Last week, January 28th to February 4th 2013, I was the “guest editor” for Magnet Magazine online. Basically this meant that I wrote a series of editorials about whatever things I wanted to. They had reviewed the new Camper Van Beethoven album “La Costa Perdida”, which came out on Jan. 22nd, and interviewed David Lowery.
They left out one of them, (which is a drag) and it is included at the end here.
The editorial preface was this:
La Costa Perdida (429) kicks off Camper Van Beethoven’s 30th-anniversary year amidst an orchestrated (if deserving) surge in recognition for the group—everything from Paul Rudd donning a vintage Camper concert tee in the film This Is 40 to glowing quotes from members of R.E.M. and the Meat Puppets. The LP is CVB’s first album since 2004’s New Roman Timesand was mostly recorded at multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel’s Oakland home studio a year prior to his move to Sweden. “The process was similar, perhaps, to the recording of Camper’s third album, in that we could experiment and had time to work on things,” says Segel. “The first two CVB albums were recorded in a weekend.” Segel will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our brand new feature on the band.
Now, it’s not exactly true that “La Costa Perdida” was recorded at my house, we actually recorded mostly in actual studios! Some basics at Myles Boisen’s Guerrilla Recording and some at Sharkbite, both also in Oakland. We did initially work at my house on the acoustic versions, and I did my overdubs there, but we also did overdubs at Jason Carmer’s studio and everybody at their respective houses also.
Also, our first two albums took two weekends, each.
Anyway, here are all of the editorials, in order.
From The Desk Of Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel: Being A Band For So Long That You Actually Learn How To Play
Camper Van Beethoven is 30 years old this year. That’s unbelievable, in so many ways! While we weren’t a band (at least not together) for most of the ’90s, we’ve actually been back together for longer than we were a band in the ’80s. Most of us played in other bands before CVB, of course, in high school and in college, but CVB formed while we were in college at UCSC, and we started touring immediately thereafter. I would say that any band can rehearse the shit out of some piece of music, but what you learn by performing it is worth 10 or more rehearsals.
So CVB disbanded (dissolving “like a urinal cake”) in 1990, and David Lowery formed Cracker, who played non-stop throughout the decade. Victor Krummenacher, Greg Lisher, Chris Pedersen and David Immerglück still had their “side project,” the Monks Of Doom, which played and toured until the mid-’90s, when Crispy moved to Australia, Immy started played with John Hiatt and then the Counting Crows, and Victor started his own band(s). I fronted my own bands Hieronymus Firebrain and Jack & Jill (and my own name, which is Jonathan Segel) and played the utility musician for Granfaloon Bus, Dieselhed, Clyde Wrenn and Sparklehorse. The first signs of Camper actually playing together again were in the late ’90s, when we’d sit in with Cracker for some CVB tunes.
When we finally decided to “be a band” again and actually do a show as Camper Van Beethoven proper, we got together at a rehearsal studio in New York in preparation to do a couple nights at the Knitting Factory. We just made a list of every song on every record and tried to play them. There was no way to remember all the songs, at least not in your head, but if we let the old muscle memory control it, we could actually get through most of them. But what struck me most about these rehearsals (and we’re not a band big on rehearsing) was that as I looked around the space I realized that I knew how everybody played. These were the people that we learned how to play in band with. And 10 years down the road, we all came back to it with new perspectives and a decade more technical ability, but we still played like ourselves, and I could recognize it and be comfortable with it.
Now, almost another whole decade later, we’re still getting better at playing our instruments and at playing in the band. It’s now striking me as such a funny thing that people are so into the latest band of 20-year-olds to hit the scene, when the guys that can actually play are the old dudes who’ve kept at it for so long. I honestly wonder when I hear new bands how many of these guys will still be playing in 20, 30, 40 years.
It’s not just the technique, though that can be obvious as well, but the idea of playing together. I certainly feel like I’ve gotten better as a musician (though I’d still give it another 10 or 20 years before I’d say I’m good at playing the violin), but more than that, I feel like we’re all better at playing together. For example, Camper played a bunch with Yo La Tengo back in the 1980s, and then they continued. I saw them several times over that past number of years, and then a couple years back I sat in with them for a show in San Francisco. Damn they were good. They just get better.
Even Led Zeppelin showed that at the O2.
So when Camper got together to sit around in my living room—with instruments—in Oakland (before I left) to write what became La Costa Perdida, we were already so comfortable with how to play together, that we managed to add, subtract, multiply and divide musical ideas so efficiently that we wrote more music than we needed to make a new record. We might make another one! This was actually a lot of fun!
I moved to Sweden last summer. This was brought on by a combination of forces, number one being a Swedish wife and now a half-Swedish daughter, but having the daughter and still trying to live in California precipitated a tsunami of financial misfortune—first, my wife wasn’t working in order to take care of the baby, so it became difficult to afford the daily expenses with my $20/hour job at Pandora, and then they fired me (more on this all later), which resulted in us short-selling our house and leaving town. Big loss for us, money wise.
So I’m in Sweden. As with most Americans, I don’t know a hell of a lot about Swedish music (and I don’t like Abba, I’m sorry to say.) I did know about Dungen, which was a good start, and somehow found my way to some other recent prog-rock type bands like Gösta Berlings Saga, an incredible instrumental band who have three albums out so far.
By luck, there was a festival in a small town nearby my wife’s family’s sommarstuga (the cabin that everybody has out in the woods to go to in the summer) at which Gösta Berlings Saga played last July. By further luck, a man selling records at this tiny festival happened to be Stefan Dimle, who runs the label Mellotronen, which is a reissue label with a huge catalog of old recordings reissued on CD and LP. Check the site out; it’s amazing what’s there. He used to run a record store in Stockholm, too, sadly gone now, but now he’s doing such things as aMellotronen-band based cruise! They had the first rock boat to Riga this past fall.
Anyhow, I was able to ask him about music and where to start with the Swedish rock and “progg” scene, and he has guided me well. So I started at the beginning, with Mecki Mark Men, from way back in 1967 or so (shockingly Hendrix-y vocals, sort of early Mothers Of Invention music) and went from there to Älgarnas Trädgård, Hansson & Karlsson (remember that Lord Of The Rings record by Bo Hansson? Take a new listen to that!) and November (who are said to be the original Scandinavian metal bandl they were sort of like Blue Cheer) and to Träd, Gras Och Stenar. There are so many bands, so much excellent music, more than I can list.
So, as the prog rock developed in the 1970s, the bands here was all political, socialist-political, much more like Henry Cow than Genesis. And bands like Nationalteatern also had members who were responsible for a great deal of children’s music and television! The music and the message were all pretty amazing.
Obviously the ’80s brought out the bands like Europe, who actually started as more of a metal band (wtf happened there?), but meanwhile the undercurrent of folk prog kept at it (Swedish folk music is pretty rocking), and even into the ’90s there were bands like Änglagård, and I’d even include Garmarna, though they are mostly folk-based.
And in the past decade there are more musicians coming out of the prog-rock closet. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not just musical style that determines “progg” here, it’s also politicization. For example, I turned on Radical.fm and set the sliders to only Swedish Progg, and got Doktor Kosmos, whom I love also, but I wouldn’t consider them musically “prog rock,” so much as political pop.
So here’s another interesting thing: The old dudes are still at it. At the festival I mentioned earlier, Träd, Gras Och Stenar were supposed to play, too, but one of them died. He was probably about 70. Doing a little post facto research, I found out that not only were they still making records, but that even Reine Fiske (guitarist from Dungen) had been playing with them. I got their last record, Hemlösa Katter (Homeless Cats), and … wow. Talk about a band of guys who’ve been playing together a long time, and I don’t mean that they’re tight. They are incredibly loose, this is some of the spaciest echo-laden weirdness I have even had the pleasure to listen to. It’s amazing.
And then Trettioåriga Kriget are still at it (a true 30-years war!) They’re on the Mellocruise next year, as is Opeth. Plus I just found out about a new band called Goat. They sound like Amon Düül II, a bit. From up north. Which means they were weird to begin with.
Camper Van Beethoven reads books. Yes, it’s true. In a typical day’s long drive between shows, you would find everybody in the van either working on their computer or reading a book. (Except the drummer, who would have his tongue hanging out and head out the window! Just kidding, Frank!) It’s funny when we rent a van from a band van-rental company and we have to have them take out the video-game crap. Honestly, do all you people play video games all the time.
What a waste of time, you could be reading a book! (And no, this isn’t cuz we’re old, we’ve always been this way.)
So, in writing this, I am realizing that most of the band reads non-fiction. Is that weird? David is a mathematician by training and now is teaching music business at the University of Georgia, so I can forgive him his Taleb or whomever (David’s into Chris Ruen’s Freeloading right now, apropos of this and other entries here, though he also claims to read Neal Stephenson’s novels), and Victor is an art director for Wired, so he’s gotta keep up on something (W.W. II history?), but even Greg and Frank seem to be into bios or history books. Huh.
Anyway, I read fiction. I love fiction. I love science fiction also, and I like a bunch of the new crop of England/Scotland writers, for example (Reynolds, Stross, Hamilton, Banks, etc.), but my real favorites are the modern writers who have some effortless magical realism to their fiction like Murakami, David Mitchell, Steve Erickson and, of course, David Foster Wallace.
DFW was about my age, a year older I think, and he wrote books that make me feel like nobody could ever write a book so perfectly as he could, and they certainly discourage me from ever trying. I’ve been an intense fan of DFW since a friend gave me Infinite Jest thinking I may dig it. Well, hell, he wrote that when he was in his 30s? And he killed himself in 2008 before The Pale King was even done. And it’s still the most amazing book I’ve read this year.
He left the manuscript as it stood in piles for his editor to make with what he could. It’s not really about something so much as that it takes place somewhere. It takes place in an IRS facility in about 1983, in Illinois. The characters are accountants. There is nothing exciting about the people, places or things involved in this book. And yet, in the bleakest, most boring of settings, DFW gleans a gripping book, perfectly written, perfectly constructed chapters (which may or may not follow one another), a level of detail that that find beauty in minutiae. His very sentences illustrate the beauty of language.
I also liked Murakami’s 1Q84, so screw you, haters (e.g. NY Times).
Lest you think I’m a total weirdo (or in spite of, I guess), I would like to say that I love pop music, by which I mean power pop, really. But smart. There’s a lot of it out there, of course, ever since those darn Beatles came to the USA. What’s funny is that people have really attached to the style and honed it and carved it like a jewel. There have been some bands that manage to create gems in nearly every song, like Big Star, XTC, the New Pornographers and maybe even Aimee Mann or MGMT. And yet, still so many unknown to the masses.
I could undoubtably write essays on any of Scott Miller’s bands: Alternate Learning, Game Theory, the Loud Family. In the end I think I like the Loud Family the best, where even he had worked his methods into their potentially quintessential forms. The lyrics are incredible, simultaneously convoluted and base, wordplay that goes beyond wit, beyond merely clever, to intelligent.
Likewise, John Vanderslice really has been incredible, ever since MK Ultra! (The band, I mean.)
Beyond every one of these artists I just mentioned, there are more that are little-known gems. Here’s a few:
1) The High Strung’s Get The Guests
This is a pop trio; incredibly hook-powered songs played simply and surely with a shaky vocal. Some of these songs stick in my head for days, or come back months later.
2) Gleaners’ Blessed
A short-lived band of New Yorkers, very Beatles but in their own special way of course.
3) Dealership’s TV Highway To The Stars
Some Berkeley kids; I think they were undergrads when I saw them play at the Stork Club. Typical of the post-’90s pop, a chick bass player. (Hey, I had one in Jack & Jill.) The songs are sweet and beautiful, with lovely melodic hooks.
4) Cardigans’ Super Extra Gravity
I include this because it wasn’t really out in the states, despite their previous fame. Oh, fickle fortune! It’s actually less pop than their early albums and way more raw. Beautiful recording, great songs.
5) Father Bloopy’s Ginger, Baby
Well, this is a weird one. Somebody gave it to me when I was working at a bookstore in S.F. It’s a guy from South Florida is all I can deduce.
6) In the instrumental world, John Moremen’s Flotation Device shows off his pop skills where he unbelievably plays everything himself! Crazy. He normally sings songs on his own as well, but he also plays with the Orange Peels and Roy Loney!
7) Have you heard Doug Hilsinger and Caroleen Beatty’s ENOrchestra doing all of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy? It’s phenomenal. Doug’s guitar playing and arrangements are sparkling, and Caroleen’s vocals are perfect for a new reading of this album. It’s amazing.
8) Bob Hund: well, anything by them, really.
Bob Hund is awesome. They have been around for 20 years or so, but they sing in Swedish, so nobody gets them outside of Sweden. This is sad, so sad in fact that they made two albums in English under the name Bergman Rock. These are great also. The thing is, when you hear Bob Hund, you’ll realize how much every Swedish band since then that has become famous in the U.S. stole from them. The Hives? That guy sounds like he’s directly trying to copy Thomas Öberg’s delivery, but can’t actually write intelligent lyrics. The Sounds? Well, they think they got their sound from being retro-’80s, but Bob Hund started with this keyboards and guitars. Bob Hund is like a modern Monochrome Set, but rougher, in a post-Pere Ubu and Pixies sort of way. They are a very eccentric pop band. Every person who listens to rock music should know this band.
When I was growing up, my brother and I decided to split up the artists whose records we collected so we wouldn’t have to duplicate things, so I got the Beatles (I started first) and he got the Beach Boys, etc. We were pretty diligent, and got lots of records throughout the 1970s. To be honest, I was never much into the early Beach Boys, and despite indie rock’s overwhelming obsession with Brian Wilson and every year some new band rediscovers Pet Sounds and needs to be the new Beach Boys in homage, I actually don’t think it’s all that great. I mean the lyrics are silly. The arrangements and recording are cool. But it’s not enough. I’m also not super into the old barbershop vocal arrangements.
Anyway, the Beach Boys did grow up (and then grew old) and along the way made it into the ’70s. Surf’s Up was a pretty bold statement by a surf band (indeed admitting that the surf scene was up.) But what got my attention was Holland. (Also attributed to Carl And The Passions, as the band was in the process of losing Brian Wilson.)
Holland was made in 1972, in Holland (hence the title) by Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love, with new members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin from South African band the Flame. And the captain, Daryl Dragon, on keys! They included a weird schizoid story from Brian Wilson as a seven-inch with the package, but it’s fairly uncomfortable to listen to.
Holland, though made in Holland, is about California. Camper’s new CD, La Costa Perdida, is about California, in the same way. We were indeed inspired by this record—not in any sort of literal way; we certainly aren’t trying to sound like it (though we do pay a slight homage to the original band with the overwrought vocals by the Georgia kids the Peach Boys on our song “Northern California Girls,” which all hits the spot, reference wise, for me: people from somewhere else, recording somewhere else, singing about California.)
There are some near-psychedelic moments on Holland, but mostly it’s just pre-funky. I love their new mellow version of “Sail On, Sailor” and the incredible stoner vibe on “Steamboat.” The Big Sur trilogy, with spoken poems, was nearly as scary to me as a child as the Moody Blues’ “Knights In White Satin” (ooh, nightmare music!), but “Trader” and “Funky Pretty” seal the deal for me. “Trader” is a multi-part anti-imperialist jaunt, while “Funky Pretty” has the pre-Captain And Tenille-style keyboard stylings about ’70s astrological love. Amazing.
Camper Van Beethoven played an outdoor love festival in West Marin a few years back, called the Far West Fest; it took place in Love Field near Point Reyes Station. It was a lovely day in the sun, and the weirdos people from the Petaluma brewery called Lagunitas brought us some beer that was labeled with Frank Zappa. We had a long drive home, so most of it had to come with us.
I think their IPA (or DUI-PA as I’ve heard it called) is consistently my favorite ale. I do like Bear Republic’s Racer 5 as well, and some of my favorite Bay Area restaurants serve only Racer 5 for the ale side of things, but still, I always come back to Lagunitas for their IPA, or even the IPA Maximus.
Now, not everyone in Camper drinks! You may think that coming from Cracker in the 1990s everybody would be chugging Maker’s Mark (mixed with Red Bull), but no, some people don’t even drink at all. Well, ok, soda water. Or kombucha. And some people drink Amstel Light (I know, what the fuck?) But I admit it, I like a good bitter ale. I was a bartender in San Francisco for many years back in the 1990s, enough for me to even stop drinking for many years. Back then we had Red Hook, Anderson Valley, Pyramid, Drakes. These are all around still, but it’s gonna be the Lagunitas folks who get my money.
Uh, when I’m in California, anyway. Here in Sweden, beer is like $3 a bottle. I have found one micro-brewery that is amazing, called Oppigårds, and I hear Pang-Pang is good, but you have to go to them to taste it!
Yes, we also watch TV. Lest you think that I’m trying to snob y’all out by bragging about how much Camper Van Beethoven reads books and shit and how we’re all kinds of awesome, I have to say that we all watch a bunch of TV, too. Not so many movies, though, but I think this may simply be more due to lifestyle. (Who can get to the theatre and make it back before the show?) We spend a great deal of touring time traveling by day, then playing the shit outta our instruments and then going to some weird hotel, where we don’t have much brain power left to concentrate on anything. Except TV.
However, TV is getting complicated, too. (So some of us only ever watch Nick At Night.) We had a bus on tour a few years back, and Frank Funaro bought the DVD set of The Wire. We met after every show to watch an episode.
And while there are numerous other shows that people like to watch, for me the only thing that has come close to being as intense as The Wire is Forbrydelsen. (And maybe Inspector George Gently, but that’s just because I dig ’60s period pieces. And it’s BBC, so it’s different anyway.)Forbrydelsen is a Danish crime series that’s incredibly convoluted and character driven, with amazing acting and writing throughout, blending the effects of crime on the families involved, the politicians and police who are there to solve it or obscure it and the social context of the crime itself. I know they now have a U.S. remake, The Killing, but I don’t think I could even try. I tried to watch the U.S. remake of Life On Mars after watching the original U.K. series and couldn’t make it through the first episode.
However, you are going to have to take this advice knowing that it comes from a person who loves his Dr. Who.
Speaking of bands that have been around and back again, Big Dipper made a new record.
Big Dipper was one of those lovely ’80s “alternative” rock bands that Camper used to play with a bunch. This band was a super group of sorts, made from members of the Volcano Suns and the Embarrassment. In fact, my last show with CVB (before getting the boot a few months later) was Halloween 1988, when we dressed in drag and Big Dipper wore diapers and played as Big Diaper.
They subsequently succumbed to the torture of having been signed to a major label and probably broke up because they “owed the company” money and so they couldn’t legally be Big Dipper anymore. Their canon of records on Homestead Records, and even, yes, their Epic Records’ release, Slam, remain as pop masterpieces. I was pleasantly surprised to see a rerelease of their earlier oeuvre come out on Merge Record in 2008, and even more to see that they have a new album called Crashes On The Plutonium Planet. Even my one-and-a-half-year-old likes it.
And speaking of bands being together long enough to actually learn how to play, it’s so obvious in how they play together.
From The Desk Of Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel: Other Things That We’re Listening To, Band-Wise
I just sat in with a local Stockholm band called the Plastic Pals, who have had U.S. associations with such likes as Chris Cacavas and others. Check out their new video below. The band is a very nuggets-y roots/garage rock combo. Cool stuff! Their new album is called Turn Of The Tide.
A couple years back, the day after a Camper show in New York, we had a show at Pianos where my own band played, and then Victor’s band. There was an opening act also, named Sharon Van Etton, and she played solo. She was great. She’s still great!
There’s a new Bobby Womack record produced by Damon Albarn. Who knew that would be so good?
Plus, there’s Toro Y Moi, carrying on the weirdness of the South. And then there’s Japandroids; also Neil Young’s new long songs (but not the shorter ones) and Dirty Three’s latest. And Tame Impala’s new one (but not the single—sorry.)
John Kruth and Jeff Greene have a New York “world-music” outlet called Tribecastan, great for cranking while making pancakes.
Victor claims even Jeff Lynne’s new album of covers is good, but I can’t bring myself to find out.
There’s a thread of Boards Of Canada, Richard Barbieri and even Eno and Harold Budd running through here as well.
And in the old albums, back to Pink Floyd’s Obscured By Clouds and listening to a bunch of Serge Gainsbourg, again. That guy was a grade-A weirdo.
On the doom-metal front, I’d put Indesinence’s Vessels Of Light And Decay on for a cold day. (As with Krallice or Agalloch, most of the doomy guys who make more than 10-minute tracks are OK by me.) To a certain extent, Samothrace: awesome guitars, but I’m still not grooving to the cookie monster.
Aiha Higurashi is still rocking, even after Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her.
We still get more space rock every year from Øresund Space Collective from Denmark, and Greece’s Tuber.
And then there’s Goat’s World Music.
I love the electric guitar. What a great instrument! I mean, I know everybody thinks that since I play violin I must love that, but anybody who’s heard my solo records knows the truth. I’ve been playing the guitar for a longer time, anyway. The electric guitar is the shit. It can be anything, so many tonal possibilities. I remember some years ago Björk saying something about how the electric guitar was a 20th-century instrument that had limited possibilities for the future, and then she went on to use violins and harps and choruses. Whatever! I mean, yes, I like the violin, but no instrument is “timeless” in the sense that it evokes something that is outside of time more than the electric guitar. And yes, we can recognize the tones of the guitar from music in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, maybe even the ’00s (not sure about that … ?), and there are things to love in all of these eras of its development (yes, even the ’80s. I think.) There are so many ways that this instrument can sound nowadays, you can find anything in it.
When I was living in Oakland, our neighbor was a 95-year-old Slavic lady who complained sometimes about me playing the electric guitar, but in an odd way. She said, “When you play the acoustic guitar, you can express yourself, but with the electric guitar, you express only power.” I’m not sure I fully agree, but I have thought a lot about this and have taken it to mean that when I play the electric guitar, I have a power to express what needs to be expressed in a way that the acoustic instruments don’t have. And yes, I know that there is phenomenal beauty in acoustic music that cannot happen when it is amplified, but the addition of some wattage can increase some music beyond just the song. The electric guitar is an experience, in its playing and its being heard. It can even make lame lyrics seem meaningful (cf. most rock music).
A corollary to this is that I like vintage electric guitars. Not that I can really afford them, nor can most musicians. I have put together a couple of old Stratocasters from parts, after my 1971 Strat was stolen in Montreal on our New Roman Times tour in 2004, but to actually buy a ’60s Stratocaster now would be $15-30k. David Kalt from the Chicago Music Exchange told us when we played there last January that the flow of nice old instruments was definitely out of the hands of musicians and into the hands of lawyers and bankers and such. But he let me play a 1961 Stratocaster for the show. (Here, sitting in with Cracker after the CVB performance, and I got to play an even rarer 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard in the vault upstairs.)
I know some people who will always say how dumb it is to venerate old expensive instruments when “they are built the same way out of the same things” or even built better, with more accurate tools nowadays. Unfortunately, for me, this is not my experience! Maybe it is the “worse tools” that forced more variation in the hand-making of the old ones, but also that wood came from forests that don’t exist anymore and had been cut and drying for years. Certainly when Brazilian Rosewood was declared endangered in the late ’60s, Martin guitars never sounded quite the same. And that 1960 Les Paul was from mahogany that was so old and dry that it was not a heavy guitar, despite being a huge one-piece slab of mahogany. Ok, maybe it’s not “worth” the quarter-million dollars that it’s valued at now, but I thought it was a pretty nice guitar.
The Trichordist is a blog I was turned onto by David Lowery, who has been writing a bunch about artists’ rights in the internet economy. There are occasional guest editorials byChris Castle. I actually even wrote one piece for them, mostly about the history of artists’ control over their own economics. But David has really taken this thing by the horns and gone more for the All The President’s Men approach, which is to say, tracing where the money actually goes.
It’s pretty obvious that people do not spend money on music much these days. However, they do spend an awful lot of money on the things that allow them to hear music, like computers, iPods, headphones and, of course, their ISPs and phone companies. And further, it’s become pretty obvious who makes money off of music being available on the internet, being searched for, being streamed, etc.: the advertisers. And most of that comes back to Google.
So why doesn’t any of this income go back to the musicians? Well, greed begets greed, basically. Where there’s money to be had, nobody wants to let go. I think it’s evident that a great deal of musicians aren’t actually in it for the money, rather for the fact that they must be musicians by nature, so these are the first to be taken advantage of. The few that are in it to make money aren’t really making “music” so much, are they? But so many “fans” are so quick to say, “If they were good enough, they’d make money,” or, “If they’d just hustle their butts to advertise themselves, they’d be successful.” This is the same as the “blame the victim” mentality that so many Republicans espoused vis-a-vis rape and its consequences this past year. It’s insane! If the only music that is successful is made by hustlers, it’s probably not what I want to be hearing. And if it were really up to what was “good” or not, we’d be basically upside down with respect to popular music.
I am grateful for the fact that there existed people who fought for artists to be heard within the “evil record companies” in the past. Many people whom I consider to be great musicians are social misfits. I can’t imagine Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, for example, hawking his own wares. And Radiohead had believers at Capitol who kept marketing their early singles after their expiration dates, simply because they thought the music needed to be heard. Without these people, Radiohead could not have developed into the beautiful and odd thing that they became.
The entire pirate-party/anti-copyright brigade comes off as a bunch of teenage boys, in the end; non-empathetic, self-involved and they simply want what they want right now with no consequence. The fact that the “direction of music” is being controlled by these people, e.g. Daniel Ek, is really too bad. The companies that exist now for people to hear music, like Ek’s Spotify, are not about music at all, they are about money. They simply use music as something to use to make the money.
See, for example, Damon Krukowski’s article on Pitchfork also.
Ok, so in the time it’s taken to write these posts, I actually got Chris Ruen‘s book also. This is important shit.
I would like to remind people here that Stewart Brand’s highly quoted statement “Information wants to be free” was the first sentence of a paragraph, the next being, “Information also wants to be expensive.”
In Freeloading, Chris outlines the inherent tension between digital technologies and content in a very tight-yet-entertainingly storied set of three parts. The personal saga outlines the journalist’s intention to wade into the moral and financial dilemma. The book outlines the entire history of the rise and fall of music and business during the past 25 years, to set the stage. But the problems of battling the near-inherent mindset of internet culture are now like battling internet (or any other) bullying: When people have to defend an essentially indefensible position, they resort to pulling the rug out from under any argument by simply saying it’s “whiny” or “lame” and hive mind follows suit. Lars Ulrich was actually on the right side all along, folks, despite his clueless way of trying to deal with it.
If you’ve ever wondered about all of the arguments made so far on all sides of the issue, this book is good place to start, the first section acts as a summary. He covers most of the major players in terms of writing or though on the issues, and the realities of the artists. This is really well-researched, and written in a way that a reader can actually digest all of the points of view.
He casually takes apart the arguments to their fundamentals, and to the realities of what works and what doesn’t, and where the idea of copyright stands. Plus a little investigative journalism into the people or corporations pushing all the ideas.
There are a lot of interviews with various people in the indie music and tech worlds discussing the “dysfunctional decade” of the past 10 years. It’s very enlightening, or should be, for listeners and artists. And he even ends up thinking that things could get better, with a proposed set of ideas.
All in all and extremely readable book on the subject, one that all music makers and listeners should read.
Along with this book, I also highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, on the promise (and lack of fulfillment) of the internet.
Check him out in conversation with David Byrne.
Michael Wertz is an Oakland-based artist who does many different kinds of illustration, but has made great strides in the world of rock art in his layered silk-screen posters and CD covers in the past few years. Camper Van Beethoven has found our image!
Our association with Michael began when I made my 2008 CD, Honey, named after the guitar I lost (it was the start of some heavy guitar-based albums for me), and I managed to get a box of cardboard CD covers that were empty and unused, though they had been printed on a bit already. I met Michael through playing with Big City Orchestra people, and at a show that I was playing with them where we were Daevid Allen’s back-up band, I told Michael about the box of CD covers. We decided to screen print 400 of them, white first, then yellow and blue, and where it overlapped would be green. It was a very successful CD cover, if not a successful CD. ( I think I still have a bunch of copies out of the 400. Hey man, they’re hand printed and numbered! Go for it!) Anyway, then we asked Michael to make posters for the Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker shows that we had been doing between Christmas and New Years.
Now, I can’t count the number of posters he’s done for us. Tons! And CD covers. He did the Camper Van Beethoven Popular Songs Of Great Enduring Strength And Beauty greatest-hits package, he did my recent double-CD set, All Attractions And Apricot Jam, and he not only did the cover for the new CVB album, La Costa Perdida, but did illustrations for each song that appear in the booklet, and is making a calendar out of these illustrations! Man! The guy’s a gem.
He’s also been doing posters and stuff for other bands, and made a couple of children’s books, and now he’s even a professer at the California College of the Arts.
Check him out!
I know that there’s a lot of anti-Pandora sentiment expressed in The Trichordist and other pro-musician’s rights areas that focuses on the royalty rate that they pay. In point of fact, most of the hullabaloo seems to be serving to cloud the fact that only streaming radio online pays performance royalties (in the US, that is … and North Korea and China) and that terrestrial radio doesn’t. Indeed that performance royalty rate is low, and the amount that streaming radio pays to rights holders for broadcast (i.e. BMI/ASCAP/SESAC) is weirdly based on a “percentage of income” and then divided at BMI/ASCAP in mystical ways, so it will never be comparable to terrestrial radio. Pandora is just a focal point of this current argument against IRFA due to Tim Westergren being extremely vocal politically, and the company being monetarily political as well.
Which brings me to a second point about why someone might wonder why I am writing about Pandora: I used to work there and got fired for continuing to “question decisions that had already been made” by the company. In fact, as per usual, I had to continuously speak my conscience, and that was really not what a company of any sort wants, especially, it seems, after they become a publicly traded commodity and are beholden to shareholders to make money, more money. And this even though my job title was “Listener Advocate.” (Actually, this meant that ultimately all that I did was answer emails, despite my background.) And one of the things that Tim, specifically, didn’t want to hear was that since he himself is active politically on behalf of the company, these things make the company politically responsible.
So, Spotify made direct label deals and continues to do so, meaning that at this point you either have negotiators or you take what they offer. The idea that Pandora is arguing is of the statutory rate, a standardized rate.
But beyond royalties, here’s the thing: As far as product goes, Pandora is the best. The recommendation engine outshines any other “radio” algorithm by far, even though it’s been molded to cater to the idiot segment that simply wants middle-of-the-dial FM hits all day long. If you narrow your starting seeds to a specific song or piece or performance, you can find new music that will curl your toes. Spotify simply cannot do that. Last.FM, Rdio and IheartRadio all seem to peter out too soon. Now that I live in the land of Spotify, where we don’t have Pandora, I’m a little bummed. I know lots of people say that they love Spotify, but frankly I am not interested in making playlists, I want radio discovery. Plus I have a lingering distrust of Daniel Ek, which haunts me every time I look for something to listen to on Spotify, I just feel the robbery.
When I lived in Oakland, I would listen to local college radio on my way to and from work, or anytime we were in the car, and KFJC was the best, followed by KALX and KUSF (whose frequency was sold by USF recently!). We were incredibly lucky to have so many good stations; when people visited from out of town and we went for a drive in the car, you could guarantee that you would hear something that would blow their minds. KFJC is phenomenal, similar to WFMU on the East Coast, real free-form radio.
Taking something I heard on KFJC and starting a Pandora station with it was a goldmine. I learned of some great music that I hadn’t found before, and even amazing composers I didn’t know about. Again, people say “oh Pandora’s only got a million songs, while Spotify has 10 times that,” but check it out: First off, a million songs at an average of four minutes is like 66,666 hours, or 2,778 days, about seven-and-a-half years of music. I challenge anyone to listen to all of it. And the key to Pandora is (or was) the genomic matching algorithm, so not every song on every album was analyzed, but what was was done by humans, so the matching isn’t (or wasn’t) strictly based on meta-tagging but on musical traits. Admittedly this will never match the contextualization that a human DJ can use to put completely disparate pieces of music together in a radio set, but it can serve as a matching algorithm that can find new artists for you, and if you’re not a lazy shit, you can go do some research yourself.
This is especially true on Pandora if you aren’t a listener of today’s hits, where the stations will basically only play crap that you could hear anywhere unless you actively avoid it*. It’s sort of sad that Pandora has to cater to this audience to maintain high numbers of listeners. The reality is that the majority of online or terrestrial radio listeners do not want to hear anything that they don’t already know. That’s why terrestrial stations play things so often, so the “what I tell you three times is true” psychology will kick in.
I have had incredible Pandora stations set up for 20th-century classical music, for avant-garde jazz and other improv, for many types of baroque music, etc. I’ve even set up stations on my own songs and found bands or songs that I love, for example the High Strung and Essex Green, not that I sound like either of these bands in any way, but I guess the algorithm thought there was some similarity. I miss Pandora.
*I somewhat proudly admit that while I have read the term “gangnam style” a thousand times, I don’t actually know what it means, nor do I really have any desire to find out.
Several of us in Camper ride or used to ride motorcycles. I don’t have any anymore, but at one point I had a bunch, old Triumphs, Ducatis, BMWs and a Moto Guzzi. I loved that Moto Guzzi V65SP. Victor also had a Moto Guzzi V65SP, a bike that they really only imported into the US in 1984. Coincidentally, when I started playing with Sparklehorse, one thing we bonded over was Moto Guzzis, Mark had some old Ambassadors and Scott Minor had an old Le Mans and some other bikes (I don’t quite remember. He did bring a little Italian single with us on tour once.) We used to rehearse at Mark’s place in central Virginia, and then go riding around on the old country roads. Beautiful.
I started cutting down on bikes in the process of moving from SF to LA, back from LA, and finally to Sweden. I don’t have any anymore, and the last two I had were my BMW R80ST and the Moto Guzzi V65. These were pretty old bikes at the time. I’m not much of a speed demon, ultimately, what I liked about riding motorcycles has more to do with the complete attention you must have, the way the rider feels all of the mechanics and sounds of the machine and internalizes them so as to become part of them. When riding, you aren’t inside a car, you aren’t inside anything. You are outside. You can see and smell the surrounding landscape in a way you can never do in a car. You can get to know your bike in a very visceral way, especially if you are mechanically-minded. As a friend who owned Nortons told me, there are no unreliable British bikes, just riders who can’t make them work. I had a 1966 Triumph T100SC that was my get-around-town bike for years, built and rebuilt.
So, admittedly, my favorite bikes were older, both early 1980s. The BMW R80ST was built after the R80G/S machines won the Paris-Dakar rally, and people started to use the R80G/S machine for adventure touring. The ST model was more street oriented, but basically that just meant a 19″ front wheel instead of 21″. I had the large size tank on this bike, it was amazing for camping, could hold two passengers and gear and get a long ways on any terrain. The Moto Guzzi V65 was a 650cc make of their earlier V50 series, a little stronger, but no bigger. Medium sized. Great for around town and a nice ride to the hills.
Times change and this size of bike is way out of fashion, everything is huge, or fast, or huge and fast. Then with the reinvention of Triumph, they figured out that what people really liked were the old bikes. So they started to make “retro” bikes, essentially styled like the older ones, but made with modern components. Ducati and Moto Guzzi followed suit. A couple years back, Moto Guzzi came out with what they call the V7 Classic, a 750cc bike styled like my old V65… (ok, mine and Victor’s were both the SP model with a bunch of extra body plastic… that we took off. I put a Monza fairing on mine.
If I could afford to have a bike again, I would buy one. I actually ended up a few years ago having to (financially) choose between guitar and motorcycle, and motorcycle lost.
And I haven’t seen BMW come up with a new R80ST, despite their F650.
I like improvised music. It’s interesting to me, in most of its forms, idiomatic or non-idiomatic. I find it incredible when competent musicians can make compositions in real time.
Camper began a relationship with Eugene Chadbourne back in the mid-’80s, and we made several albums together and some tours. Even after the breakup of CVB (that first time), Victor and I continued to play with Eugene for another 10 years or so. Now, we’d had some improv experience in college playing weird art music (I played David Lowery’s fretless bass in one ensemble called EPI, for example), but when we played with Eugene, there was a new sense of limitlessness, and furthermore it could happen within any style of music! Where, for example, Derek Bailey had written about improvisation in terms of playing within the idiom of the music or (the attempt) to play music that was not in an idiom, Eugene starts with a firm basis of all styles of music and takes them elsewhere. We did a tour of Europe in February of 1991, right when the (first) Gulf War started and no other American bands wanted to fly. We played American music, and mostly protest music: country, rock, jazz, folk, etc. But regardless of the stylistic idiom, we took it outside. It was extreme.
Even when we played only acoustically later, the improv could become sound-based. We played a section of Cardew’s Treatise on acoustic guitar, violin and bass. When I went back to Graduate school at Mills College, my professors were Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Fred Frith and, later, Joelle Léandre. I was Fred’s assistant for the contemporary performance ensemble. Needless to say, we were inundated with improvisation of all types, and graphic-based composition, and all points in between. The San Francisco Bay Area has an amazing scene of contemporary musicians, and a great deal of them are amazing improvisers, whether they come from a classical or jazz or rock background, or noise and art. Many shows have people of all backgrounds playing together. Check it out.
Many people dislike improvised music, especially when it is sound based or “non-idiomatic.” (In fact, the idea of non-idiomatic improv that started with the folks in the ’60s rebelling against rigid rules in the classical and jazz worlds has almost become an idiom unto itself. Check out early AMM or Derek Bailey/Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and compare to things people are doing today.) I think it’s just a matter of how to listen, whether the listener can enjoy each sound in and of itself as much as they can enjoy music that leads you by the nose (ear) to a foregone conclusion. It’s a very “in the moment” type of listening, perhaps, and definitely trying to free yourself from the passage of time and enjoying sound as it happens is not easy. And beyond that, when the players create a composition within this type of sound field, the listener must be in two time frames at once.
Similarly, of course, not many people like the classical avant-garde of the 20th century. I totally love it. Maybe this is also a form of listening. I read a column recently by another composer who wrote that atonal music sounded tonal; even the subway sounds sounded tonal to him. I understand. It’s all music.
I like sound-art, but I also like improvisation in rock music. I missed it greatly in the ’80s, when people thought guitar solos weren’t cool because they represented the big rock scene that happened in the ’70s, and the only bands doing guitar solos were metal bands who composed them very carefully. I mean Led Zeppelin was something special, if only for the fact that they improvised live and lengthily. Camper usually has some framework to improvise in, if we have enough time in concert, and we have taken to using Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive as the head.
When I was recording the last couple of tracks for All Attractions, we had an afternoon left in the studio, so we improvised. It became the bonus disc, Apricot Jam, where I took the improvised rock band recording and added a few overdubs and such. The last few shows I’ve done on my own have just been improvised. And people seemed to like it.
There’s a band I like from Copenhagen called Øresund Space Collective, whom I just found out improvise their stuff entirely. It’s spacey rock music. Really nice. I don’t know of many more rock bands that are all improv; I think I might like ones that aren’t doctrinal about it, but improvise within their own songs like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix did. Jazz players have been doing this the whole time! And I mean guys who can actually play, not like so many of those neo-psychedelic bands that just drip reverb on the mix to sound ’60s when there’s no substance to the music to begin with. (I’m talking to you, San Francisco.)
And here’s the *one* that they cut!
CVB’s other music
I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t talk about the other things we do outside of Camper Van Beethoven. I know there’s a stigma of being in a band and doing “solo projects” or “side projects” but fuck that, we’re old enough and have had our own lives without CVB enough to at least somewhat legitimize our “other music”, even if you’ll never see it as anything other than our side projects. I’d guess that initially Cracker was David’s first side project, but really since that band became quite famous and so time consuming that it has as much influence on what Camper does as Camper itself, I would say that the opposite is true now, that Camper is in fact David’s “side project”. In reality, however, you can see how this entire concept of ‘main’ or ‘side’ sort of fails to describe the actual situation; it seems that economics are the real definition of one or the other. As far as actual side projects, David Lowery has been producing a number of bands and I would even go so far as to say that the initial incarnations of Sparklehorse may have been side projects of his. Now what, his UGA lectures? Well, as if the guy could get busier, he actually made a “solo” album last year called “The Palace Guards”. It is neither Cracker nor Camper, it’s pure Lowery.
As I mentioned before, Victor, Chris, Greg and David Immerglück did have the Monks of Doom, which started in 1986, and while the band stopped in 1996 or so, they have reunited several times and made one more CD of covers and another of new material remains unfinished. In the meantime, Victor Krummenacher has had a fairly illustrious career as a singer/songwriter, and has made eight albums under his own name and another couple with Alison Faith Levy as McCabe and Mrs Miller. See his site: http://www.victorkrummenacher.com
Victor, like everyone in the band, plays guitar on his own, in his case this instead of bass. He’s taught himself to be a fine fingerpicker even. His “solo career” really owes little to CVB, in that he is pursuing his own path being a singer-songwriter in the long history of such, it’s not necessarily just rock music, he’s skirting the traditional and roots line. He has worked quite a bit with Bruce Kaphan as a producer and arranger for many of his albums, and plays currently with some of the most intense rhythm sections I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, like Paul Olguin on bass and John Hanes on drums.
Chris Pedersen and family moved to Australia way back in the 90s, though he still occasionally comes back to the US to play with CVB or the Monks. He plays in a few projects in Australia, lucky them, one such is called Daktari.
David Immerglück has been a wanted studio and live musician for years, he’s sat in with many bands, in fact he started with the Counting Crows as a studio member, only becoming full time a dozen years ago. Despite his playing in a ton of bands, he rarely makes his own music outside of them. A recent record with James Maddock (Jimmy/Immy) is out now. He even has a website devoted to him: http://gimmyimmy.com
Chris Molla, who was in Camper from the beginning and managed to stay in it through 1986 or so, continued to make music and is currently teaching an Orff-based children’s music style and making music for children.
Greg Lisher, after the Monks of Doom, continues to play off and on with Victor in his various ensembles, but he has also completed two CDs of songs and is just about done with a 3rd of entirely instrumental music.
While Johnny Hickman isn’t technically in Camper, he is in Cracker, and has been playing with David and some of these guys since the very beginning (of time). He’s made only a few albums by himself, but the latest came out only a few months ago and it’s astonishingly good. “Tilting”, it’s called. http://johnnyhickman.com
Even Frank Funaro records on his own, in fits and starts, and says that one day he will actually release some sort of record, he claims it’s country music!
I don’t even know where to start with my stuff. I have had many musical lives outside of CVB, starting way back when I made my first “solo album” in 1988, Storytelling. You can find most of the story here: http://www.jonathansegel.com or the music at http://music.jsegel.com. To sum it up, there’s a thread of rock music that starts with Storytelling, goes through Hieronymus Firebrain and Jack & Jill to more records under my own name (Scissors and Paper, Edgy Not Antsy, Honey), and ends up this year with a 300-CD edition of “All Attractions” (songs) and “Apricot Jam” (improvised rock jams). In between, you’ll find a bunch of film scores, dance company music, improvised acoustic and electronic music, both idiomatic and non-idiomatic, both avant-garde and more traditional. Victor and I started a label in 1993 called Magnetic, where we put out mostly our own music, it’s now defunct. Most of what I have done is either actually “released” on this label or pseudo-released on this label. It was a vanity label, to be sure, but it allowed me to finish most of these projects, and it tried vainly to give legitimacy to the “side project” stigma of all of this music. Nowadays, of course, I can’t give the stuff away. I ended up throwing out most of the remaining stock of CDs when I moved to Sweden. On my website you can get a lot of it in digital form for “pay what you will”, plus there’s some recent improv shows entirely up on youtube…
To start somewhere, I would suggest to start with recent releases and go backwards. The musicians in our band are on a creative roll right now: we each have made our own records while we made the recent Camper album, and there’s no overlap, it’s all completely different and dare I say: good. It’s all pretty great music. We’re riding a wave.