AGING PROCESS Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie was “definitely difficult music,” allows violinist Jonathan Segel (left, with David Lowery, third from left, and the rest of the band).
It was on a whim roughly 25 years ago that a young David Lowery called up a friend at SST Records to see how SST had been promoting records that year. "He just said, 'Hey, we've been sending a lot of our stuff to college radio stations, and they seem to be playing them a lot.' I mean, this is literally like how this all started."
Lowery's band, Camper Van Beethoven, had just self-released their first album, and he was glad to hear that he could borrow the contacts if he wanted. He made the trek down the California coast from Camper quarters in Santa Cruz, figured out who was playing new records by the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, and spent the next two days copying it all down into a legal pad. A few days later, they mailed swarms of LPs out into the great unknown. "To me," he says, "that was a very key moment in how indie rock came in."
Lowery has crafted one of the more unlikely careers you're bound to run into in the circuit of over-40 indie-rockers. It's been nearly 10 years now since he reunited Camper, who have sailed on into middle age in a rare coexistence with his far more successful alt-rock project, Cracker.
For most of the naughts, the two bands have made a sort of aged indie-rock curiosity, both of them releasing compilations and new work, and hitting the road — together in some cases, but often opening for bands who probably grew up listening to them (like, say, Modest Mouse). Always commanding a respectable following between them, the bands have resisted the urge to go the Nick at Nite rerun route with an old record.
That'll change this weekend, when they embark on a three-day trip through New York, Cambridge (playing the Middle East Sunday), and Toronto, Camper hauling out the goods from Key Lime Pie (1989) and Cracker doing their big second record, Kerosene Hat (1993). For Cracker fans, it's a chance to celebrate an era-defining record that spawned the summer stoner jam "Low." But for those stalwart Camper fans, it's a much needed opportunity to revisit one of indie rock's bona fide founding documents.
With its snaky structures and an uneasy balance between the down-home and the dissonant, Key Lime Pie has remained a challenging listen. When the disc came out, jangly independent pop from R.E.M. to Uncle Tupelo and Dead Milkmen had already staked its claim on college radio. But even in terms of indie pop, the thing was a freak. "It's definitely difficult music," says violinist Jonathan Segel. He had quit the band right before the Key Lime Pie recording sessions. "It wasn't really highly critically rated at the time, but it's really deep. It's strained in a way, less sarcastic and less oblique than a lot of the other stuff."