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Happier Campers 

Why the members of Camper Van Beethoven are talking again a decade after an acrimonious breakup

Wednesday, Feb 9 2000
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"The band, by all appearances, at least from what people tell me, is vastly influential, but I have no paycheck to show for it," says former Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher. "Not one."

Welcome to the world of cult rock. In the mid-1980s, Camper was perhaps the most "important" college-rock band in the days before alternative music had a name; at that point Hésker Dé was near a breakup and the Replacements were ceasing to be relevant. CVB topped critics polls, released records on its own Pitch-A-Tent label, and toured with a then-potent role model for young bands, R.E.M. But a less-than-amicable split in 1990 forced the Campers into separate corners. Frontman David Lowery retreated to Richmond, Va., to form Cracker. Krummenacher, with original violinist Jonathan Segel, pursued various local projects, with a lesser degree of financial success.

But in December, Krummenacher and Segel joined Lowery in Richmond to complete tracks on a forthcoming archival release, Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, available soon through Pitch-a-Tent and its Web site. The initial call came from Lowery, who asked Krummenacher and Segel if they would be interested in selling the material released on the pair's own label, Magnetic, through Pitch-a-Tent to make the Camper catalog, offshoots, and related projects available on one easy-to-navigate site. In the long term, the band hopes to regain the rights to its own recorded material (some of which is still in the hands of EMI, Camper's last distributor). And as Lowery was simultaneously readying a two-disc compilation of Cracker hits, rarities, and new material, Garage D'or, for forthcoming release, he realized he needed a band to take the show on the road.

"Cracker has done these sort of Rolling Blunder Revues with Joan Osborne and Adam Duritz," explains Lowery from his studio. "We play some of their songs, they play one of our songs, they do one of our songs, they'd do a duet. So we thought, "Why don't we do it again with Victor and Jonathan?' It's basically a Cracker show. I would not call it a Camper reunion -- we all sort of shrink back from that."

Call it what you will, but as Krummenacher fills in on bass with Lowery's band, Segel will add a song or two; Krummenacher and Segel will open the shows with their old guitarist Greg Lisher, whom they describe as the reclusive, Syd Barrett of Camper. The whole crew will join Lowery and his band to play a few songs from the Camper songbook.

"We had a party the night before we were going to put all that stuff together [for the new record] here at the studio, and somehow a rumor got started that me, Victor, and Jonathan were going to play a reunion," says Lowery. "The thing was, we weren't planning to play, and the party was ultimately shut down by the police and fire departments. But we'd been in the basement rehearsing songs, thinking we could prevent a riot. We started talking about it."

Time, explains Krummenacher, is the other great facilitator for the new beginning, or what therapists might describe as an opportunity for closure to a bad ending. "I certainly take responsibility for the fact that my walking probably made the band break up," says Krummenacher, who decamped in the middle of a European tour in 1990.

"So you're responsible for Cracker!" Segel sniggers. Constant conspirators, Krummenacher and Segel have settled into the corner of a Vietnamese restaurant to gulp noodles and imperial rolls and recount the beginning, middle, end, and coda to their band's convoluted story. While they're at it, they manage to take some serious stabs at Lowery, but any true contempt for him or his white-boogie, MTV-successful band has all but vanished. In fact, Krummenacher and Segel say they're fans of Lowery's work, in particular Cracker's 1996 album The Golden Age, which they call "brilliant." They like what they've heard of the new material, too, which hearkens back a bit to the orchestral and experimental days of Camper's denouement -- in fact, they know of one CVB song that's resurfaced for the new Cracker recordings.

"One of the things I like about Camper is that the legacy is so muddled and completely confusing," says Krummenacher. "People say things like, "I saw you in 1992 when I was a senior in high school,' and I tell them we broke up in 1990. Or they say, "I saw the Monks of Doom, that was David Lowery's band after Camper broke up,'" referring to Krummenacher's jazz/experimental/prog rock band comprised of himself, Campers Greg Lisher and Chris Pedersen, and sideman David Immergluck. "Nobody knows the history unless they're intimately tied to us, and even then it's completely confusing, because we're all such motherfuckers, we all have completely different ideas about what actually occurred. I'm kind of at a point where I think that's fine."

"Lineage," "legacy," and "family" are words that crop up repeatedly when the former Campers address the band's history. Like the Grateful Dead (to whom they were sometimes compared for their folk-based melodies smershed with dripping psychedelia; both bands' fans favored the twirling dance), the group has a mixed-up family tree. Krummenacher and Lowery began making music together around Riverside and Redlands, Calif., in the summer of 1983 at Lowery's parents' house. Lowery had been in a band called Box of Laffs with his boyhood pals Pedersen and Chris Molla, who would join Camper when the group relocated to Santa Cruz and picked up Lisher and Segel.

Camper quickly became an underground favorite: The band's debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, earned a top-10 spot in the Village Voice's annual critics poll, and anybody within earshot of a college radio station had heard "Take the Skinheads Bowling," a self-described "surreal, absurdist folk" song. But there was more to Camper than the novelty ska hook of "Skinheads" -- there were real songs with melodies sprinkled with Eastern European folk, punk, pop, progressive rock, and psychedelia. Perhaps best of all, the slacker kids from a California beach town were the embodiment of what young people throughout America were feeling during the bleak Reagan years -- they were so completely disenfranchised that the only option was to poke fun and party.

About The Author

Denise Sullivan

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