Some folks have waited fifteen years for a gonzo concept record about a United States from an alternative universe, peppered with references to imperialism, civil wars, disgruntled soldiers, mind-altering substances and, um, aliens. Those folks are Camper Van Beethoven fans. The beloved sweethearts of Santa Cruz, California, have offered little teasers over the past fifteen years: an odds-and-ends collection (Camper Vantiquities) in 1993, a few reunion shows over the past few years and the 2002 release of their late-Eighties remake of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. But frontman David Lowery said two years ago that Camper — Jonathan Segel (violin), Victor Krummenacher (bass), Greg Lisher (guitar) and Chris Pederson (drums) — would only return to the studio if they found themselves with a cracking set of new songs. Even Lowery didn’t likely foresee New Roman Times, the band’s first new studio set since 1989, which will be released on October 12th.
Given the spartan sound of Camper’s earliest records, New Roman Times immediately sounds better than any other of the band’s five studio recordings. That fact aside, sonically it could have come down the pike on the heels of Key Lime Pie fifteen years ago, as New Roman Times boasts many of the touchstones that made Camper a cult favorite in the Eighties. The instrumentation — typical rock anchors augmented with violin, accordion and mandolin — still pops with the energy and precision a joyous punk string band. A Camper calling card, the record allows the occasional peppy instrumental hoe-down and the other songs, well they tell the story of an America divided into the United States, the Confederate States and separate Republics of California and Texas, the former ravaged by civil war. In typical Camper fashion, any pointed commentary is bound to be cryptic.
“Camper always did well commenting on the more reactionary elements in our sort of political culture,” Lowery says. “We never took the whole ‘Big Brother Republican corporate conspiracy is running our country’ thing hook line and sinker the way a lot of other people in Santa Cruz did. We always took it with a grain of salt. We clearly came from a left-of-center perspective, but you wouldn’t call us leftists or liberals or even necessarily Democrats. But politically, those guys from the Eighties are back and they’re meaner. Now we’re thinking maybe we should have taken the whole evil ‘Big Brother Republican corporate conspiracy’ thing a bit more seriously [laughs]. Because it seems like it really is happening right now. Dick Cheney, as far as I can tell, is Darth Vader for a new generation.”
Lowery says that the album’s story structure — he calls it “something between a rock opera and a concept record” — was key to keeping any commentary from seeming out of character for the group. “We couldn’t be completely straightforward and serious,” Lowery says. “So we just sang about all the stuff we always sang about — pot, Ronald Reagan, space aliens — and just put it in this loose commentary on the political situation right now.”
A military thread runs throughout New Roman Times, as a principle character is a Texan soldier who volunteers to fight only to end up wounded and doped up, but the armed services aren’t set up as an object of ridicule. Lowery’s father is a thirty-five-year veteran and the songwriter admits that “my political views are probably to the right of his.”
“A lot of people see what we’re doing with this record as black and white,” he says. “It’s anti-war, but I tried to give it an even perspective. We’re certainly not indicting any of the soldiers in these songs. I still go to the Legion with my dad — I like to drink there because the beer’s cheap. And the veterans there really, really do not like [George W.] Bush. It’s about cut benefits and how he says one thing and does another.”
Lowery also found his way into some military chat rooms to help with some of the songs. “Fluffy White Clouds” placed commentary from posting soldiers about their favorite weapons into a rhyme scheme. And “51-7” references an elite military unit, though the title has already sent Camper’s admittedly geeky fan base scrounging for meaning in the numbers. A psalm with a corresponding number speaks of purifying the heart and soul, and, according to Lowery, a Google search also pulls up an image from an early 1970s pep rally. But there are no such deliberate connections in the title. “If you’re a ranger, then you wouldn’t ever say you’re a ranger,” he explains. “You’d say our 75th B or Task Force 20. But some of our fans are convinced there’s more to it. I guess we’ve sort of encouraged that kind of behavior.”
Similarly, the album title is open to varied interpretation. “We’ve always liked that font,” Lowery says, “I think we always use it for the Cracker [Lowery’s other band] logo. But it also speaks to a new era of American imperialism.”
But lest New Roman Times seem like a downer from Camper, there’s still plenty of the band’s nonsensical wit in place, particularly on “I Hate This Part of Texas.” The slurry music features another track (“The Long Plastic Hallway”) played backwards, and Lowery, singing for the protagonist gets his giggles from completely butchering a few phrases in Spanish. “That’s very much in the tradition of very early, psychedelic Camper,” Lowery says. “If you’re not in a band, you might not know this, but the title is a common bit of dressing room graffiti. You’ll be in a club in, say, Stuttgart, and you’ll see that somebody’s written on the wall, ‘I hate this part of Texas.’ You never see it in Texas.”
Lowery says the whole project unfolded over two years and remarks that the music industry seems to have regressed, or perhaps re-progressed, back to an era similar to when Campter started more than twenty years ago. Much in the same way that there was little major-label interest for Telephone Free Landslide Victory in 1985, there wasn’t much courting going on when the band decided to record again. “We looked for a deal, and some people said, ‘Yeah, we can give you a little money,'” he says. “We were like, ‘This is bullshit. We can make the record ourselves, get a distribution deal and make more money.’ In a weird way, we’re not only creating the Camper sound and approach, but the whole ‘Santa Cruz, slacker, DIY, computer geek in a rock band’ thing is completely back again with this record.”