Thank the Internet for helping land Missoula’s upcoming Camper Van Beethoven show. CVB lead vocalist and guitarist David Lowery, who has spent much of the band’s recent 15-year hiatus as frontman for Cracker, is having some fun using modern technology to reacquaint audiences with his old band, which just happened to be one of the defining acts of what used to be called college rock, pre-alternative nation.
“We booked a lot of our odd solo shows from My Space,” says Lowery, referring to the free web site (www.myspace.com) that many DIY bands use to build a community of fans. “Just by searching for ‘Missoula, Montana’ and asking for recommendations on clubs [from other My Space members], searching ‘Yakima, Washington’ or ‘Bismarck, North Dakota,’ we pieced the tour together.”
Once the right clubs were identified, the shows were booked traditionally. But My Space, a tool usually reserved for up-and-comers lacking CVB’s national name recognition or influential history, hit a nerve with the band because it aims right at the heart of what they’ve traditionally been about.
“We’ve always been grassroots, doing whatever it takes to find the people who share our sensibilities and twisted humor,” he says. “I resisted [My Space] for a long time because I knew we would all become obsessed with it, and that’s been very true. It’s gotten so bad we had to hire an intern to handle it for us. We were getting out of hand.”
The band’s fixation on My Space—Lowery says he’s killed time with profile searches for members who list author Thomas Pynchon among their favorites in search of like-minded potential fans—is just one part of a larger effort to bring Camper Van Beethoven back to the forefront. The group released its first new studio album in 15 years, New Roman Times, last October, and in addition to playing shows at smaller clubs, like the upcoming engagement at The Other Side, is opening for Modest Mouse in larger venues throughout the summer.
“The way we’re sort of approaching it is that we have to gradually reintroduce ourselves to people, especially younger people,” says Lowery, talking from his home in Richmond, Va., the day before kicking off two months of touring. “In big cities people know us really well. Slacker cities remember us. But it’s been a long time. I recognize that.”
For instance, Lowery notes that CVB hasn’t been to Missoula since 1986.
For those too young to remember, CVB formed in 1985 in Santa Cruz, Calif., with Lowery singing and playing guitar, Victor Krummenacher on bass, Greg Lisher on guitar, Jonathan Segel on violin, guitar and keyboards and Chris Pedersen on drums. Their first three releases established a burgeoning college-radio following and led to a deal with Virgin Records. By their 1989 release, Key Lime Pie, CVB had taken its place among indie-rock pioneers like Sonic Youth, Black Flag, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
When CVB broke up following Key Lime Pie, the members scattered to solo projects. Lowery says they began to play together again in various informal settings in 1996, and then in 2000 some of the CVB guys started to pop up at Cracker shows to perform mini-sets. Talk of a full-blown reunion was imminent. But…
“We didn’t want to keep playing without having some new songs,” Lowery says. “The one thing we felt was going to screw with our legacy was to keep going around the country playing our old songs and not updating anything.”
But when CVB hit the studio, instead of easing back into things with a safe effort that piggybacked on past success, the band delved into creating a bold concept album—a perceptive political commentary rooted in an alternate science-fiction reality. New Roman Times, which has received critical praise, follows a soldier’s first-person perspective on a bizarre religious war that includes aliens and discos.
“It’s definitely our most ambitious record,” Lowery says. “My main concern was that we did something just as good as our legacy—to do something that was not stuck in the past, but not like we didn’t have a past.”
The parallels to current political issues were less intentional than it would appear. As Lowery explains, poaching a line used by violinist Segel, “The album moved from allegory to metaphor in the two years we were working on it. There was no Iraq war when we started it. Tom DeLay wasn’t threatening the lives of federal judges who didn’t rule according to his perverted sense of Christianity. But it sort of happened.”
Lowery continues: “It’s not the same as today’s political environment, but an extreme exaggeration of it with elements of black comedy. Clearly there are no space aliens involved with what’s going on today—I don’t think. Genetically modified hallucinogenic plants that let cryptographers see parallel universes don’t exist—as far as we know. We’re not being semi-colonized by space aliens while a secular versus religious civil war is happening in North America—at least not yet.”
The songs from New Roman Times cover every inch of CVB’s diverse bag of musical talents (not to mention humor), from trippy country (“The Gum You Like is Back in Style”) to ’70s funk (“Civil Disobedience”) to arena rock (“White Fluffy Clouds”) to electronic noise (“The Long Plastic Hallway”). These new tunes make up the backbone of the band’s touring setlist, but Lowery insists old fans will not be disappointed.
“We have a legacy that we like to play into,” he says. “I read recently in a magazine a list of reunion tours that had a list of the good tours and a list of the bad, and we made the good side. I think that’s because we have the new stuff, but we’re still playing the old ones. You’ll hear it all.”
Camper Van Beethoven plays The Other Side Sunday, May 29, at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $17. Oblio Joes opens.