Loud and Clear – Camper Van Beethoven

David lowery is maybe best known as the guy who fronts Cracker, the quirky roots-rock band he started with guitarist Johnny Hickman in the early 1990s.

Camper Van Beethoven (left to right)—Jonathan Segel, David Lowery, Greg Lisher, Chris Pedersen, and Victor Krummenacher.

DAVID LOWERY is maybe best known as the guy who fronts Cracker, the quirky roots-rock band he started with guitarist Johnny Hickman in the early 1990s. His voice is associated with hits rich in beauty and irony like “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Get Off This” (now also the working title of a documentary being made about Lowery). But Lowery’s musical life actually goes back further. Before there was Cracker, there was Camper.

Starting in the mid-’80s, Camper Van Beethoven played a majestic blend of ska, punk, Eastern European, and country music. Commercially, the band peaked with a cover tune, the Number One modern rock single “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (Key Lime Pie, 1989) but that’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the band’s history, talent, and depth.

Diverging musical interests resulted in Camper fragmenting in 1990, but eventually the bandmembers reconnected, and today, Camper and Cracker coexist. Lowery and his CVB bandmates—violinist Jonathan Segel, guitarist Greg Lisher, bass player Victor Krummenacher, and drummer Chris Pedersen—play and record together in various configurations, including hosting a two-day “Campout” every year where both bands, and other musicians, perform.

Meanwhile, Lowery has also branched out as a studio owner, producer (Counting Crows, Sparklehorse), music-business teacher, and an outspoken advocate for artists’ rights. Here Lowery answers questions about Camper Van Beethoven’s first album in nine years, La Costa Perdida (429 Records)—an inspired string of jammy, Norteno, and alt-rock tunes that Lowery says was influenced by the Beach Boys. Not surprisingly, he’s also got a few things to say about the state of the music business.

In Camper Van Beethoven, you guys write everything together. How does that work?

Sometimes somebody brings in a pretty finished song, but most of the time in Camper Van Beethoven, it’s pretty collaborative.

In Cracker, I sing and there are little licks between when I sing. In Camper Van Beethoven, I’m usually singing all the while Greg and Jonathan are playing melodies, and they’re not always playing the same melodies; they’re things that interlock. It’s literally more Baroque than most bands, so it’s best if we write everything together.

With this album, we were driving down to Big Sur when we found out the show we were going to play was postponed for a week. We had been listening to one of the early influential records on Camper Van Beethoven, which is Holland by the Beach Boys—kind of their Big Sur/going to Northern California record.

When our show was postponed, we turned around and went back to Jonathan’s house, and I stayed there for the week, and every night when the guys got done with their jobs, they’d come over and we worked on songs. After a week, we had an album.

Has the way you work together as songwriters changed over the years?

It’s pretty much the same but without the pot. Or, with less pot.

Myles Boisen, who helped with some basic tracking in his studio, Guerrilla Recording, said that originally you went to him to make demos, but a lot of those tracks made it onto the album.

We thought we just wanted to demo up the stuff, so we went into the studio for two days with [drummer] Michael Urbano. [CVB drummer Chris Pedersen lives in Australia.] Later, we went for “real” tracking at Sharkbite Studios [Oakland, CA], but I’d say half of that we ended up keeping was from Myles’ place.

[At Guerilla], Michael Urbano was super crazy that first day. On “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out,” we were like, “Do a drum solo the whole time,” and so he literally played a drum solo through the entire song. It’s amazing. After we went back and listened we realized we’d caught all these really superb, nutty drum performances.

I heard that you also did some overdubs in your own studios.

Most of the time, we record songs when we know what the song is about but before the lyrics are finished, so all the vocals are overdubbed. Also, the violin and lead guitars are almost always overdubbed, but the drums, my acoustic guitar, and Victor’s bass are usually from the tracking session.

Did you do anything technically to try to create sonic consistency?

One trick is, I always do my vocals at home, through these Neve 1066s that I have, and I always use a little limiting from the dbx 166. I don’t know why, but those two things together sound good on my voice. Most of the time the microphone is a [Shure SM] 58. If the song is a little more ballad-y, I will use either an SM7 or I will borrow Sound of Music’s [the Richmond, VA, studio Lowery co-owns] U47, or I’ll use my Soundelux U95. But basically most of my vocals are done through a hundred-dollar microphone, through 6,000-dollar preamps.

How do you balance all of your music commitments with teaching, public speaking, etc.

Well, it’s not like we make records very often. Personally, I think if people say, “We don’t want to pay for music,” then bands get to say, “We don’t want to make an album except every five years.” That’s our market response: We won’t make albums very often. And here’s the thing: I think bands spend way too much time being bands. If they spent less time being bands, they’d have more things to write about.

What do you teach in your classes?

Basically, I train the next generation of people who are going to rip the artists off. And I train the artists to watch out for the other guys. I joke about that, but it’s true that about half of my students are from the business school and half are artists.

We talk about things like financial bubbles—how those happen all the time in the music business. For example, there was the grunge bubble. It had all the elements of hysteria and speculation that all bubbles have. I also show them things like how to create a basic chart of accounts for a band.

What advice would you give to a young artists who came to you and asked, “How can I protect myself in today’s music business?”

There’s one fundamental thing that successful artists have always done, and that is to retain their publishing rights. Publishing is the copyright for the song in abstract; it’s in that recording you release, and it’s in every other single release of the song after that, whether it’s broadcast on the radio, or another band covers it, or it becomes a chip inside a little birthday card. And if you get a label deal, ask for the biggest advance upfront you can. That makes the record company work harder.

Recently, you spoke on behalf of artists’ rights at the Future of Music Summit in Washington, D.C. Could you explain your position regarding conventional radio and Internet radio?

There’s this misunderstanding about terrestrial radio. People will say, “Terrestrial radio doesn’t pay performers; why should webcasters?” But you have to understand that the people making that argument are wealthy, sophisticated capitalists with PR departments. What they don’t tell you is that, due to a weird corporate law, terrestrial radio pays the songwriters, not the performers.

Once upon a time, Pandora said that terrestrial radio should not just pay the songwriters; they needed to pay the performers as well, because a lot of times the songwriter and the performer aren’t the same. Now, Pandora is saying, “Because terrestrial radio doesn’t pay performers, we want to pay performers up to 85 percent less.”

Essentially, this becomes a labor issue. Think about when the Author’s Guild wanted to [bring a class-action suit against] against Google when Google Books came about. What did Google do? They argued in court that the authors don’t have a right to be collectively represented in that suit, and each author would have to sue individually. The technology companies keep trying to do this to content creators, who are essentially the rank-and-file workers of this century. The technology companies’ notion, which they’ve advanced very carefully, is that content has little or no value, and the only thing that consumers are supposed to value is the pipes that bring the content to you, or the hardware that you buy to play the content.

My entire opposition to the Pandora Internet Radio Fairness Act is Clause 5, which says that any group of rights holders that speaks out against direct licensing deals would be prosecutable under the Sherman Act [which prohibits certain activities that reduce competition in the marketplace]. They keep trying to stop us from collectively bargaining. They want to re-create this 1890s-ish labor environment in the United States, the same way the railroad barons opposed unionization.

Truthfully, I’ve already made my money. The view out my front window isn’t going to change. But there are a lot of artists out there— maybe my son’s band or something like that—who will be very affected by this in the future.

Drew Vandenberg at Chase Park Transduction

Drew Vandenberg has been working in Chase Park Transduction (Athens, GA) since he was just 16 years old. Now an in-demand engineer whose recent credits include Of Montreal, Patterson Hood, and Futurebirds, he met David Lowery several years ago

when Vandenberg was an assistant on a Cracker session.

Lowery says Vandenberg got the mixing gig for Camper’s latest, in part because the studio rates are so reasonable (at Chase, and in Athens, in general), and because Vandenberg “was the best kind of intermediary between us highly opinionated individuals.”

Mixing the band’s Pro Tools sessions in Chase’s Studio B on a Sony MXP3036 board, Vandenberg acknowledges that a big part of mixing La Costa Perdida involved balancing many and various sonic and creative ideas:

“All of the stuff that came from each of their studios, Sharkbite and Guerrilla, sounded really good, but they also sounded different from each other,” Vandenberg says. “And then what really put things into a tailspin sometimes was not just that the recordings sounded different from each other, but also the guys were taking those tracks and bouncing them around between the four of them, and everyone was tinkering with something differently. That’s not a critical thing either. They’re all artists, and they all bring things to the table.

“Creating a little more cohesiveness sonically evolved naturally out of the first few songs. It was like: I have these four songs and I’ve mixed one, and this is what everyone’s happy with, so now I know more about what to aim for. But I would say that first and foremost, I needed to get the drums to sound similar. I can’t remember if it was Jason or Myles, but one of them had crunchier, more distorted room mics, which was really cool, but the other approach was more clean.

“The sound of the console and the [ATR 102] tape machine I used automatically imparted two identifiable sonic imprints on things, so just the fact that everything was going through those two things made everything more cohesive. Also, I love using the onboard EQs on the Sony, even though they’re not really that popular, and I’m sure that imparted another overall sound. I also used an API 2500 on the 2 mix bus on every song, or almost every song.

“On David Lowery’s vocal, compression is a [UREI] 1176; that’s across the board also. I have a feeling that’s been used on his vocal for a really long time, on lots of the records he’s made. I could be wrong about that, but all I know is the first time I put it on his voice, I was like: Oh—that sounds like David Lowery.”