Happier Campers

The members of Camper Van Beethoven are talking -- and touring -- again a decade after an acrimonious breakup.

Camper quickly became an underground favorite. Its debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, earned a top-ten spot in the Village Voice's annual critics' poll, and anybody within earshot of a college radio station had heard "Take the Skinheads Bowling," which the band has described as a "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, these 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.

Keeping house in Santa Cruz, the band sharpened its act in San Francisco clubs, frequently inviting simpatico acts such as Cat Heads, Donner Party and American Music Club (and their own discoveries, including Spot 1019 and the White Fronts) to open shows, which helped create a bona fide guitar-rock scene in the city. Critics loved the band's sarcastic humor, superior musicianship and clever cover tunes; country versions of songs by the Clash, Black Flag and Sonic Youth, as well as a faithful version of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive," at once confounded and delighted audiences.

In 1986, by the time they had released their first major-label effort for Virgin, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, trouble was brewing. "I came back after we'd taken a month off," recalls Segel. "David looked at me and said, 'I can't work with you anymore.' He told the rest of the band, 'He's out, or we break up the band,' and the rest of the band was thinking, 'We'd like to keep our jobs.' And I'm saying, 'I'd like to stay in the band.'"

He's got the eye of Fatima: Cracker's David Lowery (second from right) revisits his roots with Camper Van Beethoven on a new album and tour.
He's got the eye of Fatima: Cracker's David Lowery (second from right) revisits his roots with Camper Van Beethoven on a new album and tour.

"But there was no compromise offered," adds Krummenacher.

And by the time the band's swan song, the tragically beautiful Key Lime Pie, was released in 1989, tensions between Lowery and Krummenacher had also reached a fever pitch. "I left because Camper had run its course for me," says Krummenacher. "But the band wasn't functioning very well, anyway. The family had kind of broken down. David, I think, was in a very bad place, too. I think if we had put more effort into it, we could've worked things out, but we didn't, and a lot of that was because I didn't want to. I was coming out at the time, and I was in a head space where I needed to go and be me, away from the band. Because I'd had this musical alliance with Greg and Chris that was working -- and I think they were tired of the tension, too -- it was easier for us to go off and do our thing. The irony is that we were writing a lot of songs; there was really good music going on at the time. Going back and listening to those live tapes, the band was absolutely at the height of its power, without question. But I was just miserable."

Segel and Krummenacher didn't speak for a year or so after Krummenacher's departure. But for the last eight years they've collaborated on their Magnetic label, releasing records under the name Dent and other aliases, and working independently on solo offerings, including Krummenacher's St. John's Mercy and Segel's Jack and Jill. Following the Cracker dates, the pair will reunite with their old pal Eugene Chadbourne for some acoustic Camper Van Chadbourne dates; a live album, The Revenge of Camper Van Chadbourne, was released late last year. Lowery has Cracker, and a couple of years ago he reignited his Pitch-a-Tent label, which has released recordings by Kitty Snyder, Lauren Hoffman and Koester, among others. He's also done production for obscure talents such as Germany's F.S.K. and some mainstream acts, among them Joan Osborne and Counting Crows.

"I only wish that having a career and having a legacy didn't come along with so many expectations from other people," says Lowery. "I have a hard time dealing with that after sixteen years. I think that's what people like Adam Duritz and Eddie Vedder were really freaking out on. Both those guys were really freaking out on fame and stuff like that, but it's not really that -- it's the expectations. Being famous is kinda fun except for the stalkers and Camden Joy."

Lowery's last reference is to the author of The Last Rock Star Book Or: Liz Phair, A Rant and the forthcoming novel Boy Island. Joy (né Tom Adelman) is a former music journalist who gathered his facts for Boy Island while covering Camper's breakup for the L.A. Reader in 1991; he also toured with Cracker as a journalist and wrote an unpublished biography of Camper. In Boy Island, Joy tells the story of a musician struggling with sexuality issues while on tour with "David Lowery" in a post-Camper milieu, with the Gulf War as a historical backdrop. Lowery, Krummenacher, Lowery's Cracker bandmate Johnny Hickman, Lisher, Immergluck and Segel's replacement, Morgan Fichter, all get named in the book.

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