For those of you who haven't heard of Camper Van Beethoven are missing out on a treat. They were and still are one of the more adventurous indie bands out there and wrote one of my favorite indie songs ever with "Take The Skinheads Bowling". They recently released a singles collection called "Popular Songs Of Great Enduring Strength And Beauty" which you should definitely check out! Here's an email interview we did with Jonathan Siegel.
PRT: Who is in the band right now? Because I read you are playing shows with a lot of former members and friends helping out.
Jonathan: for the past several years, that band has been David Lowery, Victor Krummenacher, Greg Lisher and myself (Jonathan Segel), as it was through most of the 1980s, though since our original drummer Chris Pedersen moved to Australia, Cracker's drummer, Frank Funaro has been playing with us since 2002. Chris did play with us at our Camp-Out Festival in 2005, and Chris Molla did play guitar with us at our 21st Birthday show, but mostly it's just been the 5 of us.
PRT: Suppose someone just crawled from under a rock and hasn't ever heard Camper Van Beethoven before... if Camper Van Beethoven was the lovechild of two other bands, which acts would've had sex and which position were you conceived in?
Jonathan: well, probably it would've been more than two, some sort of orgy wherein the paternity is highly questionable. I can see Captain Beefhart doing REM doggy style while the Clash are fucking the Grateful Dead up against a wall, Kaleidoscope and the Kinks are in some sort of stoned revery laying around on beanbag chairs idly playing with themselves. Etcetera.
PRT: You recently played a show at The Fillmore to celebrate the band's 25th birthday. Did you do anything special or was it 'just another' show for you? And isn't it actually more like the band's 15th birthday?
Jonathan: the band started in the early 1980s in Redlands, CA, while David and Chris Molla were on summer break from college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Victor came to UCSC in 1982 and that's when i joined, late 1982. i think we started playing shows in Santa Cruz in 1983 so yeah, 2008 is 25 years.
the Fillmore show was special. we tried to play songs from all of our albums and eras, we played for over 2 hours. we all dressed nicely (that's a new one.) The day after, we had a small after-show show where my band and Victor's bands played.
check it out:
PRT: After having been around for so long and having played in several other bands as well, is there like one thing you would still like to achieve with your music?
Jonathan: i'm still trying to play it right! i think we all genuinely love music– playing music, listening to music, and we're all trying to get better at what we do, both in playing and writing. violin has been a long and hard row to hoe for me, as i started as a guitar player (i pretty much only play guitar when on my own) so a lot of my impetus is trying to get better at doing what i do. A far as achievements, i don't know. i'm hoping for that next transcendental song, that lifts the players and the audience when we play it. we seem to get one or two with every album.
PRT: The best way to get a good view of all the different projects you guys are involved in, is the annual Camp Out festival... how did that get started exactly and how much fun is that for you guys?
Jonathan: this is our fourth year of doing the festival... i think it got started just because we all had so many things to present and we were trying to figure out how to consolidate them all! David has a cabin up the dirt road from the Pioneertown Palace, and Cracker had recorded there, we'd all played there several times, so we thought that would be a great place to do it, out in the desert in a little village that was built to shoot western movies in the 1940s.
It's really fun to play, but it gets hectic trying to keep up with everything. for instance, i play with Camper, with my own band, with Victor's band, sometimes with Greg's band, sometimes with Cracker also. and we do signings and stuff. hang out in the merchandise booth and talk to people. It's a great scene and we've had great bands play there with us too, like Sun Kil Moon, Neko Case, John Doe, Magnolia Electric Company. this year we have Built to Spill, Quasi, Citay, Brant Bjork.
PRT: Speaking of starting out, when you first came out on the scene you guys kind of stuck out in the punk scene by mixing up a bunch of different genres and by using a lot of humor in a scene were that just wasn't done. Was that something that made you want to take it even further?
Jonathan: well, yeah. when the music scene moved into more DIY stuff in the late 70s it was very much in retaliation to the stadium rock posing, but it didn't take long before punk rock became codified, especially in california (or more so in southern california.) so the whole idea of dogma in a musical scene just got our goats so we had to poke fun at them. especially the suburban rich kids being all punk (like our songs "club med sucks" or "down and out") who came to shows. we became experts at managing hecklers.
PRT: Have there ever situations were you thought you were sure to get the shit kicked out of you?
Jonathan: many times, but not in punk situations, more in situations like alabama or florida where somebody is just drunk and stupid and pours beer onto your pedalboard and it starts a fight. although even when we were playing in SF a few years ago had some pretty aggressive audience members who eventually got kicked out of the show, and threatened to sue! ("my dad's a lawyer!")
PRT: You were a true indie band back when you started out and I was wondering how you feel about the generalization of the word indie in the music scene today?
Jonathan: it's weird. i'm still indie! i run my own label, make like a few hundred cds that nobody knows about. (http://www.magneticmotorworks.com)
really though, the whole process of the major labels co-opting independent music in the late 80s brought about the demise of our band initially. it's pretty sad. there have been several successive incarnations of what is "indie" music since then, and it has popularized a lot of bands that aren't really that good. i miss musicianship. the massive explosion of people's ability to present their music to world means that there is a lot of crap to wade through to find anything good. College radio suffered and still does so by being targeted by labels as the means to sell their new "indie" bands, where in the early 80s it was still up to the djs to program and search out cool stuff to present. there are still "free-form" stations around that play whatever they want (like KFJC or WFMU) which is nice, but for the most part, if, for example, I sent my new cd to a college station, it's unlikely that without the mechanisms of promotion and money behind it that it would ever get played or even looked at. what's independent about that?
PRT: You recently released a best of album called "Popular Songs Of Great Enduring Strength And Beauty"... how full of yourself are you exactly? :-)
Jonathan: we are intent on mythologizing ourselves! i want action figures.
actually it was based on something we used to say as a joke in concerts a long time ago, we would introduce any song by saying "this next song is a song of great enduring strength and beauty."
PRT: What's your take on the whole RealLife doll versus the classic inflatable doll?
Jonathan: haven't tried them, so there's no empirical evidence to support either. i like real people.
PRT: What's the first thing you think about, when I say: Telephone Free Landslide Victory
Jonathan: we win!
Jonathan: Don't tell me that you love me! Just tell me that you want me! TUSK!
Jonathan: there's a theory?
PRT: Take The Skinheads Bowling
Jonathan: got big lanes.
PRT: Have there ever been days when you were fed up with music and just wanted to do something completely different?
Jonathan: more so with the business end of music than the music end of it. every time i make a new cd, i think this is the last time i want to go through with that. but of course that never happens. i'd love to retire! sit by the lake and paint, uh huh. how long would that last?
PRT: What's up next for you guys? Plans for touring Europe? New releases?
Jonathan: Europe touring is hard, it's way too expensive for us. we live in a third world country, you know (the US of A.)
i'm occasionally playing rock shows supporting my "Honey" cd and working on the computers trying to find a new Chaos Butterfly sound. Victor is finishing two, yes two, new cds, "Patriarch's Blues" and "McCabe and Mrs Miller" which is is him and Alison Faith Levy. David is working on a solo cd and a Cracker cd. Camper is playing every couple months and biding our time 'til we can all get together and write a new record together. meanwhile, all working our day jobs.