Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven

Cracker, the group that veritably introduced brash irreverence and irony into alt-rock, are back and in top form on their 429 Records debut, Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey.

This rich new trove of sharp-witted songs showcases a bristling, late 70’s – early 80’s power pop punk aesthetic which hits as hard as it did at the band’s formation 17 years ago. Eight albums (one platinum and three gold) and a barrel full of anthemic hit songs later, Cracker endures, using their ability to weave decades of influences into an album that is seamlessly riveting.

In Sunrise…, long-time partners David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, 12-year Cracker drummer Frank Funaro and bassist Sal Maida (since 2006), train a watchful eye on the current socio-musical landscape as they weave an eerie yet strangely soothing story of escapism, apocalypse and renewal. Friends John Doe, Patterson Hood and Adam Duritz (whose mega-band Counting Crows was once produced by Lowery) make spirited guest appearances. The recording was helmed by Athens, GA-based producer/engineer David Barbe, a longtime friend of Lowery who has manned consoles for the likes of Son Volt and the alt-Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers.

The explosive title track that wraps the 11-song collection is thematic, belying its seemingly cheery title to take a tough-edged look at the precarious times we live in. Ever the observant storyteller, Lowery calls it like he sees it: the affluence and wealth America seemed to have these past decades was built on a mirage. The sun shines a harsh light on a landscape of decay. The golden age, the promised land, the land of milk and honey, never materialized.

For Sunrise…, Lowery and Hickman took a new approach to their creative process, joining Funaro and Maida to write most songs from scratch. (Whereas on previous albums, Lowery and Hickman would bring near-finished tracks to the rest of the band.) Cracker were self-disciplined— writing together one week every two months, between tours, for a year. The goal was to work on two songs per day—and somehow, the combined force of their distinctive and mutual influences gave rise to a crackling, raw musical factory of sorts.

Says Lowery, “The coolest part of making the new album was the self-imposed time structure we created, the fact that we all gathered to write these songs like it was an actual job. At one point, when we had four songs that needed lyrics, Johnny and I went to the legendary punk studio, The Blasting Room, in Ft. Collins CO, and rented the B room, where we stayed until we had the right words. It was refreshing to do it this way, to challenge ourselves to write with the clock ticking. It was like starting a band and committing to a rehearsal time. We weren’t kicking back on an island in the Caribbean, waiting for the muse to hit us. We got down to work, found the punk and glam rock in our blood and woke up to Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey.”

Considering drummer Funaro’s background playing with The Dictators and Joey Ramone, and bassist Maida’s background with Roxy Music and Sparks, it was inevitable that the new album would acquire its own unique edge.

“It was a little different involving Frank and Sal’s musical tastes and their background from the get-go,” says Lowery, “but this led us to realize the common element we all share. We all came of age playing power pop-punk and that early new wave stuff. Once we got on this path, it started surfacing in so many songs that it became a thematic element for the whole project. We all started playing music in that era so we weren’t surprised when those sounds started rising up. Sunrise…isn’t the ‘Cracker punk record’ but it’s definitely got that time stamp, the ’78-’83 flavors, all over it. The other thing we did differently was actually playing all the songs in concert before ever committing them to digital. Most bands do the album first, then take the tunes on the road.”

“In a lot of ways, the methodology behind this album brought us all back to when we all started our early bands, when the opportunity to write and record albums came after playing tons of live shows,” adds the Richmond, VA-based singer. “I think one of the reasons Cracker has survived this long when so many of the bands that started in the early 90s faded is that we’ve always made the record we want to hear right now. We’ve always had the belief and confidence that others will feel like we do. Eclecticism was the norm for bands in the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s, and that freedom leads to great bursts of creativity and the potential to make classic albums that stand the test of time.”

The first album track explodes with a slicing guitar riff from Hickman. “Yalla Yalla” is a colorful rumination on an Arabic phrase meaning, “Let’s go.” Lowery heard U.S. soldiers greeting each other this way at the Atlanta airport. “Like rock musicians, soldiers in every era have their own language of bravado and machismo,” he says. The band dives deep into the punk on the frenetic “Show Me How This Thing Works,” a song inspired by Lowery helping a friend with a quantitative finance problem; the singer is proud that he was once a budding mathematician.

“Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me” is a lilting pop/rock reminder that in these precarious times, many may feel like returning to the bold escapism of the 60s, of the hippies who left the rat race behind to “drop out” into spiritual refuge. The blistering “Hand Me My Inhaler” finds its hapless protagonist blustering at an ex-girlfriend's door, “gonna reform the band without you." Hickman says of the blues-funk “I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right,” “When I hand David a melody like this one, I have no idea where he’s going to take it, and I love that. Suddenly the devil and members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were caught up together in some sort of a psychedelic love conspiracy.”

“Time Machine,” a black-booted, Celtic-riffed, early-punk kick to the jaw of any pretenders, was inspired by a conversation Hickman had with Black Flag and Descendants drummer Bill Stevenson (who co-founded The Blasting Room studios). Hickman and Stevenson both realized that they had been caught up in the same early 80s punk rock riot at a legendary Dead Kennedys show. It’s a message to today's punks that they perhaps couldn’t have survived what the previous generation endured. “I took a couple of billy club hits that night,” Hickman says, “I got off easy.”

Punk-and-now-Americana legend John Doe harmonizes on the throbbing, surf guitar driven, “We All Shine a Light.” This swarming, Buzzcocks-like rocker is a comment on multicuturalism and tolerance, by way of an ode to Pakistan’s cricket team, the Peshawar Panthers. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers duets with Lowery on the swampy, folk-Americana of “Friends,” a drunken tale of dysfunctional but loving friendship. One of the album’s more poignant moments arrives when Adam Duritz guests, singing alongside Lowery on the romantically selfless “Darling One.”

The stomping, harmonica-laden “Hey Brett, You Know What Time It Is” came from a sardonic line uttered to Lowery by Built To Spill’s Brett Netson, during an exchange of ever-escalating shockeries. Lowery recalls, “He walked into our dressing room and joked, ‘Will we know when it's time to start dragging rich people from their cars and killin' em'?’ For Frank and me, it grew into a text message exchange and later a song.”

A brief rundown of Cracker’s history: Lowery, in the mid-80s, in Santa Cruz, California, formed Camper Van Beethoven, and their “Take the Skinheads Bowling” became an instant college radio staple. When CVB disbanded on tour in Sweden, following their second major label release, Lowery formed Cracker with his longtime friend Johnny Hickman. (The pair had met on the local music scene as teenagers in Redlands, CA.) Cracker’s emergent sound had less in common with Camper’s exotic excursions and was more in synch with the Kinks and Southern roots music. They released their self-titled debut on Virgin, and following the #1 Modern Rock hit “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now),” the band became a minor commercial sensation (complete with then-significant MTV exposure). The platinum-selling Kerosene Hat contained the enormous, era-defining hit single “Low,” as well as “Get Off This,” and “Eurotrash Girl.” When the dust settled, Cracker found themselves with an ever-growing, devoted following both in the U.S. (where fans refer to themselves as Crumbs) and throughout Europe. Today the band stays well connected to yet another generation of fans via internet, many of whom were kids when these alt-rock godfathers were first ruling rock radio.

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."

$25 ADV - $27 DOOR

Tickets Available at the Door

add to your calendar

Who’s Going

Upcoming Events
The Independent

Ticketfly

Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven

Saturday, December 28 · Doors 8:30 PM / Show 9:00 PM at The Independent

Tickets Available at the Door