Back in 2000, Camper Van Beethoven announced a string of gigs — their first after breaking up rather unceremoniously almost a decade earlier. This was a big enough deal in the Bay Area that the Chronicle, the SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian all devoted features to the band’s shows at Slims. I can be kind of competitive, so I was quite pleased that my wife overheard a guy at the show behind us telling his friends the Guardian’s was by far the best. I was at the bar when that happened, but when I returned the guy told me I didn’t have to buy drinks anymore that night, they were on him. Compliments and free beer — it’s all I really want in life.
Let’s make one thing very clear: Camper Van Beethoven, semi-legendary college radio darlings turned ambitious major label art rockers who abruptly called it quits in the middle of a European tour ten years ago, are not reuniting. Four of the five core members will be playing old Camper songs together at Slim’s on February 10th and 11th, but they’re not reuniting. Oh, and there’s another Camper album coming out soon, on the revived Pitch-A-Tent Records. But the band’s not reuniting. Okay?
Jackson Haring, who used to manage Camper Van Beethoven and now manages Cracker, the more commercially successful band CVB front man David Lowery formed in the early nineties, wants everyone to know that “Cracker isn’t breaking up.” The publicist at Virgin Records stresses that the Slim’s performances are Cracker shows, with, like, special guests. And Lowery himself says that while he’s looking forward to playing with his ex-band mates again, “I don’t want to get carried away with it.”
Nonetheless, there are still those in the Bay Area who remember eagerly awaiting Camper’s next appearance at places like the Vis Club, the Farm, and the I-Beam. Just as the band’s tunes featured unlikely combinations of indie rock, bluegrass, ska, and various real and imagined ethnic folk musics (all given a psychedelic overtone that was half ironic and half sincere), their performances were a strange mixture of slacker attitude and genuinely inspired musicianship. When they set up smoke machines and turned on strobe lights, it was a joke that also managed to blow your mind. They were often clearly addled (then again, so was most of the audience), and, like a lot of people who spend a great deal of time worrying how they appear to others, took a perverse pride in refusing to do whatever was currently cool. They were a bit like the guy who dealt mushrooms in your dorm: great fun to be around, and a lot smarter than he acted, but too concerned with being unpredictable to ever let you get comfortable.
Camper Van Beethoven didn’t exactly capture the zeitgeist back in the mid-eighties, but they sure did refract it in the most fascinating way, and a lot of people in the audience are going to be very happy when bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher, and violin player Jonathan Segel join Lowery on stage at Slim’s. Sure, some drunk is bound to shout out, “Take the Skinheads Bowling!” but don’t be fooled: CVB recorded much more than novelty numbers. They were touring to promote one of the finest albums ever recorded by an indie rock band (Key Lime Pie) when depression, fatigue and personal rivalries did them in. If Lowery and company’s attempts to downplay their coming get-together make sense (they weren’t exactly the Who, and not being the Who used to be the whole point of indie rock), it’s also true that there’s majesty to be found in the smallest moments. And Camper Van Beethoven’s non-reunion (Lowery calls the amalgam that will appear at Slim’s “a ghost band”) promises to be profoundly small and moving, if only because these four people were apparently ready to kill each other ten years ago.
The first version of Camper Van Beethoven formed in the early 1980s down in Redlands, California — in the middle of the desert, geographically, but close enough to Los Angeles that the area housed plenty of self-righteous punk rockers who needed the piss taken out of them. David Lowery and some of his stoner buddies were just the folks for the job, too. Details are understandably sketchy seventeen years later, but the band began something like this: Lowery and a few co-conspirators put together an outfit called the Estonian Gauchos, who gleefully befuddled punkers at clubs and parties by playing folk versions of hardcore tunes. Eventually they changed their name to Camper Van Beethoven; at some point after that Lowery relocated to Santa Cruz, where his band had opportunity to make fun of deadheads as well as people sporting spiky mohawks.
The Santa Cruz version of CVB featured a rotating cast of characters and instruments. One consistent ingredient was Jonathan Segel’s shrieking, squeaking violin. Segel enjoyed the way Camper’s reactionary audience-baiting sometimes developed into honest-to-goodness musical exploration. “All the people in the band were full of ideas, so that was good. But there was also this sort of calculated taking the piss out of whatever’s going on around you sort of thing. Because people are always full of themselves. But the thing is we ended up being full of ourselves, too.”
They didn’t sound very full of themselves on their first two records. Telephone Free Landslide Victory, the band’s 1985 debut on Independent Project Records, made as much of a splash as was possible on college radio in those days, mostly thanks to a song called “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” a song which is neither as good as we all thought it was at the time, nor as bad as the band who were doomed to play it 1000 times think it is today.
Camper were saved from the novelty graveyard partly because, as the man says, those were different times, and believe it or not acting clever rather than sincere seemed fresh and exciting in 1985. More importantly, the band had other gifts to offer, as they proved on two albums which followed Telephone in rapid succession, and as they made clear to the growing number of Bay Area fans who followed them from show to show, from Santa Cruz to Berkeley to Cotati. “There were a lot of people that were just musicheads from radio stations or people that actually listened to lots of different kinds of music,” Segel remembers. “A lot of it was the alternative music underground mafia that started with R.E.M. fans in ’82. And people that were not scenesters so much, they were just people interested in music.” If you were a disaffected twenty-something who yearned for a community but smirked at the dirty toenails and body odor of sandal-clad, patchouli-soaked neo-hippies, Camper were your band. They made records worth getting excited about weeks before they were released, albums whose covers you looked forward to cleaning your weed on before letting the needle drop. Yeah, you were acting like a giddy hippie, but the lyrics and the arrangements winked at you, absolving you of your naivete because you GOT IT.
A personal interjection, here. I missed most of this. I was a college DJ on the peninsula when Telephone came out, and I played “Skinheads” once or twice when people who couldn’t seem to finish their sentences requested it, but mostly I was too jealous to pay attention because I was in my own sarcastic indie band at the time and I moved back to New York pretty quickly. I fell in love with Camper because I loved a woman who loved them, and because she got me stoned and played me “Good Guys and Bad Guys,” a song on the third album which has a fiddle part that could change the world if it were ever to blare from every elevator speaker in the country simultaneously, and which features immortal lines like, “So just get high while the radio’s on / just relax and sing a song / drive your car up on the lawn.” Because I missed the fun, I have always been more interested in what went wrong than what went right with Camper, and my version of what went right may very well be total bullshit, because this version is mostly based on the recollections of my wife and her friends, who have spent years telling me stories about the time a friend of theirs I will call Phil got wasted and forced his way to the foot of the “stage” at the Starry Plough and made such a nuisance of himself that David Lowery repeatedly kicked him in the head, but this guy I’m calling Phil was so totally ripped he didn’t feel a thing, and just kept bothering the band in a way that can only be managed by really fucked up people who think they’re making the show a lot better. (When I tried to fact check this story with the person who told it to me, she said, “Well, I don’t know for sure, that’s just what I heard. I’d taken a lot of Qualudes and spent most of the show on the sidewalk. But I do remember asking David if he was Mormon, because ‘The History of Utah’ is totally about that and I used to be Mormon and it really cracked me up and I figured he had to be.”) This personal interjection is about to end, because we have now reached the point where the band gets successful and starts hating each other. This part will ultimately lead to February, 10th, 2000, when they forgive each other and maybe play “Good Guys and Bad Guys” again. Maybe they won’t. I interviewed most of them, but I didn’t ask what they were going to play because I want it to be a surprise. End of personal interjection.
After that third album, and national tours with such pre-Alternative Rock luminaries as R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, Camper Van Beethoven started approaching their career a bit more methodically. Or at least David Lowery did. Krummenacher (who’s now the Bay Guardian‘s art director) says, “He was the one who understood. He got the concept that he needed to focus in order to sell it.”
It also helped that the loose conglomeration of fellow-travelers had solidified into a consistent five member line-up. By the end of 1986, on again-off again guitarist Greg Lisher was in for good, and they’d found a permanent drummer in Chris Pedersen (sometimes lovingly referred to in the liner notes as Crispy Derson). Magazines finally knew who to invite to the photo sessions.
The band released its major label debut on Virgin records in 1988. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart showcased a tight, somewhat rocking unit. If the assorted tracks lacked the breadth that had previously been customary on Camper releases, that change was more than compensated by an impressive focus within individual songs. In other words, the record might not have been as trippy as earlier Camper albums, but it took you on a much more convincing journey.
Of course, it also boasted a heavily reverbed snare drum (Krummenacher calls it “that bad Bruce Springsteen rock of the ’80s snare sound”), a lead single whose video you could see on MTV during the day (“Eye of Fatima”), and an emphasis on Lowery’s improving composition skills — an emphasis which began to wrankle other band members.
“We had our egos damaged,” Krummenacher says. “Our buoyant band egos.” Segel thought Lowery “kind of gradually took control the only way men in their early twenties know how to do it, which is sort of a weird, passive-aggressive, emotional blackmail sort of way.” Segel wasn’t pleased that Beloved‘s “typical asshole L.A. producer” Dennis Herring chose not to record any of Segel’s songs — and that the rest of the band pretty much went along with that decision. Lisher, Pedersen and Krummenacher had a side project going called the Monks of Doom, and Segel supposes his lack of a similar outlet made him less willing to acquiesce. “I would say shit to the press about Dennis Herring, and David would get really pissed off at me, and the record company people would get really pissed off at me, and I think that they both kind of had some sort of conspiring to get me out of there, to get me out of the way.”
Krummenacher says, “There were some really harsh fights between him and David.” When Segel spouted off to the press in Houston, “David found the interview and went off on him. And you know, I think it was actually totally justifiable; I’d have had a confrontation, too. Unfortunately, David had it, and David can have quite a temper. I think that moment for me was really the beginning of, ‘We’re going to have some problems.’ We’d already had some problems, but that was like, ‘It’s going to get worse.’”
Segel was fired before Camper began recording their next album. “At the time,” Segel says, “I was a sacrifice to allow the band to exist for another year.”
Krummenacher agrees that Segel wasn’t the only one having problems with Lowery. “Everyone was having a hard time communicating with David. He spent 1987, ’88 and ’89 completely obsessed with making Camper a saleable entity and I think he basically sacrificed himself for it in a lot of ways. He was a hard person to be around at that point.”
Did Krummenacher agree that Segel had to go? yes. But, he admits, “I was distracted, too. I was coming out — leaving my girlfriend for a boyfriend, which is a pretty dramatic thing for a person to be going through and being in a band. My life was upside down.”
Given all that tension, it’s not surprising that Camper’s next album, Key Lime Pie, took up where Beloved tracks like “O Death” and “She Divines Water” left off. The record, which Lowery remembers being “universally panned” on its release, is now commonly regarded as the band’s proudest moment. But on the ensuing tour, the bus was not filled with very happy Campers. “The last European tour was misery,” Krummenacher says. “I was in a really horrible place and David was in a really bad place as well. We’d been together and on the road pretty much non-stop from July to April and we were fried.”
The precise motivations for Camper’s break-up vary depending on how much of the scuttlebutt you believed at the time and which band member’s memories you consult today. “We blew it,” Krummenacher says. “We just couldn’t stand each other anymore. I figured, ‘They liked Camper, they’ll certainly like everything else we do,’ which is a pretty erroneous idea. I thought if I made a break with Camper I’d facilitate being able to make more music. I was actually able to facilitate making less music, because I had to get a job to pay for my life.”
“We really kind of felt that we were commercially failing,” Lowery remembers. “In a lot of areas it seemed like our popularity had waned. I remember that last tour, CBGB’s wasn’t even sold out. I don’t know if they would say this, but Victor, Greg and Chris Pederson were like, ‘Look. This guy has this vision, we followed him along, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. We’re gonna try ours now.’”
Strangely, or not, the band’s performances were only getting better on that final tour. According to Krummenacher, “We had good shows until we broke up. I think the tension was contributing to us being a better band, almost. There was such animosity going on that the only enjoyment we had during the day was actually playing.” But the offstage resentment continued to grow, and the situation exploded after a show in Sweden. Lowery and the record company wanted to extend the tour. Krummenacher and Lisher wanted to go home. Right away.
“It was kind of the band against David, in a certain way. I probably engineered a lot of that,” Krummenacher says. “But nobody was really happy. Certainly there was an attitude my part — oh, I could do this better, run the band better. Which was bullshit. It was really, really poorly done. We should’ve finished the tour. We should’ve wound down and depressurized and then made the decision. Definitely one of the worse band breakups I know about. There was really a cold, lonely feeling I remember very clearly. We got back to Britain and David got out of the van and that was that. There was a huge amount of relief that he was gone. I would not have wanted to be him at that point. That was a pretty stern rejection on our part, and I think that’s one of the things if I do have any regret about it is that we were very cruel to him.
“Then the A&R guy called and was like, ‘I’ll send you guys to therapy.’ I think that’s when MegaDeath had been sent to therapy and they were thinking ‘Oh, well, it worked for them.’ I wasn’t into reconciling at that point. I was mad, and I’m a passive aggressive asshole when I’m mad. It was just, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine. Grunge is coming in, the Monks are harsher, louder, this’ll work.”
The Monks of Doom, of course, did not make much of a splash. Cracker did, however, leading many to assume that Krummenacher and the others bailed to preserve their artistic purity, a notion Krummenacher, Segel and Lowery all dismiss as absurd. (Other good rumors included “the Morgan curse,” so called because every band Morgan Fichter, Segel’s replacement on violin, joins seems to break up soon after she comes on board, from 10,000 Maniacs to Jane’s Addiction. Lowery’s favorite explanation for the split? “Well, I kind of enjoyed being gay for a while.”)
After the break-up, when Cracker started getting the attention Camper had been aiming for, Krummenacher found himself in the same bitter position he’d helped put Segel in a couple years earlier. Segel confesses to “feeling like a ghost” and hiding in his room whenever CVB came through town. Krummenacher can cite the precise moment his lost opportunities felt most profound: “I’m sitting in the Detour trying to pick up some guy and ‘Low’ starts getting played on the PA. That’s was like the definitive — Cracker being played in gay bars. But in a certain way I felt actually really proud of him. Like he’d done it, good for him. And there was a lot of jealousy, too, like, ‘Goddammit if Camper had hung on we would have been as popular, we would have been on the radio.’”
Krummenacher and Segel began repairing their relationship almost immediately after CVB split. Smoking the peace pipe with Lowery took some more doing. Segel says, “I wrote David a letter saying that Key Lime Pie was the most incredible record, the best songs that I thought he had ever written. Of course he got that letter a week after the band broke up, so he thought that I was being snotty and sarcastic. So it was just a bad situation again.”
Segel and Lowery were on speaking terms soon enough, however, and a couple years ago they started working together again after Lowery asked Segel to play fiddle on Cracker’s cover of the Clash’s “White Riot,” a song CVB used to perform. Eventually Krummenacher came around, too. “I just told him, ‘Whatever went on between us, I don’t think it matters anymore. I don’t think it’s insignificant, but it’s over, it’s done.’ The guy is really creative, very talented, he’s quick, he’s smart, he’s interesting. All the things that were appealing about him when I was 18 are appealing about him now.”
Which brings us to the present, a place all three say they want to remain. The reunion that won’t be taking place on Thursday and Friday night will put just as much emphasis on what Camper members have gotten up to since the split as it will on trying to recapture any old magic. Krummenacher and Segel will open the set playing songs from their 1990s solo projects. When Cracker takes the stage, Krummenacher will be their bassist. “It’s all basically one backline,” he explains. Lisher will come out to add some guitar, and by the time Segel returns with his violin, the band will have de-evolved into a vaguely Camper-like entity.
The upcoming CVB release (Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven) takes an equally low-key, we’re just buddies jamming approach. Contorting themselves to avoid contractual obligations to former record and publishing companies, the guys came up with something much more intriguing than a collection of dusty b-sides and unreleased tracks. CVB Is Dead features weird, engaging accretions of old drum parts from one song and backward snippets from others with lyrics written years after the fact and accompaniment added very recently by Krummenacher and Segel. It doesn’t exactly sound new, but it doesn’t sound dated, either. It occupies its own little world.
Which is fitting, since that’s just what Camper always did, and what Cracker are starting to do now that future gay bar hits seem unlikely (the band recently tried to get out of their Virgin contract, reasoning that they’re a cult band, and could make more money selling just as many albums on a smaller label).
Don’t go mistaking the gathering at Slim’s for a triumphant return to the musicians’ indie roots, though. That bit at the beginning about indie rockers trying not to be the Who wasn’t exactly true. As Lowery says, “Camper, we thought we were going to be the Beatles. Instead we ended up being the Pretty Things. Cracker wanted to be like the Rolling Stones, but I think we ended up being the Kinks.”