Camper Van Beethoven's Notes from the Underground - Rolling Stone
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Camper Van Beethoven’s Notes from the Underground

California bad boys make good

Camper van BeethovenCamper van Beethoven

American Alt-rock band Camper van Beethoven posed in Amsterdam, Netherlands on March 24th 1987

Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty

“Okay! box mix!”

The five members of Camper Van Beethoven file out of the console room at Smoketree Studios, in the woody L.A. suburb of Chatsworth, and head for the ping-pong table on an adjacent outdoor patio. They are quickly followed by their producer, Dennis Herring, a cheery bearded fellow wearing striped overalls and carrying a black pint-size boom box. While drummer Chris Pederson and violinist Jonathan Segel strike up a grudge match at the table and the rest of the band provides play-by-play wisecracks, Herring pops a new mix of “Devil Song” – a song from the Campers’ new album, which is scheduled for release this month – into the cassette deck and hits the play button. Suddenly, the cool night air is alive with guitars riffing away in odd Turkish twirls, bluesy harmonica outbursts and pearls of lyric wisdom: “And history is truth/And it goes ’round in circles/I burnt down the house/There’s a devil in your closet.”

“We call it a box mix,” says singer-guitarist David Lowery, trying to be heard over the tape, Herring’s comments about the mix and the whack-click-whack of Pederson and Segel’s game, “because we stand out here and play ping-pong, listen to the mix and argue about it. If it sounds good after that, we know it’s happening.”

There are other ways the Campers can tell if they’ve got a happening song or not. Pederson’s mother, for example. “She knows all the big groups,” Pederson announces proudly between ping-pong serves. “She’s into all the sounds – ZZ Top, Springsteen, Prince. I can play a mix of a song for her, and she’ll listen carefully to it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s the one. That’s the hit.’ Really.”

The five Campers – Lowery, Segel, Pederson, bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist Greg Lisher – also spend an inordinate amount of time listening to their old tapes played in reverse. If a song is truly happening, they’ll be able to get a backward melody or chord progression as the basis for another song. “Circles,” on the Campers’ second album, Camper Van Beethoven II & III, is really “Oh No!”– from their 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory – with the chords reversed and the verse slowed down. For “She Divines Water,” a beautiful piece of waltz-like psychedelia on the band’s new album, its first for the Virgin label, Krummenacher compiled a cassette of snippets from earlier Camper records. The tape was then played backward over the finished track to create a “Strawberry Fields Forever”-style sonic swirl.

“It’s really cool, too, because it’s referential to what we’ve done,” Krummenacher says.

“And,” he adds with a rascally smile, “it confuses the hell out of people. ‘What are they saying? I can’t understand the words.'”

Confusing the hell out of people is Camper Van Beethoven’s favorite pastime. The band’s records are lively potpourris of postpunk roar, country corn, unrepentant acid-rock dementia and ethnic spice – sometimes all within the same song. “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt,” on II & III, is exactly what the title implies – knuckle-down guitar boogie with a distinct desert-sheik flavor courtesy of Segel’s whiny Arabic violin solo. The new album, cryptically titled Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, certainly makes no concessions to Camper Van Beethoven’s new major-label status, zigging and zagging among whirling-dervish rock (“Devil Song”), sly hippie parody (“Turquoise Jewelry”), delightful Beatlesque pop (“Never Go Back”) and heavy-metal exotica (“Waka,” a dead ringer for Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”).

Onstage, the Campers are no less unpredictable. At one New York show last year, they stunned an audience packed with major-label A&R reps by segueing from a wild freak-rock voyage through Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” into a pure pop reading of Ringo Starr’s “Photograph.”

Of course, it’s one thing to be weird; it’s quite another to make it pay off. Yet Camper Van Beethoven’s Cuisinart approach to the big beat has made this college party band from Santa Cruz, California, the toast of the alternative music scene. In the past three years, the Campers have become a permanent fixture on college airwaves, scored an underground hit with the droll little ditty “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” toured with R.E.M. (singer Michael Stipe was an early fan) and sold nearly 100,000 copies of their first three albums, a major achievement in the context of perilous indie-record economics. In the world of Camper Van Beethoven, nothing succeeds like the abnormal.

The real world is something else. It took the better half of a decade for R.E.M. to reach platinum-sales heights. The Replacements, darlings of critics and college radio, are still banging their heads against AOR radio’s door. The Campers are not fazed; for them, the Virgin Records deal is not so much a shortcut to the Top 10 as it is an escape from the artificial prison of underground fame.

“When we did our third record [1986’s Camper Van Beethoven],” says Lowery, “I thought it was a good record and no more commercial than anything else we’d done. All of a sudden, we were getting these reviews in the underground press – ‘These guys have sold out! They’ve copped out!’ I thought, ‘Fuck this.’ I’d personally stayed very loyal to the indie scene; our record company was independent. But I realized that for the same reason that you shouldn’t tailor music for the AOR audience, at the same time you shouldn’t make music just to stay hip with the indie scene. You have to do whatever you want to do, whatever feels natural.”

Besides, Lowery, 27, doesn’t see much difference between Camper Van Beethoven’s music and the Top 40 hits he heard on the radio as a young pup in the late Sixties and early Seventies. “There were these records that were really radical,” he says, “yet they were hits, and the kids loved them. Who was that guy who did ‘I Can See Clearly Now’? Johnny Nash! He does this Caribbean country thing, and it becomes a big hit! There were all kinds of crazy things going on, Motown records with sitar parts. It was as if you had to have an element of weird in a record to make it commercial.”

“In one way, maybe we are an art band,” he says, toying with his reddish-blond ponytail, “because we are always on the lookout for a new sound, new combinations. But I swear I never thought of that as an art aesthetic. I thought of that in the context of what Led Zeppelin did or what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did. They constantly changed what they were doing. I simply thought that’s how a good rock band worked. To just look at the world around you, try and get as much influence and information as you could from as many places as possible. Because that’s what led to inspiration.”

Admittedly, Camper Van Beethoven finds inspiration in the most unlikely places. Krummenacher was very impressed when David Lee Roth spent some time at Smoketree working on his new album while the Campers were in residence. “One day I overheard him in the studio telling the engineer the guitars still didn’t sound right,” Krummenacher says.

“‘I want the guitars to sound like a TV game show,’ he told the guy. I actually thought that was pretty cool, something to strive for in his music.” Krummenacher is quite earnest.

One song on the new album, an eerie Middle Eastern-bent blues number, came about when a friend of Lowery’s pointed out the striking similarity between the Campers’ eclectic sound and that of the Sixties cult band Kaleidoscope. Lowery had never heard of them. “I was surprised to find out upon hearing one of their records,” he says, “that we did sound like Kaleidoscope.” Hence “Oh Death,” which first appeared on Kaleidoscope’s 1967 LP Side Trips. “This cover,” says Lowery, “is our little tribute to them.”

The increasing number of Deadheads at recent Camper gigs is itself a tribute to the band’s willingness to follow inspiration wherever it may lead. Nobody in Camper Van Beethoven actually likes the Grateful Dead. Krummenacher, who looks a lot younger than his 23 years, was a punked-out high schooler when he saw the Dead at the 1982 Us Festival, and he says he “didn’t understand it at all. The whole hippie trip, I thought, was ridiculous, except for the fact that the Deadheads were always the guys with the real good pot.”

Yet Lowery admits that the Campers and the Dead share a certain spiritual kinship as well as a satisfaction that comes with succeeding outside the mainstream. “The Grateful Dead incorporates folk elements into this rock thing – country, other stuff,” says Lowery. “They put it in a blender, stir it all around. So do we. They also play a lot of covers. So do we. It’s remarkably similar in attitude, except that we are from a different generation, so we have more of a TV concentration. We change things faster. I grew up in music listening to punk bands like the Minutemen. Thirty seconds of something was plenty for me.

“Another thing is that what they’re doing is essentially trying to create their own kind of pop music. And that’s all we’re doing. In that sense, we’re a pop band.”

But it’s a pop music rooted in the strange late-Seventies collision of the hallucinatory grandeur of Sixties rock and punk’s lean, mean rebel yell. Lowery can trace the very beginnings of Camper Van Beethoven to his teenage days in Redlands, California, as a “hescher.”

A what? “Hescher, dirt head, carp,” he says with a raspy laugh. “We listened to Led Zeppelin, and we’d wear flared jeans. We’d go hang out in the parking lot and listen to the Foghat tapes with the dudes and the stoners. The kind of guys that hang out at the 7-Elevens in Scotts Valley – ‘Yeah, Pink Floyd, man, they’re pretty trippy. I like to listen to them when I’m stoned.'”

Born in San Antonio, Texas, the son of “a hillbilly and an English working-class woman,” Lowery enlisted in the punk movement when the sounds of Fear, the Germs and X roared into the San Fernando Valley from L.A. in the late Seventies. “But I really wasn’t into the hardcore scene,” he says. “I thought it was pointless to play that fast all the time.” Instead, he started playing in a local band called Sitting Duck, which specialized in a strange mix of acid stomp and punk thrash spiked with wacko covers of kitsch classics like “Incense and Peppermints.” They often altered the lyrics so that the songs in effect became Sitting Duck originals.

“We also threw in fake Russian-sounding music,” says Lowery. “The thing is, none of us had heard any of that kind of music for real. We didn’t know what it was. We just thought it was like the fucking Monkees, man. You take a guess at what the music sounds like, then you play it. And that’s what we still do to this day, although we’ve gotten a little more technical about it.”

Sitting Duck begat Camper Van Beethoven in 1983 when Lowery – back in Southern California after his first year up north at the University of California at Santa Cruz – started playing with Victor Krummenacher (a big Sitting Duck fan), guitarist-drummer Chris Molla and another guitarist, David McDaniel, with whom Lowery had played in an “anti-rock” acoustic duo. That first lineup lasted only three months (Lowery had to go back to school), but in that time the fledgling Campers actually cooked up much of the material that appeared on the band’s debut album two years later, including “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” And their highly refined sense of the ridiculous was already in evidence, particularly in the band’s name, which was McDaniel’s idea.

“McDaniel was into this stuff that would sound like it made sense, but really it didn’t,” says Lowery in genuine admiration. “He’d watch a lot of TV, accept all this mass-media stuff and spit it out all chopped up. I got the whole absurdism influence from him.” Lowery took that influence with him back to Santa Cruz, where he was soon joined by Krummenacher and Molla. Together they quickly resurrected Camper with local guitarist Greg Lisher and Jonathan Segel, who was studying composition with Molla.

Early lineups proved to be just as unstable as the music. The credits for Telephone Free Landslide Victory listed seven ex-members. Both Lowery and Molla played drums before Chris Pederson joined. (Molla left in late 1986.) But Segel’s multi-instrumental abilities (on guitar, bass and keyboards as well as violin) and his academic studies of the real ethnic music the Campers had been faking were crucial in transforming the band’s ersatz eclecticism into an original aesthetic. What’s more, Segel was totally into the faking.

“He liked the idea that we played it fake,” says Lowery. “It would be like we went out to get this left-field Ethiopian fiddle sound. But it wouldn’t exactly be Ethiopian. More like a TV representation of it, rolled in the mud a bit, and then it laid around in the car for a week before we actually put it in a song.”

“We could have found somebody who was into that music and been very purist about it. But it would not have worked.”

“And it would have been insincere,” says Segel, “because you can’t be purist if you haven’t lived it or been born into it.” In the Camper scheme of sound, he says, the esoterica “is more intrinsic to the music than just a novelty item or a gloss that’s thrown into the mix.”

Unfortunately, the very novelty of the band’s sound led early audiences to treat Camper Van Beethoven as either a good joke or a bad joke, depending on their sense of humor. When the Campers toured with R.E.M. in 1986, they managed to polarize audiences right down the middle.”Half the audience would go, ‘Yeaaah!'” says Lowery, “and the other half would go, ‘Boooo!'”

“It’s a really bizarre sound when you combine the two together,” Krummenacher says.

“And,” Lowery adds, “it made more noise than anything R.E.M. got.”

The group had a song called “No More Bullshit,” which confused even its staunchest fans. It was, Lowery explains, “nothing but a parody of a rock band. We’d roll around on the floor, play total white noise. The less strings left on the guitars at the end, the better show it was. Sometimes Greg would pull off an extra string for good measure.”

When reviewers started pegging the Campers as a straight parody act, Lowery says the band got worried. “That puzzled us. We thought maybe we were taking that stuff too much to extremes, even though we’re being serious. So we decided to tone it down. But after a while, people were still waiting for us to do ‘No More Bullshit,’ this total parody of a rock band, after we’d just played a fucking good show.”

Then there was the club gig in Oklahoma City, from which they barely escaped with their lives. The crowd demanded a show of Frankie Goes to Hollywood covers; the Campers responded by taunting them with smart remarks. Things got really ugly when somebody in the audience made a crack about Lowery’s mother.

“I went, ‘Hey, you can say anything you want about me or anybody in the band,'” says Lowery, “‘but don’t say anything about my mother. Because, I’m serious, you guys, my mother is dead.’ I said it with a totally straight face. And the place went totally quiet.”

“Then Jonathan came to the microphone and goes, ‘Yeah, his mother was on the space shuttle.’ Everybody in the club got real hostile. We had to leave the stage after a couple more songs. But Jonathan’s timing was perfect.”

Indeed, Camper Van Beethoven is a band fueled by mirth and pretzel logic. The Campers named their indie label Pitch-A-Tent Records after the obnoxious manager of another band made a sexist remark to Lowery and Krummenacher in a club one night – “All right, that babe you guys were talking to, I just about pitched a tent in my pants.” The title of their debut album was supposed to be “Telephone Tree Landslide Victory.” “We just sat around smoking pot, doing free association, writing titles,” says Krummenacher, “and that’s what we came up with.” But a friend who was making up some advance cassette copies mistakenly typed Free instead of Tree. The Campers didn’t mind at all; it was just as applicable and made even less sense.

“That you can’t be funny in music, that you can’t be absurdist in music, I don’t understand that at all,” Lowery says. “Would you want to have as a friend someone who was totally gloomy and doomy and serious all the time? Would you like to hang out all the time with someone who had the personality of the Sisters of Mercy? People aren’t always like that. Why should bands be like that? We go through all kinds of modes, just like people do.”

“We’re not that strange,” he says. “It’s just that we don’t go into this rock-star mode when we make music.”

“Your taste and judgment is affected a lot by your friends and the people you’re with,” says Segel. “In a sense, that keeps us in check if we head off for the deep end. Down here in Los Angeles, we’re making this record, and all the outside opinions we’re getting are from people in the music industry. I think that’s strange.”

The Campers are rather bemused by their recent transition from underground champs to major-label hopefuls. Last year, the group played in Los Angeles to audiences that were made up in great part by A&R scouts looking to sign them. “It was like stirring up an anthill,” Lowery says, laughing. “We did a show at Club Lingerie that was just A&R city.”

Now, even while Virgin Records gears up for a big above-ground push on their new album, the Campers are busy preparing no fewer than four new spring releases on Pitch-A-Tent, among them albums by the Wrestling Worms (a big band with horns that recently performed with Camper Van Beethoven in the Bay Area) and the Monks of Doom (a Krummenacher, Pederson and Lisher offshoot specializing in free improvisation). The group also appears on a recent collaboration, Camper Van Chadboume, with the iconoclastic guitarist-songwriter Eugene Chadbourne, a man so far left of the mainstream you have to take a rocket ship to get there.

Releasing My Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart on a big label like Virgin, however, means Camper Van Beethoven may finally reach the audience dearest to its heart – the heschers. “We’re not forcing anything down anybody’s throats,” Lowery says. “But if more people heard our music – that audience that doesn’t go to the independent-record stores, that doesn’t hang out at Club Lingerie – I think if those people can hear us, they’ll like us, too. So what if some writer from a college newspaper who’s loved us all along finds the heschers in his home town liking us and it bums him out – then fucking fine.”

And if the heschers don’t dig it?

“Do you think that if we completely bombed out there,” Segel snaps, “we couldn’t go back to making a record of our own a year?”

“It wouldn’t affect us,” Lowery says with a shrug. “Because I know what these record companies think. They think we’ve written a couple of songs on our last few records that sound like hits. And that we do it by accident. There’s one on every record that could be a hit, and they’re waiting for that one. They don’t give a shit about the rest of it. That’s what Miles Copeland at I.R.S. said to us. He said, ‘You guys are going to write a hit by accident. And that’s all I’m concerned about.’ And it’s kind of true.”

“But,” Segel says with a grin, “we have high salvage potential.”

In This Article: Camper Van Beethoven, Coverwall

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