david lowery Camper Van Beethoven

I Write the Santa Cruz Songs

As he returns with Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, David Lowery explains the art of writing a song about his band’s former home

Camper Van Beethoven is one of Santa Cruz’s most famous bands, and they return to play with Cracker (they share frontman David Lowery) at the Catalyst on Friday, Dec. 29.

When Jake and I wrote about the best Santa Cruz songs last year, only one songwriter had two songs in our top 10: David Lowery. Originally frontman for the iconic Santa Cruz band Camper Van Beethoven while a student at UCSC in the 1980s, he ironically didn’t write a song about Santa Cruz until his Santa Cruz band broke up. In 1991, he moved to Southern California, joining up with lead guitarist Johnny Hickman in the band Cracker, which would go on to platinum-selling success. For Cracker, Lowery wrote “Big Dipper” and “Miss Santa Cruz County,” both of which made our list of best Santa Cruz songs.

Recently, though, I was thinking: millions of people around the world have bought Cracker records over the last couple of decades. The vast majority of those people probably don’t even realize “Big Dipper” is set here—the name of the Boardwalk’s roller coaster is slightly altered, after all, and they certainly wouldn’t recognize where he is when he remembers “sitting on the Café Zinho steps.”

So I asked Lowery—who will come back to where it all began when his two bands join up for a shared bill at the Catalyst on Friday, Dec. 29—if, 25 years later, it even matters that the Cracker fan favorite “Big Dipper” is set in Santa Cruz.

“To me, yes,” says Lowery, “because I can see the setting in my head. When you play a song a bunch, you have to engage with it as if you haven’t played it very much, and you figure out these little tricks to keep your mind from wandering. So a lot of what I do is picture everything. For ‘Big Dipper,’ I’m always picturing those places.”

He does that on other songs, too. “For ‘Northern California Girls,’ it’s the last little stretch of beach on the west side of the pier going toward the cliff. It’s that stretch of beach in Santa Cruz, I picture that.”

That one is particularly interesting to me, because “Northern California Girls”—which came out in 2013 on La Coast Perdida, the second album Camper made after reuniting in 2004—doesn’t actually mention Santa Cruz. And yet, I always imagined it was set here, for some reason.

“Yeah, that’s Santa Cruz,” says Lowery. “I kept it generically Northern California [in the lyrics], but, you know, ‘teach ’em how to surf and play baseball’—that’s Santa Cruz.”

Turns out some of my other suspicions about Camper songs being secretly about Santa Cruz were right, too. For instance, I have always suspected that their 2004 album New Roman Times, a concept album about slacker rebels who align themselves with aliens in a battle against the right-wing Christian army in a dystopian America, was partially set in Santa Cruz. Its lyrics mention the pre-Camper Santa Cruz band Box o’ Laffs, after all, and contain the lines “We would fight for hippie chicks/We would die for hippie chicks/We might stop and surf a bit/But we would die for hippie chicks.”

Lowery reveals there was a whole background narrative for the album that he wrote with bandmate Jonathan Segal, which is now being turned into a novel.

“Some of the stuff’s hard to understand, but all of the leaders of the CVB—which is the rebel group—are all named after beaches. There’s a [rebel] cell out in the high desert by Pioneertown, Joshua Tree, but the main force is in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” says Lowery of the album. “It starts in West Texas, goes to somewhere in the Middle East, and then [the main character, a former nationalist who joins the rebels] goes to somewhere in Southern California and ends up in Northern California in the Santa Cruz Mountains—along the coast north of Santa Cruz, like Davenport or Bonny Doon.”

Still, I tend to take this projecting-Santa-Cruz-onto-Camper-Van-Beethoven songs way too far. That includes “It Was Like That When We Got There,” a song about a bizarre party from the band’s 2014 album El Camino Real. Not only is that entire album made up of songs specifically set in Southern California, but it literally mentions a view of Pasadena. And yet, in my mind it is undoubtedly set in Beach Flats, which makes Lowery laugh.

“I lived in Beach Flats for a while,” he says. “You know that little hilly area of Beach Flats? That would be where that party would be. Because it’d be like ‘who are these people? Where did they come from? I didn’t even know they lived here.’”

Since Lowery has written songs about both Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, I asked him what he considers the main difference between these NorCal and SoCal songs.

“Santa Cruz, you get into more individuals. The people are extremely quirky, so you can write more from that perspective,” he says. “L.A. is more about the big forces down there that shape society: flows of money, the military-industrial complex, institutions like CalTech or the U.S. Navy at Scripps [Institution of Oceanography]. That’s more, a lot of times, what those Southern California songs are about, and the Santa Cruz songs are more about really specific people, like the Blue Ladies in ‘Miss Santa Cruz County.’”

Finally, it has always seemed odd that—although those first Camper Van Beethoven albums don’t sound to me like they could have come out of anywhere but Santa Cruz—he didn’t write an actual Santa Cruz song until Cracker. But looking back, it makes perfect sense to Lowery.

“I was immersed in it with Camper Van Beethoven,” he says. “With Cracker, I had some distance. When you’re living in Santa Cruz, it can be a little more annoying—I’m trying to say this as diplomatically as possible. There’s day-to-day stuff that kind of annoys you. But when you move away from there, you put on the rose-colored glasses, and you only remember the good things.”


Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker play on Friday, Dec. 29, at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $22/adv, $25/door. 429-4135.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Leroy Fail

    December 28, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    Steve, how did you miss this great Santa Cruz song? https://soundcloud.com/leroy-fail/surfer-with-a-brain

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