Thirty Years of Camper Van Beethoven

A Conversation With Founding Members Victor Krummenacher & Jonathan Segel

At the East Atlanta Restaurant and Lounge, known as The EARL, two of Camper Van Beethoven’s founding members, bassist Victor Krummenacher and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel (violin, guitar, mandolin) took a few minutes out of their busy tour schedule for an interview before sound check at that evening’s show.

Krummenacher and Segel formed the record label Magnetic together from 1993-2011. Some of those individual projects’ albums, as well as with Greg Lisher’s (CVB’s lead guitarist), are available at pitchatent.com, David Lowery’s record company/sales outlet, while others are available at CD Baby. 

You’re celebrating Camper Van Beethoven’s 30th Anniversary this year, other than the ten you took off. You took a big break there.

Victor Krummenacher: We did take a break, but we never stopped playing with each other. We just stopped playing as Camper Van Beethoven, so that break is pretty relative.

Jonathan Segel: After Camper, we all had our own bands for the last 20 years. Still do.

Any there any big celebrations planned for the 30th Anniversary?

Segel: There might be some re-releases later of some of the older records, but I’m not sure how that’s coming along.

Krummenacher: We have friends in the reissue arm of EMI who are working on the potential reissue of those records.

Any compilations?

Segel: There was Popular Songs. That was a greatest hits sort of compilation that came out a couple of years back.

Krummenacher: As far as shows, I imagine that at some point during the year, we’ll have some kind of specific 30th Anniversary event.

You’ve been doing Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven for the last few months…

Krummenacher: We’ve done that off and on for many years. It’s just a kind of more convenient way of running the bands together. But I kind of prefer playing on our own [as CVB].

Do some of you cross over between the bands?

Segel: Yeah. Frank [Funaro, drummer] and David [Lowery, singer, rhythm guitar] are in both bands.

Krummenacher: I was the bass player in Cracker for many years. Double duty’s a little harsh sometimes.

How about Campout West [currently a three-day camping festival featuring CVB, Cracker, individual band members’ performances and other bands]? How many years has it been going on now?

Segel: That was the eighth, last September.

Krummenacher: That has been going very well.

Is that why you started Campout East?

Krummenacher: Well, Campout East was kind of a mixed bag. They’ve had a little more trouble with the weather and underwriters and stuff. Campout West just seems to take care of itself. Last year, we were just like, ‘Fuck it, we’re not going to do anything as far as promotion or any specific kind of planning,’ and it worked better than any one in recent memory. We just did a couple of warm up dates with Camper, just so we knew the songs again, and it worked out really well. It was the best-attended [and] the most profitable one.

Segel: Yeah. It was fun.

Krummenacher: I love it. It’s actually the most fun event we do, by far.

Do you have a message board? Is that how people find out about that?

Segel: Well, there’s Facebook stuff, and then there’s also campervanbeethoven.com – but I think most of the Crumbs and Cracker fans and Camper fans are on Facebook.

What are Crumbs?

Segel: Cracker fans.

Krummenacher: Crumbs fall off crackers. The Crumbs follow us around. We’ve got several following us around right now. They’ve kind of become Camper fans, too.

How do you decide which band, Camper Van Beethoven or Cracker, will do which songs?

Segel: Camper writes our own material.

Krummenacher: Camper writes as a band. [It] is kind of David and Johnny with a band behind them. It’s structured very differently.

So Camper Van Beethoven is more of a collaboration?

Krummenacher: It definitely is. There are large voices of many people in it.

Segel: And also, the thing about Camper songs would be that, I don’t really think that Cracker, given their instrumentation, would be able to play them.

Krummenacher: Camper’s a much more dense…experience. It’s a high brainpower band. It’s a really different trip.

 

Since you were on the road so much last year, was any of the recording for La Costa Perdida done on the road?

Krummenacher: No. We did some in Georgia and we did most of it in California. California was easy, or was, when Jonathan was living there as well.  Jonathan’s since moved to Sweden, so I’m not quite sure how we’ll pull the next one off.

Talk about your experiences as early DIY, indie artists.

Segel: We recorded on tape because that’s what you did back then. We didn’t record on computers.

Krummenacher: We released vinyl.

Segel: The recording process was a lot different. We went to small studios. We couldn’t set up home studios so much, to record with at the time. But, that was sort of nice.

Krummenacher: We also came of age at a time when there was a very coherent network of people who were available to help us. There were bands that were actively out on the scene, and as we got more popular and started playing with them, they were like, ‘Oh, if you’re going to go to Fresno, then you need to play with so and so.’ And I talk to kids now that are in younger bands and there might be a citywide scene, but we had a national scene available to us, almost immediately.

Segel: People from the major markets who were in other independent bands.

Krummenacher:  And we also had kind of a little assistance from SST, The Dead Kennedys, and REM. And just a whole lot of people who were like, ‘Oh, if you’re gonna do this, well, do this. If you’re gonna be in Lawrence, Kansas, well, there’s people you can stay with.’ And there was this sort of network of people. The scene was in touch with each other. There were very few magazines that were distributed nationally. And there were a lot of college radio stations and the college radio programmers spoke to one another, as did the people who went to the shows. And it was basically like, a phone call alert, ‘There are bands coming and they’re cool. You should check them out.’ That literally happened to us over and over again. And it was also a much smaller scene. There’s so many more bands now than there were then. There just wasn’t that much going on, you know.

The thing is, it was just coming out of punk rock and that idea hadn’t really come into people’s minds yet, that you could do it on your own. Now everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll do it on my own,’ and there’s a ton of people that do it on their own. But when we were doing it on our own, there weren’t a lot of people doing that.

Have things become easier or harder for people trying to do it on their own?

Krummenacher: There’s too much competition. And people don’t buy physical products, which is a large chunk of our revenue. It’s just gone.

Segel: People don’t buy records; a lot of times people just don’t go to shows because there’s just too many people playing all the time. And then, it’s tough for artists who are good to get noticed out of the vast wash of mediocrity that exists because everybody is able to do it. So, if everybody’s able to record on their home computer, you don’t need to learn guitar anymore, you just need a computer, right? So, you got your computer and then you’re like, ‘I have an indie band, and this is it.’ And, you think cream rises, but actually it’s more like shit floats in a lot of cases where you end up with the people that can hype themselves more are the ones that get noticed rather than the people who are good musicians.

Krummenacher: We just also came of age when, at that point in time, nuance and confidence mattered, and we’ve always gotten better and just kept working. And also, we were really of the idea that we would have a long life span. A lot of bands now, you know, they just kind of show up and do it, they’re part of a scene, and they’re part of a sound, and their sound oftentimes seems to be dictated by what’s going on around them. We had no interest in sounding like anyone around us. You know, we played with The Dead Kennedys. What, musically, do we have in common with The Dead Kennedys? Not a lot! But ideologically, we had a lot in common with them and I’m still friends with some of those guys. Now, it’s just a completely different thing. And it seems just like people, whether or not they believe it or not, they’re a lot more conservative than they used to be, because they don’t want to push the envelope. They’re just kind of in the herd. That’s my observation, at least.

What do you think you’ve learned over the years?

Segel: I’ve learned how to play better.

Krummenacher: We’re better musicians, we’re a better band; I think we write better music in many ways, than we used to. I think we’re a lot more confident in our talents. We know what we are and what we do. And I think we also have tempered expectations, because I see this all the time, you know, ‘Camper Van Beethoven are the progenitors of college rock.’ And I make the vast majority of my money not doing music. I am an art director, and that’s just the reality. Long ago, a friend of mine, who was dealing with Tom Verlaine [Television], trying to sell his guitars for money, told me,

‘There’s no glory in being a cult hero.’

And that’s kind of true. We do it because we love it. And that’s always been the case. We actually really like playing music.

Where do you see the future of indie music going? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Krummenacher: No, not really. You know, I don’t worry about it. I don’t care about the scene. I just care about the music.

Are there any bits of advice you can give to artists today?

Krummenacher: My advice is, figure out what you are doing, and what you have to say, and also understand that it’s an art, you know, and whether you want to be in the continuum of it or not, care about it.

www.campervanbeethoven.com

photos by Jason Thrasher

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