Camper were a motley collective of Bay Area weirdos who'd been there from the beginning of the whole movement, inadvisably yet irresistibly mixing up ska, folk, and punk, with a full-time violin player to boot. They jumped ship from the indies to Virgin Records, and their major-label debut, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988), earned them a few more fans and a little exposure on MTV. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't anything that would outshine their scrappier early material. ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," released in 1985, is probably still their most played song.)
By the time Key Lime Pie came out, the group had jettisoned two of their earliest members, guitarist Chris Molla and Segel, with the parts Segel had written for the album's demos having been tossed in favor of in-studio bits by his replacement, Morgan Fichter. After about a year of touring, the band collapsed.
That was around the time Segel finally gave the record a listen. "I sort of hid from it for probably a good year. I think I was in [Bay Area music attorney and manager] Barry Simons's office, and he had a cassette of Key Lime Pie sitting there, like a promo cassette from Virgin. I was like, 'Oh, I've never heard it,' and grabbed it. He'd already listened to the first side, so when I put it in the car stereo, the first song I heard was 'June.' I thought it was the best thing that Camper had ever done. I was really bummed not to have been a part of that."
Segel wrote Lowery a letter to let him know as much, but it sat unopened at Lowery's home while Camper were out on the tour where they imploded for good. "He got back from all that and got this letter and thought I was making fun of him because the band had just broken up."
Although Segal had had a hand in getting the songs together, the final product was new territory. Fans will naturally have a soft spot for the quirkier stuff in Camper's earlier days, but this was a band finding their footing. Styles didn't hop around so much. Songs looked somberly inward through tangles of Pynchon-esque allusion and sarcastic po-culture references, trying on personas that were a little exotic but never too far from home. The political-conspiracy theory, the trailer-park lotto junkies, and the British couple playing croquet in the colonies never seemed so neighborly.
If this sounds familiar, it should — it's all the ingredients for a long line of subsequent ragtag, kitchen-sink rockers, from Neutral Milk Hotel to Wilco to the Arcade Fire. In a larger sense, it's right there with other post-postmodern attempts to wring some honest meaning out of the irony and genre-splicing stunts that had become second nature by the '90s, from David Foster Wallace to P.T. Anderson.
After the break-up, Lowery went on to form Cracker, who tossed out most of Camper's eclecticism and focused on wry, shuffling trucker-hat rock. They blew up thanks to a handful of slacker anthems and top-notch Americana ballads. Kerosene Hat caught them at their messy roots-rock apex, and the group have earned their place in mainstream America by just kind of accepting it. They even humbly performed a round of shows for US troops in Iraq last year.