Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven

Cracker‘s tenth and most recent studio effort, the double-album, Berkeley To Bakersfield, finds this uniquely American band traversing two different sides of the California landscape – the northern Bay area and further down-state in Bakersfield.

Despite being less than a five-hour drive from city to city, musically, these two regions couldn’t be further apart from one another. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s a harder-edged style of rock music emerged from the Bay area, while Bakersfield is renowned for its own iconic twangy country music popularized, most famously, by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet despite these differences, they are both elements that Cracker’s two cofounders, David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, have embraced to some degree on nearly every one of their studio albums over the last two decades. On Berkeley To Bakersfield, however, instead of integrating these two genres together within one disc, they’ve neatly compartmentalized them onto their own respective regionally-titled LPs.

As Lowery explains, “On the Berkeley disc the band is the original Cracker lineup – Davey Faragher, Michael Urbano, Johnny and myself. This is the first time this lineup has recorded together in almost 20 years. We began recording this album at East Bay Recorders in Berkeley, CA. For this reason we chose to stylistically focus this disc on the music we most associate with the East Bay: Punk and Garage with some funky undertones. To further match our sense of place we often took an overtly political tone in the lyrics.”

“This Bakersfield disc represents the ‘California country’ side of the band. Throughout the band’s 24-year history we’ve dabbled in Country and Americana but this time we wanted to pay homage to the particular strain of Country and Country-Rock music that emerges from the inland valleys of California.”

Cracker has been described as a lot of things over the years: alt-rock, Americana, insurgent-country, and have even had the terms punk and classic-rock thrown at them. But more than anything Cracker are survivors. Cofounders Lowery and Hickman have been at it for a quarter of a century – amassing ten studio albums, multiple gold records, thousands of live performances, hit songs that are still in current radio rotation around the globe (“Low,” “Euro-Trash Girl,” “Get Off This” and “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me” to name just a few), and a worldwide fan base – that despite the major sea-changes within the music industry – continues to grow each year.

Camper Van Beethoven

We didn't want to jump right back in and make that 'Bad Reunion Record' that most bands make when they try to reform. We were more concerned with getting used to each other and figuring out that we could still make music together, before we made a big deal out of announcing that we were back."

So says David Lowery of the extended gestation period that preceded New Roman Times, Camper Van Beethoven's first album of new material since reuniting after a decade-long hiatus.

In the second half of the 1980s, Camper Van Beethoven-David Lowery (vocals, guitar), Victor Krummenacher (bass, vocals), Greg Lisher (guitar), Jonathan Segel (violin, guitar, keyboards) and Chris Pedersen (drums), plus late addition David Immerglück (guitar and various stringed instruments) -- was one of its era's most original and influential indie rock bands. The quintet effortlessly combined an iconoclastic, irony-laced lyrical stance with a free-spirited eclecticism that encompassed a dizzying array of stylistic influences, from punk to folk to psychedelia to all manner of world music. Camper's visionary embrace of disparate genres established them as innovators, while their songs' combination of barbed satire and poignant humanism stymied those who'd attempt to pigeonhole them as a mere novelty.

The qualities that originally made Camper Van Beethoven such a significant force are prominent on New Roman Times, from the modified arena-rock of "White Fluffy Clouds" to the country-psychedelia "That Gum You Like is Back in Style" to the smooth Balkan ska of "Might Makes Right" to the jittery hoedown of "Militia Song" to the airy country balladry of "New Roman Times" to the dirge-like psychedelia of "The Long Plastic Hallway" to the Tex-Mex lilt of "Los Tigres Traficantes" to the widescreen '70s-cop-show-funk of "Civil Disobedience" to the apocalyptic danceability of "Discotheque CVB."

New Roman Times is perhaps Camper Van Beethoven's most musically accomplished and conceptually ambitious effort to date. The album -- on the band's own Pitch-A-Tent label, the same imprint that issued much of Camper's seminal '80s work -- is a vivid, emotion-charged song cycle that merges the group's sense of musical adventure with a fanciful rock-opera storyline that's rife with parallels to America's current political landscape.

New Roman Times is Camper Van Beethoven's first major recording project since the band quietly reunited in 2000 to share some live bills with Lowery's popular post-Camper outfit Cracker. The resurgent combo's performances were rapturously received by longtime fans and new admirers alike. But, rather than rushing to cash in, they chose to wait before recording a new album, instead releasing a pair of unconventional archival releases. Those discs -- 1999's Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead, a collection of rarities and live tracks retooled into a suitelike sonic opus, and 2002's Tusk, a distinctive song-for-song remake of the Fleetwood Mac album of the same title -- functioned as a test runs for the reunited bandmates, allowing them to rekindle their collaborative rapport in a relatively low-key manner.

"We just wanted to make sure it was gonna work, before we actually came out and said, 'Hey, we're a band again,'" Segel explains. "The thing that was nice was that when we actually did start writing and playing and working together in the studio again, it came together really quickly."

"It didn't pick up where it left off," Lowery points out. "It picked up as if there was 15 years of us making records in between. Because that's what we were doing, we just weren't doing it together. So it's as if we had this imaginary band history in between Key Lime Pie and New Roman Times, and all of the stuff we'd been doing in the interim is reflected on this record."

"We'd all been making all different kinds of records," Segel notes. "So now we have an expanded vocabulary to drawn on, and I think you can hear that."

In addition to its expanded musical palette, New Roman Times features an elaborate -- but unobtrusive -- storyline set in a parallel-reality America that nonetheless bears a disturbing resemblance to our own.

"It didn't really start as a concept record, but we noticed that some themes were developing, and at some point it became a rock opera," says Lowery. "We didn't want to make it an overt comment on the current political climate, so we made up a fictional North America in which there's many different countries that fight each other every once in a while, and Texas has gone neo-fascist and California has had a civil war. The main character is a soldier from the Fundamentalist Christian Republic of Texas, and the songs follow this solider and other people through the story. But it's not really that serious -- there's space aliens, and we blow up the disco at the end."

"I think that the songs stand on their own, regardless of the storyline," Segel adds. "I also think the album's got a good balance of seriousness and absurdity, because you've got to have an element of uplift to balance the darker stuff. The world right now is very surreal and tragic, yet human beings are still capable of amazing things. I think that this album is pretty hopeful, not just in terms of the message -- which might be hard to pick out among the cynicism and sarcasm and the oblique references -- but also in the energy of the music."

New Roman Times was recorded over the course of a year, both in the band's home state of California and at Lowery's Sound of Music Studios in his adopted home base of Richmond, Virginia. In a nod to Camper history, fabled early member Chris Molla ("He's our Syd Barrett," according to Lowery) contributed the instrumental theme "Sons of the Golden West." In a nod to inter-band solidarity, Lowery's Cracker partner Johnny Hickman contributes backing vocals. And Lowery's studio partner Miguel Urbiztondo provided additional drumming after Pedersen -- who currently resides in Australia -- had to head home.

"New Roman Times is probably bigger and denser than your typical record label would have advised us to make our reunion record," Lowery says. "But we have a certain way of working, and when you fuck with that, it fucks up the music. Having five or six people making decisions in the band is always a challenge, but it's also a great thing. With this record, we didn't want to fight about it, so we just left everything on there. And I think that actually helps us, because nobody is making records like this now."

Camper Van Beethoven have always been rule-breaking outsiders, even by indie-underground standards. "The reason Camper originally came to exist," Lowery asserts, "was because we were rebelling against the dogma of punk rock and post-punk-rock. To us, rock had started out as a very eclectic musical form that incorporated all different kinds of things. But by 1982, punk rock had adopted all these strict rules, which rubbed us the wrong way. So we always saw ourselves as being in a tradition of classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Little Feat, The Kinks and The Beatles, who were comfortable trying different kinds of things. We came right at the end of the first generation of the hardcore/punk-rock thing, and our earliest supporters were people who liked the Dead Kennedys. And then we came into what became indie rock, where we were basically running around throwing little musical molotov cocktails."

Camper Van Beethoven's first three albums -- Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985), II & III (1986) and Camper Van Beethoven (1986) -- won widespread critical acclaim and took the emerging college-radio underground by storm, helping the band to build a large and loyal fan base. Camper further expanded its audience -- and its artistic reach -- after signing with Virgin Records and releasing 1988's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and 1989's Key Lime Pie.

"In a way, each record we've made has been kind of a high concept," Lowery observes. "The first one was playing with all these things like ska and norteno, which were the roots of the punk rock and new wave explosion that we knew. On the second record, we were playing with '60s West Coast garage sensibilities. Then by the time we did the third album, we sort of had a sound, so we started playing with our own sound. And New Roman Times is our prog-rock concept album."

Camper Van Beethoven splintered after Key Lime Pie, but its members continued to pursue their unpredictable muses in a variety of worthy projects. Lowery has released five albums with Cracker and carved out a parallel career as producer, working with such notable acts as Sparklehorse and FSK. Segel has pursued a rewardingly idiosyncratic solo career, both under his own name and leading the bands Hieronymus Firebrain and Jack & Jill. Krummenacher, Lisher, Pederson and Immerglück formed the prog-rocking Monks of Doom, after which Krummenacher and Lisher launched productive solo recording careers on Segel and Krummenacher's boutique label, Magnetic, while Immerglück emerged as an in-demand sideman with the likes of John Hiatt and Counting Crows.

Meanwhile, Camper Van Beethoven's influence grew even stronger during the years in which the band was inactive. "It's like the best career move we ever made was to go away for awhile," says Lowery. "Camper Van Beethoven has sold more records since we broke up than we ever did when we were together. We're now known the world over -- I'm talking about India, Indonesia, Chile, Panama. Our songs have been covered by all kinds of different bands in all kinds of different ways. We've kind of been embraced by the hippie/jam-band thing, with people like Phish and moe. playing our songs, and there's a certain thread of the punk-rock/emo bands that have cited us in interviews or covered our songs."

Indeed, much has changed in the years that Camper Van Beethoven was dormant. The emergence of the internet, as well as the loosening of the major labels' stranglehold on the marketplace, now allows the group to operate effectively on a grass-roots level rather than relying on corporate life support. "The bottlenecks that you used to have to overcome to reach your fans don't really exist anymore," Lowery says. "From the beginning, Camper's thing has always been 'We're not gonna be popular, but we're gonna try our best. We're gonna turn over every rock, we're gonna look in every nook and cranny, to find every person who shares our sensibility. It's a lot easier to do that now."

Indeed, the times seem to have come around to Camper Van Beethoven's way of thinking. "I think it's a great time for us now," states Segel. "We can run our own labels and make the music that we want to, without worrying about convincing other people that it will sell. And we've got the freedom to do other things. David can still make Cracker records, and I can go play improvised electronic noise music. We're just having a lot of fun making music together. We've had our personal differences, but we're over them now. We were young men, and young men are assholes, and if you're lucky, you grow out of that. When you start out, being in a band is like being in a gang, but we're much more like musicians now. We couldn't have written this record in 1985, and we definitely couldn't have played it then."

Leaving Springfield

Born in the buckle of the 'Bible-belt' and now calling 'Sin City' their home, Leaving Springfield is a band that draws comparison to Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, and Social Distortion. Proudly wearing their influences on their sleeves, Leaving Springfield brings a sonic wall of big drums, loud guitars, and lyrics that are tormented, twisted, and usually with tongue planted firmly in cheek. With two EP's and two full-length CD's under their belt, Matt Norcross (drums, keyboards, vocals) and Brent 'BK' Kessler (guitar, bass, vocals) have established themselves as a songwriting tour-de-force, and their live performances will leave you wondering how two people can make that much sound.

The summer of 2006 found Las Vegas musicians Brent 'BK' Kessler and Matt Norcross both searching for new musical horizons.

"I had been in a band for about four years that had finally called it quits. BK had played in that band for about the last four months that the band was together. That's the first time we had played together."

Matt had several side projects going at this time, one of which was with with guitarist/vocalist Jeff Scott Carlson.

"Jeff and Matt were just starting to rehearse and put songs together when I ran into Jeff at a club. He said he and Matt were looking for a bass player and I told him I'd play bass for them and it was just kind of a done deal. Of course, the truth is, is that I didn't even own a bass at that time. So the minute I got home I ordered a bass online and hoped it would arrive before we were supposed to rehearse. I suppose deceit is as good a way to get into a band as any!"

By the fall of 2006, the band, now calling themselves Leaving Springfield (a tribute to the fact that they were all displaced Midwesterners) were ready to begin recording their first EP. In true rock and roll fashion, Carlson left the band shortly before the sessions were to begin. Finding themselves without a guitar player or vocalist, Norcross refused to halt the progress they had been making.

"Matt said we should do the songs I wrote and that I should play guitar and sing. It seemed more like a dare than a request. So that's exactly what we did. We set up a studio in a warehouse and recorded the six songs that are on the first EP."

The next hurdle was performing the music live. As a two piece band, it seemed obvious that they needed additional personnel or would have to resort to playing with pre-recorded tracks. In the end, they decided to do neither.

"BK's kind of an evil-genius/techno-nerd. He designed a guitar pickup and then an amp setup that basically allows him to play bass and guitar and the same time. We didn't want to be a two-piece band that was a novelty act, we wanted to be a band that just happened to have only two members."

"It was kind of awkward at first," says BK. "It took several months and lots of shows before the guitar/bass system had the bugs worked out of it. We'd play and people would just kind of look at us like something was going on but they couldn't put their finger on it. After finally getting the system dialed in, we played a small club in Vegas and the other bands on the bill were standing by the side of the stage trying to figure out where all the sound was coming from. That's when I knew it was going to work. That we could be a band just the two of us."

Most of the music on the Leaving Springfield EP, were songs penned by BK. Two notable exceptions, Pretty, Skinny, and Blond, and irreverent Negative Attention, were the first collaborations between BK and Matt.

"Even now, when I go back and listen to that EP, those two songs stick out. Those were the two songs everyone picked up on and it was obvious that those songs were an indication of where the band was heading. Sure, I was bringing the songs in, but Matt would change things and add little parts that took them to another level. Everything I had been writing in the previous year or two was just laborious, self-indulgent, ten-minute songs that were about as exciting as toast. But when we wrote those two songs, I felt like I was playing in the my first garage band all over again. I couldn't put down the guitar."

One song that was not included on the EP was a tribute to legendary Southern California TV weatherman, Johnny Mountain.

"Matt was out in L.A., and drunk dialed me at about 4am yelling about how cool this weatherman was and how I needed to write a song about him. Now, I had lived in L.A. and knew who Johnny Mountain was, and yes, he's the Steve McQueen of weathermen. But it was 4am and I really didn't care. However, being unable to get back to sleep and I now have the name Johnny Mountain racing through my head, I got up, grabbed a guitar and wrote the song in about five minutes. Once Matt got back to town, we tweaked it and were eager to add it to the EP."

The band quickly went into the studio with the intention of adding Johnny Mountain and a couple other tunes to the EP. However, legal details delayed the process and prevented the song from being added.

"BK and I thought it would be great if we actually got Johnny Mountain to do a voice-over or cameo on the track. We pursued this for months and finally got a response from the CBS affiliate in LA, stating that they would not give us permission to use his name, likeness, image, etc., in conjunction with the track. However, they did wish us good luck with the project!"

The band scrapped parts of the vocal tracks and changed the name of the song from Johnny Mountain to Johnny Sunshine. Even though the track was not included on the EP, the song did open a lot of doors for the band. It was included in the Smash magazines’ Viva Rock Vegas compilation CD and the band began appearing as a support act for such bands as The Start, The Rev. Horton Heat, and Cowboy Mouth

By the time Leaving Springfield was released in April of 2007, most of the songs for 2008's And Leave all this Behind were already written.

"At one point we had to make a decision to stop writing songs while rehearsing for shows. We were spending so much time on new material that we found ourselves forgetting the songs we were suppose to be promoting! We had plenty of material to choose from when we went in to record the next record."

In picking songs for that album, the band choose to re-record Pretty, Skinny, and Blonde and Negative Attention and include them on the CD.

"We felt like they were a part of that first group of songs that we wrote as a team, so that's why we wanted to included them on the And Leave All This Behind CD."

Other favorites from the And Leave All This Behind CD included Leela - a love song to the Cyclops hottie from Futurama, I'll Spin - an anthem for every nerd who knows there's a debonair ladies man somewhere inside them, and Burn Alive - a plea for attention from a dark place.

To some there has been a bit of confusion as to the name of the first full-length CD. Some call it The New Album and some call it And Leave All This Behind.

"We were in the middle of mixing down the CD and BK asked a crowd what we should call the new album. Some of our hardcore fans shouted back, 'The New Album!' We thought that was funny so we called it The New Album. However, that name became a who's-on-first routine when it came to sales on the internet. So to reduce the confusion, we changed it to And Leave All This Behind. The phrase, fortunately, also happened to be on the CD artwork. But to us and the superfans, it's still The New Album."

2009's Tragic As We Speed Away release found the band with a slightly harder-edged sound that was more in keeping with their live show. One notable exception was the dark and haunting Lost. A song heavily layered in keyboards, Lost was one of the few songs with a guitar solo. It was also an immediate favorite among the fans.

"We put Lost on the Tragic CD because we thought it was a good song, but we also thought it would add a little spice to the CD. You know, just something a little different. We never expected the response that it generated, and BK and I hadn’t thought about playing it live. Once the response ton the CD started coming back, we knew we would have to play it. It took a lot of time to figure out an arrangement that stayed true to the song, but could still be pulled off by two people. The response we get from that song live is amazing. I switch from keys to drums halfway through the song -- it's almost a circus act to pull it off, but it's worth it."

Other favorites from the Tragic CD are Love Smells Like Avon and Cigarettes - a tribute to ladies with county-jail tattoos, swap meet hair extensions and tube tops, Cocktail Cool - because all you really need is a silk smoking jacket and a martini to be cool like Michael Caine, and Walk On By - a song about being stalked by 40-something, botox'd-up soccer moms.

Late in 2009, the band offered download-only EP For Some We Still Wait; a collection of songs written about a wounded soldiers' return from the Iraq. The EP is only available as a free-download from their website (leavingspringfield.com).

"We were going to put some of these songs on the Tragic CD, but Matt and I felt like they told a story and kind of stood on their own. I had seen a news story on a kid that came home from Iraq in pretty bad shape and it just kind of stuck with me. We decided to make the For Some We Still Wait EP available as a free download. When you go to our website, you’ll find a link to the Nevada Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. It’s a great charity that helps injured veterans right here in Nevada. It was our hope that as people download the EP, they'll check out the PVA website and find a way to help them help others."

As the summer of 2010 approaches, the band is currently in pre-production on its' fifth release.

"Going into the studio is like taking a road trip without a map -- you don't know how the songs are going to evolve until it's done. Let the madness begin."

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