The year: 1985. In the Oval Office sat the star of Bedtime for Bonzo, preaching the imminent apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil when he wasn't popping jelly beans or napping through arms-for-hostages deals. Out of Santa Cruz, California, came Camper Van Beethoven, whose blend of ska- and Slavic-folk-tinged garage rock and odd, often nonsensical, lyrics -- consider the band's most famous song, "Take The Skinheads Bowling": "I had a dream, I wanted to sleep next to plastic/I had a dream, I wanted to lick your knees/I had a dream, it was about nothing" -- made its debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, an ideal soundtrack for such surreal times.
Fast forward to 2004. In the Oval Office, because a few hundred Floridians didn't punch their ballots all the way through, sits a Yale and Harvard alum, a failed wildcat oilman and the former owner of baseball's Texas Rangers, preaching an endless apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil when he's not eyeing the dish of peppermint candies during cabinet meetings. Time again for Camper Van Beethoven?
"Of course any of [our] songs that have a slight political sentiment from the 1980s, from the Reagan era, seem to be working really well again now," laughs violinist Jonathan Segel, on the phone from Montreal, Quebec, where Camper Van Beethoven is touring in support New Roman Times, its first album of all-new material in fifteen years. "I mean, it's not only the political situation that's analogous," Segel continues, "but the record-company situation is analogous, in a way, because we're not on a major label. We're touring in the same way that we did in 1985."
(Segel's last statement soon proves true in the worst possible way. Not two hours after this interview, he posts on Camper Van Beethoven's official Web site the news that almost all of the band's gear and merchandise has been stolen. He asks anyone with information to contact the band through www.campervanbeethoven.com or notify the Montreal police.)
It would make for a tidy story to claim that Camper Van Beethoven has come full circle -- that, like its fellow sui generis 1980s indie luminaries, the Pixies, the band has reunited for a well-deserved victory lap. Yet while the members of Camper Van Beethoven flirted with mainstream success -- "Take The Skinheads Bowling" became a fixture on Dr. Demento's radio show; they signed with Virgin records; a cover of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" received some MTV play -- they never quite broke through, and while touring behind their second Virgin release and fifth album, 1989's Key Lime Pie, they called it quits. By the mid-'90s, their early work was mostly out of print, and for a new generation of listeners they were known as "Cracker lead singer David Lowery's old band" -- if they were known at all. According to Segel, the crowds on Camper Van Beethoven's current tour reflect this gap in the historical record. "[They] are generally people our age, and people half our age," he says with equal parts surprise and bemusement. "I don't think we're getting a whole lot of people who [were] getting into the music scene in the '90s coming to the Camper concerts."
Maybe the problem is Camper Van Beethoven's unique sound. No one has made records like theirs, and while it seems like every new band claims the Pixies' influence, no one could claim Camper Van Beethoven's -- not when, on any of their albums, and sometimes in a single song, they could veer from traditional styles to those unheard of on this planet (the sort-of self-explanatory instrumental "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt," for one).
Fortunately, in 2002 Cooking Vinyl released Cigarettes & Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years, a box set containing Camper Van Beethoven's first three albums, a rarities collection and a live record. Segel explains that this and other archival releases -- including a previously unreleased track-for-track remake of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk -- led to their new work. "[Cooking Vinyl] put out this box set, so we thought, 'Well, we'll do some shows as Camper Van Beethoven,' and we got together playing the old material, and that felt amazing," he says. "And at that point we thought, 'Well, if we're going to continue to do this, we're going to have to write new material.'"
Nowhere is Camper Van Beethoven's renewed energy and ambition more apparent than in the structure of New Roman Times: It's a concept album, a science-fiction rock opera set in a parallel America that's fractured into warring states, that loosely tells the story of a young Texan who joins the army, loses his foot, is hired by shadowy intelligence agents, gets hooked on drugs, joins a group of rebels in California and is killed (maybe) when the rebels' discotheque is blown up.
This being Camper Van Beethoven, of course, the concept is not overly serious: There are space aliens, after all, and "that strange Québécois girl from Cirque du Soleil." In "Hippy Chix," the soldier takes the rebel's oath, swearing, "We might stop and surf a bit/But we would die for hippy chix."
But it's not overly silly, either -- particularly in the title track, in which the maimed young soldier bemoans his life after war: "I'm living in a town out on/the Big Rio Bend/My caseworker is always drunk/And my wife don't give a shit."
As Segel says, "It may be a concept record, but all the songs can actually be taken by themselves." In fact, the songs, individually and collectively, are the strongest that Camper Van Beethoven has recorded. "New Roman Times" and the stunning "That Gum You Like Is Back in Style" are lush country ballads tinged with a druggy haze, while "The Long Plastic Highway," "White Fluffy Clouds" and "Hippie Chix," driven by Greg Lisher's furious guitar, rock harder than anything in Camper's old discography. The Unabomber gets his own song, and it features the album's best vintage Camper Van Beethoven deadpan-ridiculous lyric: "Studied mathematics at Berkeley/Now I don't like society."
New Roman Times features the core members of Camper Van Beethoven -- Segel, Lowery, guitarist Lisher, bassist Victor Krummenacher and drummer Chris Pederson, along with later member David Immerglück and a cameo by original member Chris Molla -- and their rapport is so tight that you might imagine fifteen years' worth of unreleased Camper Van Beethoven albums in a vault somewhere, but Segel believes that the new album's flavor is as much a product of the fifteen-year separation.
"We've all been making music in the interim in all of our different forms and our different bands and stuff like that, so coming back together, the chemistry of working with these people was still there, and our creative methods were still there, but in funny ways," he says. "It's just probably because we're all older and different musicians," he adds. "We've been playing for longer, and obviously we're the same people as we were back in [the early years of] Camper Van Beethoven, but it's with the addition of more years under our belt."