Just after the release of Camper Van Beethoven’s La Costa Perdida, David Lowery, singer/guitarist for Camper and Cracker, talked with QRO. In the lengthy conversation, Lowery talked about the new album (QRO review) and how making it compared with Camper’s last (the reunion album, 2004’s New Roman Times), touring one act or both together, the declining state of the music industry, snake oil salesmen & criminal syndicates, playing boat cruises & for patrol bases in Iraq, and much more…
QRO: How was the recent Cracker-Camper December-January tour?
David Lowery: It was good. We sold out Philly, New York we moved to a bigger place this time because we were getting too big for the Highline, so we’re at a bigger place now, [Boston’s] Middle East was sold out, I know we sold out San Francisco, we sold out San Diego, maybe…
It’s been going great. And Camper by ourselves, we sold out Atlanta, and we had a sold out thing for Mountain Stage at Charleston, the radio stage. It’s been really great.
DL: Highline’s getting small for us, and I think Highline, they do very few shows now on the weekend. And the promoter moved over to that other place.
‘Cause we were outgrowing the Highline, that show. That would have been… I don’t know how many it ended up being at Stage 48, but they wouldn’t have all fit in the Highline.
Whatta you know – New York…
QRO: Is it hard to be performing on stage for so long each night on those Cracker-Camper tours?
DL: Kind of. Camper Van Beethoven’s a little easier than you think – it’s actually kind of mentally tiring, ‘cause the songs are kinda complex and there’s a lot of time signature changes, and odd stuff like that, so I have to concentrate on my guitar playing.
But any Camper Van Beethoven show, there’s long instrumental passages, so it’s a lot easier for me. It would be a whole different thing, singing two-and-a-half hours for Cracker would be physically challenging, but doing an hour-fifteen, 90 minutes with Cracker, and seventy-five minutes with Camper, I’m pretty much used to it now.
That’s why people don’t tour when they’re older. It’s a young man’s game. But I like it. I never feel tired when we’re playing or doing it. It’s cool…
QRO: You’ll be touring again in a couple of weeks, but other than the first date, it’ll be Cracker-less. How do the two kinds of touring compare?
DL: Well, Cracker’s obviously more popular – when we get together, we play for a lot more people.
We play a little smaller places in Camper Van Beethoven. The audience is definitely a lot stranger crowd. But it’s cool – we’re kind of a college band, in that way. We’ll play these college towns, and we’ll get all the faculty out. It’s kind of weird, sometimes, that way… [laughs]
That’s not totally we true – we definitely have a lot of younger indie-rock kids who know of our legacy as one of the first indie-rock bands, and our contribution to that movement. So we do have a lot of younger people come out.
But it is interesting. We have a lot of intellectuals, writers, scientists – people like that in our crowd. It’s really interesting.
QRO: And this was a few years ago, but how was Cracker playing Iraq?
DL: That was pretty awesome, actually. It was pretty crazy, what we did. We were one of the only bands to do this. We were specifically taken over there to go out and play these little patrol bases. Some of those places we played, I think, I don’t know, maybe like fifty guys at a patrol base? Maybe like a city block square, with all the exterior wiring and everything included. We would fly in on a Blackhawk helicopter, and we’d have about an hour to set up and play a show, we’d hang out. We’d play for like a half hour, and then we’d just like bullshit with the guys – or gals. And then we’d just hop back in the helicopter and take off.
That wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was when we got to Baghdad, we actually started driving around on the ground, armored personnel carriers, and going to all those patrol bases. And we did like two of these things a day. It was pretty crazy. But it was really fun.
I don’t know – just kinda crazy… Flying 2,500 feet above the Euphrates, going like 140 mph or whatever you do in a helicopter, with the doors wide open! With your bandmates and a bunch of army guys – just completely crazy! It was cool. That was a really interesting thing.
Cracker playing “Take Me Down To the Infirmary” at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on June 25th, 2009:
QRO: I don’t know if I’ll ever get to ask another band about playing Iraq…
DL: There were a few other bands that went over and did that, that kind of patrol base thing. We did the big bases, too, but the real reason we were there was to kinda go out to some of these patrol bases.
I just remember we came into this one base, on the outskirts of Baghdad. We get out of our armored personnel carrier, and a colonel or captain or whatever he was, that was in charge of that base, he comes up to me, “You guys – you boys got BIG BALLS! You drove down” [whatever – they had these nicknames for these routes] ‘blah-blah-blah route’ “without any air support!”
And I turned and looked at the sergeant who was our gunner, and I go, “We had no air support?” ‘Cause that’s what they do – they usually have a helicopter overhead. He goes, “Nah – I didn’t wanna tell you. I figured it’d freak you out…”
When you drive, there’s supposed to be a helicopter keeping an eye on you, the caravan of four of these armored personnel carriers. And I guess it got foggy, or dusty – it’s hard to tell that – the storm and the helicopter went away, but we went on anyway. As we should have, I don’t want to make it a big deal, but I just looked at the gunner, “There was no air support?” “Nah… I figured we wouldn’t tell you until we got there…”
QRO: [laughs] When you were driving back, did you make sure to look for air support?
Well, actually not ‘look’ for it, ‘cause you can’t actually see. I started actually really paying attention to what they were saying over the radio. Then you could tell that – I sort of got tipped to that.
Which actually was really funny, because a few nights later, we were going somewhere, and it was at night, and I could tell something tense was going, because of the way – for whatever reason, this is really weird, for whatever reason, a lot of the younger guy drives, the least experienced guy, they make him drive. Because I guess the other guys won’t be able to shoot.
The guy in the front is kind of doing that ‘cool older guy thing’ to the driver, going, “It’s alright; it’s alright. We have a plan for how to deal with this. You know what to do, your training, blah-blah-blah…” And I’m going, ‘What is going on?’ They’re kind of talking softly to the kid, and the kid is sort of nodding, stuff like that, people are talking or whatever.
And then the gunner, of course, comes on, the internal comm, he starts going, “So, when you guys get a show, who books that?” By this point, I’d figured out that when anything was going on that they didn’t want us to pay attention to, the gunner would either start shit-talking with us, or asking questions about the music business, right? So then we were really paying attention to what’s going on.
And then I just hear the helicopter, the voice of obviously the helicopter, because you hear the ‘thump-thump-thump’ in the background, and the voice goes, “Confirm your route” [whatever the name of our convoy was called]. So we’d gotten lost…
We were now lost, and the helicopter pilot, whoever was running the comms there, was basically saying, ‘Where the hell are you guys going?’
You can’t turn those things around anywhere – you have to have a spot that you want to turn it around. They’re huge – there’s only certain places where you can. You had to go down the long way, then turn around in some spot, then come back in some other way. It was not the way we were planning to go or the place we were planning to be. It was funny…
Camper Van Beethoven playing “New Roman Times” live at Stage 48 in New York, NY on January 19th, 2013:
QRO: To shift back to the present day (and this continent), how did making La Costa Perdida compare with making New Roman Times?
DL: New Roman Times is expansive and chaotic. Purposely, we were sort of reforming as a band; we were sort of trying to get to figuring out how to play together again. It was a lot more a studio project in that way. We were figuring it out when we were in the studio, making it.
We were playing with whatever was around – we were pulling songs from [multi-instrumentalist] Jonathan [Segel – QRO interview]’s solo record and redoing them, putting ‘em on our album; I was taking songs that I had started for something else and revamping, and redoing, and rearranging them. It was totally chaotic, in its way. It was sprawling – some of the things that we came up with, we were pushing the envelope on a lot of stuff. ‘Oh, who cares, let’s listen to this song backwards. This song sounds awesome backwards! It sounds like you’re saying, “I hate this part of Texas.”’ So we start singing, “I hate this part of Texas,” and Jonathan’s figured out how to play backwards to it.
We were playing that song “[I Am Talking To This] Flower” and we get to the end of it, and I played the wrong chord at the end. So it’s like, ‘God damn it!’ So I just started playing the Bachman Turner-style [riff] – I started doing that over and over again, and I wouldn’t stop, just to be funny. And that turned into this whole other song, but it’s completely repetitive – it’s one chord. So I started doing Steve Reich famous fade music piece, “Come Out (To Show Them)”, reimagined as a pop song.
This one, we wrote songs; we had them all totally arranged before we went into the studio. No, I didn’t have all my lyrics done, and sometimes I didn’t know what I was singing, but the way Camper works is, we kind of do the music first, and then I have to figure out how to fit my vocals in between all the other shit that’s going on – and there’s a lot of shit going on. And generally, I can do two things: either I can sing in the gaps, if there’s gaps – a lot of times there’s not gaps, so what I end up doing is singing along with Greg’s melody, or interweaving in-and-out of [guitarist] Greg [Lisher]’s melody. So that’s what we did.
It was written in a short period of time. It was more-or-less coherent – our new album is way more coherent than our ‘rock opera’, our last album. The last album is stylistically just completely crazy and all over the place, thematically all over the place, and what ties it together is the narrative. That’s why we did the rock opera – to tie it together with a story. But with this one, you don’t have to do that.
Some songs are real contrast with other songs, but it really kind of fits. What you see is the sort of North Coast, post-punk hippie sort of thing we do. I think, anyway… [laughs]
Camper Van Beethoven playing La Costa Perdida‘s “Peaches In the Summertime” live at Stage 48 in New York, NY on January 19th, 2013:
QRO: It’s as cohesive as Camper can be. It seems like Camper varies – it’s hard to pick a genre or anything like that…
DL: Camper is more in the tradition of older bands, from the sixties and early seventies, when rock bands were really a lot more eclectic. You look at The Beatles or The Rolling Stones catalog, and they’re kind of all over the place. And then some time in the late seventies and early eighties, each band started playing a specific sub-genre of rock.
I always thought that Camper was just like a throwback – I didn’t think Camper was that weird when we started it. I just kind of thought it was a throwback to what people used to do. We always just thought we were essentially gonna make classic rock for our own generation. So that’s what we thought we were doing.
We still turned out to be a lot weirder than people thought, so…
QRO: In the last few years you’ve just released a Camper record, a solo record (The Palace Guards – QRO review), and before that, a Cracker record (Sunrise In the Land of Milk and Honey – QRO review) – how do the record-making processes compare?
DL: That last Cracker album was done very similar to how this new Camper album was done. ‘Cause it was written kind of collaboratively together, the songs were basically more or less finished when we went into the studio.
I remember actually one of the main things was the song “Yalla Yalla” that wasn’t finished – it was just the front-half of the song. And David Barbe (of Sugar), he was kinda like, “I like this, but it seems like it’s half a song. You need something else for the end.” I just sort of, off the top of my head, came up with that chord progression, which is actually odd, is actually in nine.
Largely, with the exception of that, it was also where we got together, worked it out in advance, the album.
Cracker playing Sunrise single “Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me” live at Stage 48 in New York, NY on January 19th, 2013:
QRO: When you come up with something on your own, when do you know if it’s for Camper, or Cracker, or solo, or what?
DL: I don’t actually that often work it up on my own. If I do, I do know whether it’s Cracker or Camper. I mean, not 100% of the time – I’ve been wrong before, and it turns out that something that really doesn’t work with Cracker but it works really well with Camper Van Beethoven. Or vice-versa. But largely, I think you just can kind of tell. I don’t know how to describe it any other way…
QRO: Considering that you’re the singer/guitarist for two bands already, why did you also then do a solo record?
DL: ‘Cause there’s sort of this weird set of songs that kinda didn’t fit with either band. Plus, they’re kind of more my… Sound of Music is my studio complex that I’ve been a part of for many years, and it’s kind of a ‘house band’ is what my solo record ended up being, the ‘house band’ of the studio doing exactly what we want to do in the studio, rather than it being dependent on any particular individual musician.
Like, the guy who’s playing drums is the studio manager. The guy who’s playing a lot of the guitars is the engineer, is now on leatherneck, he’s playing pedals, is playing keyboards. It’s kinda a studio album thing, sort of in the tradition of those old studio projects that people used to do, and they didn’t necessarily go out in tour, you know what I mean? That’s kind of what that was.
The Cracker and Camper songs have to be able to be played by the ensemble live, effective. There’s actually some kind of problem with how to figure out what we need to do with an ensemble live, but it’s fun to do in a studio. That’s what that album is.
Johnny Hickman & David Lowery playing Sunrise‘s “Friends”, after an aborted attempt by Lowery to play Palace Guards‘ “I Sold the Arabs the Moon”, live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 14th, 2011:
QRO: Where did you come up with the line, “Bring me the anti-venom / Make me a sandwich” [on La Costa Perdida‘s “Too High For the Love-In”]?
DL: That’s a true story about Jonathan’s wife getting bit by a viper in Sweden, way out in the country. The ambulance broke down, they went to this little hospital, the doctors were on vacation, the air ambulance brought the wrong anti-venom and had to fly back to some place like Stockholm to get it again. And she was also very hungry the whole time and wanted food.
So basically that’s what the story is about, and Jonathan actually wrote a lot of the lyrics with me.
QRO: I’m very pro-sandwich…
DL: Yes. But isn’t everyone pro-sandwich?… [laughs]
QRO: [laughs] Yeah, I guess. And I suppose everyone’s pro-anti-venom…
DL: Yeah… [laughs]
Camper Van Beethoven playing “Too High For the Love-In” live at Stage 48 in New York, NY on January 19th, 2013:
QRO: I saw that Cracker is doing the ‘Mark McGrath & Friends’ boat cruise later this year – have you done a boat cruise before?
DL: Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker did do a boat cruise a long time ago, and I wrote a blog about it being ‘the worst gig ever’. It was actually a pretty funny blog.
We were asked to do it, so… I don’t know, a lot of people seem to do these things these days. We were kind of in the early days of doing it – maybe it’s better now?
QRO: There’s definitely been more of those Miami-to-Nassau boat cruises with bands – Coachella did one, there were others.
The new music industry landscape has forced bands to tour more & more – now even at sea…
DL: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. It’s just getting more and more awful with each passing year.
It’s just this sort of bullshit idea that, ‘Oh, you put your records out, and they’re advertisements for your live shows.’
Okay, the first thing wrong with that is, most of the time, unless you’re playing theaters, you’re really not making a living playing music.
Plus, you can only play New York City so many times, before fans are just like, ‘We’ve seen you enough – wait a year or two before we see you again,’ right?
But the final thing is, I don’t know if people realize this, but when you’re out there, for an independent artist, to have to rely on a small clubs and venues and stuff like that to make a living, is totally absurd, because that’s where you get ripped off. There’s where you, a lot of times, don’t get paid, or the check bounces, or all of that shit.
To me, Cracker & Camper have always been touring acts, and have always relied on a grassroots kind of way of to sell their record, touring, but that doesn’t mean playing 150 shows a year. That’s completely absurd to do it. Any band that tries to do it eventually burns out their own audience and burns out their own band. Plus you don’t really make any money.
I figured out one point, some tour we were doing where we were just going from… I don’t know, we were kinda off record, and we each went out and did a bunch of shows. We kinda played smaller markets; we’d played big markets. I figured out that actually the number of hours we’d put it into, it was less than minimum wage. We were all making less than minimum wage… [laughs]
Just fuckin’ get a part-time job at a bar or something like that, instead of… ‘Let’s just play sixty shows a year, great shows, and if you need more money, just get a part-time job,’ you know?
Without record sales and income from licensing and shit like that, I wouldn’t be able to afford to go out and play shows for people. I would be going back, doing something with mathematics.
QRO: You have been a big advocate for musical intellectual property rights online, not just talking about file sharing…
DL: We’re gonna be a like a Maoist society on the internet; everything’s gonna be shared. There’s gonna be no private property – it’s totally fuckin’ absurd…
Here’s the great thing about that: ‘Oh yeah, we’re just gonna share your music, right?’ ‘Hey man, that’s uncool to be asked to be paid – we’re just sharing music out here…’
Meanwhile, Google’s monetizing it, by either throwing advertising against the search terms, or putting advertisements on the illegal sites.
Like, I’ve been studying this one website called Weblagu, which is out of Malaysia. There’s reasons that I won’t get into right now, why I’m looking at it, but most of the traffic comes from the U.S. You go to a page there, right? For instance ‘Camper Van Beethoven songs’, there’s four banner adds – each one of those banner ads is about a penny-and-a-half. So basically, if you were a songwriter, and you sold a single, an old seven-inch in the old days – or even nowadays, right? As the songwriter, you would get about four-and-a-half cents of mechanical royalty.
Think about it: there’s this webpage by these assholes out of Malaysia – they’re collecting six cents. Google and these assholes are actually getting six cents of that page view of that song, which is more than the songwriter gets, even in a legitimate transaction.
People always like to talk about the old music business being like, ‘Oh, the record label’s were so bad to artists…’ Yeah, sure – sure old Morris Levy in New York there, he basically didn’t play his R&B artists royalties. They come into complain, and he’d go buy ‘em a Cadillac or something like that, right? This is the same thing, except you don’t ever get the Cadillac…
So how is that cool?…
And it’s not little people who are really benefiting – it’s large, multinational corporations and criminal syndicates.
Cracker playing “Forever” live at Stage 48 in New York, NY on January 19th, 2013:
QRO: Are you at all nostalgic for the era of major labels? You did write a song about your major label travails in “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself” [on Forever], about Virgin Records…
DL: I’ve sued two of the remaining major labels, so I have no great love for them. But I will say that the system was better than the system that we have now.
I mean, think about this – think about the old record stores basically took 40% of gross. The old mom & pop records stores. They had electricity, rent, employees – stoned employees, at that – shoplifting, things breaking, and stuff like that, right? For their store, right? They took 40%.
Apple & Amazon take 30%, and what do they do? They post shit on servers…
I mean, I get it that we’re in a transition period. I actually embraced the transition, and ran with it, long before all these Johnny-come-latelys are sort of like, ‘Oh, digital is the new way…’ We started doing this shit back in 2000, putting stuff on our website, putting videos on YouTube – we did all of that.
It’s just that the last few years, you know what? We have a new system, now. It’s not changing – there’s a new system, it’s here, and basically the artist gets screwed way more by these Silicon Valley companies than we ever were screwed by the record labels. Congratulations, Silicon Valley – you out-screwed Hollywood!
I would love to be proven wrong on this, but it’s headed in the wrong direction. It’s been headed in the wrong direction for a long time, and the people that keep telling me that it’s going in the right direction always seem to be totally fuckin’ full of shit…
I do a lot of music conferences, digital music conferences, and there’s these people up there whose companies have never turned a profit, are basically stealing from their investors – you’re telling me, who’s run a lot of businesses that are profitable year-after-year, how to run my business? It’s snake oil – they’re like snake oil salesmen…
QRO: [In addition to music,] you’ve been involved in various businesses, plus mathematics, quants – is it weird to have the two worlds combine, in not really a great way?
DL: Well, I feel like, actually, I have better tech credentials than most people that are in the tech world. I was part of an IPO; I was part of a company that went public. I don’t know how great a company it was, but it went public.
It’s just actually kind of odd to me that I get these people lecturing. I went to college for math and computers. I was running amateur radio packet Billboards – basically the amateur radio version of the internet, before there was the internet. It’s just really funny to get lectured on technical stuff from people who are basically appliance operators… [laughs]
QRO: Do you feel that, because you’re most known as a musician, you get disrespected as anything but a musician in any other field?
DL: They just think we’re sitting in the back of the bus, smoking pot. Which is not to say that we aren’t, but that’s not the only thing we do…
One last point: people forget that bands are web-based businesses, and they’ve been web-based businesses. They’ve been web-enabled businesses since the 1990s, and they’ve been web-based businesses since 1999. Almost all of your interactions with your fans are through something on the internet that you are building and running as a band.
Camper Van Beethoven playing Key Lime Pie‘s “When I Win the Lottery” live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 9th, 2009:
QRO: How hard is it to come up with a set list?
DL: Oh, it’s impossible with Camper and Cracker. Usually what we do is sort of get one batch of songs, for each week.
I mean, we have a new record out – we gotta play that; we gotta play half the new record, but we wanna make sure that it’s only about a third of the total set list. I don’t know where that comes from, a sort of ‘magical number’. I think the ancient Greeks came up with that. I think the ancient Greeks said, “You only play one-third of a set of new songs…”
Okay, so for Camper Van Beethoven, we’re gonna play six new songs, and then there’s gonna be another twelve-fourteen songs that come out of our catalog. So it’s easier when you have a new album out – you just say, ‘Prepare the list from this album represents this period, represent this tempo and style.’
But when it’s 300 songs… I don’t know. It’s hard. [laughs]
QRO: A couple of years ago, you did the tour where you played Camper’s Key Lime Pie and Cracker’s Kerosene Hat. Was it almost a relief – ‘Okay, I don’t have to worry about the set list’?
DL: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
It seems totally absurd, but there’s definitely a thing that, ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this, and then we’ll come back for an encore, and we’ll play whatever the four songs people request we play, we’ll play.’ Which usually involve some hits that aren’t on that album, whatever.
That’s kind of a nice thing to do. After doing a lot of shows over the years, it’s different – you know what I mean?
Cracker playing Kerosene Hat‘s “Sweet Potato” live at Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, NY on July 24th, 2011:
QRO: You’ve done those December-January, West Coast/East Coast, Cracker-Camper tours for a few years now. How much do you try to vary the set lists year-to-year, considering that it’s the same two bands, basically same dates & cities, and often the same venues? Do you ever think, ‘Okay, this is what we did last year in New York, we have to do something different’?
DL: I think we try to do it different – we try to look at what we did last year, make sure there are enough songs that are different.
There’s some part of it, though – people wanna come and see the band, they want to see their favorite songs. A lot of it’s not actually up to us, right?…
QRO: One of my personal favorite songs is “All Her Favorite Fruit”. Have you ever felt awkward saying “Negros” in the lyrics?
DL: It is set in the nineteenth century.
Nah, I feel weirder about saying “Reagan”, twenty-five years after the Reagan years, and I’m still singing “Reagan” in the song “Sweethearts”, which I believe precedes it on the album. You know what I mean?…
Camper Van Beethoven playing “Take the Skinheads Bowling” live at Stage 48 in New York, NY on January 19th, 2013: