|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
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
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.
MIXING CAMPER’S LA COSTA PERDIDA
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
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
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.”