Interview: Greg Lisher of Camper Van Beethoven

camper van beethovenCamper Van Beethoven is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their formation by releasing a new record, La Costa Perdida. Surviving the Golden Age was lucky enough to speak to guitarist Greg Lisher about the band’s career, new record, and how the 80s compare to the aughts.

Camper Van Beethoven is celebrating its 30th anniversary. How do you feel making it 30 years in this business?
I’m pretty happy about it. I joined in 85 so its only been 27 years for me. They started in LA in 83 but moved to Santa Cruz in 85 to go to UC Santa Cruz. I met them around town because I lived here. Also, we broke up in 90 and then there was a ten year stretch where we didn’t play together–David (Lowery) had started Cracker. So it hasn’t been a solid 30 years but that could explain why we’re still doing it today, if you know what I mean?

So its been more of a 17 year thing for you?
Yeah, more so the band started 30 years ago. But I’m happy, proud of the band. We have a new record out and it sounds good. So I’m excited and its better than the alternative which is not being in a band. So I’m happy.

How do you think things have changed since you joined until now? How are the band dynamics different? How has the band evolved?
As far as the business goes, technology has changed so much since I joined. Back in the day, you made vinyl and maybe some cassettes. CDs weren’t even out yet. Technology has changed things a lot. Being able to send things electronically and send files back and forth. Its made things more convenient in a lot of ways, especially because we don’t live in the same town as one another. We all have home studios and we all have Macs. We all run Protools so we can send files back and forth. That has changed things a lot.

But when we get together in a room or garage as far as practicing goes, we are really doing the same things we were doing when I joined the band back in 85. Its kind of like: the more things change, the more things stay the same. The band has a certain sound and if we’re left up to our own devices what comes out is our own sound.

Its interesting that you say that because I think a lot of people don’t think of you as having a standard sound. There is more almost ska stuff mixed with the more protypical indie sound and the 80s alternative sound.
Yeah, they don’t think of us as having a sound because they think of us as being eclectic and playing so many styles. In a weird way, when we write a song even if it has ska influence or country influence, whatever we mash together has its own sound.

Is there one person in the band who brings to the table a country influence or a ska influence or do you all share those eclectic interests?
There is definitely none of that. We just kind of do what we do and it just turns out to be what it turns out to be. There’s no one in the band that has the say to push it in that direction. Things just end up going in whatever direction they go. We don’t sit around saying “this record is really good, we’re just missing this type of music.” We would never do that. Its just much more organic.

All of us in the band have really eclectic tastes. If something does get pushed in a certain direction, we all have our own interpretation of what they think they should play. That’s usually what happens.

As far as songwriting dynamic goes, does it start off as a jam or does it start off with someone coming to the table with an idea? How does it work?
Well up until this record, it used to work like this: David, our singer, would write a song and bring it to the band. He would say “the song sort of goes like this” and then we would, as a band, arrange it as individual musicians write our own perspective parts.

So how did that change on your new record, La Costa Perdida?
With this last record, we did some writing sessions where we all got together and jammed on ideas and riffs. That word jamming has different connotation. We’re not a jam band. I mean that someone would play a chord progression and someone would play some notes to that and so on. One thing would feed off of something else and just keep going. Then we’d have a verse which would inspire us to write another section like a chorus. And then David would start humming some melodies or start singing. In a lot of ways, this album is the most organic record we have ever written. We really built the songs from the ground up.

Only a couple of tracks we brought to the table. Like “Summer Days” was a chord progression that I had brought to David and we worked on that. He contributed writing a melody for that. But there are only a couple exceptions to the rule. For the most part it was totally organic.

How did this organic process effect the sound?
I think by us working like that it made our sound come out more. The process really let the music through. It really makes an emphasis on the sound that we naturally have.

I know some of your previous records are based around certain stories or themes, does La Costa Perdida have a central theme?
Musically we didn’t have preconceived notions of what we were doing. But David was the last one on the list to complete what he does as a lyricist. He took the stuff and listened to it for months and wrote his lyrics–which turned out really good. His lyrics have a California thing that seems to be a theme. There is a song called “Northern California Girls” and its really just Californian.

Besides the new record, what other kind of celebratory things are you doing for the 30th anniversary?
Well, we are going on tour. We’re going to do our annual Christmas run which is San Diego, San Francisco, Petaluma. In the middle of January, we go out to the East coast and do a run out there of Philly, Boston, and New York. All of those shows are with Cracker. We always do that but this year because we have a new record coming out, we will take off and do another couple weeks on the East coast.


  • zack says:

    Greg Lisher is truly one of the most creative and talented guitar players around, and for years no less. Nothing but tasty and interesting lines, chords and solos that mesh with the songs perfectly.

  • Wah Li Saoundh says:

    lischer has a most incredible left hand-much like a hydraulic claw in a velvet lined steel glove. Silky smooth ripping riffage.

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