Jonathan Segel and Victor Krummenacher

Chain of Circumstance: Jonathan and Victor remember things past
Hearsay #19 / 1998 / Interview with Pete


"We got everything wrong"

This interview with two pivotal CVB alumni, Victor Krummenacher (left; far left) and Jonathan Segel (right; far left), was conducted as part of a mammoth Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker retrospective.

HEARSAY: Was CVB initially more of a hanging-out club or was it always about playing music?

: David and Chris Molla, Victor and Mark Phillips started hanging out on the porch in Redlands, playing with David McDaniel and Bill McDonald in The Estonian Gauchos or Sitting Duck which later became Camper Van Beethoven And The Border Patrol. Then they moved the band up to Santa Cruz. I started playing with them in 1983. They were serious about actually rehearsing to do some parties and gigs, David is a very serious sorta person. He was also playing bass in the band Box O'Laffs. It was fairly teleological in that we would rehearse in order to play, but we did hang out a lot.

It was always about playing music, but at first a lot more about hanging out. But we were all so fucking serious we sapped all the fun out of it really quickly. Actually that's not true. Camper was really fun until about 1988. Then it was fun and weird. Too much stupid drama. A bunch of drama queens, all of us. But at first, although we always had arguments, it was a pretty good time. This was before I figured out I was an alcoholic. The party only ended when my body said it did.

What bands did you listen to that made you think, "Man, I gotta get up there and do this!"?

: I got a clock radio in 1968, when I was five, and since I've been an insomniac my whole life I would listen to the radio late at night for hours. So I heard all the stuff they were playing on the pop radio at the time. When I was 11, I'd walk down to the record stores after school 'cos I didn't really have any friends there, and the shop owners would say, 'Hey kid! What ya buying?' I'd be like, ‘Uh, Elton John,' and they'd be like, `Oh, you should really check out this band Queen, or this guy Alice Cooper!' That started me on a long decline! When I was in high school, the band I was in, Burnt Toast, were playing Hendrix, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin covers and writing our own teenage alienation material. Also when I was in high school I was listening to Alternate Learning and then Game Theory, because Scott Miller was in college then. Other people in college at the time were Guy Kaiser from Thin White Rope, Russ Tolman who later formed True West and Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith were in The Suspects.

: Bands that really impressed as far a stage presence were X, Flipper, The Fall. That's just off the top of my head. I was fortunate to grow up at a time when you could see lots of good bands live. Those bands came to mind because of how strong their stage presence was. Flipper were totally obnoxious. The Fall looked like British tourists on acid, and had their backs to the crowd the entire night. John Doe and Exene always looked fucking great. I wanted to be flash and weird at the same time. But we were kind of piss-poor rock stars, I really looked stupid most of the time, but I was a kid. But it was funny, we were a bizarre combination of people referencing a bizarre combination of rock stars we were trying to imitate or destroy. Jonathan was trying to be Jimmy Page, Lowery wanted to be somewhere between some guy in the Chocolate Watch Band and Hank Williams (but never too seriously), and I was trying to be somewhere between Paul Simonon and Paul McCartney. Except we were California kids from the suburbs. We got EVERYTHING wrong.

There was always a sound of (faux?) multi-ethnicity on the records. How many ethno-musicologists were there in CVB?

: When I went to college I separated myself from pop music and listened for two years to only 20th-century classical music, experimental music and ethnic music from Indonesia, Africa and India. That had a lot to do with what happened in Camper. They were already writing these pseudo-ethnic instrumentals, things like Skinhead Stomp which is a Klezmer melody against a Ska backbeat. I was really into these different sorts of musics but of course, 'I'm a white American, I can't play that stuff!' ...but it doesn't matter, because to me, rock music was about absorbing all the influences and sound in order to filter it out through the artistic temperaments of whoever the musicians are. The Kinks, The Beatles, The Stones, they all just incorporated all these different kinds of music they were exposed to and that was what rock music was. So I was kind of surprised when Camper started playing up in San Francisco--when I'm 20 I go up there to play punk shows and the bands would be like, 'what the fuck are you doing?' The other bands would be really loud and obnoxious and we'd come on and do something like Sad Lovers’ Waltz. The audience didn't know what to make of us but they knew that since we were having fun, they would eventually go along with it.

: I never studied music. What a fucking awful thing to earn a degree in. You could never get a job. Jonathan and Chris Molla kind of knew what was going on, because they did study music. Most of the inspiration came from a generally twisted sense of humour we all had, dating back to pre-Camper days when Sitting Duck would play the same kind of faux-ethnic instrumentals. It was a combination of growing up around a lot of TV and the first wave of British new ska (which has always been really popular in California for some bizarre reason). But really it came down to smart kids with good imaginations and no reverence towards anything.

"Benign dictatorship is the most efficient form of government." How did democracy function practically in CVB?

: It didn't function. It more happened. We weren't really a democracy, more of an informal working accident. It was David's songwriting and leadership on top of a bunch of very creative musicians. But you know, I've got a bad attitude. Whether or not I could, I always thought I could do it better. So I revolted. But if you had asked us in 1987 what the governing structure of the band was, you would have gotten a different answer from each of us. David might well have said it was a democracy, with him leading the way, Jonathan might have said it was tyranny. I opt to answer with hindsight and say it was a mess for good or bad. Just another dysfunctional family.

: Democracy equals inefficiency because of the idiot factor. The more human beings trying to make a decision, the idiot factor goes up logarithmically. Imagine trying to get two people up in the morning to find a place to drink coffee, you might be able to do it. Once you get three people it becomes more difficult, and with five people it's impossible. Benign dictatorship is definitely the easiest way to control people because you want them to believe they're doing it for their own good. The best way is to have somebody that people, in the band or the country, trust implicitly.

Like Clinton?

: Mojo Nixon said 10 years ago when they threw Gary Hart out of the Primaries for being caught on his boat with a Playboy model, 'Look, would you rather have a president who's shootin' missiles or shootin' missiles of LOVE?' He's a wise man, Mojo Nixon. Why do I care who the president sleeps with? Maybe he has some arrangement with his wife. It's their own business, jeez! I'd rather have a sexually active President anyway; just look at the Presidents we've had that aren't sexually active they're awful, they do terrible things to other people. People need some form of human intimacy and contact to prove that you’re alive and that you’re living in a body.

Camper lyrics often betray a slightly more than healthy fascination with the intelligence agencies of your government...

: That's just basic paranoia manifesting itself. It's pointed at the US government and the CIA and its offshoots the OSS and the secret government —it's a generational zeitgeist in that the X-Files is based on the same idea. It's obviously been bugging us all for a long time.

Were the traits of CVB indicative of the traits of California? Or were you a band out of time and place?

: We were very California, as far as the mismatched cultural stuff. We really couldn’t have happened anywhere else, that’s for sure. I think we hit the timeless thing by writing really good songs from good places, but we were really born out of a combination of punk rock and suburban culture (don’t let some academic tell you it doesn't exist)… which in Southern California meant people from Arkansas and Oklahoma (David) or Missouri (me) or the like. Rednecks, conservative, working class, blue collar etc. My mom grew up in Mexico, Missouri; my dad was from St Louis. They moved to California in 1960, like a lot of folks had at the time, to get better work. Lots of military stuff in Riverside/Redlands too (David's family). David and I were from different sides of it. My parents were in medicine, itself a huge industry down there based on the music too. We weren't indicative of LA, but we were indicative of California.

: The idea of Culture Vulturism is in common… it can be drawn to horrible extremes where people get into whatever ethnic roots there are. 'Oh I'm really Celtic! I'm really into Irish music!'or, 'I'm really Jewish! I'm really into Klezmer music!’

Are you aware of those CVB has inspired? Is there anything in this category you particularly enjoy? Gillian Welch mentions Camper, surprisingly...

: She's a truly fantastic singer. I've never met her but I'd like to work with her. If she reads this, she should call me up. I'm in the book!
Somebody asked me recently how I felt about being the violin player who made it okay to play violin in a rock band. What bugs me is classical violin in rock bands. When I first learned the violin aged 10 it was to impress a girl, Suzanna Stein, but in college I re-learned to play in the orchestra, mostly coz I was enthusiastic, not because I was good enough. My ideas of tuning are different from other people's. I play violin more like I play guitar. When I hear other people playing the violin in bands, they mostly play it like it's a violin and it sounds completely incongruous! I'd much rather listen to somebody who has a two-string violin out in the middle of
North Africa.

: We get mail and CDs from people all the time, claiming to have been inspired by us. Most of it I hate. But Cake should pay us royalties for how badly they ripped us off. Even though I thought they were nice enough guys. I think we were better than most of our contemporaries, and wonder where we might be now, but I think our explosion was inevitable. Lots of people tell me they love CVB, but no one pays my way. Anymore, I appreciate anything that that has more to do with a DIY mentality, as that's really where we came from. I mean what I do now is so fucking adult and nearly mainstream in a way, but we just do it on our own. But Camper has become part of the musical legacy of American Rock and Roll. I know because we were a question on Jeopardy.

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