If there’s one crucial message that Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher would like to impart to struggling young musicians out there, it’s this: Hey, you starry-eyed kids! Don’t give up your day jobs! And he imparted this wisdom last week while phoning from his busy Bay Area home office, right after wrapping his regular morning meeting with the designers who work with him at Wired magazine, where he punches the 9-to-5 clock as managing art director. “And basically, we just plan our day—we sit down and figure out how to get the copy done on a daily basis,” he explains. “And having the security of a day job is really good for your art.”
That’s what first allowed Krummenacher to occasionally fly solo two decades ago with Out in the Heat, to pursue other side projects like Monks of Doom and also to self-issue his latest folk-fueled set, Hard to See Trouble Coming, his ninth, on his own San Francisco-based Veritas imprint. In his spare time, while waiting for the CVB batphone to ring with another touring/recording request from bandleader David Lowery (like the two full-lengths they recently whipped out, 2013’s La Costa Perdida and this year’s El Camino Real), songs started occurring to him. Forlorn, acoustic-plucked perambulators like the conspiracy-theory-themed “Chemtrails,” the global-warming dissertation “All of This is Mine” and the ominous title cut, inspired by late Band drummer Levon Helm, who—when asked in an interview about the suicide of the group’s Richard Manuel—responded that it was hard to see trouble coming.
Musically, the disc—recorded with his friend Bruce Kaphan, pedal steel player for American Music Club, with Krummenacher switching to guitar throughout—is rooted in the bluesy purity of Van Morrison’s landmark Astral Weeks, especially in the stark and soulful “The Kidalton Cross,” a mandolin-latticed “If I Could Only Close My Eyes,” and the fiddle-filgreed “An Angel Who Sings Just Like Jaqui McShee.” As a reminder of the sonic Camper assault of which he’s capable, there’s even a straightforward, rumbling rocker with the koan-like title of “If You Won’t Break My Heart, I Don’t Stand a Chance.”
“I hadn’t made a record in so long, but that’s just how I function,” cedes the Riverside, Calif.-bred Krummenacher, who will be reuniting with Lowery for their annual New Years Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven gigs in San Francisco, a seasonal tradition for over a decade now. “This is not a rational pursuit—I’ll come home one day and write a song, then I’ll get up in the morning, and I’m writing another, because I woke up early, it’s quiet, and my head’s clear. Then suddenly, you have a bunch of songs, so you call some people and say ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s how this album came about.” His friends happily chipped in—Paul Olguin on bass, John Hanes on drums, Katy Sloan on violin, Rich Kuhns on accordion and James Sasser and Loralee Christenson on backing vocals (Kaphan himself did triple duty on mandolin, keyboards and steel guitar).
How did Krummenacher, 49, get started in graphic design? He took some related courses in college, he says, before music took the career reins. But in the mid-‘90s, he was no longer touring as frequently, and his income seemed to dry up. So he went back to college in ’96, got his credentials, and was soon working for San Francisco’s late, lamented weekly The Bay Guardian, and then eventually, the hi-tech monthly Wired, along with some other Conde Nast properties. “And I do freelance design work all the time,” he adds. “I just did the cover for the soundtrack of Pelican Dreams, the film from the people who did The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. I’ll do film posters, book design, whatever. I just did a book for Danny Bland and Greg Dulli, a haiku/photography thing [I Apologize in Advance for the Awful Things I’m Gonna Do]. And when I first started doing this, I did a lot of postcards for people who had small dance companies, so I knew a lot of people in the San Francisco dance community. But it’s whatever I can sink my teeth into that I like doing. For freelance work, it has to be something that I really care about.”
Krummenacher admits that his art and music occupations often overlap. He can’t help it. “I think visually all the time,” he says. “It’s just my point of view. If I’m writing, whether it’s long form or stories, it always comes from a visual point of view. I need to be able to see the story. I need to be able to envision the landscape. And if I can envision the landscape? I could maybe write an entire book on it. It just has to be fully, physically alive for me from the start.”
Another great thing about having a day job? Insurance, the singer sighs. This summer, just as he was wrapping up his Trouble sessions, he was cleaning out his garage so he could store his 2,000-disc-plus vinyl collection there. He felt a slight twinge in his lower back, but ignored it and went on vacation. “And then one day I got up to take the dog for a walk, and went back home to make the coffee, and I coughed,” he remembers. “And when I coughed, it was like somebody lit my leg on fire, and it put me in the hospital. And it cost a lot of money, even with insurance. I was like, ’That’s my co-pay?! Oh. Great. Thanks.’”
Over the years, the artist has seen several uninsured musician friends lose almost everything after an unexpected accident. He has also watched them staunchly resist covering their tail with outside employment. People, he says, “who just couldn’t redefine themselves. They could not come up with an idea for themselves that extended beyond just being a musician.” Some, he adds sadly, have passed away. “But I know a lot of folks right now who are having a hard time, because our craft is so devalued. And some of them don’t have a place to go, because society doesn’t care. But having an artistic middle class is very important to our culture.”
Ultimately, Krummenacher gives thanks for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven’s diehard fans, who are affectionately dubbed Crumbs. They not only attend group concerts, they’ll pack his solo shows whenever he has time to schedule them, he swears. “There’s this whole group of people who really like what I do, and they bring friends,” he concludes, preparing to start his graphic-design assignment for the day. “So we’re in a well-respected position. And people put a lot of emotional value on what we do. And while that’s certainly rewarding, still it does not pay…”