Two words kept jumping out of the hopper of David Lowery's vocabulary as he spoke about his band, Camper Van Beethoven, one of the few American alternative rock groups that has begun to percolate out of the underground and into the pop limelight.
One was "weird." In Lowery's lexicon, its meaning is closer to "unexpected" or "unusual" than to anything having to do with Boris Karloff or the opening scene of "Macbeth." Coming from the mouth of the Camper Van Beethoven singer, "weird" has positive, rather than horrific connotations. Over the phone this week before a show in Salt Lake City, Lowery, 27, used it several times in explaining the band's musical approach.
How does he account for a mix-and-match sound that finds room for everything from spacey '60s psychedelia to sweetly melancholy Gypsy violin melodies?
"We're just trying to make this weird hybrid," Lowery said. "Pop music has always been this kind of mongrel."
And what prompted the song "Tania," in which the tale of Patty Hearst is set, oddly but fittingly, to violin strains evoking a fin de siecle Parisian cafe?
Greg Lisher, the band's lead guitarist, "was writing this sort of weird chord progression. For some reason I'd been talking about Patty Hearst that day, so I started this rant about Patty Hearst, retelling the story from this weird viewpoint."
The resulting lyric spawned the title of Camper Van Beethoven's latest album, "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart." The viewpoint is, if not exactly weird, certainly interesting: It isn't so much a commentary on Hearst as on the ennui of the song's narrator, who reflects with rueful nostalgia on the days when Symbionese Liberation Army gunplay gave extra spice to the news.
Oh, my beloved revolutionary sweetheart, I can see your newsprint face turn yellow in the gutter. It makes me sad, How I long for the days when you came to liberate us from boredom .
If "weird" is a word Lowery associates with creativity, "fashion," another of his most frequently used words, is its antonym. Fashion, after all, is a set of expectations. Lowery said that he'd rather not have Camper Van Beethoven, which plays Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, be limited by the fashions of the marketplace or the expectations of hip tastemakers from the underground rock scene.
"I don't like listening to contemporary music too much," he said, "because you start dealing with fashion more than music. You become aware of all the trends. For that reason, I've listened to a lot of older bands."
Among the relatively hoary influences cropping up on "Revolutionary Sweetheart" are the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and folk traditions from both sides of the Atlantic.
Lowery said underground fashion is something Camper Van Beethoven has had to buck in its recent major-label signing with Virgin Records. Until now, the Santa Cruz-based band had followed the do-it-yourself path valued in the underground, setting up its own label, Pitch-A-Tent Records, to put out its first three albums and an EP.
Lowery said the move to Virgin for "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart" made possible a recording budget 10 to 20 times greater than the $2,000 to $3,000 the band typically spent on each of its previous releases. The move appears to be paying off: Camper Van Beethoven has held onto its college radio support and is making its first inroads on the pop charts. "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart" has moved to No. 141 with a bullet on Billboard's latest Top Pop Albums list.
Lowery said Camper Van Beethoven has been subject to the sort of backlash in alternative quarters that befell underground darlings Husker Du and the Replacements, two Minneapolis bands that tried to broaden their audience by tapping into the more powerful marketing and distribution push available through a major label.
"What bugs me about the independent/alternative music scene is this trend that as bands become more popular, the people who are instrumental in the scene--the journalists, the people who work in the record stores--start to resist them," Lowery said.
"Most of the time it has nothing to do with the music, with changing the sound. It has to do with who likes the band, with what segment of the culture is listening. It's all (based on) fashion, and not music."
When Camper Van Beethoven started five years ago at UC Santa Cruz, Lowery said, "part of the reason we took the name was it wasn't a cool name--what a hip, underground band at the time would name itself."
The band's 1985 debut album, titled "Telephone Free Landslide Victory" in keeping with a penchant for absurdist nomenclature, featured songs that endeared Camper Van Beethoven to the hip, underground scene by poking fun at punk-rock stereotypes. As if to confound being stereotyped itself, the band interspersed the barbs with instrumental interludes that offered straightforward, competently played renditions of what sounded like Greek folk-dance songs.