"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The qualities that originally made Camper Van Beethoven such a significant force are prominent on New Roman Times, from the modified arena-rock of "White Fluffy Clouds" to the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."