It was 1985. I was in a band called Vomit Launch. Our guitarist, Lindsey Thrasher, was DJ'ing at our college station (KCSC) in Chico, California. While there one day, she picked up the phone and a promoter said, "White Flag just dropped off the bill, opening for the Dead Kennedys. Are there any local bands that would be good?" Of course she suggested our four month old band. We found out the band playing after us, and before the DK's, was called Camper Van Beethoven, and they happened to be from Santa Cruz, California - Lindsey's home town. We even had mutual friends! The night of the gig I'm sure Vomit Launch was awful, but mostly I remember 500 screaming kids flipping us off as well as punk rock idiots stage diving and unplugging our amps. We were so paranoid that packed our gear up fast and ran home to drop it off and returned, sadly missing CVB's set. Later that night we all got to hang post show, drink a lot of cheap beer, and become fast friends. I went to Tower Records the next day and bought their charming debut LP, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, which contained the 'indie-hit,' "Take the Skinheads Bowling."
Six months later we played another show together. As we were both constantly gigging around the San Francisco Bay Area we saw them multiple times at clubs that no longer exist, like The Vis and Berkeley Square. When we'd visit Santa Cruz we'd always check in, meet up for drinks, and talk about what our bands were up to. CVB released two more albums (II & III and Camper Van Beethoven in 1986, and the excellent EP, Vampire Can Mating Oven in 1987), all filled with a wide stylistic range of music and influences. In 1987 CVB signed with Virgin Records, horror of horrors, a major label! As Jill Stauffer's insightful essay for the ...Sweethearts' remaster points out, back then signing to a major seemed like a terrible idea. Narrow- minded punk rock ethos informed us that this was like sleeping with the devil. Oh my.
When Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart was released, I rushed out and bought the LP. It was awesome. All the ideas that CVB had been mucking about with for several years melded into a perfect whole. David Lowery's songwriting had come into strong focus with songs like "She Divines Water" and "One of These Days." Victor Krummenacher's bass playing was now strong and inventive. Jonathan Segel's violin (and other instruments) had become grand, avant-garde, and traditional all at the same time. Greg Lisher had become a classy lead guitarist in a time where everyone else went for speed, and Chris Pedersen was still an impressive drummer that drove the band well. As my friend Garry Henkel said at the time, "Finally, a band that uses a major label studio budget to make an album that matches their vision." He was right. In the mid- and late-'80s, it seemed that any band of substance that signed with a major label would disappear off the touring circuit for five years (CVB did not) and then come out with an album that had giant reverbed drums that sounded like cannon shots, vocals that sounded like they were echoing from a mountaintop, and yucky, saturated crunchy guitar tones. This type of production worked wonders for Poison and Mötley Crüe in the hard rock marketplace, but back then I heard it applied to so many bands in an inappropriate manner.
CVB had hired Dennis Herring [Tape Op #48], who had produced a hit album with Timbuk3's Greetings from Timbuk3. David Lowery recalls, "Dennis was a session musician at the time. He played on the Flashdance soundtrack. He was trying to get out of all that - get into indie rock, alternative. He would come see us at shows and knew all these label people. He had lined himself up; I liked him and trusted him. He knew our vision and he knew the Hollywood ways." Dennis noted, "I wanted to hear the Camper record that sounded like they'd coalesced everything they did into their trip, and into one record. I felt like the record should try to include everything they were doing stylistically. I had to make that work, sound and arrangement-wise."
He accomplished this, but not without some strife. Jonathan Segel recalls, "I was hoping for a high- quality recording, but very dry. Dennis Herring and I had a lot of arguments about that. I can't even listen to it now. I still think Dennis is a fraud of a producer. He's an engineer, fine; but he has no creative ideas of his own, and tries to find which way the wind is blowing to rack up enough coolness in his current project." Victor also notes, "...Sweetheart doesn't age well. It's [our] most '80s sounding record." David sees the drum sounds in a different light. "I think Jonathan and Victor misunderstand the use of reverb and effects on the drums. It's like some weird, mutant, English-influenced cousin of '80s drums. I see it as very playful, with sometimes an extreme use of effects. It's more XTC influenced [Tape Op #19]. I don't remember Chris Pedersen ever objecting to the sounds. He seemed complicit and involved, switching from piccolo snares to deep detuned snares, china cymbals, and other 'wrong' elements."
Jonathan would also find himself out of the band before they made their follow up album for Virgin, Key Lime Pie. Basic sessions were at Capitol Recording Studios. Victor says, "Key Lime Pie ages well. There was a lot of dialogue about making it sound the way it does." "We learned to do pre-production, a lot of arranging, beforehand," says David. "We did the basic tracks and got heavy into the sounds. A lot of rehearsal. I'd get the arrangements first and get the words later, change them to fit the songs when they're done. There are loops and MIDI sequencing. The drums on 'Flowers' and '(I was Born in a) Laundromat' were partly drum loops. We wanted it mechanical. The drums used largely dark cymbals, almost completely organic room sounds; and the reverb is the famous Capitol reverb chambers. It's weird how important the tone of the drums are on those records. They set the entire mood for both albums." Morgan Fichter joined on violin and played on some tracks. The album has a unique tone to it, and the cover of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" became a bit of a hit. Unfortunately tensions came to a head while on tour supporting Key Lime Pie, and the band called it quits in Sweden.
David soon formed Cracker and found decent success; Victor, Greg, and Chris ramped up their side project, Monks of Doom, with David Immerglück; while Jonathan pursued a variety of interesting musical projects. CVB reunited in 1999 or so, have released several excellent albums, and 2013's La Costa Perdida ranks among their best. Greg Allen, from Omnivore Records, helmed these Virgin reissues. Victor says, "Greg approached us. I've known him since the early '80s. We both grew up in Riverside, California. He's been a fan of the band for a long time. Greg handled things methodically and respectfully. I sent a batch of live cassettes from the touring we did for both albums. Greg listened closely for things that were unique and, for the most part, hadn't been released before." Jonathan says that many "outtakes weren't found, or were shitty. We did find one ["Country 2"] from the demo sessions from Key Lime Pie. We did record "Seven Languages" for ...Sweetheart, but it disappeared somewhere." The band also tracked "Pictures of Matchstick Men" at that time, but Jonathan says, "We hid that so that they wouldn't force us to release it as our first major label single! So they rerecorded it for Key Lime Pie."
These reissues do a fantastic job of restoring the audio of ...Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie. Ron McMaster at Capitol Mastering (back to Capitol Recording, it seems) sourced these albums from the original tapes from the EMI vaults, and brought out details I'd never heard on vinyl or CD before. Fun little delay patches and instrumental textures are present now, and, despite any misgivings that Victor or Jonathan may have about the sounds, they hold up quite well. Greg Allen notes, "Both albums were mastered from original sources and masters. Those sources were varied, particularly with the bonus tracks. It came down to how things were done at the time they were recorded, and what media was used."
Jonathan says, "I think the mastering is amazing!" Victor agrees, "I think his mastering of these albums is great. I hear a lot more than I used to, especially with ...Sweetheart. I was never thrilled with the sound of that album, and I find the new mastering much improved." David concurs, stating, "those two records really suffered from early CD mastering. They are quite extraordinary in the detail and sound field." There are eleven and nine bonus tracks, respectively, with remixes, edits, B-sides, live recordings, outtakes, cover songs (I finally get to hear CVB do "Smash It Up" and "Harmony in My Head" again!) adding to the value of these reissues. Jill Stauffer's aforementioned liner notes evoke a place and time I remember well. On the liner notes, Victor says, "I think Camper benefits from a more neutral perspective. We all have our own points of view on the band."
Victor continues, "I'm very pleased with these reissues. They reinforce that the ideas the band were working with at the time were pretty unique, and pretty deep. The whole Omnivore crew should get a big shout-out for the work they did." It's nice to see these albums reissued with the respect and care they deserve. Also check out the recently reissued CD or LP box set Cigarettes & Carrot Juice - The Santa Cruz Years, containing CVB's recordings prior to signing with Virgin in 1987.