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CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN: Retrospective

Angry Confidence, Utter Despair: David Lowery on Camper Van Beethoven
Hearsay #19 / 1998

cvb_andrelansel
"We thought it very strange and very English that a woman came around the Maida Vale studios with a tea cart"

As part of #19’s Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker retrospective, we asked David Lowery to write something about his memories of recording each of the CVB albums. The following reminiscences were duly received with pleasure.

Telephone Free Landslide Victory (IPM, June 1985)
Although Camper had done some home recording before, this was the result of our first proper studio recordings. That said it was done very quickly and cheaply. Bruce Licher from Independent Project Music had heard our demos and told Victor [Krummenacher] he was interested in putting out a CVB record. This was a little amusing to us since CVB was sort of a side band with most of the players having established serious bands of their own. This was in the fall of 1984 sometime. Nevertheless we decided to record a full length LP. Jonathan [Segel] knew that the drummer of Game Theory (Dave Gil) had a fairly cheap 8-track studio, so we booked it and went out to Davis, CA (also Jonathan's hometown, we stayed at his mom's house!) and recorded the entire record and a couple of tracks for II&III in one weekend. With tape costs and fuel the entire budget was about $500.

II&III (Rough Trade, Feb 1986)
This album gets its name from the fact it was kind of two different records. During the spring and summer of 1985 (a couple months after the first LP came out) we worked on some more tunes. Some were left over from the first session in
Davis. Some we recorded in the electronic music lab at UCSC. These tracks were generally more lo-fi and experimental than the stuff recorded in Davis, but I'd be hard pressed to figure out exactly which ones were recorded where. Anthony Guess was no longer playing for us so Chris Molla played most of the drums.
It had been our intention this was to be our second LP, but as the year went on and TFLV gathered momentum, we realised it would probably be a little while before we released another record. Eventually, in the fall we recorded a second batch of songs. Anthony Guess returned to play drums, this time at Tom Fox's studio in nearby Felton. The first song we recorded with him was ZZ Top Goes to
Egypt. We liked this so much we continued to record with Tom for the next few records. Most notable on this record is Greg Lisher's influence on the band. He joined shortly after the first record was recorded.

There are some unusual oddities that should be mentioned. There are actually two editions of this record, the only difference being different versions of Bad Trip. The first version was recorded at the electronic music lab, with Chris Molla playing drums; it's slower and spacier. After the first few pressings—at Rough Trade's request—we used a faster version with Chris Pedersen on drums. In retrospect, I prefer the slower version. Finally, the chorus to Circles is just Oh No from the first record backwards.

Camper Van Beethoven (Rough Trade, Nov 1986)
Recorded during the summer of 1986. This is the record where tensions in the band first began to arise, largely focused on the inclusion of Jonathan and Victor's solo material. My contention was that much of this was not up to the level of our usual collaborations. Nor did I think that many of these songs sounded very much like us. Regardless, two Jonathan solo songs appear on the record: Une Fois and Folly. Of Jonathan's solo stuff, these seemed the strongest and most like the CVB sound of that time. This all seemed like a good compromise and for a time it seemed like the issue would go away.

Honestly we didn't have a lot of ideas for this record. In some ways it seems like our weakest record. Of course, Good Guys and Bad Guys was a big hit for us, but that song was kind of old, pre-dating TFLV. Still, I enjoy some of the filler stuff a lot. I listen to Greg playing lead on Surprise Truck and think of how we pestered him over and over to play with less taste! The tape manipulations that follow are all really inspired, and then when Folly starts coming in backwards at the fade I remember that this was an accident. We'd turned the tape upside down (backwards) and forgotten that Folly was the previous one on the reel. Then of course there is Interstellar Overdrive. Long a live staple for the band, we decided to record it. We'd recently played some with Eugene Chadbourne so we mailed him the tape to overdub guitar solos onto it. A few weeks later we got the tape back with three tracks of guitar chaos. On first listen, Greg Lisher remarked ‘It sounds like The Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon.’

Vampire Can Mating Oven (Rough Trade, 1987) / Camper Vantiquities (IRS, 1993)
This was our last record for Pitch-a-Tent/ Rough Trade. Though we had no contractual obligation we decided to put out one last record through Rough Trade before we began our Virgin contract. Of course, I was reluctant to give up too many new songs for this record with the Virgin debut coming up. So the record ended up a hodge-podge of covers and oddities (even before IRS reconstituted it as Camper Vantiquities). Heart was an outtake from TFLV that we re-recorded, Never Go Back was recorded at the BBC studios in Maida Vale,
London on our first UK tour. We thought it very strange and English that a woman came around the studios with a tea cart. But I think I would buy this record just for the loopiness of Seven Languages... and well then there's Ringo Starr's Photograph. 'Nough said! I don't have a copy of the original but I believe there is no violin on the record.

Six years later, IRS bought the first four records from us, as well as various B-sides and unreleased stuff. Vampire Can Mating Oven was combined with these unreleased tracks and B-sides as Camper Vantiquities. By the way, the title Vampire Can Mating Oven was the derisive name bestowed upon us by Eric Curkendall, singer for Box O' Laffs, my previous band. Very appropriate since we cover a Box O' Laffs song (Ice Cream Everyday) on this record.

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (Virgin, April 1988)
Our first major label record. The first record recorded in 24 track. The first
Hollywood record. We recorded the tracks at Ocean Way. David Lee Roth was down the hall mixing his record. It all seemed so bizarre to us. We were all staying in one room at this shitty hotel down the street from the Hollywood Bowl. There was no escape. Later we began to overdub in Dennis Herring's basement studio, this was just a short walk from the hotel. Things were a little easier when Victor and Chris finished their parts: they went home. We were still living like indie rockers, yet somehow we managed to spend all the advance on the recording. Jonathan made an awesome tape collage for the end of She Divines Water. We stuck in little bits of Michael Stipe's stage banter we had recorded while on tour with them. We got $15 a day for per diems. I would always walk down Hollywood Boulevard to Los Burritos to eat. One night my friend Mary Jean went with me and Greg. For some inexplicable reason she hated Bob Hope. His star is on the way to Los Burritos; she stopped and pissed on his star.

Once again tensions arose within the band. It began at pre-production rehearsals. When we began to pare the list of songs down, Dennis Herring and I (independently) didn't include any of Jonathan's solo songs on our lists and this kind of left Jonathan a little disgruntled. But I don't mean to make it sound like he didn't have a big influence on this record - we co-wrote many songs on this record. At one point he asked Dennis if he could have all the out-take reels from the record. I thought nothing of this but later found out he took them home and recorded his solo record, Storytelling, on these reels.

Key Lime Pie (Virgin, August 1989)
Greg and I started working on songs in the fall of 1988. Early on we worked out Jack Ruby, Sweethearts, All Her Favorite Fruit, The Light from a Cake, When I Win the Lottery and I was Born in a Laundromat. Later Jonathan and I had a conversation about the next record. Two things came up. First, he didn't want to use Dennis Herring or any producer for the next record. He felt we should just produce it ourselves. Second, he didn't want to tour for more than two months for the next record. None of this surprised me. Over the previous year, the other guys in the band had gotten quite serious about their side projects, Victor, Chris and Greg with Monks of Doom, and Jonathan with his band. It seemed ridiculous to me to write songs for a part-time band; ridiculous to go back to making records the way we had in the past. I decided to give him the boot. The other guys reluctantly agreed.

Now I mention all this because there was this background of disintegration and chaos through the whole record. We recorded the basic tracks at the Capitol Records studio, (mainly because I loved the sound of Sinatra's September Of My Years). After we did the basic tracks, Victor and Chris went back home. For the next five months it was pretty much Greg, Dennis and me in the basement studio doing overdubs. The songs were still mostly sketches and really required a lot of thought. At some point during those five months I remember Victor and Chris came down to LA to do a Monks of Doom show. Though they stayed with me at our apartment, they never even came by the overdubs. This shocked me and I realised that perhaps I had led everyone off on some dark tangent. I felt that largely the band did not understand where we were going. This in turn led me to oscillate between an angry confidence and utter despair. Eventually, I felt like it was all coming together. Then finally Virgin, which had been very supportive up till then, suggested we finish our recording of Pictures of Matchstick Men (we'd started to record it for our last record) so they at least had something that had a chance of being played on the radio. At this point I felt we had accomplished pretty much what we set out to do, and the idea of recording something simple and light appealed to me. At this time I took the opportunity to add two songs to the record, Come on Darkness and the Opening Theme.

There were of course some humorous moments. Garth
Hudson came in and played some very weird pump organ on Borderline. The thing was, it took him forever to get ready to play. Finally I realised he was trying to figure out if it was cool for him to smoke pot. I told him it was and the result is the track Interlude.

David Lowery, 1999


More: Camper Van Beethoven interview | David Lowery interview


 

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