- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

“I’ve been in Virginia for 18 years,” says David Lowery, the gravelly-voiced frontman of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker.

Mr. Lowery moved to to Richmond in 1990, following the initial dissolution of Camper Van Beethoven. He soon formed Cracker, a more traditionally minded rock band that charted several singles during the decade. Although the other band members eventually left the city, Mr. Lowery stayed in his adopted hometown.

“It’s been good to me,” he says. “Nobody in either of my bands lives here anymore, and there was only a brief time when all of Cracker was here. It’s a little weird because I basically have to go somewhere else whenever we rehearse, but I like it. My kids are here. My studios are here. It’s working out.”

Mr. Lowery plays in both bands, having resurrected Camper Van Beethoven in 1999. The demanding schedule requires him to find a balance between his projects, which also include a Richmond-based recording studio named Sound of Music Studios. Located near Virginia Commonwealth University, the studio was launched soon after his relocation to Richmond.

“We’ve been recording lots of bands,” Mr. Lowery says of the studio’s recent activity.

During the previous decade, artists including Joan Osborne and Counting Crows recorded at Sound of Music. Mr. Lowery now leaves most of the studio work to his partners, although he continues to produce new albums when time allows.

“With some bands, I function like an engineer,” he explains. “I deal with sound, mixing, stuff like that. With other bands, I’m like the old-school, traditional producer who works on arrangements and lyrics. It just depends on who we’re working with and what needs to be done.”

The current project on Mr. Lowery’s agenda is a special one. Having maintained a loyal audience for nearly two decades, Cracker is nearing the completion of its 10th studio album.

“We’re almost done recording,” the singer says happily. “And we play three to five new songs a night. I kinda never liked that as an audience member when a band plays a new record that’s not out yet. Who wants half of a show to be old stuff that you haven’t heard before?

“I try to remember that with our shows, even though it’s more fun for us to play new stuff.”

Camper Van Beethoven continues to play concerts as well, including a recent string of celebratory gigs in honor of the band’s 25th anniversary. “Take the Skinheads Bowling” remains the group’s signature song, boasting humorous lyrics indicative of Mr. Lowery’s approach to songwriting.

“I just think like a writer would,” Mr. Lowery says, “and a good writer uses all the tools available to suit any style. Sometimes you’re humorous, sometimes you’re serious. To me, the songs reflect the way people talk in real life.

“A lot of bands have the idea that you have to use the same narrative style you learned in sixth grade when you wrote the ‘What I did over my summer vacation’ essay. It’s so matter-of-fact, and that’s not the way people talk.”

The Cracker album is tentatively slated for release later this year, and Mr. Lowery predicts a new Camper Van Beethoven record will follow in the near future.

“We haven’t been on the East Coast in awhile,” he says of the latter group, which visits the State Theatre in Falls Church on Thursday.

“It’s certainly been a few years since we played the D.C. area, too. We’re excited.”

cDoors for Camper Van Beethoven’s show open at 7 p.m., with music beginning at 8:30. Tickets are $20.

Music versus TV

Citing continued slumps in ratings, MTV recently announced an unprecedented shift in the network’s programming. Cable’s music channel will roll out 16 new reality shows over the next five months, furthering its emphasis on unscripted entertainment. Music videos, on the other hand, are slated to receive minimal airtime.

“Total Request Live,” the network’s flagship program during the late ‘90s and early in this decade, aired its final episode in November. Although “TRL’s” glossy format and family-friendly content was a far cry from MTV’s early programming, the show still served as a launching pad for Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and other pop acts. New videos were presented, and international tours were announced, enabling music to remain at the program’s forefront.

The elimination of “TRL” signifies an end to an era of videos, on-air interviews and live performances - an era that began its slow descent with the persistent popularity of “The Real World,” one of television’s earliest success stories in reality programming. Launched in the early 1990s, “Real World” soon gave way to a slew of similar programs, most notably MTV’s “The Hills.”

MTV’s weekly prime-time slots will be filled soon with hours of reality programming, including the 16 new series. Producers like Donald Trump, Nick Lachey - and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone - will helm those shows, which run the gamut from college-based dramas (“College Life,” filmed by freshmen at the University of Wisconsin) to daredevil spectacles (“Nitro Circus”).

MTV built its empire on music programming, and its emphasis on videos literally reshaped the music industry during the 1980s. The network’s new game plan may help spike ratings in 2009, but where will the music fans go? What happened to MTV? When did music and television become so diametrically opposed?

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