Long, strange trip

David Lowery knows that not all Southern states sound the same.

“Just look at the difference between, say, a Republican senator from Texas and Waw-nuh,” an animated Lowery observed during a recent phone interview, referring to Sen. John Warner, R-Va. “You sort of get this proper, a little stuffy [attitude], almost like [a] New England-sort-of-but-it’s-the-South kind of a trip.”

Lowery is, of course, the founder of both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, and happily transplanted himself from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Richmond, Va., after the latter band broke up in 1990.

He returns to Asheville on Thursday in an acoustic trio with band mate/collaborator Johnny Hickman and CVB violinist Jonathan Segel. Though this stripped-down configuration of players is relatively rare, the members of Camper Van Beethoven have been commingling in various forms with Lowery and Cracker for years. In fact, Camper bassist Victor Krummenacher was recently announced as Cracker’s new official bassist. More excitingly, following a trickle of 2002 reunion shows, CVB is officially back together. A new album is slated for September release, to be followed by a full-fledged tour.

Quirky, daringly eclectic and known for being witty without being alienating or losing the fun, Camper Van Beethoven is still critically lauded, and venerated by a small-but-loyal throng of fans. Lowery attributes the sustained enthusiasm to the band’s “breaking up before people really began listening to our records.

“I really think that helped us more than anything,” he adds.

Strangely, CVB — which Lowery describes as “a motley collection of ex-punkers pretending to be hippies” — is often cited as an influence on the jam-band scene, but was likewise embraced by the Southern California punk groundswell that launched Black Flag, The Minutemen and The Meat Puppets. Camper was a fave of college DJs, who were planting the seeds for so-called indie rock.

Camper Van’s upcoming album shares some of the political tone of Cracker’s latest, last year’s mostly-covers Countrysides (imusic).

“We did that record when the drumbeats to war were happening,” Lowery explains, “and we got fascinated by a lot of the ’70s stuff that was talking about the Vietnam War, and the ’70s cultural wars and how we were in cultural wars, essentially, once again. Camper sort of picked up the same narrative on this record. It’s called New Roman Times, a play on the font New Times Roman.

“We thought the most Camper-ish thing to do would be a rock opera. We’re feeling like this is, politically, probably the strangest time … I don’t know, in a very long time. We wanted to comment upon the politics of the United States, but we wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t shrill. So instead, we did a sci-fi rock opera.”

In fact, the album was influenced by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s alternate-history cyberpunk novel The Difference Engine.

Says Lowery of the record: “It takes place in the late ’60s/early ’70s, told through the eyes of a young soldier in the army of the Christian Republic of Texas. North America is a bunch of different, separate nations, and this is the story of this conflict between California and Texas.

“It does involve space aliens,” he adds, “just cuz it’s a Camper record.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance rock writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]

Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, unplugged, plus Jason Isbell of the Drive-By Truckers, play The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 17. Tickets: $15.

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