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Happier Campers

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

"The band, by all appearances, at least from what people tell me, is vastly influential, but I have no paycheck to show for it," says former Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher. "Not one."

Welcome to the world of cult rock. In the mid-1980s, Camper was perhaps the most "important" college-rock band in the days before alternative music had a name; at that point, Hsker D was near a breakup and the Replacements were ceasing to be relevant. Camper Van Beethoven topped critics' polls, released records on its own Pitch-a-Tent label, and toured with a then-potent role model for young bands, R.E.M. But a less-than-amicable split in 1990 forced the Campers into separate corners. Frontman David Lowery left northern California for Richmond, Virginia, to form Cracker. Krummenacher, with original violinist Jonathan Segel, pursued various local projects, with a lesser degree of financial success.

But in December 1999, Krummenacher and Segel joined Lowery in Richmond to complete tracks for a forthcoming archival release, Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, available soon through Pitch-a-Tent and its Web site. The initial call came from Lowery, who asked Krummenacher and Segel if they would be interested in selling the material released on the pair's own label, Magnetic, through Pitch-a-Tent so that the Camper catalogue, offshoots, and related projects could be available on one easy-to-navigate site. (In the long term, the band hopes to regain the rights to its own recorded material, some of which is still in the hands of EMI, Camper's last distributor.) And as Lowery was simultaneously readying a two-disc compilation of Cracker hits, rarities and new material, titled Garage D'or, for forthcoming release, he realized he needed a band to take the show on the road.

"Cracker has done these sort of Rolling Blunder Revues with Joan Osborne and Adam Duritz," explains Lowery from his studio. "We play some of their songs, they play one of our songs, they do one of our songs, they do a duet. So we thought, 'Why don't we do it again with Victor and Jonathan?' It's basically a Cracker show. I would not call it a Camper reunion -- we all sort of shrink back from that."

Call it what you will, but Krummenacher will fill in on bass with Lowery's band, Segel will add a song or two, and Krummenacher and Segel will open the shows with their old guitarist Greg Lisher, whom they describe as the reclusive Syd Barrett of Camper. The whole crew will also join Lowery and his band to play a few songs from the Camper songbook.

"We had a party the night before we were going to put all that stuff together [for the new record] here at the studio, and somehow a rumor got started that me, Victor, and Jonathan were going to play a reunion," says Lowery. "The thing was, we weren't planning to play, and the party was ultimately shut down by the police and fire departments. But we'd been in the basement rehearsing songs, thinking we could prevent a riot. We started talking about it."

Time, explains Krummenacher, is the other great facilitator for a new beginning, or what therapists might describe as an opportunity for closure to a bad ending. "I certainly take responsibility for the fact that my walking probably made the band break up," says Krummenacher, who decamped in the middle of a European tour in 1990.

"So you're responsible for Cracker!" says Segel. Conspiratorial sniggers aside, Krummenacher and Segel say they're fans of Lowery's work, in particular Cracker's 1996 album The Golden Age, which they call "brilliant." They like what they've heard of the new material, too, which harks back a bit to the orchestral and experimental days of Camper's denouement; in fact, they know of one Camper song that's resurfaced for the new Cracker recordings.

"One of the things I like about Camper is that the legacy is so muddled and completely confusing," says Krummenacher. "People say things like, 'I saw you in 1992 when I was a senior in high school,' and I tell them we broke up in 1990. Or they say, 'I saw the Monks of Doom -- that was David Lowery's band after Camper broke up,'" referring to Krummenacher's jazz/experimental/prog-rock band which claimed Krummenacher, Campers Greg Lisher and Chris Pedersen and sideman David Immergluck as members. "Nobody knows the history unless they're intimately tied to us, and even then it's completely confusing, because we're all such motherfuckers, we all have completely different ideas about what actually occurred," says Krummenacher. "I'm kind of at a point where I think that's fine."

"Lineage," "legacy" and "family" are words that crop up repeatedly when the former Campers address the band's history. Like the Grateful Dead (to whom they were sometimes compared for their folk-based melodies smershed with dripping psychedelia; both bands' fans favored the twirling dance), the group has a mixed-up family tree. Krummenacher and Lowery began making music together around Riverside and Redlands, California, in the summer of 1983 at Lowery's parents' house. Lowery had been in a band called Box of Laffs with his boyhood pals Pedersen and Chris Molla, who would join Camper when the group relocated to Santa Cruz and picked up Lisher and Segel.

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.'"

"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 Rantand 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.

"When I did all the interviews with Tom Adelman when he was writing a Camper book, one of the things that pissed me off was having been written out of history," says Segel. "I don't believe that rewritten history is not real history. Even though it's a fictionalized novel, it is real. That's why I think Tom's a fuckin' asshole for doing that in that book. Because he doesn't realize the extent to which he's creating a factual past by fictionalizing something that was actually a real story. Ten years after talking to him about that, he did it again."

In defense, Joy, who lives on the East Coast, says, "I was trying to create a context where this stuff could be understood thirty to forty years from now, when all the references had fallen away. To me, that couldn't just be a fact-finding mission. It had to be told in a setting that took liberties. The history isn't fictionalized; it's a fictionalized perspective. I had this raw material...all the stuff about them is true. And all the stuff about Lowery and Hickman is true."

"I just sent an e-mail to the publisher," says Lowery. "It's really fiction. To tell you the truth, up until about halfway through the book, to me it was really funny, and I kept forgetting that it was sorta me in there, a fictionalized me. The thing that disturbs me is, he wanted to get to the point where rock journalism and stalking his favorites were mixed together."

Such a postmodern approach is not entirely alien to the Campers, particularly given the way in which they've handled their own work for the upcoming album. "I feel this new material is somewhere between making music and archiving things," says Lowery. "It's very modern and very 'of the age.' It's not post-rock; it might be pre-rock."

"It's a very postmodern way of dealing with the legacy," says Krummenacher. "We went back and took old tapes and actively screwed with them. A lot of the live stuff had Morgan playing and Jonathan manipulating the tapes, so it was kind of a cool revenge."

The Camper family circle now remains only slightly broken: Fichter was last heard from on the front lines of the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle; Immergluck, who tours with Counting Crows, will appear when he can; former and itinerant member Molla and longtime drummer Pedersen (who lives in Australia) will not be around for this model of the Camper Van, which officially started rehearsals last week in the California desert, a stone's throw from where it began. Krummenacher and Segel say the set list includes songs from throughout Camper's history, from "Skinheads" to "Eye of Fatima."

"David gave me twenty Cracker songs to learn, and I know ten more, so we've got this huge set list to learn," says Krummenacher. "Once we get going, I think that's the idea, to just go out there."

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