To say the music industry is stable would be like saying that Ann Coulter has a heart of gold. From constantly changing styles, to the evolving ways in which one can acquire music, the industry proves to be a roller-coaster ride for anyone involved. Add to that the often-heated dynamic of band members, and it becomes surprising that any band can make it five years—much less multiple decades. Despite having had breaks and a number of line-up changes, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker serve as a testimony to the power of persistence and passion. Ziggy’s by the Sea will host Camper and Cracker Sunday, January 12th, taking the port city back to a time when MTV actually played music and a burgeoning alternative-rock scene ruled the airwaves of college radio stations across the country.
Camper first found its footing as a side project for a group of musicians busy with other bands back in 1983. Originally consisting of David Lowery (guitar, lead vocals), Victor Krummenacher (bass), Chris Molla (multi-instrumentalist), David McDaniel (guitar), Bill McDonald (drums), Mike Zorn (harmonica) and Daniel Blume (violin), the band’s formative years held several line-up changes. By 1985 they had traded in McDaniel, McDonald and Zorn for Jonathan Segel (multi-instrumentalist) and Greg Lisher (lead guitar, back-up vocals). Different artists with varying influences that, when combined, melt together into something that’s perfectly imperfect. This dynamic served as a driving force for the band’s schizophrenic sound.
“We all have different influences,” Lisher elaborates, “the small space where they happen to converge is where the weird magic of Camper happens. But it’s organic; it’s not a calculated thing. I’ve always been into stuff like David Sylvian, XTC, Roxy Music, Ryuichi Sakamoto.”
In 1985 Camper saw its first success with “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” The song boasts nonsensical lyrics and typifies the band’s psychedelic, surf-rock vibe. Their tunes blend rock, punk, ska, folk and world music.
Throughout the ‘80s, Camper saw several more line-up changes which resulted in Molla leaving and the inclusion of Chris Penderson on drums. They remained just below the mainstream music scene, though still saw play time on alternative college-rock stations. With songs like their cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted”—which subverted the original’s guitar riffs with the harmonica and traded in the angsty vocals with Lowery’s nonchalant, lackadaisical style—the band held true to its own unique flavor. They saw another minimal success with a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” in the late ‘80s.
By 1990, however, the band dismantled due to internal tensions. Camper’s almost decade-long end allowed Lowery to form Cracker in ’91 with his childhood friend, Johnathan Hickman.
“[Cracker’s influences] number in the hundreds,” Hickman divulges. “But, for guitar-playing and writing, I would put Keith Richards, Jerry Reed, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and David Gilour up near the top.”
Coming around the same time as the grunge scene, the emergence of more modern alternative-rock stations permitted mainstream success for Cracker. Their song “Low”— off their “Kerosene Hat” album and which recently was used in the film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”—remains a staple for establishing the ‘90s era. As well, the band’s greater emphasis on cohesion rather than the eccentric melodies of Camper, distinguished Cracker. Cracker continued to see success throughout the ‘90s with “Shake Some Action” being used in the cult-classic film “Clueless.”
Throughout this time, Camper remained in a dormant state. However, upon the millennium, a reunion culminated.
“For a few years, they did their thing and had a lot of success,” Lisher of Camper explains. “2000 is when [Segel], [Krummenacher] and I went out to Pioneertown, California, for the first time and rehearsed, and then we sat in with Cracker. We also played some Camper songs. It was sort of a trial-run to see how things gelled. Pioneertown is still an important place to us. We put on a festival out in Pioneertown every year called the Campout; it’s in its 10th year now.”
In 2002 Camper put out a song-for-song re-recording of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” before releasing an original recording, “New Roman Times,” in 2004. Cracker also continued churning out new material, as well as a bluegrass fusion with Leftover Salmon in 2003, entitled, “Oh, Cracker, Where Art Thou?”Cracker and Camper have been touring together since.
“[Touring is] usually great, sometimes competitive, but that tends to make us all work harder anyway,” Cracker’s Hickman edifies. “We’ve all know each other for decades now!”
The longevity of both bands remains something at which to marvel. With the ease of music downloads, the entire face of the industry has changed since both bands first stepped onto the scene. The artistic medium’s evolution has compelled Lowery to fight adamantly for artists’ rights, notably posting a heated rebuttal to an NPR intern’s blog about illegally downloading music.
The ways in which the bands record their albums also experienced a marked shift. They no longer have to be in one place to create, which serves Camper well, as the members have other careers, solo records, and several of them now have children. However, dedication to their craft keeps them coming back to something special.
Hickman attributes Cracker’s ability to withstand the test of time to his and Lowery’s veteran status in the music industry. “We’ve seen a lot of bands break up over the most trivial, whiny bullshit,” Hickman states. “When [Lowery] and I started Cracker in ‘91, we were both already pretty experienced with the game, so we agreed early on to stay with it together, through thick and thin, and trust me, it has not been easy. We don’t have to do this; we get to do this as far as I’m concerned. Our egos may clash occasionally, but luckily we are both smart enough to know what we are capable of together, and so do our fans. We have to stay together for the sake of the kids!”
Most recently, Camper released a new album entitled “La Costa Perdida,” which dropped last January. “The writing process was very organic,” Lisher says. “We just got together and bounced ideas off one another until stuff started to build from the ground up. [Lowery] would start with a chord progression, and then Jonathan and I would write melodies. Then, [Krummenacher] would put in a bass line—very collaborative. In the old days, [Lowery] would come in with a lot of the song done and we would just write our parts to fit.”
Port city residents will get the chance to hear the new recordings, as well as old favorites live, when Cracker and Camper come to Ziggy’s by the Sea this Sunday. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 on Sunday. The doors will open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m.
“I think we’re really different bands,” Lisher expresses. “But, it’s awesome that so many people seem to like both of us.”
Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven
Ziggy’s by the Sea • 208 Market St.
Sunday, January 12th, 8 p.m
$17 adv. or $20 day of