was that I didn’t want to really – aside from some little fragments and stuff like that – I didn’t really want to start with things that had really existed before. I just wanted the four of us playing together on our main instruments to define the songs and what we do. And I think that really worked. It’s not like we didn’t pull something out of the past, but we got a much more modern current version of who we are as people, musicians and artists. It came together.
And I’m not quite answering your question, but that being said, because it’s like us now, it can’t help but have the two bands influencing each other, right? The last Cracker record, we also did a similar thing where I really only brought in fragments and then we sort of all finished them together. So we actually did the same kind of thing with the last Cracker album. Just being who we are and how we’ve been working together, I would say that yes, definitely my experiences with both bands are kind of indirectly influencing each other. You can hear it in one way that I think since Camper and Camper have both been around and working, Cracker has sort of gotten odder and a little more psychedelic. And Camper Van Beethoven has kind of dug in and rocked a little more. I think actually those have been both good influences on the band and that’s simply from playing a lot of shows together and stuff like that, that sort of tweaked those two things.
That totally makes sense. Listening to this album and the themes that seem to go throughout. Being that this is the first half of two records or one really long record, however you really want to look at it. Did you get to a point where you found yourself writing in one direction for the stuff that wound up on this album? Because it has that connected feel.
I think actually what we did was we went back and collected the songs together that shared similarity and then took the other ones and we’ll use them for the next album. So I think it wasn’t so much that…..what we collected together was basically the Northern California stuff, with the exception being “Summer Days,” which is set in Stockholm, but really, that was supposed to be in Oakland. But I wanted the whole Norse god paganism thing in there. Because it’s like summer days in the winter and you know, there’s not really spring/summer/winter/fall in California so much, so I had to move it to Stockholm, to get that. I had to move it there so I could get that paganism element and the real contrast between winter and summer and the deep, deep recesses of our collective experience as humans with the change in seasons, which doesn’t work so well in Oakland! But really, that’s Oakland.
“Come Down The Coast” is an interesting lead-off track. How did that one rise to the top as the one that would launch the album?
Because it’s set like [in] Big Sur and it loosely makes reference to not just Kerouac, but Henry Miller [also]. We had gone down to the Henry Miller Library to play a Camper Van Beethoven show. We were going to play Key Lime Pie down there on the coast and you know, very few people live down there – it’s kind of remote and that’s just kind of a cool and important thing to do, to go and play at the Henry Miller Library when you’re a band from Northern California. So we went down there to do it and we had this unseasonable rain in June, which never really happens – so we had to postpone it a week. So instead of going back home to the east coast, I just stayed out with Jonathan and we wrote this album in California. But because it was over that next week, we basically wrote the main part of this album and that was because we had this [planned] show in Big Sur. We had been in Big Sur and then we were going to have to go back, so that to me signaled that that was the beginning of the album, because that song is set there.
Over the past couple of years, you’ve added “professor” to the list of items on your resume. Is this something that has been mutually educational for you? What are you learning from today’s hopeful musicians?
A lot of my students are not musicians – they’re business majors, which is really interesting, because it’s in the business college at UGA, the Terry College of Business, which is interesting. Because I teach the finance side of it and publicity and marketing – that’s what I teach. So I have a lot of students that aren’t musicians and it’s actually kind of cool to be around people who aren’t musicians and who experience music as consumers and get their perspective on it. Because basically, I’m always around people who are in the music business, so actually, that’s the interesting thing to me.
The main thing there that I’ve learned being a professor is that really, all of the same things that I learned in the 1980s about the “do it yourself” band stuff – it’s really still all the same today, it’s just that they’re sort of enabled differently. But the way we go about building a grassroots following is still the same and ultimately if you want to sell albums or have a long career, you eventually have to engage old mainstream media, like television and radio. So I think that’s what is interesting to me is just how much things are still the same.
Seeing these guys as consumers, is there a common thing that you see with them as far as how they’re consuming music. Is there a common thread that you see? It’s an interesting time, because you have kids who have never put a CD in a CD player. And at the same time, with the resurgence of vinyl, there seems to be a desire to have something tangible.
I think the resurgence of vinyl is a little overrated. If I pick 250 kids that are between my classes, I would say that maybe about two dozen of them buy vinyl. What I do notice about what kids are doing is that obviously streaming is very important to them and that’s the way forward, so we have to figure out how streaming is going to work so that it pays artists fairly, because it doesn’t right now. Because it does replace most album sales for that generation and it doesn’t really generate enough revenue. If we had to rely on Pandora and Spotify earnings to make an album, we wouldn’t make albums. So that’s a challenge, but I’m working on that. I have my Tri-Chordist blog as you and we’re just building up the awareness of all of these things. There’s sort of this notion that music is free these days, right?
And A, first of all, it’s not – because even on the illegitimate sites, they’re monetizing it with advertising or premium download speeds where they charge people – so free music isn’t actually free, it’s just that the money doesn’t go to the artists. It’s sort of like the old 1950s record label concept where the record label guys would just, once the artists complained, they would buy the artist a Cadillac. It’s just like that except that you don’t get the Cadillac anymore. Somebody else does, like mobsters in Russia get the Cadillac, or Google does through DoubleClick, which is their advertising company. So the notion that music is free nowadays is not actually true – it’s just that their revenue stream is going the wrong way.
Secondly, I think that as an artist, if you insist on giving away your music – all of it – there’s sometimes to give away music. We’ve always given away music as artists – the music industry has always worked on free promo copies – that’s always worked on some free [level]. But if you insist that all of your music is free, you’re just going to consciously devalue your own music.
By asking people to pay for your music, you’re actually going to be treated as a more serious artist and a lot of young artists don’t understand that, that if you want to be taken seriously, ask people to pay for your music. I think if people like Pandora and Spotify and other music services that sort of want to be free, realize that, they’ll have a much easier time making money.
You mention promos and for instance, your piece about Emily White from NPR, there’s somebody who has known nothing else but promos. Working on the radio side of the business, I got a lot of promos, but I also bought I would say, just as much music as a consumer. But I know that’s not the norm. I had people that I worked with that if they didn’t get a promo of it, they wouldn’t buy it – even if it was their favorite band – and that’s a problem.
Well, that’s where we’ve always dealt with free in the music business. We decided that DJs and journalists shouldn’t pay for music so that they write about us and play our records. [Laughs] That letter about Emily White is more complex, because it’s actually about how you value the pipes that bring you the music, like your internet connection or your 3G connection on your phone and you value the hardware that plays the music, but you don’t value the actual music yourself. That’s actually what that letter is about. It’s a much more complex thing.
There’s always been file-sharing and there’s always been piracy in the music business. We’ve always dealt with people who get their music for free that shouldn’t. It’s like the difference between the kind of corruption that you have in Sicily, which has always existed and the kind of corruption and free-for-all that you have in Somalia. The internet is basically like, as a market – it’s [in] a failed state. Before in the music business, we had plenty of piracy, most of it run by organized crime, just like it actually is now, but it was at a lower level. You’re never going to get rid of any of that stuff. You’re never going to prevent people from making cassettes or [now] taking a little flash drive and passing it from person to person, but what you can actually go after, is the industrial scale, for profit, of cyber lockers and BitTorrent operations, which are operated by for profit companies. That’s what I’m about.
People are always going to copy each other’s iPods and drop a file on this or that, but you have to stop the piracy on the industrial scale. I’m just like the Grateful Dead was. Everybody points to the Grateful Dead for their sharing policy. Their sharing policy was really specific. It was like you could share it, as long as nobody is making money off of it. As soon as it crosses that rubicon to where somebody is profiting on it – it’s not sharing and it’s not allowed. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people don’t really understand how centralized and profitable free music cyber lockers and BitTorrent actually are. It’s billions of dollars a year.
You recently had the chance to sit down at the Smithsonian and talk shop with David Byrne about music and his new book. Besides the obvious subject at hand, what did you guys talk about?
We talked about that, specifically, how other people make money off of our music in the new digital paradigm without sharing revenue with us. Neither David Byrne or myself are hardcore copyright hawks. We actually have a really mixed history – Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven have like 4,000 tracks on the Internet Live Music Archive that are freely available – we’ve always been kind of mixed. But the conversation was both of us saying “okay, now we’re crossing the line where some people are making a lot of money from musicians who aren’t really fairly sharing the revenue anymore” and that’s kind of what we were talking about.
That’s exactly where I came up with the line that it’s like the old 1950s music business except that you don’t even get the Cadillac.
Final bit here – what’s on the table as far as a new Cracker album?
I’m not sure yet. We’ve got to start writing another one and we’ll probably start on something before the next Camper record comes out, but it will be a little while before we get to that.