David Lowery is celebrating 30 years with his pioneering and much beloved indie rock band, Camper Van Beethoven. We asked the outspoken rocker about La Costa Perdida, Camper’s first album in nine years, his songwriting process and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
In no particular order, Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis, Randy Newman and Captain Beefheart.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs at about 16. No, of course, I wasn’t good at it. Truthfully no one is “good” at writing songs. Like most songwriters you start a shitload of songs, most of which are bad ideas to begin with. You finish a handful and if you’re lucky half of those go onto albums. t’s best to make up as many “ideas” for songs as possible. I’ve always had a tape recorder or voice memo recorder on hand to record ever single stupid riff, or strange lyric idea. I review these tapes from time to time. I feel my songwriting relies on quantity as much as quality.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was an instrumental track, I forget the title. It was just two acoustic guitars. It sounded a little like M. Ward’s instrumental stuff. Me and my friend in high school wrote it.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
10-15%. See above.
What’s a song on La Costa Perdida you’re particularly proud of?
A love for all time. A) cause it changes key so much but it doesn’t sound like it. B) I love jonathan and his wife sanna’s backing vocals. C) I got to sing “Mariachi’s with strings and flying saucers.” Been looking for a home for that line for a while.
What’s a lyric or verse from La Costa Perdida you’re a fan of?
From “September of My Years” performed by Frank Sinatra.
Sammy Cahn/ Jimmy Van Heusen.
I love the swagger to the third verse. But it’s also sad. I can’t put my finger on it.
Also the meter is really challenging. And of course I love rhyming consecutive lines.
when I was thirty-five it was a very good year
it was a very good year
for blue blooded women of independent means
we’d ride in limousines
their chauffeurs would drive
when I was thirty-five
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
No, it’s easier. It’s harder to avoid repeating themes. But then I rebel at the notion that it’s somehow bad to repeat themes. I love the way Nassim Taleb the financial/philosopher/skeptic writes. He will — 4 chapters later — write the same chapter again but from a different angle ’cause he thinks he can do it better now. He’s the real honey badger. He does not give a shit. I admire that.
Also about six years ago I discovered this weird technique to help me move forward when I was stuck. Like many artists I’ll e-mail lyrics to myself so I won’t forget them. One day I noticed the ads that Gmail would display on the side of the email. Most of the ads you could clearly tie to the lyrics i’d written. But sometimes there would be a preposterous outlier like “handmade spacesuits”. I mean it’s the opposite of the crowd sourcing. It’s insanity sourcing. There is not intelligence in crowds. Crowds tend to the most popular, the cruel and vulgar. The only intelligence on the web is in the outliers. Why not use it?
Are there any words you love or hate?
Gypsy, Lady, Lover, Ointment.
Although now i think we should write a Camper Van Beethoven song using those words.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
… that people think songs mean something that can be reduced to a sentence. If what it truly meant could be reduced to one sentence I would write just one sentence.
Also I don’t really know what many of my songs mean myself. But it doesn’t mean they don’t mean something. I say this not because I think they are profound but simply because I’m not really consciously in touch with all parts of my brain.
Ever hear of the people who’ve had to have the two lobes of their brain separated to prevent severe seizures? They can ask these people questions that are answered differently by the left and right hands. Yet the person can’t tell the questioner why their hands did that. That’s what songwriting is sometimes. It’s some fractured part of your consciousness speaking on it’s own. And for some reason I’m glad my brain will do that.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“All Her Favorite Fruit.” It’s a mystery to me why that song touches people. It’s loosely taken from the book Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s set in London in World War Two. It’s the ill fated love story between Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Paul Willams. And by the way, he’s not dead.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Doug Martsch from Built to Spill.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?/strong>
Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” I used to hate this song. And then one day I heard it in such a way it really struck me. I heard the guy telling the story perfectly. I never noticed the story is told in so few words. It’s elegant in its economy. It does the least possible to tell the story, and somehow the story is bigger as result.
But Jeffrey Lewis’ “The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane” is a close second.