Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery opens up
Indie-rock progenitor and UGA professor discusses La Costa Perdida, DIY, and Emily White
David Lowery isn't afraid to speak his mind when it comes to music. That's largely because he has the experience and insight to back up his words. The musical journeyman has done everything from front bands such as Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker to produce records for Counting Crows, Magnolia Electric Co., and Sparklehorse, and since 2011, he's worked as a professor in the music business program at the University of Georgia in Athens.
It's safe to say that Lowery shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his fourth decade in the industry. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the heralded Californian indie-rock progenitors. But rather than rest on his laurels, he's instead pushed the band full steam ahead to release La Costa Perdida, CVB's first album in nine years, and the group is currently on the road for a short tour, which stops at the Earl this Saturday night.
Lowery — who these days is a part-time Georgia resident — opened up for more than an hour about a laundry list of topics related to the music industry. Some of those included his band's latest record, La Costa Perdida, the DIY movement's evolution, and his controversial response to NPR music intern Emily White about why she's only bought 15 physical albums in her entire life. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
What prompted Camper Van Beethoven to make a new record after nine years?
We had been scheduled in Big Sur at the Henry Miller Library. It got rained out and I was going to leave Northern California, but instead I stayed an extra week. I was like, "Oh, I'll stay here an extra week and why don't we spend some time trying to write some music?" Me and Greg Lisher had done a small session about a year before that. We had a couple of ideas to bring in already. It all just kind of came together. Victor Krummenacher and Jonathan Segel were working that week, so it was after work — just three or four hours trying to make stuff up — and it worked out amazingly. We hadn't all sat down together to compose for eight or nine years and it was great to just do that.
So it sounds like it was a spontaneous process. Did you have plans to make another album aside from this particular week?
We were due to make a Camper record. We'd done two Cracker records and my solo record; definitely Camper was the next one in line. The Camper guys and I basically grew up with all those guys. It's like my family. We needed to play together. We enjoy playing together. We have a good chemistry in music. It's sad to sort of neglect that, but I live on the East Coast and they live on the West Coast.
Since you split time living in Athens and Richmond, Va., these days, are you in touch with them regularly?
Basically, when we did that album, I would go out there one weekend every month to work on this album. You do a lot of stuff at home, too. There's a lot of correspondence. The overdubs were pretty much done at home, the vocals and stuff. But we talk every day.
Is the title, La Costa Perdida, related to where you recorded or made the album?
It's Spanish for the Lost Coast, and that's mostly because the song that it's from is from that Norteño, California-country style. That's why we put it in Spanish. The Lost Coast is actually this really small geographic area of California, but a lot of times people use it to apply to any sort of that wild terrain, the wild, steep, rugged coast above San Francisco. But it also means a lot to people up there. People are sort of lost in time there, culturally lost in time. Nobody knows about this place. It sort of means "lost" in a lot of different ways and much of the album's songs are set along that coast.
How has the band's dynamic changed since the '80s in terms of writing songs, the band's chemistry, and the way you handle business?
I don't know if we've really toured lately the way we used to tour for albums. I don't know if that's actually the best way to do things anymore. I don't know if Camper Van Beethoven needs to wait until the album comes out and then go tour for three months. I'm just sort of cherry picking a lot of our shows, playing cool places in cool venues where we have a hardcore cluster of fans. So yes, we'll play shows for this album and I'm sure we'll play a lot of them, but it's going to be spread over a period of like two years. ... It seems to work better. And also, people are going to not pay as much for music, so I don't think you're required to make albums as often. You used to make an album every year because people would pay you for music and pay you to go on tour.
Camper Van Beethoven has long embraced a DIY ethos, how has that changed in promoting your music from your earliest days moving forward?
My whole perspective on the DIY movement, now versus the '80s when I first started, is remarkably similar. There were no Internet, email, or websites back in the '80s, but ultimately with Camper Van Beethoven we collected people's addresses at every gig so we could mail them a newsletter. We would court local college radio stations, much in the way that bands court bloggers to write about them.
Today, it's still just as hard to break into that corporate level or radio and media, things like Rolling Stone. But you could actually sell a lot of records through word of mouth and college radio and fanzines. ... What's a little different now is that you have more than just concerts and selling a CD. ... Nowadays, there's a lot of different ways to do that. That's largely a good thing.
As both professor at the Terry College of Business and a former quantitative trader, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing musicians today?
The overall main challenge is trying to get music monetized again. There's an unhelpful myth propagated by paid bloggers who have a vested interest in file sharing. It's actually really important that fans understand they should buy artists' records. The more obscure the artist, the more important it is to buy their recordings. The myth wasn't helped by artists like Neil Young, saying that "piracy is the new radio." Of course Neil Young thinks it's cool, he doesn't really care — he's making a half-million per gig or something. It's fine if he wants to give his away, but what's been unhelpful about that is that the middle-class musicians really need those sales to survive.
I haven't met anyone who doesn't want people to buy their CDs or pay for downloading their music. They may say it's optional, but they prefer it to happen. The only people who I've met that think that music and money don't go together are white upper-middle-class people. I've never found that attitude in country music, hip-hop, or the Latin world. It's a cultural bias that upper-middle-class artists have because they don't need to make a living. They might have something else to fall back on. If you talk to anyone in the hip-hop world, they want their fuckin' money. Country music has no problem making money.
You entered into last summer's controversy surrounding then-NPR Music intern Emily White's post, in which she admitted that she had only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime. Looking back, what prompted your response?
My idea was that the letter would be a response on the NPR blog, but they weren't interested so I posted on our website. ... The main point I wanted to get across was that file sharing is a pro-corporate activity because you're selling that you're willing to pay for the broadband, the pipes that bring music to me. ... The main point in my letter to Emily is that we're paying the man, AT&T or Charter Cable, and the laptop or iPhone, but not 99 cents for the song. That's half the price of a cup of coffee. It's crazy. The musician is the "coolest" person in that value chain and they're getting screwed and the money's going to these giant megacorporations.
What needs to change in the music industry moving forward?
It's only in the last three years where we built this digital distribution model that actually ends up screwing artists. Before that, I was of the mind that the trade-off was that we had more artistic freedom, more ways to monetize things that we'll be able to suffer through some privacy that will go away. But then somehow that hasn't worked out. ... When I came into the music business, we as artists had unprecedented leverage and opportunities to monetize our music. I hate to see that go away in the next generation.