Catching Up With Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel

Music Features Camper Van Beethoven

Less than a month after the release of his latest solo album, Camper Van Beethoven’s fiddler, Jonathan Segel, is keeping busy—from individual projects to Camper reunions, new recordings and constant touring. Segel chatted with Paste about the inspiration for his solo albums, All Attractions and Apricot Jam, his rock and roll roots, performing abroad during the Gulf War and the pros and cons of funding his newest records through Kickstarter.

Paste: Tell me about the inspiration for your newest releases All Attractions and Apricot Jam.

Jonathan Segel: Well, my wife is my inspiration. My wife is Swedish and we’ve actually been spending every summer in Sweden for the last number of years. I ended up bringing an acoustic guitar out to the cabin we’ve been staying in during the summer out by the lake. I’ve been writing a lot of songs out there in the last five years. Then, after writing a lot of those songs out there, we brought it all back here—we live in Oakland, Calif. right now—and started playing a lot of the stuff on the electric guitar. I wanted to stretch it out more because I’ve been playing a lot of electric guitar. I play violin in Camper Van Beethoven most of the time because we have other good guitarists, but I’ve been playing guitar longer than I’ve actually been playing violin.

My guitar was actually stolen on a Camper Van Beethoven tour when we were supporting the last record that we did, which was called New Roman Times, in late 2004 and that sort of awoke a long dormant electric guitar love within me. So I started listening a lot to old electric guitar heavy music like early Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that. And so I took a lot of these songs and starting making them into more big-time, electric guitar rock sort of ‘70s-sounding songs. I started recording the record a couple years back and then stopped as we did more Camper Van Beethoven touring and I was working on other things. When we got back to it, I had a few more basic tracks to record and we went into the studio to do that and ended up finishing the basic tracks fairly early, so we had a full afternoon free. So we called up Graham Connah, who’s a Hammond organ player who we’ve known since we were in Santa Cruz many years ago and basically, we just jammed all afternoon and that was what became Apricot Jam.

So by the time I finished All Attractions, I had this extra record essentially of all these jam sessions we had done in the studio. So that was how both of the records… just sort of ended up attaching Apricot Jam to All Attractions in much the same way that George Harrison when he did All Things Must Pass put on Apple Jam as the third disc of that box set where it was just like him and Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman and all those people jamming. Although, I’m hoping our fidelity is a little better than Phil Spector’s heavy reverb.

I’m ultimately really happy with All Attractions. It did take me a few years to actually totally finish the record, simply because I didn’t work on it all the time and I’ve been working full time and touring with Camper a lot. It took a while, but once we finally finished it, I’m really happy with it. I think it’s the best work I’ve done outside of Camper in a long, long time.

Paste: I know that you work on some other side projects, it seems like you’re always creating. What made this a solo project in particular, rather than something that would go with one of your other side projects?

Segel: There’s different sorts of things that I work on. I’ve been doing rock records outside of Camper Van Beethoven. The first one I did was almost 20-something years ago and it was called Storytelling. In late 1988, that came out. After that, I had a band called Hieronymus Firebrain for a while and that sort of fell apart and became Jack & Jill, which was a rock trio for a couple years. Then when I moved to L.A. in the late ‘90s, Jack & Jill broke up and I just started doing rock records under my own name. But where that gets confusing is I also started doing things like film scores and I’ve been doing music for a lot of dance companies and stuff like that. And so that stuff comes out under my own name also, so if you take a look at the website where I have all this music, which is a Bandcamp page, all the rock stuff I tried to push up to the top so that the deeper you get, the weirder the music gets. In the middle, there’s some Chaos Butterfly, which is electronic stuff. I’ve done a lot of improvisation. I’ve worked a lot with Dina Emerson with Chaos Butterfly and a lot of the other improve and avant-garde musicians from around the Bay Area like Fred Frith is here and Joëlle Léandre was here and other people like that, so there’s some records of that sort of stuff, as well. I guess that’s a lot of information!

Paste: I was going to ask you about your improvisation, as well. Clearly, that’s such an important part of your musical style. What drew you to that form of performance and can those concepts be applied to life outside of music?

Segel: Yeah. Going back to right when [Camper Van Beethoven] first started, we were all at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and I was studying to be a music composition major so I was writing a lot of music, not only for classical instruments, but also for electronic music studios. So I was doing a lot of what you’d consider 20th century classical or avant-garde music and electronic music. And some of that kind of filtered into the early Camper Van Beethoven stuff, believe it or not. Sometimes, when we’d use tapes that I had worked on in the studio doing electronic music to record Camper Van Beethoven onto, there would be pieces of the electronic music underneath coming through in certain places on the first two records. We even took those concepts when we were on Virgin Records, like for example, the ending of “She Divines Water” on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart where it suddenly goes off into the tape music piece. At the same time, when Camper was first starting to tour, we ran into Eugene Chadbourne and I have to say, Eugene Chadbourne has been a great influence upon me because he’s a nut job. He’s a great musician and he’s an amazing improviser. But he also has an amazing knowledge of musical history an especially American musical history, which includes jazz, country, rock, even standards, show tunes and stuff like that, but he takes them very far outside and very improvisational. And so we had this band, Camper Van Chadbourne for a time. We did a few records back in the late ‘80s and then, even in the late ‘90s, Victor [Krummenacher], Eugene Chadbourne and I did a trio with him just acoustically. We did a couple records for Knitting Factory and we put out one ourselves. Those were very improvisational.

I think a particular educational moment for me was during the very first Gulf War. We went over to Europe with a full band with Chris Pederson from Camper Van Beethoven and Victor and I and Graham Connah and we met Walter Mali, who is an old Austrian saxophone player and he toured with us and Eugene Chadbourne. This was during the first Gulf War, we went over there right as this started and most of the American musicians at the time cancelled a lot of tours, so there weren’t very man American bands touring in Europe during the month of February in 1991. The result was that we ended up having huge audiences. We ended up having to play for long periods of time, like two-hour shows. So Eugene wanted to do mostly American music and so we did country music, folk-protest songs, we did jazz, we did rock. Most of the stuff was sort of protest music or freedom music and almost all of it went very avant-garde and very outside and very improvisational, regardless of what time of music it started as. It was really interesting for me because I’m not a jazz player. Graham Connah was a jazz player and Walter Mali was a jazz player, but Victor and I were rock players and we were expected to play this stuff any way that we knew how and we ended up making music out of it, even the music that we didn’t know how to make. It’s empowering in a lot of ways. So I think a lot of that information and that sort of knowledge ends up definitely coming into the improvisations that I do, the improvisational music that I do and the more I get into listening to improvisational music, the more I think that starts to affect composed music, as well.

If you listen to Apricot Jam, that was entirely improvised initially in one afternoon—the bass drums, organ and the main guitar. But then I took all those tapes home and worked on essentially making those improvisations into compositions by doubling pieces of the melody, cutting little bits out, changing things around and orchestrating it a little bit so that it ends up sounding more like a composition than the initial improvisation.

Paste: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about using Kickstarter to fund the mixing and master of All Attractions and Apricot Jam.

Segel: Sure. I paid for the basic tracks recording and then took it home and did most of the overdubs at my house. By the time it came around that it was essentially done and ready to be mixed, I couldn’t afford to mix it, nor to press records. I don’t really have a record company. Victor and I had started Magnetic, which was a record label that we were running, but we essentially shut it down last year just because it’s sort of ridiculous trying to run a record label, especially if you’re small. We’ve only ever been able to afford to manufacture CDs, but not really to promote them. I sort of suck at business. I used to say, “Yeah, I run a record label…into the ground!”

Kickstarter a really great way of dealing with that. I had 100-something people kick in $10-25 with the promise of getting the actual record when it was done and that few thousand dollars was enough to finish mixing the record.

Paste: What do you think about this whole micro-financing experience and this whole way of manipulating the music industry, really?

Segel: It’s pretty good. I mean, you have so have some sort of promotional basis to get the word out and to get people interested in it. It doesn’t make up for the fact that you really still need all of those people who have individual jobs that are very well organized in their jobs like promotion and all of the different sorts of things that you have to pay for like recording and engineering and mixing and mastering and all of those sorts of things. So it still requires essentially a production team or some people that have a lot of organizational experience to be able to put something together. As an artist, it’s a great way to start something, but it’s not a great way to finish things.

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