by Jane Roser
“I think a friend named the band,” I’m sitting backstage at DC’s iconic 9:30 Club chatting with Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven, one of the bands that truly defined rock music of the 1990s (and one whose cassette tapes I wore out from playing Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart on repeat).
“It was originally called Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol,” explains Segal. “The name’s based on a type of poetry that rests on a fulcrum [the fulcrum (also called pivot or volta) is the place where the poem shifts meaning from one tone or idea to another] and it’s sort of out of balance. So ‘Van’ can go with either ‘Camper’ or ‘Beethoven’, but as a fulcrum, it never quite balances.”
Camper Van Beethoven is celebrating thirty years of creating truly unique rock and roll. The band started in Redlands, California in 1983, releasing their first three albums within a year and a half (Telephone Free Landslide Victory, II & III and their eponymous album). Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was released in 1988 and included their popular ‘Eye of Fatima’, which is still often performed at their live shows. Their debut single “Take The Skinheads Bowling” became their biggest hit, resurfacing years later when Michael Moore used Teenage Fanclub’s cover version as the title track of his documentary Bowling For Columbine. Currently consisting of band members David Lowery, Victor Krummenacher, Greg Lisher, Jonathan Segel and Frank Funaro, Camper Van Beethoven has been touring to promote their current album La Costa Perdida playing to full clubs and sold out shows.
“Everything’s really good; we’re doing the same kind of run between Christmas and New Year’s that we do in San Francisco, Petaluma and San Diego. Our record came out in January of last year, so we did a lot of shows up until September, then we did our Camp Out festival, which is in Pioneertown near Joshua Tree.”
The Camp Outs started in California nine years ago and have been very popular with fans. This year, Camper and Cracker (David Lowery’s other band, formed in 1991 with guitarist Johnny Hickman) will be hosting a Camp In at Athens, Georgia’s famed 40 Watt Club January 23-25. “The Camp In is a club festival,” says Segel,” The last time we did one was about two years ago. Camper played one night, Cracker played the next and I did a little show of electric guitar improv next door at the Flicker Bar. David teaches at the University of Georgia and his wife books the 40 Watt, so he spends a lot of time in Athens. We’re mixing the new album there at Chase Park, so it’s very convenient for us to do the festival there and this year Camper and Cracker will be playing both nights.”
Camper will be performing at Philly’s World Cafe Live with Cracker tonight at 8pm. “We’ve played there many times now and they’re great! We’ve also been on their radio show. The sound is really good, it fills up and there’s always a great audience that comes out. Philly is one of the early hot spots for us from back in the mid 80s and we still have many friends there.”
I ask Segel how they come up with a set list every night when they have a catalog of over 173 songs (I counted). “We get into veins of doing specific groups of songs and that changes night to night. We try not to do the same set list every show, but we get into grooves. Like, we’ve opened the show with the same two songs for the past two shows (“Waka” and “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”), then it diverged.”
Segel is an impressive multi-instrumentalist. I counted a guitar, violin, mandolin and keyboards the night I saw Camper perform. Segel was obsessed with the electric guitar when he was young, then took up violin when he was 10 years old, dropping it for a short while, only to pick it back up again when he joined the band after moving out to Santa Cruz to attend college. I’ve always been impressed by Camper’s ability to weave diverse genres of music into their rock songs (“O Death”, for instance, is a traditional American folk dirge).
Citing The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Beatles as examples of bands that incorporated various ethnic sounds into their music, Segel explains, “As Camper continued, we mostly just thought, we’re a rock band and rock bands can put any kind of music they want into their songs. For instance, our song “Peaches In The Summertime” is a version of “Shady Grove”. But how that developed musically was more from listening to Turkish music. As artists, you’re a filter, so everything you hear comes out somewhere. We all have wide-ranging tastes in the type of music we listen to.” Intrigued, I ask Segel what’s on his iPod and discover everything from Bach to Brian Eno and some bands I had never heard of before (and am now enjoying) such as The Bye Bye Blackbirds and Game Theory.
New Roman Times was released almost 10 years ago, so why was there a long break between albums? “We got back together in the late 90s and started playing apothecary shows that were Cracker shows in which members of Camper would come out to play, then we started playing as a full band again in 2002. Then between 1999-2002 we worked in the studio in Richmond, where David was living at the time. We worked on several projects such as Tusk and Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven. New Roman Times was released in 2004 and we toured, but then Cracker started making a lot more records. We kept saying we all wanted to write the next record together and it just took awhile to do that. But we had a show in the Big Sur in June that got rained out, so we postponed it for a week and all went to my house in Oakland and just worked on these songs.”
There are 12 songs total that Camper is now mixing for their next album and Segel says, “we recorded La Costa Perdida over the course of six months, so in the meantime, we’d been writing new songs and finally finished the recording this past fall. La Costa Perdida wound up being a Northern California based album and so this next group of songs will be a Southern California based theme; and then Cracker is currently working on a new double record that’s related to Bakersfield.”
La Costa Perdida‘s album cover is really unique and I come to find that it was created by a friend of Segel’s named Michael Wertz who created the cover to Segel’s solo album Honey in 2008. “David liked his work, so we hired him to make the poster for our Christmas run in San Francisco and we just started using his artwork all the time. We basically give him free reign at this point!”
Listening to Camper’s lyrics, you find that they are poetic and unexpected, “David does a lot of character writing,” explains Segel, “he gets an idea of who the storyteller is; he likes the unreliable narrator.” A fan favorite off the new album is “Too High For The Love-In”, which turns out to be based upon a true story, “the first verse is about a friend of ours who was really high on mushrooms and one day he came home to find a giant sea bird in his kitchen. It was awkwardly trying to get out and shitting all over the place! But the second verse is about my wife. We live in Sweden and were staying out in the country after just having a baby; she was out walking and gets bitten on the toe by a viper. We called for an ambulance, but the dispatcher didn’t seem to worried about the situation. We go to meet her at the hospital and she’s not there- the ambulance got a flat tire and didn’t have a spare! It was also August, so all of the doctors were on vacation and the hospital was manned by medical students. So she finally gets to the hospital and starts going into toxic shock, the students don’t know what they’re doing, so they call the poison center. Meanwhile, while they’re waiting for the anti-venom to arrive from another hospital by taxi, my wife is asking us to make her a sandwich. With salami. It was just such a ridiculous situation.”
Camper Van Beethoven has endured for thirty years and their music is always full of fun stories and intriguing lyrics, their live shows a rocking, fabulous experience. I recall spending many a night replaying my Camper cassettes and wondering who “She Divines Water” was about. One of these days maybe I’ll figure, figure it all out.