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Camper Van Beethoven

Biography

Camper Van Beethoven
Haun/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Camper Van Beethoven introduced an eclectic, often humorous blend of hippie psychedelia, avant-garde improvisation, country-western shadings, pseudo-ethnic sounds, and a hardcore punch to the mid-1980s postpunk scene. What saved the group from novelty status was its genuine talent for making interesting, adventurous music. After its breakup, David Lowery went on to greater commercial success in his band Cracker.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in cities around the globe as an air force brat, CVB leader David Lowery ultimately landed as a teenager in Redlands, California (just outside of L.A.). By 1983 Lowery was studying mathematics at UC Santa Cruz and had begun playing with his first band, Sitting Duck, which experimented with ethnic sounds by way of TV shows and advertisements, and played alongside thrashy punk and psychedelic rock & roll. The earliest version of Camper Van Beethoven grew out of Sitting Duck and included Lowery, Krummenacher, Molla, and guitarist David McDaniel (who actually named the band shortly before leaving). It wasn't until the next year, however, that the Campers began following their eclectic muse in earnest. Lowery had returned to college in Santa Cruz and was soon followed by Krummenacher and Molla. There they met up with local guitarist Greg Lisher and composition student Jonathan Segal.

The band's first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, on the arty L.A.-based label Independent Projects, produced the humorous "Take the Skinheads Bowling," which became a cult favorite among college students. The album also featured a slowed-down, violin-drenched version of Black Flag's first single, "Wasted." The album was followed by a string of equally offbeat collections of songs —which featured titles like "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" and "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" —on which the Campers experimented with everything from Beatlesque tape manipulation and Arabic-like drones to absurdist lyrics and offbeat covers (such as Ringo Starr's "Photograph" and Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive"). In 1987 the group recorded with the eccentric guitarist Eugene Chadbourne —calling themselves Camper Van Chadbourne —for the tiny indie label Fundamentalist Records. Virgin signed the band in 1988, releasing the more accessible (yet still very offbeat) Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie.

In 1988 Krummenacher, Lisher, and Pedersen took the band's arty quality to their side project, Monks of Doom, and Segal recorded a solo album. Camper Van Beethoven parted ways in 1989, and Lowery took the hooky pop side of the band into his group Cracker. With guitarist and Redlands friend Johnny Hickman, Lowery relocated to Richmond, Virginia, to make music. Coming immediately after Camper's far-out Key Lime Pie, the feisty roots-rock sound of Cracker initially earned derision from alternative circles, as it discarded Camper's violins and strange polyrhythms.

After the first, self-titled album won airplay on college radio with the typically cynical anthem "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," Cracker's followup, Kerosene Hat (#59, 1993), yielded the modern-rock radio hit "Low." It helped propel the album to sales above 1 million. After playing to larger audiences, Cracker reconvened for Golden Age (#63, 1996), which failed to repeat the same lasting commercial success of Kerosene Hat. While Gentleman's Blues (#182, 1998) continued that trend, Lowery became busy as a producer, recording both new pop acts and hardcore bands in his Richmond studio, and coproducing the Counting Crows' This Desert Life.

In 2000 Lowery released both a Cracker retrospective, Garage D' Or, and another retrospective called Camper Van Beethoven Are Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven. The members of both bands then toured together in a roadshow that included sets by Cracker and solo artists Krummenacher, Segal, and Lisher.

This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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