Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven

<img src="http://www.qromag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/jonathansegelinterview.jpg" alt="Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven : Interview" />Just before the holidays - and their annual December/January tour - QRO caught up with Camper Van Beethoven's...
Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven : Interview
Jonathan Segel

Just before the holidays – and their annual December/January tour – QRO caught up with Camper Van Beethoven’s guitarist/violinist Jonathan Segel.  The multi-act multi-instrumentalist talked about Camper’s upcoming tour with sister act Cracker (QRO spotlight on), why they’re the rare band who tours in December/January, the new Camper material that’s gonna be on this tour, his new solo records All Attractions and Apricot Jam (out in the beginning of 2012), what having different roles has taught him, being a ‘grandfatherly Mr. Old & Bitter’ at a poorly-run, poorly-paid South-by-Southwest, and much more…

 

QRO: When/where did you make All Attractions & Apricot Jam?

JS: I live in Oakland, so most of it was recorded in San Francisco and Oakland, over the course of the past couple of years.

QRO: Did you work with a variety of musicians, since you were making it over the last couple of years, or was there a specific band that you had with you?

JS: I’ve been working with the same people a lot.  I worked with Victor [Krummenacher, CVB bassist] – he and I have been playing music together inside and outside of Camper Van Beethoven for the last thirty years.  We work pretty well together.

Camper’s initial drummer, Chris Pedersen, moved to Australia in the nineties, so we’ve been using some different drummers.  Right now, there’s this guy John Haynes, who Victor’s been playing with a lot, and I’ve been playing with him off and on for the past five years.  John Haynes is our main drummer – he’s been around the San Francisco Bay Area for a long time.  He played with Pearl Harbor & The Explosions – he’s played with all sorts of people.

QRO: You’ve done everything from your own solo records to making records as part of a band to contributing on other people’s stuff – how do the different recording situations compare?

JS: Gosh, it really depends.  Being a bandleader is definitely a different job than being a hired musician.

Playing in Camper Van Beethoven is more like playing in a collective band, where everybody has their own sorts of ideas and parts, versus, for instance, when I played in Sparklehorse back in the nineties, it was definitely Mark Linkous’ thing, I was just the melody aspect of each song, I played violin or guitar or keyboards or whatever.  It’s a different job, those different things.

I think that having been in all of these sorts of different situations in different bands ends up giving you a different outlook on how to react in each different job that comes along.

QRO: You feel that you can sort of put yourself in another person’s shoes?

JS: Exactly.

For many people, it’s hard to listen to their own band objectively.  I mean, I’m definitely guilty of that myself, of course.

One of the things that you do learn how to do, also, is to try to step back and listen to everybody’s part and say, "Is what I’m playing good for the band, good for the song that we’re playing as a whole?  How can this be better, not just based on what I’m doing?"

QRO: Do you find that you do relatively more guitars when making your own material, than when you’re contributing to someone else’s thing?

JS: Absolutely.  More people play guitar, obviously.  So I’m definitely wanted as a violinist more, coming in as an outside musician.

On All Attractions, Chris Xefos played bass on some of the stuff, because Victor wanted to play guitar, because he’s been playing guitar a lot.

Camper Van Beethoven playing "Tania" live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 5th, 2009:

QRO: Why are you putting out two records at the same time?

JS: I’ve been working on the song part of All Attractions for the last couple of years.  We went into the studio to record the last little bits of it, we ended up having an afternoon free, and we just improvised.  That ended up being Apricot.  That’s basically a bunch of instrumentals that were just improvised in the studio, and I took them home and sort of played with them for the next few months before they got mixed.

So it’s just sort of a bonus disc, really.

QRO: Are you releasing them at the start of the year – is it coincidence that it’s coinciding with the Camper tour?

JS: It’s coincidence that it’s coinciding with the Camper tour, but it’s also that, since, as an independent artist, it takes a long time for – I don’t have a real ‘release schedule’ that says, "Three months in advance I’m gonna place all of this sort of advertisement out" – I just can’t afford to do that sort of thing.  So for me to put it out at the beginning of the year is little bit better in terms of when people find it out, in the year 2016, they’ll look at it and they’ll go, "Oh, it was released in 2012," as opposed to, "Oh, it was released in 2011…" [laughs]

QRO: That’s really true, especially with the internet, release dates aren’t quite the same importance that they were…

JS: It’s definitely not the same thing as it used to be.

Although, strangely it’s still on Tuesdays…

QRO: Yes! [laughs] Except in the U.K. they’re on Mondays…

JS: Yeah, what the hell?  Who made that rule up?…

QRO: Now, even DVDs come out on Tuesdays as well.

JS: Really?  I didn’t even know that.

Camper Van Beethoven playing "Opi Rides Again-Club Med Sucks" live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 5th, 2009:

 

QRO: Starting with the twenty-fifth anniversary tour, this will be the fourth year in a row that Camper Van Beethoven has toured in January.  Why is that?

JS: Yeah, we’re making a habit of it.  We’ve been doing this thing on the West Coast between Christmas and New Year’s for six or seven years now – San Francisco, San Diego, Petaluma, sometimes Portland.  So we started adding on to do some Midwest, mostly East Coast dates in January.  It’s sort of crazy, but you know, no one else is out there.

QRO: It’s to the point where you play the same venue on the same date or day of the week, year-on-year.  Was it just to add to the California dates?

JS: Yeah, but it’s sort of becoming a traditional thing.

I like it.  I like having sort of set area.  You know, a lot of us work, also – to have set areas to tour around West Coast and into the Campout in Pioneertown in southern California in August/September, and then we tour around some dates on the East Coast in January, the Midwest, and then little bits and pieces here and there throughout the spring.  It’s getting to be a pretty good schedule.

QRO: How does playing California in December compare with playing the Mid-West/Northeast in January?

JS: [laughs] Yeah, California’s December is usually not that – usually the worst you get is some rain.

Last year, we went to St. Louis, and it was minus twelve!

QRO: Do you notice some of the same fans each time you visit a city?

JS: Many of the same fans, and what it does is then, they bring other people.  Which is really cool.

It’ll start off with a lot of people who are like, "Oh, I haven’t seen you guys forever!"  And then next year, it’s like, "You guys were really great last year – I’m coming and bringing more people this year."

QRO: Where did the idea of the Cracker/Camper tour come from?

JS: Camper didn’t really exist in the nineties, at all, because [CVB singer David Lowery’s] Cracker was really strong, and we were all doing our own thing, I was making my own little records and stuff.  When we started playing together again, it sort of came out of me or Greg [Lisher, CVB guitarist] or Victor joining Cracker for a couple of Camper songs.  Initially, it was just we did these… "traveling apothecary tours," we called them.  It was sort of this amalgam of both bands, do a Cracker set, do a Camper set, or it was mostly Cracker, and they’d do a Cracker set, then we would join them to do some Camper songs.

It wasn’t until 2002 that we actually separated out and did Camper only.  I think the first shows as Camper only, again since 1990, I think were at the Knitting Factory (QRO venue review).

QRO: Was that around the same time you were working on New Roman Times [the first CVB record since 1989’s Key Lime Pie]?

JS: Yeah, we started working on that.

QRO: And where did the idea of 2011’s Key Lime Pie and Kerosene Hat tour come from?

JS: Full records like that?  Well, I’m not exactly sure, but it was something that fans kept asking us to do it at our Campout festival.

Many of the songs from Key Lime Pie had never actually been played live.  Probably like five of them were ever played live.  We had a few of them in our normal repertoire, like "All Her Favorite Fruit", "Sweethearts", and "Flowers", but many of them we’d actually never played.

So when people kept saying, "Can you play Key Lime Pie?" – so we were like, ‘We’re gonna learn the whole record?…’

QRO: Was it hard learning songs that you had written so long ago?

JS: Yeah!  It was hard!  We’re older & slower now… [laughs]

Camper Van Beethoven playing Key Lime Pie‘s "June" live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 14th, 2011:

QRO: In the upcoming tour, are you going to be doing new material?

JS: Yeah.  We’ve been working on a new record, started writing a bunch of stuff earlier this year, started recording in June, had a couple of sessions in June, October, and then [December].  We’ve got a bunch of new songs, so I think we’re gonna at least be playing four or five of them.

QRO: Have you played them live to audiences before?

JS: No, we never had.  That will start after Christmas.

QRO: Are you nervous about that?

JS: …Yeah?  I think that we have the songs pretty well – we actually had some rehearsals.  We don’t usually rehearse very much; we usually just get together and play.  But we actually had some rehearsals last time…

 

QRO: When did you start thinking that you were going to do a new album?

JS: It’s been a while.  You know, we started thinking we were gonna do a new album several years ago, but then that sort of process became interrupted by Cracker doing another album (QRO review) they worked on for a long time, and then they toured an awful lot on that.  And we all work on our own projects.

We actually started, in earnest, talking about it, about a year ago, saying, "We’re gonna do it in 2011 – we’re gonna work on a new record."  So that’s what we’ve been doing all year.

I think we’ve come up with some amazing stuff; I think it’s gonna be a great record.

Of course I’m gonna say that, right?…

QRO: [laughs] Because you can’t be objective…

JS: [laughs] Exactly!

QRO: What is the writing process – does everybody come in with his own individual stuff, does it start as a group, or what?

JS: We do that; there’s many different writing processes involved in Camper Van Beethoven.

Since David is going to be playing and singing, we’re generally gonna leave it up to him to do the vocals.

A lot of what we’ve been doing is coming in with melodies, or some basic chord ideas, Greg, Victor, me, and David, all of us together at my house, every evening back in June for a week.  We worked out a number of things, a number of really great melodic hits, and number of great chord progressions, and then over the summer, they developed into songs.

Camper Van Beethoven playing "The History of Utah" live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 9th, 2009:

QRO: When you’re coming with your own individual ideas, do you think, "Okay, this is going to be for Camper," or you do you think, "This is going to be for my own thing"?

JS: That’s a very odd idea.

Some things I think just lend themselves to just one or the other very easily.  Other things, I just want to try out on people in the band, before I see if people are interested in the idea or not.

And then another thing, I think that a lot of the music, for instance that I did on All Attractions, doesn’t really fit in the Camper world so much.

QRO: Do you feel less pressure making this upcoming Camper record than when you made New Roman Times, since that was your ‘reunion record’?

JS: Yeah, definitely. 

There’s definitely less pressure to make a ‘comeback record’ or something like that, but on the other hand there’s more pressure to make a good record.

I hope that people have high expectations, because I think that we’re up for it.  I think that, after we’ve been playing together and playing individually as musicians for a long time now, we’re all very good at what we do.  I think we’re riding a very good creative wave this year – my record, Greg has been working on an instrumental record of his own, Victor has been working on many projects, he has his McCabe & Mrs. Miller (QRO photos, opening for CVB) stuff, David had a solo record that came out (QRO review).  We’re all riding on a very, very large, creative wave, I’d say.

QRO: Are you working on Victor or Greg’s records?

JS: I occasionally do; I haven’t been so much lately, but I have ended up playing on a lot of Victor’s records, and just a little bit on some of Greg’s stuff.

Camper Van Beethoven playing New Roman Times‘s "The Long Plastic Hallway" live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 15th, 2010:

 

QRO: I saw you at South-by-Southwest in 2010 (QRO recap).  What was it like to play an ‘industry festival’ that’s mostly about new bands, when you’re anything but a newbie?…

JS: Well, it’s sort of funny, because, like I said about how we’ve been playing for such long time, it’s sort of funny because we’ve been in that situation many times, and we actually know how to play our instruments.  In some ways, I feel like ‘grandfatherly’ – [old man voice] "Here, let me show you how to play that guitar…"

But in other cases, I always find it amazing to look around, when you’re at South-by-Southwest or one of those festivals, to look at all the different bands that are playing, because it’s funny how many different kinds of music are available to people.  There’s so much you can see.

QRO: Do you think that’s changed even since you’ve started?

JS: It’s definitely easier to, quote, ‘be in a band.’ 

They always say that the internet, computers, computer recording has leveled the playing field for people.  Yeah, of course the truth about that is that a level playing field means it’s sort of awash with mediocrity.

  It’s hard to find the things that are really going to stand out, you know?

‘Cause there’s a lot, a lot of music now.  It’s very easy for people to make music, it’s easier for people to get started making music, when they have a computer, before they even have an instrument.  What’s harder to find, of course, is people who actually know how to play their instruments really, really well…

I sort of lament that, in a way, and I don’t wanna sound like ‘Mr. Old & Bitter’, but you go back and listen to sixties music – those guys were like in their twenties, and those guys played the shit out of their instruments!  Those guys were really, really good, and it’s really rare to find out guys in their twenties that have practiced, or have training, or music education to be able to really play the shit out of their instruments.  It happens, it does happen.

And then, of course, there’s the other side of that coin is that there are people who are innately musical, who don’t have the technical ability, but are able to put stuff together with a computer or with other sounds, something like that, and make music with it now, who could never have done that before.

QRO: Lots of things have gotten easier, but it’s not any easier to learn how to play an instrument…

JS: Right, exactly… [laughs]

Camper Van Beethoven playing "When I Win the Lottery" live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 15th, 2010:

QRO: Back to SXSW, where did the idea of selling endorsements for each song come from?

JS: It was just trying to figure out ways of getting ourselves there.  We couldn’t really afford to fly us all there, so we’re like, ‘Well, what if we actually sell endorsements?’

It was a little bit pointed at South-by-Southwest in general, because they don’t actually pay bands to get there – hey, we’re happy to play, but how do we do that?

QRO: Things don’t generally run on time at South-by-Southwest, but did you feel that you still had to play every song that you ‘sold’?

JS: Yes… [laughs] Yes, we probably did.

QRO: I was at the ‘official’ SXSW show, you & Cracker at Encore Patio – what the hell happened there with that ‘venue’?  It seemed like they screwed everything up… (QRO recap)

JS: I don’t know – it’s typical South-by-Southwest stuff; some of those shows, you never know what you’re getting into.

The show the night before that we did, our manager got into a fight with somebody.  She fuckin’ clocked this guy…

QRO: I also saw you at the outdoor show on the last day of South-by-Southwest, when it was freezing cold… (QRO recap)

JS: [laughs] That’s right, at the 40 Watt party…

QRO: I didn’t have a jacket…

JS: It’s fuckin’ Texas, and it’s freezin’ cold!  Set up an outdoor thing, and all these bands are trying to play, and their hands are completely frozen…

 

QRO: Are there any Camper songs that you particularly like playing?

JS: There are many that I really like playing.  One of my favorites, I was just reminded of this morning, is "One of These Days", from Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart – such nice, interlocking violin and guitar lines, really good tempo.

Camper Van Beethoven playing "One of These Days" live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 5th, 2009:

The instrumentals are very interesting.  And it’s funny because some of them, even from the first record, like, say "Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China", it’s one of the things that’s like – I’ve been playing it more than half my life, but I just keep thinking one day I’m going to get it exactly right…

QRO: [laughs] Where did the idea, years ago, of doing the covers of Black Flag come from?

JS: Early eighties California, when punk rock sort of became really embedded in the culture of clubs and stuff, people got really dogmatic about what was punk rock, especially in southern California, I think – not so the San Francisco area.  People were like, "This is punk rock – that is not!"  And we so were like, "Screw you – we’ll play punk rock however we want…"  Just do it right.

Camper Van Beethoven covering Black Flag’s "Wasted" live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 9th, 2009:

QRO: Are there any songs that you can’t play, because of the arrangement, or just don’t like to play?

JS: I think now, we’ve tried to play all of them.  There’s some that we haven’t played, some that maybe have too many instruments in them on the recorded version, and we can’t make it into a great live version or something like that.  I don’t think there’s any that we couldn’t specifically play live.

QRO: What about from All Attractions and/or Apricot Jams – how much have you even played those songs in front of a live audience?

JS: I maybe did about five shows – no, maybe about ten.  I played opening for Built To Spill (QRO live review) at the Fillmore for a couple of days, and then we played opening for Camper here in Oakland, and then some of the shows at Campout, stuff like that.  But I don’t really have a separate booking agent, so I don’t do very many shows.

I love all those songs, to play.

QRO: What’s it like, ‘opening for yourself’?

JS: I really like it, because I get really warmed up, and then I really play well. [laughs]

QRO: Will you be touring those albums, later on?

JS: Yeah, definitely, probably have some shows in the Bay Area – we don’t really tour that much – in San Francisco, definitely.

QRO: Will it just be you, or do you have a whole band?

JS: Usually I play with the people I recorded with – Victor, and John Haynes, and Chris Xefos.

Camper Van Beethoven playing "Take the Skinheads Bowling" live at Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY on January 9th, 2009:

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