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Looking Back With Camper Van Beethoven

Camper Van Beethoven interviewIt’s hard to believe it now, but there was once a time when record labels took real risks when trying to break new artists. In the age before illegal downloading became the primary source of new music for many people, record sales were strong enough that a label in 1988 could look at a band like Camper Van Beethoven — a group best known for a wry lyrical sense of humor and subtle subversion of rock ‘n’ roll tropes courtesy of Jonathan Segel’s violin — and think, “we could make this happen.” And that’s just what Virgin Records did, when they backed two of the band’s finest records, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie. The two albums, now reissued on Omnivore Recordings, marked a period of rapid development for the band, and they solidified Camper’s position as one of the pillars of college rock in the 1980s. We talked with Segel and CVB guitarist Greg Lisher about the importance of these albums, about the turbulent times that accompanied their recording, and about where the band will be headed next.

Jonathan, would you say that Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart is an important record in your time with the band?

Jonathan Segel: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I was in the band from 1983 through the tour for Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and the demos for Key Lime Pie. Strangely, I had to learn it all again recently because we did some shows where we played Key Lime Pie in its entirety.

But yeah, Our Beloved was an important record. You know, it was the first one we did for a major label, in a big studio with a producer–which was actually one of the reasons I left the band. I argued a lot with the producer, partially because of how the album ended up sounding, a lot of which is helped by this remastering.

You weren’t the first group to make the jump to a major label, but was it surprising to you guys that the band attracted attention from a major label?

JS: Obviously, my perspective on this is a little twisted from having been in a band for years before we were signed, so I believed [the label representatives] when they said, “Just do what you do, and we’ll find a way to get a hit from that.” And I thought that made sense.

Also, to me, Camper Van Beethoven was a normal rock band that included everything we could possibly find into our music; everyone else thought that we were very strange. But I always thought that rock bands — bands like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and other bands I listened to while growing up — incorporated everything they heard into their music, and that’s what rock music was. I never thought it was so abnormal to be Camper Van Beethoven.

Greg Lisher: Before then, we had never been able to afford to put much attention towards making a record. It was always kind of a dream of mine to make a record where we had a producer and could afford to pay attention to the details. It was a real exciting time for all of us; we learned a lot from Dennis [Herring, who produced Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie] that sort of paved the way for how I think about music.

What do you think Dennis brought to the band dynamic while working with the band on these records?

GL: Back when we made those records, we would write the songs as a band, which is different to how we do it now. David [Lowery] would come in with the chords and the lyrics, and we’d just write our own parts. Then, we’d go into a rehearsal space with Dennis, and he’d adjust things like tempo and arrangements and stuff like that. There was a lot more pre-production work than we had done before, so we all had a really good idea of what we were doing. To me, that makes a big difference when you’re making a record.

Jonathan, you had a few issues with how Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was made.

JS: Yeah, I definitely had a few issues with how that record was made. Dennis was trying to make an album that was a big hit record, you know? I was like, “come on, let’s just make music.”

I was interested in having high-quality production and working with high-quality equipment, but I wasn’t happy with the sound of the gated reverb snare drum, for example. And i know I’m not a great violin player, but I wasn’t happy with how they used the trick of having the violin detuned slightly so that it kind of buzzes and doesn’t quite sound in tune or out of tune. That was a trick used with Madonna’s singing that producers were getting very into in the ‘80s.

The new master definitely doesn’t sound as dated as the original mix.

JS: Yeah, it’s definitely better. One of the things I was happy with was that Greg Allen from Omnivore went to the Capitol mastering lab for the remaster, and the frequency spectrum for this new master was huge. Plus, I think the original version of the album was hurt by being part of the first generation of CDs. Where the original version sounded thin or tinny and very compressed, it now sounds much fuller. Quite frankly, I was surprised to hear things in the mixes that I had forgotten about.

Having not played on Key Lime Pie, how did you feel about the album after hearing it?

JS: It was weird, because I wrote some of the songs and played on the demos, but I didn’t record with them. I didn’t actually hear it until months after it came out, and I was shocked because, for one thing, the production and songwriting on that record is astounding. It was the best Camper Van Beethoven album ever.

Funnily enough, we had actually recorded a version of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” during Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, but we didn’t want our first single on a major label to be a cover.

Back in those days, people were a lot more conscious and reactive to the concept of “selling out.” Was that something you were aware of when you made the jump to Virgin?

GL: I never worried about that personally, but I remember overhearing other people talking about it once and a while. You’d hear something about how we sold out and stuff. I never really understood that. Our goals were the same: we wanted to make a great record, and now we had more resources to make that happen. Who wouldn’t want that? I guess because we started out as this indie band, people held us to this standard as a result, but I never saw things like that.

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