Camper Van Beethoven
True to the freewheeling, joyfully schizophrenic swirl of rock, punk, ska, folk, world music and (insert next genre-bending style here) that has defined the Camper Van Beethoven aesthetic since the enduring lineup took shape circa mid-80s, La Costa Perdida, their debut on 429 Records and first recording since New Roman Times in 2004, brings a listener into the strange world of the northern California coast above San Francisco.
“I’ve played with a lot of other bands in between Camper Van Beethoven tours and recordings,” says Victor Krummenacher, “but there’s never the power, energy or camaraderie with anyone else that I have felt with these guys. There’s just something about playing with the guys you came up with that is unique, unpredictable and exciting at the same time. It’s always very intuitive with us, almost like we can read each other’s minds and know David’s harmonic facility so well that we instinctively know where the song is going to go.”
To which David Lowery adds, “All bands have strengths and weaknesses, and for us, often times, they are the same things. We always have so many musical ideas all going at once, and there’s always another melody playing as I’m singing. That’s a challenge, just knowing how to simplify, but I think we do that on La Costa Perdida better than any previous recording. I love the fact that it’s so concise stylistically and thematically consistent throughout.”
They can agree that, whether by design or not, the set of nine vocals and a single instrumental (the trippy, psychedelic jam “Aged In Wood”), shapes up as their California rock project. It’s every bit a celebration of Northern California (where the founding members, including Lowery and bassist Victor Krummenacher, first became musically active as students at UC Santa Cruz), anchored by their distinctive, eclectic sound and the visionary lyrics of frontman/founder David Lowery.
Sometimes those references are direct, as in the dreamy opening harmonies on “Northern California Girls” or the trippy, electric guitar driven declaration that they’re “Too High For the Love In.” The folksy title track “La Costa Perdida” – is a Norteno -flavored ode to Lost Coast of California, a mostly undeveloped section of the California North Coast in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. Jonathan Segel, who sweetens this album and all previous Camper projects with violin, guitar, mandolin and organ, says, “It’s as much a mythological idea of the Lost Coast as a real geographical place, the idea that the society of this region is separate from regular society.” All of this adds to the frolicsome mystique that’s been a band trademark since their debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory, which featured their first successful single “Take The Skinheads Bowling.”
Lowery says that it was a serendipitous concert rainout in Big Sur that led them to gather in the living room at the Oakland home of Segel and start writing together. “Camper got an odd offer to play a few shows in an outdoor setting of the Henry Miller Library, in June 2011,” says the Richmond, Virginia based singer, who has also led the more mainstream rock band Cracker (which often tours with CVB) since 1991. “It never rains in that area, and when we had to postpone the shows a week, instead of scattering, going home and returning, we thought this would be a great time to start writing our next album. Jonathan has a ton of great instruments, we all have laptops and we basically wrote the record in a week. Between that and a later session a few weeks later, we emerged with almost two albums worth of material, some real upbeat, hard rocking and traditional punk rock songs.”
“Actually,” lead guitarist Greg Lisher adds, “the previous October, I had flown to Richmond to work with David, and over the course of eight days we exchanged a lot of great ideas and wrote some songs for future potential development. One of the songs that evolved to make the cut on La Costa Perdida was ‘Summer Days,’ which started with my chord progressions before he and I worked on the melody. We wrote a lot more songs at Jonathan’s place, and the coolest part of the experience was that it was the most organic Camper record ever. Back 20 years ago, David would essentially bring in material and we would write all our parts to what he had done. This time, most of the songs began with someone playing a chord progression and the others riffing off that until the melodies and harmonies took shape.”
Segel can’t pinpoint the exact time sequence of the postponement and writing sessions, but recalls that he and Krummenacher were already vibing on some new music outside the CVB experience ( in the two decades after CBV’s first break up in 1990, the two ran their own label Magnetic). “It was great that no one had to be anywhere else in the country that week, and we not only wrote many songs, but also recorded in my living room, doing many takes of the songs using acoustic guitar, violin, bass and electric guitar. While the Northern Cal idea was David’s, the vibe of many of the songs reminded me of the classic (1973) Beach Boys album Holland. As always, we came to these sessions from our own separate musical worlds, bringing different elements naturally, without any conscious thought.”
At last, it’s Krummenacher’s turn to chime in: “The coolest part of La Costa Perdida was the fact that everything flowed from the fact that these distinctive musicians and personalities sat in the living room. You wait for that first spark, and that moment when something starts and starts coming to life is the most honest, enjoyable element. With us, we just settle right back into that place where we’re getting along and communicating and the music flows. We literally worked on six ideas each per day. This was a very fertile time. Musically, I believe La Costa Perdida is our most mature, grown up recording to date. Traditionally, Camper has always maintained a nervous edge partially because we grew up in punk rock, like we were a punk band at heart that kept reinventing itself. Now we’ve got this organic feeling and our music sounds like four people are writing it. The songs have great energy, but we’re more relaxed and stately, and a lot more confident. The songwriting here has elements of vintage Camper along with grown up Camper.”
Though much of the tracking was done via Segel’s home studio setup (known as The Magnetic Satellite), further sessions were done at Electric Studio in Berkeley and Sharkbite Studios in Oakland. The bulk of the mixing was done by Drew Vandenberg and the band at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, Georgia, Lowery’s second home base. Though Frank Funaro is CVB’s live drummer for the handful of U.S. touring spurts that the band does between outside projects every year, the skins on La Costa Perdida were played by Michael Urbano, an associate of Segel’s who lives in Oakland.
Camper Van Beethoven paints its musical map of Northern California portrait with a lot of different hues and textures, starting with the Americana flavored opening singalong “Come Down The Coast.” After the anthemic, trip of “Too High For The Love In,” they submerge into a dark brooding realm before emerging into a hypnotic optimistic light on the garage rocker “You Got To Roll.” “Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out” offers a sweet hodgepodge of almost everything CVB is about: ethereal vocals, booming drums, scorching distorted guitars, a soaring exotic violin, trippy ambience and psychedelic spontaneity.
“Peaches in the Summertime” has a Middle Eastern/Turkish melody (Lowery’s take, anyway) and borrows its late refrain from the 18th Century folk song “Shady Grove.” “Northern California Girls” showcases the colorful vocal-guitar dialogue between Lowery and Lisher. “Summer Days” is perhaps the most poetic tune on La Costa Perdida–the lyrics empowered by an instrumental jam featuring guitar, violin, booming drums and symphonic magic. It touches on the idea of giving up one’s humanity to live and work in a bustling city. The dusty, galloping, Spanish folk-inflected title track is followed by the wild, distorted and spacey sonic experiment “Aged In Wood” (an instrumental that doesn’t say anything in particular, yet still makes a statement). The set wraps with the sweeping, symphonic “Love For All Time,” a tune that each member of CVB calls a favorite for obvious reasons. Opening with lush sea sounds, the piece is one Lowery calls “the most complex on the record, a love song infused with the mythology of the stars and Greek and Roman gods with a Tom Waits-type vocal that fits perfectly.” Segel and his wife Sanna do the backing vocals on this majestic closer.
Camper Van Beethoven’s history begins in the mid-80s in Santa Cruz, California (up the coast a ways from Big Sur), when David Lowery and Victor Krummenacher formed the band, and—after Jonathan Segel joined the group–their jangly and stoned “Take The Skinheads Bowling” became an instant college radio staple. Their 80s discography includes Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985), II & III (1986, the first featuring Greg Lisher), Camper Van Beethoven (1986), Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988) and Key Lime Pie (1989). The band was one of the founders of the indie rock genre and one of the most eclectic bands of all time, known for a variety of folk, rock, punk, and world influences put into a playful blender. Krummenacher and Lisher formed Monks of Doom in the early 90’s and Krummenacher later began a solo career, recording several albums with guests like Dave Alvin. Segel played with Dieselhead, Sparklehorse and fronted his own bands Hieronymus, Firebrain and Jack & Jill, later playing under his own name. Lowery released the solo album The Palace Guards on 429 Records in 2011.