David Lowery on Camper Van Beethoven Return, New Album and Why 'Half the Musicians Have Stockholm Syndrome' (Q&A)

Camper Van Beethoven publicity 2013 P
Jason Thrasher

It’s been 30 years since a bunch of weirdoes from Redlands, Calif., formed a band to piss off their punk rock brethren. Modest cult favorites in the '80s, Camper Van Beethoven’s even more popular today. Known for their offbeat, idiosyncratic blend of chamber pop/folk and punk/indie rock elements, they just ended a nine-year recording hiatus with their eighth album, La Costa Perdida (translation: The Lost Coast).

The quintet originally formed to play slowed-down, countrified versions of punk rock classics. “If we get to the point where the audience becomes hostile, we’d play a bunch of fast ska songs until we won them back,” says singer-guitarist David Lowery, explaining the origin of their early classic, “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”

Known for their democratic work process, intra-band tensions broke the band up in April 1990 until sometime in 1999, when the reconvened to cover Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and see how they worked together. That came out in 2002, and things went well enough that they followed in 2004 with the near-future concept album New Roman Times. While they’ve continued to play, and spent 2011 playing their 1989 classic Key Lime Pie in its entirety on tour, getting together to write and record has proven more difficult.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Lowery by phone from Athens about Camper’s process, the new album and his concerns about the music industry demonetization of recorded music.

The band plays Feb. 21 at House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.

The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve referenced Monty Python in the past, comparing the Camper’s work process to an “anarcho-syndicalist commune.” Has time changed this process at all?

David Lowery: I think it’s kind of pretty much the same. We wrote a bunch of music pretty quickly together, basically in a week … not finished, but that was pretty nice for a week. Then it took another year to get it recorded and mixed in a way that we could all more or less agree upon. ... It’s not for a lack of creativity that we’re slow. It’s just more our process, which is completely collaborative.

Camper is the reason that Cracker is just the two of us. Even though it’s a four-person band, two people make all the decisions. From the beginning [guitarist Johnny Hickman and I] said, “We’re the band, and we make all the decisions. You’re employees.” We did that specifically so we could move faster. Nothing against Camper, because the bands work two different ways.

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THR: That makes sense because as long ago as last year you accurately described the album as a bit of Fairport and a little prog. It feels sedate and reflective.

Lowery: It is a little more sedate. Well, we’ve grown older and we are a little more reflective. It was really simply that mood of like, a lost California: “Back when California was good -- on their first album, before they sold out.” We pick up where the Grateful Dead and Beach Boys left off when they experimented with their Central/Northern California period. There’s a lot of stuff from the album -- purposefully -- that’s much more upbeat and more rocking that’s going to be on the following record. We purposefully left it off and pared down to being mellow.

THR: So there’s enough material in the can for another record?

Lowery: We pulled five songs out of that batch for another record and then there’s another new one, so we’re about halfway towards the next album. We’re going to try to release shorter albums that come out more often. It just doesn’t make sense for Cracker or Camper to make 60- to 75-minute CDs. … I think the consumer would be happy if they just got 10 songs. I know after about 40 to 45 minutes, I’m done. There is no reason to make an album longer than 40 minutes. When we had vinyl, we had to stick by those rules.

THR: You took a beating in June over the NPR intern flap over file sharing -- not just from the uninformed but from within your own ranks.

Lowery: Yeah, but they’re all f---ing pussies. No, seriously. Half the musicians have Stockholm syndrome. When the record companies were ripping them off, they were willing to speak out. The way it is now, there’s basically free streaming on YouTube. Unless you’re big enough to have a deal with YouTube, you don’t get any money from them. … Basically there’s an echo chamber of musicians and technology bloggers, about 600 of them, they all talk to each other, and nothing they say means shit. It has no effect in the real world.

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THR: What do you think about something like Rhapsody or Spotify that potentially can scale into something good?

Lowery: Spotify will be good eventually. It’s just not good right now. Spotify is on the good, white hat side of the line. YouTube is just on the black hat side of the line -- for various reasons. Spotify basically gets your permission to put your songs on there. YouTube doesn’t. If you don’t get enough money from Spotify, or you don’t think it works for you, you can write to Spotify and take your songs off there. Or you can window your album, let the market sort it out. That’s what Spotify is doing. With YouTube, you don’t have that chance. As a consumer I love Spotify, but I haven’t bought a single album since I got it. Like that band fun.? Normally, in the past I would’ve bought the two singles. It’s catchy, I’ll be sick of it in two weeks, but I want to listen to it right now. Spotify made me not buy them.

THR: I was interested in your thoughts on Pandora and its work with the so-called Internet Radio Fairness Act?

Lowery: When people ask, "Who are the good guys/who do you like?" we, like plenty of people, always point out that Pandora as this good model and that there were things we preferred about how Pandora had conducted their business as opposed to other companies. … Here’s the CliffsNotes of what you need to know: If this bill were truly as it says about the webcasters versus traditional broadcasters, why is Clear Channel supporting it? Why is Sirius supporting it? ... Our violin player [Jonathan Segel] worked at Pandora for eight years. Sat next to [co-founder] Tim [Westergen]. So this is a little personal for us in a certain way. I’m mad that Tim has been selling this bill in such a disingenuous way. People should know is that 90 percent of this bill doesn’t have anything to do with the rates. Ninety percent of the bill has to do with other things; the broadcast, cable and satellite industries got together and had a list of shit they wanted to change. They threw it all in the bill, but it was presented as this Internet Radio Fairness Act, when that’s just a small part of the bill. … It’s kind of cheating going to Congress to ask them to change the price that artists are paid. Maybe Pandora is good for independent musicians, but can’t we do what we did in the first place, where our unions, our publishers, our trade groups all got together and negotiated a price?

THR: So how do you feel? It seems Camper’s second life has gone even better than its first.

Lowery: We were only around a month shy of seven years. It’s interesting. We’re really pleased by the response that’s coming out so far. I’m glad people get it. I don’t know when we go completely prog-rock on the next album if people will be as happy. We keep getting wacky shit like Paul Rudd wearing a CVB T-shirt in the Judd Apatow movie, This Is 40. You can’t buy that shit. So it’s a good time for Camper to come back. We also have this goal to be named the official California indie folk band. I’m serious. We’re really going to try to get ourselves named the official state something.

Twitter: @THRMusic