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Jonathan Segel on Camper Van Beethoven and beyond

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More than a quarter century ago, Camper Van Beethoven kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). Singer David Lowery turned up the yee-haw a bit in his next band, Cracker, and dipped a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). Between CVB's end in the early '90s and it's 2000s reincarnation, Lowery produced many acts (Counting Crows, Sparklehorse), guitarist-violinist Jonathan Segel (far left above) got around (Heironymous Firebrain, Jack & Jill, great solo albums including the recent "All Attractions") and bassist Victor Krummenacher played with Monks of Doom and made his own solo albums.

But the rebounds always came back to Camper and Cracker. The two bands share enough off-kilter whimsy and personnel that for most of the 21st century they've been touring as a package.

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The reunited Camper is as workaday as the original. Are they celebrated with the same froth whipped up around Pavement reunions or the recent quasi-Replacements project? No. (Should they be? Yes.) But that's not exactly what these guys are in it for.

"As David put it, 'There's no benefit to quitting,'" Segel told me in a recent interview. "We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time."

Answering questions online from his current home in Stockholm, Segel talked -- and the boy does go on and on -- about Camper's legacy, the band's latest California-centric album, "La Costa Perdida," his own solo work and the growing pains of music in a digital world:

JonathanSEGEL_IanWeintraub2.jpgQ: David Lowery told me a couple of years ago: "Cracker is so much my personality and Johnny [Hickman]'s, what I write we can do some version of. Camper is a particular beast." Can you describe the particular beast that is Camper? I still struggle myself ...
Jonathan Segel: Well, we have always been some sort of alchemy of the members of the band, regardless of the line-up at the time. A multi-headed hydra! The long-running line up in the 1980s was David, me, Victor Krummenacher, [guitarist] Greg Lisher and [drummer] Chris Pedersen. Then we hit a snag in 1989-90 and I was gone and replaced by David Immergluck and Morgan Fichter for a year (cut off one head and two more shall grow back in its place!). When we started playing as a band again, we went back to the long standing five-piece, but Chris P lives in Australia, so ultimately Frank Funaro has been drumming with us (from Cracker).

So who are we? One of the really interesting things about writing [2004's] "New Roman Times," and even more so with "La Costa Perdida," was bringing everything that we have all individually done in the interim to the table. David obviously has done Cracker but also a bunch of producing; Victor, coming through the Monks of Doom, has become an amazing singer-songwriter in the classic tradition; Greg, after the Monks, has worked on his own pop albums and is continually finishing an instrumental guitar album; and I've done, well, a lot also. So try to bring that all together into a band, where we all have ideas for what to do. We have feelers in all sorts of different types of music, we all are avid book readers, we all have now been playing music all of our adult lives (and longer). It's tough to describe the thread, but there is a definite California personality that comes out, complete with the punk and hippie personae, and a politicization that verges on the tinfoil hat regime. And if we start from there and go with it, the jokes and inside references can become extremely convoluted and bizarre. And that's fun for us -- that's one of the big reasons why we continue to do it.

Q: Reunions of rock acts sometimes seem an inevitability. Tell me about how a hydra-headed ensemble like CVB starts communicating again about playing and writing, and eventually creating "New Roman Times." What was the motivation? What sets the CVB glue?
Segel: Are reunions inevitable? I actually never thought during the 1990s that Camper would ever play again. The process was similar to CVB's dissolution, in reverse -- that is to say, in fits and starts. Coagulation, I suppose. I think the first indications were either Victor sitting in on bass with Cracker or my flying out to Richmond, Va., to record "White Riot" with Cracker for a Clash tribute record. (CVB had always covered "White Riot" as a country-ish tune ... still do, in fact.) That must have been 1998 or so? At that point I was playing in Sparklehorse for a couple years and David actually joined us onstage to play "All Her Favorite Fruit" in L.A. at the Troubadour, and I think he might have thought that playing some of the old songs would be fun then. By 2000, Greg, Victor and I were joining Cracker during shows for an "Apothecary Show" sort of Camper/Cracker amalgam, with me or Victor (and band) opening the shows. Then we worked on making old material into new material and new material into old material in the studio, making "Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven" and the entire cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album. These sort of paved the way for us to record together again.

Camper really "got back together" finally in 2002 in New York for a series of shows at the Knitting Factory. We went to a rehearsal studio and tried to play every song from every album in order. Some worked, some didn't. But we realized that we were still that band that played all those songs, no matter what happened in the time in between, and they were all still in muscle memory to some extent. Plus it was an intense realization on my part, that this band of players was how I learned how to play in a band to begin with, it was very "family." So we continued. And made a new album in 2004 finally, and have been playing shows ever since.

Q: When you returned to CVB and were learning Morgan's violin parts, did you ever think, "Hmm, would've done this differently...," and did you seek to tweak or change any of them? How has the catalog settled/evolved over the years?
Segel: Actually, that's not quite right. I played on demos of about half the tracks on "Key Lime Pie" initially, before leaving the band in 1989, and then in the studio they got Don Lax to play violin. He's sort of a madman gypsy violinist from Santa Cruz. It sounds to me like they recorded him improvising and cut and pasted a bunch (on 2-inch tape!). Morgan played on two tracks on that record, "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Flowers," both of which I would swear were me playing. (We had recorded "Matchstick Men" for [1988's] "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart," but didn't finish it so that our first major-label single wouldn't be a cover.) But apparently, says Victor, Dennis Herring analyzed my effects chain and duplicated it, and she played my parts exactly.

When we play material from "KLP," I simply cannot play like Don Lax. He's a really incredible violinist. I'm sort of a hack, a guitarist who started playing violin. So I do have to tweak it and change it, and for some of the tracks, like "All Her Favorite Fruit," I go back to my demo ideas. But when we were going to put out [the 2008 best-of] "Popular Songs of Great Enduring Strength and Beauty," Virgin wouldn't let us use their recordings, so we had to re-record things to have versions of songs from "OBRS" and "KLP" that we could use for this package. Bruce Kaphan was producing these tracks, and his charter was to make them sound as exact as possible to the originals, which was technically very odd, of course. Imagine trying to track down working studio gear common to the late 1980s. I could easily play things from "OBRS" for the most part but, man, the "KLP" things were incredibly difficult for me, technically and psychologically. I felt like I was being forced to pretend that I was the very guy that stole my own girlfriend. It took me a long and difficult session to record these versions of "All Her Favorite Fruit" and "When I Win the Lottery."

Actually, now that I think about it, I have had to learn one of Morgan's parts, on a song called "L'Aguardiente," which is only on record as a live version from 1990, I think. It's technically tough for me also, as she's a real violinist, and I don't get it right every time in concert. I sort of have to do it any way I can. She came to a show we played in Sebastapol a couple years back, and I offered the violin to her to play it, but she didn't accept.

Q: Tell me about making "La Costa Perdida," and what identity has it carved out in the Camper catalog?(Bonus Q: Hey, no instrumentals?!)
Segel: La Costa was quite a while in the making, of course -- what, seven years between albums? Eight? After working on "New Roman Times," we toured a lot and planned to make a new record by getting together and writing it together. But when we finally had more time to think about it, we were all at home in our different cities (David in Richmond, Frank in New York, Greg in Santa Cruz, Victor in San Francisco and me in Oakland). Then Cracker cranked up their machine again and made another record, and the rest of us worked at our various jobs and on our own records. Then while Cracker was touring very extensively, they actually wrote another record all together. So Cracker had two releases between the Camper ones. In fact, so did I and so did Victor!

Camper still did the same annual touring, mostly Christmas to Presidents' Day, and then August or September into our Camp-Out Festival near Joshua Tree, but it wasn't until late 2010 that Greg and David got together for a few days and actually began to carve out some ideas for the next CVB album. About six months later, we were scheduled to play at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, Calif., and it got rained out (in June!) and rescheduled for a week later, so we all went to my (now former) house in Oakland every day and sat in the living room and wrote songs together. We must have gotten down ideas for about 20 tracks. The ideas that Greg and David had from the previous winter became mutated, many new musical ideas added during the week, many background and situational ideas for the lyrical content came out of the Big Sur area and its history. We zeroed in on the California theme, taking some inspiration from the Beach Boys "Holland" record, which was all about Northern California and Big Sur. We actually went to the studio to cut some basic tracks later that month, and did the rest in the fall. We decided to hold back some tracks to make the album very NorCal-centric, while the remaining ones were tending to head toward SoCal and L.A. (Just wait for part two!)

The actual "Lost Coast" is north of Mendocino, a fairly wild, hippie, survivalist, inaccessible place, but we took its ideas and spread them along the central coast for the content -- that mixed with a few stories from Sweden standing in for Oakland. No instrumentals, you're right, except "Aged in Wood," originally titled something like "Meanwhile, at the Love-In ..." -- it's actually the same melody as used in "I Was Too High for the Love-In" but entirely transposed into a major key instead of a minor key. I think that both may have started as an instrumentals.

To sum it up, the record grew like a plant, with all of us as gardeners. It didn't take long to get it shaped up, really, it seemed to have its own life. Some of the recordings really show some maturity and musicianship growth on all of our part -- after so long we actually know how to play pretty well these days, and the recordings contain some beautiful parts and arranging (if I do say so myself!) and some subtle beauty. I do try to work with the details of everything I record on to make it have enough to reward listeners the more they listen, and Camper has always mixed so that we can freak out that one kid sitting in the dark with headphones in Iowa when he discovers the ear candies.

Q: When [your latest solo album] "All Attractions" came out, I reeled to learn there had been a few solo titles since "Scissors and Paper." I felt like a fair-weather fan for not keeping up. But I suspect lots of fans experience music this way, running to stand still in the info stream. You're an artist and former label chief: What are the challenges today in keeping fans aware and informed of your output, and how do you meet them?
Segel: Man, I've all but given up at this point. It's really impossible to sell records at our individual level. We're lucky that Camper is as popular as it is in order to get a little word out about everything else we do. The thing is, I've also been a front-man or "solo artist" since 1989, but with no real label or agency. Victor and I started Magnetic [Records] in 1993 to make our own CDs. We shut it down finally in 2011, though "All Attractions/Apricot Jam" did really come out in 2012. Financially, I could barely afford to record a band and manufacture some CDs to say nothing of advertising or promotion. (Numbers have dropped precipitously for me in the last while: 1,000 CDs were made of "Scissors and Paper" in 2000, 1,000 of "Edgy Not Antsy" in 2003, then 400 of "Honey" in 2008 and 300 of "All Attractions" in 2012. All of them are gone now, either sold or trashed.) I actually hired the press/PR guy that Camper uses for promoting "All Attractions," but with my limited budget, I got a few nice reviews. I mean, you found out about it! And I think it's my best music so far! Magnetic was always just a boutique label to affix a barcode on our CDs. None of them really sold much, it was a hobby. The company never made money. But every new release was exciting and a new reason to keep going. I actually thought every time that certainly this time people would find out how great these records were!

I don't know what I'm going to do now, really. I don't think I can stop making music, of course, but it's very discouraging to me to continue to spend the time, effort and money for a few dozen people to hear it. I have a Bandcamp page attached to my website, where I have tons of music I've made, film scores, dance company music, all my solo albums, [the bands] Dent and Chaos Butterfly, some random other collections. Most of it is pay-what-you-will -- that is to say: market value. That's no way to run a label or be a professional musician. Even with the exposure from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, it's a small circle of friends. So the answer is, I don't know. I have never been able to "sell" myself, my music (or, in fact, anything), and the new market demands hucksterism. I think that's sad for those of us who aren't hucksters, and leaves the market filled with exposure for marketeers more than musicians. I can't imagine any of my favorite artists ever being able to sell themselves, and I'm glad that most have not had to. Those that were forced into retirement or obscurity for financial reasons have my sympathy, to say the least.

Sadly, this all reminds me of one of my favorite musicians ever, who died last week: Scott Miller. He was in a band at UC-Davis when I was in high school in Davis, and I'd been a fan of his ever since, through Game Theory and the Loud Family and beyond. He basically stopped recording, to the concern of many, many fans, about eight years ago, as he had no label or backing and no means to see any new songwriting through to a recording that reached people. He wrote music criticism only (Music: What Happened?) and though many people wanted him to play and record more, he never did. Suddenly he died at 53 years old, and now we'll never get more of his brilliance.

Q: Tell me about your work at Pandora. What did you learn from the "inside" that illuminated (or darkened) your perspective on music and new media services?
Segel: Well, f---. You know, in the end I was fired. I had been teaching music theory and "Desktop Musicianship" (i.e., computer music) at The College of Marin and Ohlone College, but after the 2008 wide-scale economic f--- up, the state let go of a lot of the part-time contracts in the arts. So I applied in "the private sector." I actually thought Pandora would recognize the potential goldmine of musical knowledge and experience I represented, but of course it's a company and you're not paid to think. I tend to agree with Damon Krukowski, in his article in Pitchfork: These companies are about money, and music is simply the fodder they use to make money. I know [Pandora co-founder] Tim Westergren talks big about "being a musician" and how artist-centric the company is, but I never saw that really play out so well for musicians. In fact, where the company had been comprised of many, many musicians at the beginning, there were very few by the IPO. Ultimately, the disciplinary problems I had were based in continuing to "question decisions that had already been made" by those hierarchically above me in the company, even when they were basically unethical, like accepting ads from homophobic hate groups like "Speak Up University" and "Minnesotans for Marriage." But you know, I can't shut up so they "let me go."

I have read numerous articles saying that the trend in music "business" is even downloads will go the way of the CD and we'll only be left with streaming services (paying that ~$0.002 per stream in royalties). No individual could make money on that. It seems that only those who own the rights to millions of songs could. Also, of course, the providers of bandwidth and devices to listen with will get your money. For Pandora and Spotify to become profitable will mean that they sell more advertising and pay less royalties. Who wants that? Well, Wall Street does. And who makes the laws that support these things? I don't think it's the musicians.

Q: You've written a bit about the new business models for musicians. We're always hearing about the freedom offered by new media, but from my post it seems like musicians have to work harder and make less money. Right or wrong?
Segel: As I mentioned with respect to selling music above, I have found it harder to sell music and, yes, we work incredibly hard in Camper Van Beethoven both at recording and touring, and make very little money. So yeah, maybe there are people who can cash in on the "new models," but I haven't met them. All the musicians I know have had more and more trouble putting out records or touring to try to make ends meet. I know many who have given up.

I think the market as such is very geared toward quick runs from young bands and nobody is expected to ever really become a musician, something that takes time and effort. There has always been a focus on youth in rock music, but now there's even more necessity for youth because kids are the only ones who can be jobless and can live in poverty and enjoy the brief success while staying on couches on tour and saving nothing. By the time someone's 40 or so, it's much tougher to continue doing that, and now I'll be 50 this year and I have a child. There's no way I can support our family. In fact to be quite honest I've only made a living as a professional musician for maybe three years of the past 30, the rest of the time I worked other jobs to pay the rent -- until I couldn't.

But I think that it's unlikely that the current crop of popular bands will be around in five or 10 years, and the market will continue to cycle through people who will put up with it until they can't. All the indie bands will be young, and few will ever be able to develop their musicianship or talent. Camper has been extremely tenacious, and part of that has to do with all of our inability to give up making music, so we've actually become decent musicians. It would be nice to make a living, but until we can, we'll have to tour only on occasion and record when we can. The problem of course is that work is a vicious cycle, the more time you spend at work the less you can spend being a musician. It's like that Onion article: When you're working 40 (or more) hour weeks, it's tougher and tougher to make the energy to do anything after work as you get older. And of course, the irony is that you really only get better as an artist with time. But yeah, current culture has no use for better artists, they want better spectacle, more youth, next big thing.

Q: There was CVB last month at SXSW, schlepping through sets like any other up-and-comers. In Chicago, you're booked into a very bro-centric sports bar. Are you comfortable at this mid-/survival level of the business, and what have been the ultimate ambitions of CVB all these years?
Segel: As David put it, "There's no benefit to quitting." We play well, we entertain people, they seem to like it. If we can do it and break even, we benefit from the sheer enjoyment of the situation, and from getting better at what we do every time. SxSW is a particularly weird situation, it's like a big city where human life is a dime a dozen, and there everybody is a musician, so being a musician is worth even less. And it's sort of funny to play at these places where there are a zillion young bands to show off a little what it's like to be a grown up band who's been playing together for years. So who knows what ultimate good comes of our playing there, but it's usually an incredible chaos with some fun attached. I didn't get to see much besides Robyn Hitchcock this year, but in previous years I have been able to see a bunch of cool music!

Q: Your solo debut, "Storytelling," remains one of my top-five desert-island discs. I've rarely heard a better balance of really smart composition and successful improvisation. Can you talk a bit about how you maintain that tricky balance in projects like these and, I'm guessing, in Camper, too?
Segel: First off, thank you. This could be a very long answer, but I'll try to be succinct. I've always been heavily invested in both musical composition and improvisation, and the back-and-forth of these things. Improvisation is really just composing in real time. We may use many methods, like starting with a written riff or progression and improvising on it, or improvising from nothing and then choosing a good bit and "freezing" it into written form and then working on it. I mean, I think all composers do, we certainly know Bach and Beethoven did, and Charlie Parker and Miles and Ornette and Jimi and so on and so on. In Camper, we have a tendency to work the songs into a quintessential form and that remains, to a certain extent, the ideal -- but then things slowly change. In the writing stages, we do a lot of improvising around certain ideas. I know that Greg likes to completely compose his parts during the recording sessions until they are "done" and then he will play that same recorded part in concert. I, on the other hand, rarely play the same thing twice, unless it's a complete written melody like in "Good Guys and Bad Guys" or "Chairman Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China" or similar. But take, for example, "You've Got to Roll" on "La Costa Perdida." In concert, we will mostly play the same thing as is the recorded version, but the quiet part of the breaks where I'm playing that bluesy Les Paul lead part, I can't even remember what I played on the recording, so I just improvise. I have the luxury of being able to improvise quite a bit, and I can get away with it in CVB, which I like. We used to have some time to do our version of Tusk or Interstellar Overdrive for an encore in Camper and that was some hella improv on all our parts!

When I was making "All Attractions," I had written the structural stuff for all the songs, and improvised a lot over it for the guitar leads and melodies and such, but when recording the last couple basic tracks, we had an afternoon free in the studio, so we improvised with no starting point more than the first note, Victor on bass, John Hanes on drums, Graham Connah on Hammond and me on guitar, and then I took those tracks home and made compositions out of the improvisations! That became the bonus disc, "Apricot Jam." After that, we only did a couple shows of the songs on "All Attractions", and the last few shows I've done have been entirely space-rock improvisation. It was easier than getting them together to rehearse, that's for sure.

Aside: You know, it occurs to me, as you mentioned missing the in-between of "Scissors and Paper" and "All Attractions," that my entire solo output is in pairs: "Storytelling" with the first Hieronymus Firebrain (self titled) CD, then the two HF "Here" and "There," then two Jack & Jill CDs (and two Dent cds), "Scissors and Paper" goes with "Edgy Not Antsy," and "Honey" with "All Attractions," both heavy electric guitar things. (I'm not counting the improv and electronic stuff like Chaos Butterfly.)

Q: I enjoyed your recent blog post about the bass guitar. What instrument have you not figured out yet that you'd like to?
Lap steel! (I'm still avoiding the banjo.)

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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