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David Lowery: Northern California dreamin'

From Camper Van Beethoven to internet piracy, a college radio original sails forward

By Litsa Dremousis
Special to MSN Music

David Lowery / ©Jason Thrasher
David Lowery

If you imbibe music, it's almost impossible David Lowery's work hasn't affected you, whether you know it or not. Sure, Camper Van Beethoven, his seminal '80s post-punk band, forevermore will be known for their college radio staple "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and for a series of records that created a haven for outcasts, smartasses and the intersection thereof. And his next band, Cracker, rode the crest of '90s alt-rock to actual hits like "Get Off This" and "Low." He has produced bands as disparate as Counting Crows and Sparklehorse, interviewed acts like the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers, and he lectures in the University of Georgia's music business program. But there's a good chance you know him from his recent Trichordist essay, "Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered," which erupted online for daring to enumerate the ways not paying for music damages the artists whom fans purport to "love." He called recently to discuss Camper Van Beethoven's first record in nine years, "La Costa Perdida," and to delve into his storied past and active present.

MSN Music: I like that "La Costa Perdida" sounds midlife without sounding middle-aged.

David Lowery: How so?

Sometimes bands reconvene and you can practically hear their guts expand over their belts. But this record has a ton of energy and the musicianship is fantastic. For instance, I don't think a 27- year-old could have written a song like "Come Down the Coast." There seems to be a certain kind of longing. And you don't really long for people that same way at 27 because you tend to live six blocks from them.

Right. When you're younger, events haven't receded far enough into the past that you have that perspective on them. And you're not as narcissistic now. Or you're maybe you're just narcissistic in a new way. [Laughs.] I read up on Kerouac's Big Sur period. And there was Henry Miller and Richard Brautigan and a whole series of beatnik or hippie writers who wrote down on the coast or hung out down there. The Beach Boys were there. You have to understand what Camper Van Beethoven is. We were essentially rockers, post-punkers, who in 1983 were all playing in different bands. We wanted to throw away the punk rock dogma, aside from the original innovators. And in Santa Cruz, California, in the ruins of the great hippie cults, it was like we were Visigoths who came down to battle the Roman Empire. [Pauses.] That's not right. The Romans beat them. [Laughs.]

We'll run with it for our purposes here. [Laughs.]

We were living among these hippie ruins and became sort of fake hippies and took elements, both lovingly and playfully mocking, of that hippie culture that came before us. This post-punk, proto-indie rock aesthetic. So, there's always been a generation that came before us to the coast of California. Their beliefs, ideas and music have always been the backdrop that Camper Van Beethoven has been playing off of. And we go back and visit it one more time with this album.

I've never gotten so many emails and texts from friends and colleagues before an interview. They're excited I'm interviewing you.

Really?

Your Trichordist essay resonated for a lot of us. [http://thetrichordist.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/]

Thank you. There was all this freaking out about me getting burned by the technology blogosphere. And it turns out, nothing bad happened to me. I mean, there's some name-calling and stuff like that, but the whole thing was largely positive. Some said, "If you do that, you'll be made a pariah!" The Lars Ulrich thing. Conventional wisdom is that with Lars Ulrich, they basically cut off his head. "This is what will happen to you!"

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The perception at the time seemed to be that he'd turned on his fans. Which wasn't what happened.

No, and if you go back and look at his interviews, it's really interesting. He says file-sharing is starting with fans, but that eventually, there will be large technology corporations doing this. Which is exactly what happened. There are now hundreds of file-sharing sites operated by regular-level businesses. They monetize music by charging people premiums for faster downloads or with advertising. It's an industrial scam. It's not even like the 1950s music business, where every once in a while, the artist got a Cadillac. It's like the 1950s music business without the Cadillac.

I think your Trichordist piece went viral so quickly because it's the culmination of what so many think. And most people could see the commonality between what's happening to musicians to what's happening to writers and photographers. As my friend Jesse Sykes put it, you took a holistic approach.

Jesse Sykes just came up in my Google alerts for our band. Why is that?

She just wrote a piece about your friend Mark Linkous' suicide, which you also discuss in your Trichordist essay, of course. [See: http://www.seattleweekly.com/2012-12-26/music/it-s-a-wonderful- life/] Her band, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, was on tour with Mark's band Sparklehorse when Mark's label dropped him for financial reasons. She witnessed it. She thinks what you said about it contributing to his suicide is true and that, like you also said, the industry played a role in Vic Chesnutt's suicide. Neither she nor I are downplaying the huge role of severe depression, though.

Well, Vic was my neighbor. I saw the ambulance wheel away his body. And Mark was godfather to my older son. I knew them intimately. Unfortunately, I intimately knew their financial problems. I think it's really a confusing time for a lot of artists. To have their work heard by an increasingly large audience, while at the same time, making less and less and less. Also, you can't get [psychiatric] help when you don't have money.

When an artist's popularity is expanding and their art isn't in question and they're doing everything "right," it's awful to have a label drop them in the middle of a tour. Particularly when everyone knows touring is grueling anyway.

Especially for guys like that, who had to be very careful about not getting into a bad place. But we're never going to work that out on the Internet.

Have you read Internet comments about Camper Van Beethoven's new record, "La Costa Perdida"?

I haven't, because they're from the unwashed masses. [Laughs.] The only interaction that matters is with people who buy the record and come to the shows

Mostly, commenters really praise the record.

Awesome.

What's hilarious, though, is there's one guy--

Who didn't put my head on a stake outside the city limits, but on a banner ad! [Laughs.]

[Laughs] Right! He says he's so mad at you because of the Trichordist essay, he erased all Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker songs from his iPod and that if anyone mentions either band to him, he makes them change the subject.

Which is basically a confession of some kind of madness. [Laughs.] Unfortunately, the file-sharing industry is pretty big and there are companies that profit from it, like Google and others. After that Trichordist essay, I've written other pieces targeting their advertising dollars. Unfortunately, some of these "people" aren't even real fans. They're just paid, anonymous sock-puppets.

Litsa Dremousis' work also appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, Huffington Post, McSweeney's, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Slate on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.

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