To attempt a sweeping concept album of political and social satire — and to succeed, as Camper Van Beethoven has done — is a rare feat indeed.
New Roman Times, the band’s first studio effort in 15 years, may not go down as a timeless classic, but it’s at least a triple if not an inside-the-park homer. Guitarist-vocalist David Lowery said his gang is pleasantly surprised by the response from the fans’ online message boards, among other sources.
“The people who go to those kind of boards tend to be sort of your superfans, and they can be pretty critical sometimes,” Lowery said in a phone call last week. “And I was glad to see that the consensus seems to be this is one of Camper’s best records, if not the best Camper Van Beethoven record. They’re all blown away by it, so it’s really exciting.”
These survivors of the ’80s underground will perform Saturday at Birdy’s, with special guests the Damnwells, a Brooklyn-based roots-rock quartet, and Endochine, an Austin four-piece with a grandiose British sound vaguely like Radiohead. Younger fans have their chance to see Camper during an earlier in-store show at the Northside Luna Music.
Despite the band’s eccentric sound — a mix of folk, punk, ska, country, prog-rock, psychedelia and some sort of pan-global ethnic music — its recording history has followed the standard route, from tiny indie to major label to oblivion. The members parted company after 1989’s Key Lime Pie, but began reuniting around the turn of the century to play some opening slots for Cracker, Lowery’s successful ’90s band.
In 2002, they began work on a record.
New Roman Times, released earlier this month, is on the band’s own Pitch-A-Tent label, manufactured and distributed by the revered folk-jazz label Vanguard. In some ways, Lowery said, it was a return to the do-it-yourself days of 20 years ago.
“The major labels, they have three or four types of bands that they’re interested in signing, and a lot of the independent labels have a very specific sound that they’re working with, and so the way for quirkier bands like us to do things is to do your own records and do a distribution deal on your own label,” he said. “I kicked in 15, 20 grand, and then we did a few shows to get some money, and we did it all ourselves, and then essentially put it out on our own label, but leveraged that into sort of a co-record label deal with Vanguard, sort of like a distribution deal, much the way independent movies are made.”
Featuring all original members — Lowery, bassist Victor Krummenacher, lead guitarist Greg Lisher, drummer Chris Pedersen and violinist Jonathan Segel, plus longtime multi-instrumentalist David Immergluck — the album flows in a manner much like Lowery’s California-stoner patter, which never stops but often circles back on itself to flesh out a previous idea or simply to regain a lost train of thought. (For the benefit of readers, many instances of “like, you know” have been edited from the quotes in this report.)
The songs, most of them co-written by Lowery and one to four other members, follow a Tim McVeigh-type character on an odyssey through a parallel universe in which California and Texas have seceded from the Union and little gray space aliens are manipulating the various factions toward mysterious ends.
The result is a dizzying survey of the American scene over the past decade, touching on Oklahoma City, the Unabomber, religious fundamentalists, right-wing militias, mystic intelligence agents, shady government contractors, suicide bombers, the drug war and a high-tech invasion of a backward desert land. The protagonist rises from juvenile delinquency to join an elite military unit, but he grows disillusioned, takes a job with a Halliburton-like company, gets hooked on narcotic poppies, joins a resistance group and blows up a disco.
The creepy part is that the occupation of Iraq, which seems to be referenced clearly in the storyline, hadn’t even begun when the New Roman Times project came together. Also worth noting is that the title, a reference to the perils of imperialism, was adapted from Times New Roman, the default typeface of the ubiquitous Microsoft Word software. That also happens to be the typeface of the discredited Bush/National Guard memos that brought shame to Dan Rather and CBS News this year.
They didn’t set out to do this, Lowery said. It just happened.
“The songs were sort of bunching themselves around some topics, and we realized, ‘You know, we could really turn this into a concept record, and in a weird way, that would be a total Camper-esque thing to do,’ and so we did it,” he said. “This isn’t really about the Bush Administration. This isn’t really about the Iraq war and this isn’t really about the hard-core fundamentalist Christian right that seems to be taking over elements of the government, including the Attorney General’s Office. This is about the deep, artificial divide that has been created by those who rule, to rule over, you know, those who are ruled. Going back to Roman times, divide and conquer, you know?
“Then, of course, the Camper Van Beethoven Incorporated Board of Directors came in and said, ‘Damn it, it’s not a Camper record unless somebody’s smoking pot and there are aliens, so then we had to add all of that, too.”
The band’s mindset was not to return to 1989, nor to update its sound for today’s commercial tastes, but to incorporate the individual lessons learned during the time off. Lowery, for example, produced work by Counting Crows and Sparklehorse. He said Sparklehorse leader Mark Linkous’ esthetic came through on the New Roman Times track “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style,” a surreal, country-tinged number that borrows lyrics from the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks.
“That song wouldn’t have sounded like that if me and Jonathan hadn’t both worked on the Sparklehorse records,” Lowery said. “So we sort of kept those three things in mind: our past catalog, the intervening years and, then, what is modern that makes sense to us, that we like?”
As for the future, Lowery is open to whatever happens.
“There’s half of a Cracker record done, and this is not the end of Cracker,” he said. “There’s Cracker shows sprinkled throughout the next six months, and there will probably be a Cracker record first, before there’s a Camper record. But I think we wrote a new Camper song today.”
Scott Hall writes about music and stuff at his new and improved Web site, www.onthebeat.org.