Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Camper Van Beethoven: Storytelling with Jonathan Segel



Originally published in Bucketfull Of Brains63 and 64- 2002
The sad truth is the general public is never going to be interested in a one off musical genius. Listening to Jonathan Segel's recent solo album Scissors and Paper, with it's magnificent songs, intelligent and passionate playing, I felt a small, but breathtaking break in my heart. Not because the sheer integrity and depth of the man's talent, will indeed mean that blissful gems like Little Blue Fish and Perfect Ears will never go storming up the charts. But because the faithful and loving cult this extraordinary musician and songwriter deserves is no where as widespread as it should be. In many ways Jonathan was the key member of that most magnificent of all the San Francisco bands Camper Van Beethoven. His blazing violin work was, even more than the voice of David Lowery, the defining sound of that wonderful combo and inspired many others, Warm Wires amongst them, to bring the electric violin back into the alternative rock arena.



The ten years or so since the Campers demise has seen a continuos flow of wonderful and vital music from the various ex-members. Lowery most obviously with Cracker, while Jonathan and Victor Krummenacher formed Magnetic records to release their ongoing creative endeavours, as any regular reader of this magazine will no doubt be aware. The last couple of years has seen a coming together of the various strands of the band, that started innocently enough with David Lowery asking Jonathan Segel to come and play some of his blinding violin on Cracker's version of White Riot for the Clash tribute album Burning London. From this small mending of former rifts came The Cracker Traveling Apothecary Show, an extended line up of Lowery and John Hickman's band that featured Jonathan, Victor and guitarist Greg Lisher. The band played a heady mixture of both Cracker and Campers songs, while more importantly, the support act for much of the tour was The Magnetic Motorworks, Jonathan, Victor and Greg playing tracks from their various superb solo albums. To hear Victor's songs with Jonathan's violin swooping through the bold melodies on one of the few CDR's that have surfaced of this unique band has been as close to heaven as I've reached this year. A live album, Flash Your Sirens, released on Lowery's resurrected Pitch-A-Tent label beautifully documents the Cracker/Campers conglomerate. Also on Pitch-A-Tent came a collection of previously unreleased CVB music, Camper Van Beethoven is Dead, Long Live Camper Van Beethoven.



This year saw the final catalyst with the release of Campers previously lost, late eighties deconstruction of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, again on Pitch-A-Tent. Cooking Vinyl have released a limited edition Campers box set collecting together all the band's long out of print, Rough Trade / Pitch-a-Tent albums along with a bonus live disc. The best news yet is that the band are back together and have already played half a dozen shows stateside and are on the cusp of a possible European tour very soon and after that a new album.

While there are many fine violinists working in the rock and alt.country fields, Jonathan Segel remains the most vital of them all. In the same way that David Jaxxon of Van Der Graaf Generator is without doubt the rock saxophonist bar none, I contend, Jonathan is the definitive rock violinist and on top of that both a superb, if much neglected songwriter and a blazingly fine guitarist to boot. His output since he first left CVB has been essential listening. From the magnificent solo debut, Storytelling, through three albums with the sprawling and fascinating Hieronymus Firebrain, a pair of gems with his trio Jack and Jill and back to another superb solo album Scissors and Paper, Jonathan has created a fine body of adventurous, beautifully played and melodic work. Anyone lucky enough to have seen him take centre stage with Sparklehorse on their tour of a couple of years back will testify to the fact that he is a gifted and charismatic live player.
The Mobius Strip of his long and creatively vital career has now brought him back full circle to the band from which he first sprang and the moment seems right to let him tell his fascinating story and find, just exactly how he got from there to here. But before we get to Jonathan it seems prudent to go back to the very beginning and bask for a while in the dawn of Camper Van Beethoven. Formed in Santa Cruz, California in the early eighties, Sitting Duck, (David Lowery, Bill Macdonald, Chris Molla and Eric Lange,) with their eclectic blend of ska meets sixties garage, stood out from the endless sea of punk rock bands being gobbed up around them. "In my opinion the best local band around at the time." The opinion belonged to fledgling bass player Victor Krummenacher, who had cut his musical teeth taking the hour long trip to L.A. to see the likes of X, The Germs, The Clash, PIL, Black Flag and The Gang Of Four live. "It was hard to figure out what was going on, I thought that punk rock was great but too catholic, too restraining." But, as yet, his own musical dabbling had been not much more than "playing bass for brief stints in bad punk rock bands that couldn't finish a song." In the summer of '82, Sitting Duck had mutated, for a period, into Estonian Ghochos, with the addition of guitarist John Hickman from another local band The Dangers, but it was to be their next mutation that was to prove crucial. In the spring of the following year, David Lowery returned from college in Santa Cruz to work for the summer in a liquor store, while living back at his parents in the suburb of Redlands. Krummanacher had turned 18 and had just graduated from high school, Lowery was five years older but when they ran into each other at a party soon after they somehow or other got talking about how lame punk rock was getting. The punk rock scene in L.A. was becoming violent and fucked up by this time and new bands were starting to spring up, Rank and File, The Violent Femmes and X off shoot the Knitters, that had weird folky, country overtones. The two decided to start a band.
Victor: "We were just into being absurd and different and lampooning the mutant punk skinhead culture that was springing up around us and usurping our turf." And so was born, the Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol. Completing that first line-up were violinist David Blume, Bill Macdonald from Sitting Duck on drums and the son of a Baptist preacher David McDaniel,who used to sneak out of his parents house to come and play guitar. McDaniel stuck around just long enough to come up with the new band's, soon to be shortened moniker. That summer they played at various local punk parties and every Wednesday night at David's parent's house. The songs were stuff that was to turn up on the first album, with a couple of numbers held over from Sitting Duck. By the end of the summer they were playing, Lassie, Skinheads Bowling, Border Ska, Mao and several other instrumentals as well as old folk and country songs.
Another ex-Sitting Duck, Chris Molla joined later that summer on guitar, but in the fall Lowery went back to Santa Cruz and that was the end of that. Victor: "We got together at one point with a guy named Mark Phillips, who had been in the Estonian Gouchos, and tried to play another party, but Mark and David got into some political argument and it fell apart." Come December, Victor transferred to UC Santa Cruz and CVB reconvened with a line up consisting of, Lowery, Krummenacher, Molla and drummer Richard West. But for David the band was still a side project of sorts because, for the last two years, he had also played bass with another Santa Cruz band, Box O Laffs. That combo also had Chris Molla on guitar and a series of drummers, two of whom, Anthony Guess and, more importantly, Chris Pedersen, would later fill the drum stool in Camper Van Beethoven. Victor: " Box O Laffs were just beautiful, a dour, drony pyschedelic combo, fucking brilliant and sadly, very poorly documented. The lead vocalist was a crazy cat and poet named Eric Curkendall, genius writer and tortured soul. I used to hang out and just watch them rehearse, I learnt so much from them as far as playing went, at the time they were way more sophisticated than Camper Van Beethoven musically." CVB would later cover two Box O Laffs songs, Flowers (with which they opened the second night at The Knitting Factory this July) and Ice Cream Everyday.
As The Campers grew in popularity Box O Laffs fell to the wayside eventually, but before then one vital ingredient was missing from the Campers line up. Victor: "In the late winter of 1984 David and I saw some hippie looking guy, walking around carrying a violin case. He was a friend of Molla's it turned out and kind of a wierdo and I asked him if he knew how to actually play a violin, because I was playing in a band and we needed a violin player. This was Jonathan Segel."
Jonathan: I started playing recorder and piano, when I was six and hated my piano teacher because would smash my hands against the piano keys. I started playing guitar when I was seven but I guess the critical point for me was the girls. There was a girl I really liked, when I was ten, called Susanna Stein and she played the violin, so suddenly I wanted to play the violin too. So I started having the violin lessons. She of course went on to be a symphony musician but me, I broke my left hand when I was thirteen and I stopped playing violin because I was stoned most of the time anyway, starting then. I was more into taking drugs and playing electric guitar in high school, I didn't start playing violin again until I was in college and so I was doomed to be a bad violinist for the rest of my life. As a kid I listened to my parent's record collection, which besides the classical stuff was Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles as well as stuff like Bertols Brecht's Three Penny Opera and Jacque Brel.
They didn't like country music though. When I was eleven, in 1975 we moved to Tucson for a year and after school I would walk down to the Head Shops on Forth Avenue. All the record shops and hippies that worked there would try to turn this dingy, longhaired, little eleven year old, on to all sorts of rock music music. So from there, I started listening to Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that and it really changed my life. In high school I played guitar in a band called Burnt Toast with Brian Gore, he was the singer. We were like acid drenched punk, played a lot of covers by Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, wrote about five original songs, which I do still have on tape somewhere. Not that I'll ever let anyone hear them, I think but I still have some of the effects pedals I used on guitar back then, like my electro-harmonix stuff, I still use those things. My brother, who's actually two years younger than me but pretends to be older than me was into Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schultz. He started hanging out at the college radio station KDVS and in 78 he started doing a show there. We started getting a lot of the new underground music from England, Joy Division, Monochrome Set and Suzie and the Banshees, Au Pairs, Slits etc. At the time it was pretty weird but it became, sort of mainsteam, in terms of what people our age listened to by 1980, 81, but in 78 a lot of that stuff was not normal. At my High School even listening to Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, was considered punk rock, that's how out of it they were. My girlfriend Chrissy dyed her hair magenta and the other students used to really hate us, we were just too weird for them.
UC Davis was the local campus and there were a lot of bands that played there like, The Suspects, who two years later moved to L.A. and became the Dream Syndicate and Thin White Rope's Guy Kaisser who was in The Les Z Boys with Scott Miller. True West, Russ Tollman was there, all these people were in college when I was in high school so I used to go see them play a lot. I used to go and see Alternative Learning, who became Game Theory and then Loud Family. When I moved to college, I stopped listening to rock music, for a good two years I'd only listen to twentieth century avant-garde, music and pre-renaissance 14th century music, that sort of thing.


Chris Molla was in music classes of mine initially, he had moved up from Redlands where he had been playing with David and Victor. David was at another college up the street and Victor had followed him up and was studying literature. I was asked to sit in with Camper, so I went and practised with them once and then they did a show across campus at one of the lounges, this was with Richard West on drums and after that I started playing with them, this would be 1983. We used to practice in the college lounges and do shows, on campus mostly.

The band quickly became a major thing in my life, in all of our lives I guess, so by 1984, Victor, Chris and I were all living in the same house off campus with a bunch of other people. We would practice in the living room or round at David's house, in his living room. We had already been doing some shows in Santa Cruz and San Francisco by then and were becoming quite popular. Victor had been doing some summer work for Bruce Licher, a musician with Savage Republic and operator of a small independent label called Independent Project, helping out at the printing press. Campers had recorded some demos in the summer of 83 (now sadly lost) and Victor had given him a tape. Bruce was interested in the stuff and wanted to put out a Camper record. I knew Dave Gill in Davis Ca, who at the time was drumming in Game Theory and he ran a studio, Samurai Sounds there, where Game Theory and True West had recorded their first few albums. When I was a senior in college we went to this studio and over the first week end of 1985 recorded the first Camper record with a lie up of Victor, David, Chris, Anthony Guess and myself. We mixed it one month later, in two days for a total cost of $1.000, which the band shared between members. Bruce did a letterpress 1250 copy limited edition of Telephone Landslide Victory and had the radio lists from Savage Republic, so he sent stuff to the radio stations. It came out in the middle of June, which coincidentally was the week I graduated from college. David and, I think, were the only ones that were able to graduate, Victor was a year behind us so he never got to graduate poor boy, never got his degree.


The album sold out pretty fast, so Bruce pressed up another 1250 copies but by that point we were already recording the second record, starting that summer and doing tours out to Texas and Arizona as well as many trips around California. Mostly playing with punk bands like the Minutemen, Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets or some of the neo psychedelic acts, like Rain Parade and The Three O'clock. We opened for the Knitters, X, Alex Chilton, Husker Du and pretty much all of the larger indie and early alternitive rock acts of the era. I was working as a handy man for the colleges and also working in a trophy shop and getting food stamps to live on. Anthony Guess had done a lot of touring with us but was hard to pin down for various reasons and Chris had switched to drums. Before that even, I have a tape of a show from 1983 in Santa Cruz where both Chris and David play the drums, switching back and forth between them from guitar to drums on different numbers. In March we auditioned Greg Lisher to play lead guitar, David had heard him playing around town and thought he had good tone and potential. We made a deal with Rough Trade to start up out own record label, Pitch-A Tent, for them to distribute because Bruce couldn't keep up the demand for the first record. So we went back and recorded another batch of songs, there was an initial batch we had recorded in Davis.

By the end of the year we were playing SF at least every two weeks, playing places like The Graffiti, The I Beam, The Farm and the V.I.S. Club, with American Music Club and later in the year Eugene Chadbourne. Chris Molla found that the constant gigging was getting in the way of his studies so he left the band. Chris Pedersen had just started to play drums with us in time to record some of the stuff at Fox Studios in Felton, a really nice little home studio, not far from us, in the mountains above Santa Cruz. We recorded about five songs there to flesh the album a bit and we are starting to make a deal with Venture Booking in New York and they agreed to book us across the country in the Feburary of 1986. They came to see us play at the Folk City in New York to see if they liked us enough to continue booking the band. The second album, II & III, came out at the same time and it was a really interesting experience touring.


We had just bought the van and done a couple of test shows, going to Las Vegas and back, taking acid and driving around and going to Caesar's Palace. Then we set out across the country, just the five of us, with a mechanic, John Stein, Mark Phillips, who had been in the Estonian Gouchos, was doing the sound for us, and all the equipment in the van, it was pretty intense. I remember, we pulled into Minneapolis to play at Prince’s Club and the weather had been nice when we arrived but a storm came in while we were playing and when we were loading the van back up, it had dropped to minus twelve Fahrenheit or something. We had never experienced sub zero temperatures before and being from California we had water in our radiator, instead of anti-freeze. We were going over to David Savoy's house who at this time, was Husker Du's manager, to sleep on his floor and we turn on the van and the engine immediately overheats and spills out the rest of the water from our radiator. We found a nearby downtown hotel that had a covered pool and filled up these jugs we had with chlorinated pool water and filled up the radiator and limped over to David's house and dumped it all out and refilled it with Anti-freeze.


These were the types of lessons we had to learn along the way. Eventually we made it to New York and Venture loved us and continued to book us. We had a great relationship with them and they worked with us right up to the bands original demise and Frank Riley, who eventually split from Venture, to start up his own company, still handles Cracker to this day. In fact he's been the one booking the recent Campers shows for us. We did that tour and when we came back, our manager Jackson Haring had booked us some tours in the north west, that were interesting. He didn't know that he had booked us places that demanded three sets a night of dance tunes and when we couldn't really pull that one off, we'd get fired. We came back from that and started work on the third album. By this time we were all living in Santa Cruz and actually starting to make some money from being musicians and playing shows and also our rent was cheap so we could afford to be more leisurely in our recording.


The previous record had been a bit rushed but this time we had over two months to make the third album, returning to Fox Studios in the summer of 86. This was really the first time Campers had been truly unleashed in the studio, which is why it's so psychedelic. We got Eugene Chadbourne to play on a couple of tracks and Chris Molla brought in his love of medieval music. We had a bunch of good songs we'd worked out on the tours, Good Guys and Bad Guys, Shut Us Down and History of Utah and the whole thing was a lot of fun. David was starting to become the dominant song writing force in the band. I wrote a lot while we were on the road or at home rehearsing. I had written Still Wishing To Course and there was a couple of others we had started that two years later ended up on Storytelling, Your Own Story and Love The Witch. I was beginning to put together the whole of Storytelling and starting to realise the sort of songs I was writing, opposed to the songs I should be writing for the band, were different sorts of things. Band songs were more collaborative in nature and my vision for Storytelling was controlling the entire opus as one large unit of material and this was not really suitable for CVB. The self titled album came out in the early fall, just in time to get us into the industry orientated aspect of record making, where you send out your record to the college stations just as everybody returns to college and then do your tours in the fall. We started doing some serious touring about that point. In 1987 we recorded, again at Fox Studios, the material that became the Vampire Can Mating Oven mini album and we started to talk to major labels about signing the band and we eventually went with Virgin.


We recorded Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and I was gradually losing control of what was happening with the band. I was really into the studio side of things and here we had this producer, Dennis Herring, who was gleaning his aesthetics from whoever was around him and not producing his own aesthetics, being more of a glorified engineer really. I had a lot of arguments with him about the production, especially like the overall sound quality of the reverbs. I was very angry at it being a very MTV sounding record, He used digital reverb snare on everything, he used pitch shift on the violin on every track to buzz it out, just like Madonna did with her voice in the eighties. It really bugs me because the production really dates the record. A lot of the sorts of things I was trying to get him to do on that record, are the things they ended up using on Key Lime Pie, like use of different flat spaces, non reverb spaces, that sort of thing. As a result I was always very candid about all this. We were touring all the time, back and forth across the States and Europe, we even did the Old Grey Whistle Test. People would interview me and ask what it was like being on a major label. And I would reply that I was working with a producer I didn't like and tell them the reasons why. Then they would ask, who was writing most of the material. And I would say, at this point David is writing all the material because what the rest of us write, he doesn't want to do, so we end up going in the direction of the stuff he wants to do.


And David got really angry at me for saying that sort of thing to the press and Virgin got really angry about me saying those things about out producer, But, you know, I don't care, it's just the way it goes. I would prefer to be fairly honest, when people ask me questions, I answer them and I don't believe in this bullshit Hollywood thing of sugarcoating everything as if everything's perfect. As a result of all of that David decided he would take control of the band. Victor, Greg and Chris had their own way out because they had already seen which way the wind was blowing and given up writing for the band. As far back as 1986 they had formed a side project Monks Of Doom, initially with Chris Molla and then with David Immergluck from The Orphelias, where they could have their own release from the limitation imposed on them by David's vision of CVB. Myself, I still thought I was writing for Camper Van Beethoven a lot of the time. But since I had no outlet in the band I was doing this side project, that became Storytelling, me and Chris and Victor rehearsed a whole bunch of it in '88 and in April I recorded a couple of sessions at a studio in Santa Cruz. And then we worked on Camper's stuff and toured and toured and toured. We came back in the August and I finished doing all the overdubs in about a week and a half. David Immergluck, Chris, Victor and Greg all played on the record. Andrew Norton helped me a lot, acting as producer when I was recording and it was finished before the fall when we did more touring for Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. We spent the whole of October and into November touring and then started recording demos for Key Lime Pie. Storytelling had just come out then, at the very end of 1988. We took a break, Chris went off to Australia, his wife is Australian, I went to Indonesia and David and Victor stayed in Santa Cruz and worked more on Key Lime Pie Stuff. But when I came back in January, David had decided that the way to go was to pull a passive/aggressive coup. He told me. "I can't work with you anymore." And I didn't really know how to respond to that you know. I told him that I still wanted to work with him and work with the band, but he told everyone else, either I was out of the band or he'd break up the band and at that point the pay cheque was pretty good. We had netted something like a thousand dollars a day for the last tour of October of '88, so I made more money that year then I'd ever made in my life, which was about thirty thousand dollars.


The rest of the band wanted to keep their jobs, so basically turned their backs on me at that point. Basically I was really pissed off and everything, especially with Victor, he was my best friend and nobody really stood up for me in this whole situation. Storytelling had just come out and I thought, maybe I could start a new solo career based on this. Of course that was a major mistake because it was not career record, it was a side record, not hit orientated or anything. Jackson told me. "Well work with you, try to get you going on some other things." And then he kept me out of the press and meanwhile they continued to work on Key Lime Pie. They erased all the parts that I had demoed for it. David told me things like: " Oh we just don't want to work with a violin no more."


But then they went and hired Morgan Fichter out of Harm Farm. Then they said to the press that I wasn't happy with the major label situation. I wrote one letter to Bam, the bay area music magazine that was around at the time, after an interview with David appeared. I just had to set the record straight, vent my spleen a little bit, that was kinda a drag.


Meanwhile we were supposed to do some touring behind Storytelling and the Monks of Doom record that had just come out The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. Jackson had set up a week of shows on the East Coast in April. I moved out of Santa Cruz immediately after being kicked out the band, up to San Francisco because I had no reason to be there any longer. I came back down occasionally to rehearse with the Monks for these shows on the East Coast. We were supposed to do shows on the West Coast after that but that never happened because they got too much into Campers stuff. So I started a new band, Exalted Birds (named after a reference to angels in Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses) with David Immergluck and these guys from 501 Spanish Verbs, playing in the Bay Area. And then at the end of the summer Campers hired David to tour with them so my band was down to a four piece. Mark Landsman from Eskimo replaced our bass player and that became Hieronymus Firebrain by 1990. We recorded an album for Delta and that went bankrupt and the record never showed up anywhere, I never got my money, never saw the records except the twenty copies I got sent, so it was pretty bad. The album was a follow on from Storytelling, with a lot of the same themes and references, but it remains the great lost album. I've been buying up batches from cut out houses when I can find them. With the record deal falling apart and not enough going on I couldn't hold that band together so at that point I started to put together a new version of Hieronymus Firebrain because we had the opportunity to actually tour opening for Monks of Doom in 1991. Campers had folded in April the year before so now the Monks stopped being this side project and became the main band, they were promoting the Meridian album.


So I put together a new line up with Russ Blackmar playing drums, Ted Ellison on bass and Mark Bartlett on guitar and we did this tour across America and barely made it back. We had no money, blew up the van engine at one point and crashed in the snow on the way home, had a lot of adventures, it was a lot of fun. Then we came back and did shows around the Bay Area which were not very well attended.


We recorded the two records Here, in San Francisco at Polymorph Studios and There, down in Mexico at The Lords of Howlings place and I couldn't get anyone interested in putting them out, so I started up the Magnetic label and put them out myself. We did more shows around the Bay Area, it was all we ever played was shows around the Bay Area! With Storytelling I was into controlling everything that everybody played, but at this point I was more interested in putting out ideas and seeing how people bounced off them, so I could find things that I would never had thought of. By the time those records came out the guitarist and bass player were getting into more complex playing and as a result the song writing I was doing was getting simpler and simpler to accommodate the musicians doing their more and more complex parts. This got more and more ridiculous and in the end the band broke up late in '94. Since moving to San Francisco in 1990, I was no longer able to be a professional musician anymore and I started bar tending and I did that for the next six years. It made me able to pretend I was still alive basically but it also made me hate people because bar tending is ultimately like day care for adults and it got to the point where I would hate people as soon as they would walk into the bar. But I was able to earn twenty five dollars an hour in tips so I was able to pay for Magnetic to exist and stay alive. Ultimately I had to quit because I was drinking so much so I started working in a record store instead. But unfortunately, working in a record store, was like the final edge of the music business for me. Finally I was in retail and, oh boy that really made me want to give it all up. The clerks are all like, super cool to work in the record stores and it's like peer pressure. Seriously people that want to listen to wimpy pop music have to have more balls to bring it up to the counter to face the punk rock clerk. It's like a might makes right situation, it's really bad. Plus the buyer for this little independent record store, why would he want to carry Magnetic product because if no one has ever walked into the store and expressed an interest in it, how would he know it would ever sell? So what it was coming down to is this, they will sell what is proven to sell and nothing else. It was disheartening to say the least. By this time David Immergluck had gone off to the Counting Crows and the Monks had burnt out. Victor and I had a band going, Victor Krummenacher's Fifth Business, we played a lot of shitty clubs and it never really clicked, although we did open for Radiohead and Belly once at the Warfield in SF. But as a result of that Victor came in with me with Magnetic and released one single by the band before going onto make a series solo albums for the label. Greg Lisher joined him in his next band, Great Laugh the following year. Meanwhile, the drummer from Hieronymus Firebrain, Russ Blackmarr and I continue playing together with his old roommate Jane Thompson on bass and this became Jack and Jill.


It was really great because it allowed me to play styles of music the Firebrain guys didn't want to play. More Campery styles, country, rock steady rhythms or rockabilly rhythms. With Jack and Jill we now had the freedom to do that. Jack and Jill got to also play only around the Bay Area and, you know, people were not that interested in what I was doing, I guess. I remember the last Hieronymus Firebrain show, the audience consisted of five people, three of which were girlfriends of the band. It got ridiculous and it got that way with Jack and Jill. At the same time, I was playing violin with Dieselhed, who were a very popular band and also with Granfaloon Bus, who were a medium popular band and yet when it came to playing with my own bands, nobody would turn up to the shows. I was playing at a club in Boston with Camper in 1987, I went to go and get our pay from this guy, with his slicked back hair and one of those voice boxes, because his vocal chords had been kicked in. He has these two bodyguards on either side of him and he says to me. "So you guys had a hundred and twenty people on the guest list, I guess your not going to get your guarantee." And I was like. "Er, you know, we're from San Francisco, we don't really know many people in Boston, maybe about five. I don't think we could have had that many people on the guest list." And He's like. "Yeah right, but you're not going to get your guarantee." And I said. "You know, we've got a contract and some people from our booking agency are here." And he just smiled at said. "You have a lot to learn about the music business." Well, ten years later, trying to book Jack and Jill shows and getting what we could, Monday night at the Bottom of the Hill, a place I had been playing with Hieronymus Firebrain since 1990. With alternative music becoming more mainstream, they were now only booking major label or national acts so the local acts were shunted off to a local nineteen years old college D.J. to book us and he tells us we're on at ten o'clock on a Monday night. Not a great slot but when we get there, the headlining band has cancelled and we're now on at midnight and all those people I asked to show up, weren't too interested in hanging around another two hours on a Monday night. So I'm trying to argue with this guy about putting us on at ten as was arranged and he says. "You know, as you spend more time in this business, you'll find that this sort of thing happens." And at that point I gave up. I gave up booking the band or even promoting it. I just wasn't interested in dealing with that sort of thing any longer. I stopped playing with Granfallon Bus as their line up changed and the people I knew left and Dieselhed decided they didn't need a violin player anymore, so that was that. So we did the second Jack and Jill record, which I thought was great. I was totally into the record thought it was one of the best things I'd done. But we didn't do any shows for it because my girlfriend moved to Los Angeles and so I quit the record store and moved down here as well. The Jack and Jill record came out a month after that and I mailed it out to the radio stations and press I'd sent the other Magnetic product too and I was getting less and less of a response with every release. All the radio stations I had been dealing with for the previous fifteen years, which had been really cool and really helpful in getting the alternative music scene going in the 80's had now become so parochial to the major labels and the major radio stations. So all the people that now worked there wanted to be record industry people. They were all really ruled by the waves of conformity of Gavin conventions, SFO conventions, South by South West conventions and stuff like that. They didn't and still don't, play alternative music on the radio anymore, they play what's cool and I'm not cool. I had to call distributors to sell the record, the selling point being. "I played violin in Camper Van Beethoven." And they say. "Oh I thought a girl was the violin player in Camper Van Beethoven." I really difficult trying to do the hard sell with the Magnetic releases and I was much more interested when people would actually just right us and say. "I really would like this record." Selling a record to someone who really wants it versus trying to sell a bunch of records people who don't want to listen to it, is a completely different feeling. I really enjoyed playing with Jane Thompson it was really excellent. She came out of her shell totally over the course of those two Jack and Jill albums, to the point where she was writing great, great songs. She subsequently moved up to Davis, where I grew up, to go to university there to get her PhD in physiology. Russ was up in Berkley and I was down in Hollywood so Jack and Jill was unfortunately over. Living in Hollywood now I decided that I should try and do professional audio work, working on film soundtracks and stuff like that. At first I wasn't getting any soundtrack work at all because in the film industry if you show you have any technical ability, you get shunted off to doing that. So the people that learned how to do the technical things, from doing creative things, end up not being able to do creative things. It's the prima donnas who actually get to be the creative ones because they can't do any of the technical things because they are too dumb to actually function for them selves in making their own art. So the people who can actually function, manufacturing it, doing the actual technical aspects of it, end up facilitating the people that can't. And that is basically why, in a nutshell, the quality of the aesthetics of Hollywood, are the way they are. I ended up working on a lot of movies for the studio, but mostly I got paid for maybe two of them and I found that a lot of post production work was passionless drone drudgery of assembly line audio work. It was not very creative. Nonetheless I had some fun - I ended up recording a lot of interesting things and working on some weird movies and generally learned a lot about how to do sound for film. I recorded all the machines in Boogie Nights, and all the foley for Phoenix, and made strange sound effects for some others including the Matrix,. Then out of the blue I got flown down to Virginia to play on a Cracker song because they were going to do White Riot for a Clash tribute record and it was a song we used to do live with Camper. We ended up making it sound pretty much like the Camper version. It felt good to get out of town, I was starting to drag down in LA, beginning to experience the drudgery of poet production work, I had worked solidly over the Christmas season of that year and suddenly had this chance to fly to the east coast and go to a recording studio to record some rock music, which was cool. It was a blast to see David's studio, and a blast to record an old song. David was pretty loose, much less wound up than he had been previously, probably because Cracker had proven themselves to be a pretty good show and he could do pretty much what he wanted by this time. So he could, for instance, get Sony to budget in flying me out to Virginia to play on this recording. The point of doing it in a way, was to see if we could play together, or at least record together. So while I was there he was producing Mark Goodmans's Magnet, so I played a bunch on that along with Mareen Tucker on the drums and that led to touring in various areas at various times for a week or two with Mark.


Obviously I felt some trepidation about seeing how David worked, just because he always had had to be in charge, but like I said he was a bit mellower, despite still mostly being in charge, he let John Morand (the main engineer at Sound of Music) have a lot of input on the production. Which is a good thing. The guys that work there are all amazing. , I came home thinking that maybe I could still play music. I had recently produced the Container album for Clyde Wrenn, and I was playing with them in and around LA and we toured once around the states the following spring in a busted up van. I was pretty happy for a while. But soon enough, I was back at my job, getting fed up with sitting in front of a computer all day and night.


Then one day I got a call from Mark Linkous asking me to join Sparklehorse for some shows, so I quit the studio just as they were beginning work on the Matrix. (But I still heard some neon lights and stuff that I had made the sounds for when I saw it!) Basically I saw Sparklehorse as my way out of depression and it worked for a while. It was all the things I had missed in that last year of Camper, like the bus! I had never toured in a bus before. So I toured with Mark off and on for the next 14 months or so.

The last show I played with them was in New York at some shitty ass college music conference and after the show it was like, see ya, and I never heard from them again. So I went back home and felt like hell. I conspired to leave by applying to grad schools, as I didn't see a way to continue being a professional considering my hatred for selling myself and a general contempt for the music industry, as I had experienced it anyway. I had recorded a bunch of stuff with Russ Blackmarr before I left San Francisco, which was just guitar, violin and drums and some of that formed the basis of my next solo record Scissors and Paper. It took three years to finish, for several reasons. I was working all the time and rarely got a more than a few days here and there for recording. On the plus side I found that I liked actually spreading it out over time. It meant that I could listen to it and determine what was ok and what wasn’t, without the pressure of trying to get it done quickly. But the down side was that while touring with Sparklehorse, their peer group were some of my musical heroes, people that have made intense impact on my own music like Radiohead and PJ Harvey, and after playing with or hanging out with these people I would get off tour and go home to work on my own stuff and think it was shit by comparison. So it wasn't until I was done playing with Sparklehorse that I finally had nothing else to do but finish the record. So I did. It still could have been a little better, there are two or three mixing things I would have liked to have done better, but I just wanted to be free of it. And I was really not interested in making another record. So I finished mixing Scissors and Paper, broke up with my girlfriend whom I got the impression from that she didn't give a shit whether I was on tour or home, proceeded to lock myself in my apartment again for months at a time. I did get a couple non-paying gigs doing scores for movies, which I love to do so that worked out. I did Mia Trachinger's "Bunny" and then worked on Teddi Bennet's "Love Will Travel" and later that year did two shorts, Ann Kaneko's "100% Human Hair" and Joy Phillips' "Kickin' Chicken". Then I left town. and went to Asia and when I got home to the bay area I immediately recorded with Eugene Chadbourne and Victor, (Psychadelidoowop) then started a two year master's program at Mills College, where my Assistantship has been to be Fred Frith's TA for the Contemporary Performance Ensemble. I've been doing a lot more composing for large and small ensembles, plus a ton of computer music. I've been doing shows of more avant garde improv, either solo or with anybody else, even went to Japan in March to play gigs doing that. I'm ready to make records of all-improv or all computer music, but can't afford to put them out yet. I've been studying composition with Fred, Alvin Curran and others, it's been an amazing experience to learn how to think again. I'm trying to write a thesis right now, maybe a book. During all this the Cracker Travelling Apothecary thing started up in fits and starts.

First with bits of sitting in on a tune or two when Cracker came through town, then later actually organising into a fiasco of multiple bands. Victor, Greg and I really needed the exposure that doing shows opening for Cracker as Magnetic Moterworks gave us. So with our opening set getting our little yayas out of the way, we could play the Cracker material in earnest and the Camper material for real. There was no illusion that we were being Camper, it was more an amalgam of the various individuals mixed with Cracker, which was excellent. We hit many weird areas of the US and generally weren't ever out long enough to lose our jobs or hate each other, which was also great. When we finally did the west coast part of the tour from Phoenix to Petaluma, we sold out every show and had a blast. This is obviously where we started thinking of doing Camper shows, but the idea of it at this point was still pretty understated.


At one point we were talking of doing it as a tribute to Camper under the name of Acid Reign or something but eventually we decided to do the whole reformation. Several things allowed this to happen, besides our general acceptance of the idea of doing it! Some of it I'm sure had to do with Cracker; they had released their best album in some time and got dropped by Virgin immediately after. But who cares. Record labels are history. Also I think David has some ideas about doing solo records or at least branching out from Cracker again, he has been at it for awhile. But with the release of Tusk and the release of the box set, we actually did real Camper shows this past summer, we even got Chris Pedersen to come over from Australia for the four shows on the west coast. So we are now thinking about what it would be like to make a new record together. The precursor to all of this was the making of Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead, which was a process of going through our old tapes and live tapes to make both that and "Flash Your Sirens" which was a live album from the west coast Apothecary shows.


In doing so we ended up working on some of the material or rather reworking some of it at The Sound of Music studios and making new stuff out of old stuff. And that was fun, bouncing ideas off each other like we used to. So now with the band essentially in reformation-guise, we are coming up against the idea of making a new record. But of course we're a little scared: we have a larger-than-life reputation to live up to now! So we would want to take our time and make sure that we have something good to offer the world. When I graduate in December, Camper start doing more shows again.. kinda like when I graduated from college the first time.

We are doing more shows in January in the US, and one in London at least and after that we may work on new stuff. I was planning on going on to a PHD in school, we'll see, I haven't applied anywhere yet. I haven't written many songs in the past year or so, but I did have a batch of unrecorded stuff that I decided to tackle this past summer just for fun, and because I hadn't done any rock music for a while. So I recorded some basics with Ches Smith, a local all-around great drummer, and then had Victor play bass on some of the stuff, otherwise I pretty much played everything, bass and guitar, violin, synths, vocals. Then I've had some other people come over and record various parts, Greg Lisher on a couple guitar things, Alison Faith Levy on some vocals. One of the songs Hey Joy I initially wrote for the end part of the Invisibles score a film by Noah Stern, that was at the Sundance film festival in 1999. I did the whole score, but they used something else for the end song. Lots of the songs are ditties - some rock steady stuff, some stupid little songs. Some things I wrote while on tour with Sparklehorse, one of which was initially written by Mark and me, but I guess I had too much input into its writing and he's one of those people that has to control everything so he suddenly didn't want to do it ever again and said "you can have it" so I wrote words and made it into a song.


I didn't get to finish recording before school started again, so it'll have to wait till this winter whenever I have time. It sounds really cool so far, but well see if I like it later. My plan is to release it simultaneously with an all electronic music cd. The pop one will be called Edgy not Antsy, the electronic one called Non-Linear Accelerator.Of course if I had my way I'd also be releasing cds of the improv sessions that I have been doing with local musicians who are awesome. Really cool stuff.


































magsatellite@yahoo.com
http://www.MagneticMotorworks.com

4 comments:

morst said...

Dynamite blog post! Thanks! I learned a bunch of stuff I didn't know about the CVB-Cracker family of bands! WOOHOO!

Anonymous said...

thanks morst for the kind words about this dynamite band...i bow down to you sir for all the fine work you do supporting the band with your fabulous work over at the internet archive....you truly are a fan amoungst fans
all the best mick

josh simpson said...

great work man!

tHEtILEnINJA said...

What a cool time in music for this band. DEFINED what my tastes were as an artsy Wisconsin kid in the late 80's. Epic