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No White Cake for Camper

So now everybody wants to see the Pixies. Suddenly, a band that couldn't crack the charts with one of the best rock albums of all time (Doolittle)--just two years before Nirvana would steal one of the songs from that very record ("Gouge Away") and tweak it ever so slightly into the megahit "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--is selling out stadium shows in three minutes flat or whatever. That, people, is called irony. But it's also the whole reason bands like the Pixies (and the Velvet Underground and Sex Pistols before them) do reunion tours--namely, revenge. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great. They have something to prove: they did it first, they did it best and they shouldn't have to live off the music's industry's culty scraps in solo careers while hundreds of bands get fat and stupid imitating them.

It's a lot different with the Camper Van Beethoven reunion, though. They don't have a chip on their shoulder--they never got rich off Camper, but neither are they expecting to with this reunion. And they don't have anything to prove, having had fairly mainstream success (yes, lead singer David Lowery's pop-radio success with Cracker proved they would have had even more if they hadn't imploded, but, c'mon, Key Lime Pie sold a hell of a lot more copies than, say, Trompe Le Monde) without losing their cred. What's more, the legendary Santa Cruz band--which plays at San Francisco's Fillmore Saturday opening for Cracker--doesn't even like the alternative bands it's always accused of having spawned.

"I don't know if we have anything to prove," says bassist Victor Krummenacher of the band's reunion, "other than, like, you know, we're really contemptuous of slacker, white-boy indie-rock. I can't think of anything more wretched on the planet."

He really can't!

"[Cracker guitarist] Johnny Hickman and I have this joke, the 'look what you have wrought' joke, you know, when you have something that's just obviously Camper-derived," says Krummenacher. "Like, we played with Cake a couple of weeks ago. Oh God, it's like they couldn't have existed without us, and I hate them so. They're just completely contemptuous of their audience--I just feel like John McCrea exudes that attitude. I don't care if he reads this and sees me saying horrible things about him. I think he sucks. I think many things kind of suck these days. I don't see people pushing the musical envelope very often."

Even as we speak, the re-formed Camper--including but not limited to Lowery, Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher (who still lives in Santa Cruz) and violinist Jonathan Segel--are back in the studio trying to change that. If you saw them play the Catalyst last year, you know that, unlike most reunited bands, they sound better than they ever did in their first incarnation, despite for the most part not having played the band's songs for over 10 years. This is partly a function of the fact that seemingly all of the band members continued to play in other projects and/or release solo records over that time, and partly the reality that when this particular group of people make music together, there's nothing else quite like it.

"It's a pleasure and a responsibility and a burden and a joy and money and a job all at the same time. It's a really complex thing," says Krummenacher. "There's a really unique chemistry to Camper that's hard to replicate. If you don't have the right group of people there, it's not it."

Krummenacher did explain to me what the new album sounds like, but for the life of me, I'm not sure I understand what the hell he's talking about it. I know, I suck. Sorry. Hopefully, this larger mission statement will suffice for now: "If there's anything we're trying to prove or bring to the table, it's that there's a better and more open-minded way to make music," he says. "That, maybe, is what Camper's about."


The Hot Buttered Rum String Band roll into Moe's Alley in the biodiesel bus on Wednesday, May 12. Barbara Anderson performs at Henfling's on Friday, May 14. And if retro roots and rockabilly is more your style, check out The Paladins and The Chop Tops at Moe's Alley on Saturday, May 15.

Steve Palopoli

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From the May 12-19, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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