Within the sweaty, jam-packed confines of New York’s Highline ballroom, alt-rock vanguard Camper Van Beethoven launch into “All Her Favorite Fruit,” off of their 1989 major label release Key Lime Pie, eliciting howls of rabid approval from their grateful fans. Following with a steady diet of fan favorites that include “Take the Skinheads Bowling“ and future classic “Too High For The Love In,” off their current release La Costa Perdida, the setlist plays out like a Greatest Hits disc— a potent comment on the depth and consistency of a body of work that over thirty years on, continues to galvanize rock audiences across the planet.
Camper Van Beethoven has annually staged this feast of mutual adoration since their ferociously-anticipated return to the stage in 2002. Recently capping off this year’s string of shows by sharing the bill with the genetically-connected Cracker (featuring one of Camper’s co-founders, David Lowery), Camper are currently hammering away at a new batch of songs that fans hope will offer the same wry lyricism and bright hooks of Camper’s trademark sound. Co-founding member Jonathan Segel gave me the low down on all things Camper recently from his home in Sweden, on the eve of his new solo release Shine Out.
There’s a lot happening for you guys. You just finished a tour for your 10th album, La Costa Perdida, with a Camp Out at The 40 Watt Club, there’s a documentary of the band in the works and you’re working on a new album. La Costa is Camper’s first studio album in nine years. Was that intentional and how did the album come about?
Well, we hadn’t intended to wait so long between albums! Our intention was to work on the “next” album as a group, writing together, it just took a long time to do so. We all live in different places, and we’d only come together on tour, generally. Also of course, we all have other musical projects to work on, and David has a more popular band called Cracker who had things going on, including two albums made in the interim between Camper records.
On New Roman Times,you all brought pre-written songs to the project. So this was the first time in awhile that you’ve written together. Can you take us through the CVB writing process? How do songs generally come together?
We actually do a lot of writing on songs while we are in the studio recording them, so even with “pre-written” songs, the pre-writing is skeletal. Several songs on NRT were that way before we started working on them in the studio, and they only became the CVB sings that they are when we started recording! On LCP, what happened was that we had a gig planned in June of 2011 at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, and we had listened to the Beach Boys “Holland” album (with the Bg Sur Trilogy and other completely hippie things on it) and then suddenly the gig was rained out. In June! Very odd, but in any case it was rescheduled for a week later, so we had a week to sit around at my house in Oakland, where I lived at the time. Greg and David had worked on some things the previous winter so we started by trying to learn or rewrite these melodies into songs, then began to make up new ones. We played every afternoon for several hours and tried a bunch of different things, many of which became the songs on LCP, some of which remained unfinished until this past fall!
How do the songs actually come together?
A general description of what happens is that we started by solidifying a melody or chord progression and then slowly work it into a song structure. Sometimes we get ideas for what the song will be about, but only in a general sense, then David works with the melodies to repeat them in his head and come up with lyrics, while we all take the basic idea and work on it by ourselves for a while after recording a basic track. We actually started recording some of the basic tracks by the end of that same month and David was already mumbling lyrics while recording his rhythm guitar parts.
La Costa Perdida means “The Lost Coast.” How does this theme play into the album?
The real “Lost Coast” is an area of Northern California where the coastal highway cuts inland so the area is relatively inaccessible… but there are towns there. They aren’t entirely off the grid of course, but there are remnants of the 60s/70s counterculture that moved up north. The idea of the album was very much to revel in that Northern Cali heritage, the post-hippie utopia and dystopia that is still there. Or could be.
Is Northern California Girls CVB’s answer to The Beach Boys’ California Girls?
Pretty much, yeah.
Too High For the Love In is classic Camper in several movements. Was that a collaborative effort?
Entirely written in the living room by four of us. The stories involved are from two situations, one is a friend of ours in Santa Cruz who was high on mushrooms and came home to find a large seabird in his kitchen and didn’t know how to handle it. The send half is all about how my wife Sanna was bitten by a viper out in the country in Sweden (when our daughter was 5 days old) and we had a comedy of errors in getting her to the hospital and treated—it could have turned out very badly, actually, but thankfully didn’t—but in the midst of anaphylactic shock, after barfing liters up, she kept asking me to bring her a “pricke korv” sandwich (sort of a salami).
Can you tell us anything about the Camper album you’re working on now? Is there a projected release date?
Some of these songs started in the same writing session actually! We recorded basic tracks for LCP in three sessions, and then worked on overdubs over the course of the following year. We worked on more songs than fir with the concept and began to see a second album in the making, which was the Southern California companion to LCP. SO we went back to the studio to record even more basic tracks last summer to get a few more songs and make this idea come to life. We actually even wrote two songs while in the recording studio! So this new one was mixed last month (January) and is indeed all SoCal… there are many LA things, but SOCAl is as big as NorCal, so it does venture far and wide. Many more punish songs than its NorCal companion, of course.
What can you tell us about the documentary Get Off This: The Story Of Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven?
Well, this film is really the brainchild of Michael Santorelli, and as far as I know it’s more about David Lowery than about the bands. He did interview everybody in the bands, but not exactly about the bands. I don’t really know his motivation, it all seemed a bit “reality-TV” to me and I think he wanted to push David into exploding on film in some way, so I mostly steered clear of them when they were filming, frankly. I mean, David is a very interesting subject, and becoming more interesting as time goes on (what with his intense political work on artists’ rights these days) but I’m not certain what the film itself is capturing. We’ll see!
This past summer Camper & Cracker held their 9th Camp Out at Pioneertown, and now that you’ve done a Camp Out at the 40 Watt Club. Do you think you’ll expand the Camp Outs to other parts of the country?
You know, the beginning to the Camp-Out was actually a business idea from David and the people he was working with in Chicago at the time (in finance, not music) and it was called point break or something like that. It became Groupon. The idea was that you set a point break that put the plan into action, so if you get enough people to pledge to buy tickets so that the event could occur, you would do it. We had wanted some way to have a situation where the entire CVB/Cracker family could play and interact with our fans… and sell our records, of course. For example, a lot of the fans of Cracker didn’t know much about Camper and vice versa, and most of them didn’t realize that Victor and I had been making our own records all along after the breakup of CVB in 1990! PLus, Cracker’s guitarist Johnny Hickman makes his own record too. So we got a chance to strut our individual stuff as well, and have a nice small “festival” atmosphere where Camper could headline on night and Cracker the next. We chose Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace as a destination because it’s isolated and fun, and we have some history with it (as do many musicians) and Cracker actually recorded there in the early 90s. This September will be the 10th year.
Do you have a favorite moment from any of the past events?
We did one Camp-Out East in Virginia a couple years ago, in June. It was sweltering and humid, but pretty fun, but different in its scope. Camper and Cracker played, but none of the “family” bands, but there were bands that were friends of our bands. The Camp-In has happened twice now, in Athens. GA at the 40 Watt club which is booked by our manager (and David’s wife) Velena Vego. This time Camper and Cracker played both nights, instead of one each, and the thursday night that preceded these had David and Johnny doing an acoustic duo (as they had at the last Camp-Out) and a new version of Cracker that was more country which consisted of David, Johnny and many local Athens musician. I played a set on the saturday at the Flicker bar next door, improvising with local players.
You’ve moved to Sweden where you continue to record solo projects. You’ve got an album set for release on Feb. 10.. Tell us about it.
My last album before this, “All Attractions”, took awhile! I started it after the release of “Honey” in 2008, and an indie label was interested and we began negotiations for releasing a compilation of my stuff and then a new record on its heels, we got so far as going back and forth on a contract and I began recording basic tracks for what became All Attractions, and then they backed out suddenly. So I sort of shut down and stopped recording and writing for most of 2009. Maybe it was the whole financial crisis. I ended up having my teaching contracts not renewed in 2009 as well, so I started working full time at Pandora, so that made it more difficult to work on recording as well. Later that year I had a couple of nights at the Fillmore opening for Built To Spill (Halloween even!) so I began working on the recordings again, and eventually even went back to record a few more basics. While at the studio, we had an afternoon free, so we improvised, and when I worked on overdubs for everything, I made these improvs into pieces, and decided to release both as one double CD, All Attractions and Apricot Jam. I did a kickstarter project to fund it, and in late 2011 this whole process finally ended and I printed up 300 copies and sold them out in 2012.
Weren’t you working at Pandora at the time?
Right, the other fun thing that happened in 2012 was that I got fired from my job at Pandora (long story) and with a 9-month old, the threat of no health insurance, a wife who had been on maternity leave from being a pre-school teacher, there was no way to make the mortgage. The bank didn’t help, so within a couple months, we made the decision to leave the country. My wife is Swedish and was into moving back here anyway, so we did. It’s been tough for me to be an immigrant at my advanced age, but it’s ultimately a good choice I think.
Did that inform your new album?
Well, I hadn’t intended to make a new album at all. But since I don’t have a job and spent much of 2013 flying back and forth on tour, what time I did have in the summer we spent out in the country. And I started recording there (when my daughter was napping). So everything was recorded within a two month or so period, we came back to Stockholm in September and I went back to language school and mixed the songs when I could, sent it to my friend Myles Boisen to master it in December and had some CDs printed while I was in the US in January. Voila. Instant record. It’s the quickest one I’ve ever made! One reason, I guess, is that it was only me working on it. There aren’t any drums (though there is a drum machine on a coupled tracks) and I can play a bunch of instruments, so that’s no problem. The songs are not necessarily as pastoral as it might sound, nor as stripped down: I do play some ripping electric guitar on a few tracks. Anyway, there it is, a candid shot of me right now.