Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out: An Interview with Camper Van Beethoven

Camper Van Beethoven
La Costa Perdida

Here we are, in the year 2013, celebrating the arrival of a new album by Camper Van Beethoven. That just doesn’t seem right, does it? Of all the seminal ’80s bands to reunite within the past decade or so, Camper Van Beethoven was one of the more unlikely candidates to make that happen.

Before music journalists and future platinum-selling bands alike had the chance to file this unorthodox California outfit under “influential” or “indie”, they split acrimoniously in 1989. Frontman David Lowery admits that his songs were becoming more “straightahead”, causing creative tension within a band that had a reputation for blending ska beats with an Eastern European-flavored violin and naming their songs “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac”. Lowery took these straightahead songs and formed Cracker, a band that raked in considerably more cash than Camper thanks to hits like “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”. Meanwhile, bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist Greg Lisher turned their attention to the Monks of Doom, a band they had on the side before Camper Van Beethoven crumbled.

Time carried on and Lowery somehow reconciled with Camper Van Beethoven’s original lineup. What started as a gag gift to fans, taking old discarded material to the mixing desk and twisting it into 2000’s rarities/reworkings compilation Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead: Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, led to the band becoming active again. They toured with Cracker, hit the studio to cover a Fleetwood Mac album in its entirety, and most surprisingly of all, made a brand new album based on the screwy American politics of 2004 titled New Roman Times. Since then, Camper Van Beethoven has only been intermittently active. Lowery has Cracker, a solo album, and a class to teach at the University of Georgia. Krummenacher and Camper violinist Jonathan Segel founded and later shut down the record label Magnetic. Any future Camper Van Beethoven activity would have to wait until everyone wasn’t so busy.

That opportunity presented itself in an unusual way. In the summer of 2011, the band was invited to play a gig in Big Sur, California. The globe-scattered Camper Van Beethoven arrived to bad weather and the event was postponed. Rather than all go home, everyone decided to hang out at Segel’s house to work on some new material. Without any expectation of what was to happen, Camper Van Beethoven had more than an album’s worth of material within a week. Some songs carried a vague thread of being off-the-grid and happily secluded, a feeling commonly associated with the northern coast California — a place where time has considerably applied the brakes. This is what is known as the lost coast, so it was only appropriate that Camper Van Beethoven name their new album La Costa Perdida.

Victor Krummenacher told PopMatters that he hopes that La Costa Perdida could, at best, be a sleeper album for the road-weary warriors of the long-past college radio days. “It’s got fast songs, slow songs, sad songs, happy songs, funny songs, weird songs — [it] has an emotional spectrum to it,” said Krummenacher over the phone from his home as he awaited the oncoming promotional push and touring for La Costa Perdida. “I’m Camper’s biggest nay-sayer sometimes. For me to be generally more emotionally happy with it, I think that says something.” But just because you once played bass on songs like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” doesn’t mean that you get to live the good life of wine and roses. In the currently harsh economic climate, a band like Camper Van Beethoven doesn’t get a free pass. It’s sad but true, as any working musician would tell you, as Krummenacher admitted to me.

If I tallied up all of the time I’ve spent in California, I don’t know if it would total up to even two weeks. So I began my conversation with Victor Krummenacher by asking him what the “lost coast” is.

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“The lost coast”, traditionally, is an area in northern California. It’s north of Mendocino and south of the Oregon border. It goes up to about Arcata and it’s a very rugged coastline. There’s no highway access to it, it’s all small roads that go out to various small, isolated coastal towns, places like Shelter Cove. It’s a really isolated part of California, a lot of pot grown up there, very pre-wild west. It’s an area of California where they tried to create the 51st state — I think it was actually supposed to be the 45th state at the time if you wanted to be historically accurate. They tried to make a state called Jefferson, from northwestern California and southern Oregon.

Could you get away with saying that it’s unspoiled?

That depends on your point of view. I wouldn’t say that it’s unspoiled, but I would say that it’s isolated for sure. We use it as a metaphor for idyllic lost California and I think that a lot of people who live up there have the same metaphor in mind.

Press material mentions that La Costa Perdida makes a nod to the Beach Boys’ album Holland. What are the thematic lines between your album and theirs?

I don’t know if I can draw direct lines. I can just say that Holland was an influence. There’s the archetypal Beach Boys from 1959 to 1964. Then Brian Wilson drops out to be a studio wizard in ’64 and ’65 and Pet Sounds which was ’66. Then there’s were Brian Wilson loses his mind which was SMiLE in 1967. And then there’s the Beach Boys hanging out with Charles Manson, kinda screwed up but they’re still making records and that’s one of those records from that period. If I recall it was ’68 or ’69 [Holland was actually released in 1973]. But the records are still remarkably cohesive. Wilson’s still writing great songs but everything’s just kind of a mess. We’ve always gravitated towards those records, we’ve just always liked those. Certainly on that last song on our record, “A Love For All Time”, it’s kind of pronounced. It’s not the orchestrated kind of Tubular Bells and three different kinds of bass guitar and fourteen different acoustic guitars — it’s not Pet Sounds; it’s a little more stripped down. It’s just a little bit of a — I don’t know, how do you say it — a quiver in our arsenal.

You’ve been quoted as saying that this is Camper Van Beethoven’s most mature album so far.

Yep, I think that’s true. We’re older now [laughs], we’re in our 40s and 50s. We’re not kids at all, there’s no point in pretending we are. Young Camper is very different from older Camper, yet it’s cohesive. It’s pretty much the same people. We’ve all grown, we’ve all changed, we’ve all experienced a lot of things that you experience at this age. We’ve got a few good battle scars and we’ve also played music for a really long time. This record shows a very stately playing, which is something that’s always been a goal of mine. You’ve got to understand we were punk rock kids and we did everything wrong at first. So for us to get to a point were we’re playing in a stately style is kind of remarkable in its own right. It’s kind of a state of grace almost for us to have achieved it.

When you talk about old Camper being different from the new Camper, are there still some things in the band dynamic that hold over from 1985?

You can’t maintain a relationship with the same core people without there being some overtones of what went on in 1985. But I think the truth of the matter is that if you can’t get around or over whatever kind of friction there was in the old days, then that’s an awful long time to hold a grudge or grind an axe as far as I’m concerned. I’m really bad at going into the past. It’s the 30th anniversary of the band and for various projects I’ve actually had to go and look at my archives — you’ll have to put the word “archives” in very loose quotes, because it’s boxes I’ve just thrown stuff into over the years.

Some people really care about that stuff, I look at it as “wow, I got a bunch of crap in my garage.” It isn’t that it isn’t important to me. I guess maybe I should give it to a librarian who’s good at this kind of stuff because it’s just a bunch of stuff! I’m always making music, I’m always working on something, I kind of believe in going forward.

Sounds like you need an archivist.

Yeah, we kind of do have an archivist. He’s aware of some of the stuff I have, I just need to send it to him. But I have, like, live cassettes from our very dedicated taping audience. I appreciate that, I do very much. But I think it’s more important to them rather than to me. What do I do with this box full of CDs of live shows from 1986, 1987, 1988 — like, a shoebox full of thirty shows there! I’m not going to listen to thirty shows. I’ve played a thousand shows. Why would I do that? I don’t like the past, I don’t think that’s healthy.

Talk about the writing sessions for La Costa Perdida. I understand you guys were all staying in [violinist] Jonathan Segel’s house.

David [Lowery] was actually staying there. At the time Jonathan was living in Oakland and I live in San Francisco so it was just a 15-, 20-minute drive to his house. Not very long. I wouldn’t say it was the first time we’ve done this in years and years. When we wrote the stuff that became New Roman Times, we did these writing sessions where we sat in my old house in San Francisco, but there was a concept going on there. And then we were free of that concept, we were really in this kind of neutral zone. David and Greg [Lisher, guitarist] had worked on a couple of things, but it was really simply just sitting in a room and playing for five days straight. It was just super fertile. I don’t think there was a day that went by where there weren’t a half dozen ideas thrown around. And I think when we were done I think we had 25 good, solid starts on songs. We just started recording and were like “when it gets to be about 45 minutes, we’ll be done!” There’s many outtakes from this record and it won’t take that long to make the next one. It was kind of a liberating thing for us because we were really free of expectations because it had been so long since we had made a record. And I think we were free of our own issues to some degree because we hadn’t written in a while. Like I said, it was really fertile; pretty fun, pretty enjoyable.

When you said that the band was working on so many ideas in a day, do you think that was a product of circumstance? Or is that the collective creativity of Camper Van Beethoven that you guys can tap into at any time?

That’s a good question. Honestly, it’s a little bit of both. I’ve been a songwriter for a long time, I don’t ever expect to tap into the muse. I mean, I’m always writing. Sometimes I have things I’m really thinking about and issues I want to grapple with. That can be just a musical idea I want to work into [something] — ideas kind of float around and are ready to go. Camper wrote as a group at points in the past but we hadn’t sat down and done it in a long time. [Before], Dave was writing, Jonathan had an idea or two, I had an instrumental, and here we go. This is really different in that we sat down and the slate was blank. It was like “I got, kinda, these chords”, and they’re like “oh cool, you should try this inversion and substitute that chord for this. And instead of doing that minor, let’s make it weird and put a major chord there. And I’m going to play a third on the bass.” It was just a group of people finding their way through it.

Sometimes it’s just lightning in a bottle. The best records I’ve ever made were ones were I didn’t intend to make a record that day. Those are really the best ones. Some of our fanbase might argue for Key Lime Pie, which it is a great record and I do love it, but it’s a very orchestrated and methodical affair. And a lot of the songs that came on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart were in this fertile, group writing that were written well before we got signed. We were just going, you know? “Eye of Fatima” is a really good example of that, this kind of “standard” song for us. Those are the moments you live for as a musician. They’re kind of rare. A lot of it’s a slog. But like I said, there’s a state of grace where you’re in the zone. It’s kind of a beautiful time. A lot of people talk about those [moments] where it’s a good show, good writing, a good day in the studio, trying to make time stand still, trying to just get into the art. Usurp the place in your brain that precludes time and concerns, it’s quite intense. Like doing yoga or meditating. I think that’s why music is so totally addictive for people, because there’s really no rational reason considering the marketplace. A lot of people spend so much time and so much focus on it because it’s an art, it’s a calling. I think where you really can kind of explode with it is when you just go off the chart.

There are a lot of people who get very concerned about their “career”, where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. I personally will never go there. It doesn’t make for good music and doesn’t help you financially at all. I feel like it’s a special place and it has to be defended. Like religion, in a really weird way. We can talk about “process”, but when I’m doing it, it’s just about gut. “How does this feel?” And feelings are very abstract. They involve an emotional brain vs. a thinking brain. And then you start getting into weird zones, like when you’re in a band for a long time. You start to understand; people feel things very differently. People intuit things very differently. And I think that’s one of the things that gives a certain magic to Camper, the fact that we’re all very different people who do get along very well and sometimes don’t get along at all. There’s this natural tension to it — I don’t know why, it’s so interestingly fertile. And we’re good musicians, sometimes bordering on great but not the flashiest musicians in the world. We’re self-aware, we know what our weaknesses are learned how to make them strengths. The older I get, the more I think “don’t fuck it up! Don’t run it into the ground! Make it special, make it good.” Camper is kind of ephemeral, it shows up at times. We’re all spread far apart, all over the world now. Literally. And it’s hard for us to get together and play, not as much as people would like, but that’s probably good. It’s probably better that it’s rare, it’s probably better that we are day job people. It makes us a little more stable and it makes the times we are able to get together more special.

Having said that, there will probably be some near-future plans for you guys. You said that you had a lot of outtakes left over from this new album.

Yeah! It seems to me if we can pull off going into the studio again, then we will. I don’t know when that is, you know, nothing’s written in stone. I would like to [laughs], then are some songs from the current record ‘s sessions that I’d like to see finished and done. But there’s a lot to get done. We gotta work this [new] record. It’s difficult these days to get out and do it. We can’t do it like we used to, everybody’s gotta make some money. Rock ‘n’ roll is not what it used to be. It’s a rarefied art form.

They all say it’s harder now to get by than it ever was before.

Oh, it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. After a three week tour you make a thousand dollars. That doesn’t work for a fifty-year-old. You have to be prudent and pragmatic about it because I can make more money elsewhere. We’re our own biggest vendor of our products. You can’t go and tour ceaselessly because your audience will dry up because there’s so much competition. So the best you can do is show up once in a while and play a really good show. We’re fortunate because we are not a young band trying to make it, we have an established name and we have a lot of respect. When you factor that all in, it’s still not totally glamorous. But nobody’s holding a gun to my head.