Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Camper Van Beethoven interview

Jason Thrasher
My story originally appeared at

Whenever December rolls around, a Camper Van Beethoven concert in North County typically follows suit. According to Victor Krummenacher, the Belly Up is one of the band’s favorite places to perform in Southern California.

“I like that area a lot,” noted the bassist, in a phone interview from the San Francisco office of Wired magazine, where he works as a graphic designer. “It’s a very friendly crowd for us and always works well. We’ve been doing it for eight years.”

Since the alt-rock group shares lead singer/guitarist David Lowery with Cracker, both acts do joint tours together. A particular night’s headliner can be determined by a coin toss or different — shall we say personal — factors.

“Frequently, it’s Cracker who does, because they’re a little less stinky. Camper is like the academic band — maybe more difficult in some ways. Cracker’s a little easier on the ‘want a drink, see a rock band’ palate than Camper.”

Last year, the quartet — best known for ’80s college/modern rock radio hits “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and “Pictures of Matchstick Men” — performed 1989’s “Key Lime Pie” album live.

That won’t be happening again on the current jaunt (which kicks off Thursday in Solana Beach), but Krummenacher said doing so “opened up the repertoire. I loved revisiting it.” A perennial fan favorite, Krummenacher has heard from people “who feel ‘Key Lime Pie’ … has a certain ennui to it that continues to resonate.”

Longtime followers should be equally amenable to “La Costa Perdida.” Scheduled for release Jan. 22 via 429 Records, the first new Camper Van Beethoven studio effort since 2004 deftly combines sophisticated pop/rock, psychedelia, ska, norteƱo and Middle Eastern music elements together into another heady musical brew.

The group, which marks its 30th anniversary next year, traces its beginnings to a party in Riverside. Krummenacher had just graduated high school there when he met then-UC Santa Cruz student and Redlands resident Lowery at a local gathering. Later in 1983, they formed Camper Van Beethoven and relocated up north near the campus to attend classes, play gigs and garner a following.

Freewheeling debut LP “Telephone Free Landslide Victory,” featuring the aforementioned “Bowling,” arrived in 1985. Characterized by Jonathan Segel’s frantic violin work, Greg Lisher’s inventive guitar sounds and Lowery’s sarcastic nasal singing style, the group’s daring sonic hybrid defined “alternative” before the term was widely used.

After putting out a pair of records on major label Virgin, Camper Van Beethoven had an acrimonious breakup in 1990. “David was disappointed that ‘Key Lime Pie’ didn’t sell more; we all were in many ways.”

Lowery went on to bigger success with the roots rock-leaning Cracker. Krummenacher simultaneously worked on a solo career and alongside other Camper Van Beethoven members in eclectic, jazzy art rock combo Monks of Doom. The 2000 reunion was followed by a bizarre, complete version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and 2004’s sprawling prog rock opera “New Roman Times.”

Making the new album came about by accident. A 2011 outdoor gig in Big Sur was postponed due to inclement weather. So the musicians — based in various far flung locales — decided to spend the weeklong downtime creating music at multi-instrumentalist Segel’s nearby home.

“When it finally happened, it was in a way that I wanted: We sat in a room and tried to write together for the first time in many, many years,” recalled Krummenacher. “We hadn’t really done it in a while. It was a very fertile five-day writing period with a lot of really good ideas and music (plus enough leftover recordings for a follow-up).

“I felt it was really important that we do a record that felt organic and represented everyone,” he continued.

“You have four really opinionated people in the band, which sometimes makes for a contentious environment, but also creates really unique music. Since we’d gotten back together, I didn’t think we’d gotten that across. Everything was kind of thematic.”

From the elegant, romantic sway of opener “Come Down the Coast” to the Spanish-influenced title track, a few selections are loosely based on the mythological idea of Northern California’s so-called “lost coast” around Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

Lowery’s trademark skewed humor comes to the fore during the careening “Too High for the Love-In,” while the bluesy “You Got to Roll” is a departure and real showcase for Lisher.
These days, Krummenacher is pleased that Camper Van Beethoven has perfected what he calls “the art of the bar band.”

“I really think there’s an art to mature, seriously grooving playing … it took us 30 years to get to this point, but we did it.”

Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker appear at the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach, 8 p.m. Thursday, $22, (858) 481-8140. 

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