WAY BACK IN THE HALCYON DAZE OF 1987, SANTA CRUZ, CAspawned indie rock quintet Camper Van Beethoven -- whose first taste of success came with their 1985 debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory, thanks to the ska-inflected sarcasm of "Take the Skinheads Bowling," their big college-radio "hit" -- got the bug lamp of an idea to re-record Fleetwood Mac's shining monument to '70s rock excess, Tusk, in its entirety.
They were already three albums deep into their own kaleidoscopic career, and the then-happy Campers would release their first major-label effort, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the next year. In the wake of the follow-up, Key Lime Pie, the band splintered. Violinist Jonathan Segel, bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist Greg Lisher recorded a pair of freewheeling discs under the Monks of Doom moniker. Singer-songwriter-guitarist David Lowery formed the sardonic, rootsy Cracker and earned a fistful of "modern-rock" hits -- "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," "Euro-Trash Girl," "I Hate My Generation" -- and one semi-pop smash, "Low," over a four-album major-label stint.
Which partially explains why the Tusk sessions sat on the shelf until Pitch-A-Tent Records started selling the disc via its Web site about the time a reunited Camper Van Beethoven played the Knitting Factory in New York a couple of months back. (They'll reprise this reunion -- complete with Camper's second drummer, Chris Pederson, and current Cracker keyboardist Kenny Margolis -- at the venue's Los Angeles branch on August 28 and 29; it's their first local performance in 13 years.)
"Why Tusk?" Lowery stifles a dry chuckle. "Well, Camper always did things our peers thought were uncool." Such as covering Ringo Starr's "Photograph," Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" and the traditional "O Death" -- in the last case, long before the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack?
"Yeah, but it was mostly Jonathan who had this obsession with Tusk, because it represented all the stuff that went wrong with rock, which was also what was great about the record." Another dry chuckle. "But there were songs on the record that we genuinely liked, 'cause we were all into Lindsey Buckingham. We did about four or five songs from Tusk in New York along with a smattering of stuff from all our records, and we'll probably do the same thing in L.A.
"The thing that's more interesting to me than the 'Why?,'" Lowery continues, "is the fact that we actually got almost all the way through it." He explains that a couple of songs in particular required some severe sonic tweaking. "For example, on 'Sisters,' we took the intro and that little drum-machine thing, looped it, and typed the words into a program on my iBook and had the iBook just read the words in that 'Victoria' voice, which wasn't built-in in 1987." He laughs again.
"But Camper's always had this enduring following that doesn't seem to be diminishing over time. And because we were always experimenting, trying stupid things, there were a lot of unreleased tracks. We got sick of seeing 'em traded over eBay and stuff like that, so two years ago we put out most of the best of them on Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead. And now there's Tusk. We're currently going through all these vintage live tapes -- largely it's the last show Camper ever did -- and we're going to release that next."
He adds that the first four Camper albums -- all but the debut are currently out of print -- are slated for reissue as a box set by U.K.-based Cooking Vinyl next year.
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"AS FAR AS OUR SO-CALLED LEGACY GOES," LOWERY sighs, "I don't know. There haven't been that many covers of our songs. The guys in Uncle Tupelo have told me how much Camper meant to them, but so have Third Eye Blind." Another laugh. "So how do you gauge that stuff? By record sales? Taste?"
Truthfully, Camper's sound is far too idiosyncratic to be either easily replicated or watered down into a commercial hybrid. Imagine a bunch of psychedelically informed, raised-on-classic-rock indie kids raiding the world-music bins and forming a party band that emphasized pop craftsmanship and dry wit in equal portions . . .
"It's even hard for us to define who we are," Lowery muses. "But when we played New York, there were lots of younger people there who were 5 or 6 when we first started making records back in 1985, and they knew all the words and were singing along. And not just the songs that were played on the radio; ballads like 'One of These Days,' 'All Her Favorite Fruits' and 'Sad Lovers Waltz' seemed to have gained a lot more import in the last 10 years."
Camper Van Beethoven appear at the Knitting Factory, Wednesday and Thursday, August 28 and 29.