Countless people plow through grinding traffic to work in Chicago. The members of influential alternative rock band Camper Van Beethoven may not have to do so on a daily basis, but consider their plight. The veteran group has maintained a steady touring presence in North America despite considerable obstacles.
Drummer Chris Pedersen now joins his bandmates from his home in Australia, and violinist/guitarist Jonathan Siegel kisses his family goodbye in Sweden. Rock and roll is a traveling job, but these are among the toughest commutes in music. “And jet lag from opposite directions,” says Segel.
The members remain busy with their own projects, so collective work isn’t hampered by geographical separation. In a sense, it even helps. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so it’s always fun to get back together and play,” says Segel, whose own projects include new album “ Series of Nested Universes ” with improvisational psych-rock band Sista Maj.
Camper Van Beethoven is known for ambitious musicianship and absurd but sharp-witted and socially aware lyrics. Favorites include early single “ Take the Skinheads Bowling ,” “ Eye of Fatima ” from 1988’s “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart,” and “ It Was Like That When We Got Here ” from 2014’s “El Camino Real.” The band also recorded a popular cover of “ Pictures of Matchstick Men ” by Style Council, whose guitarist Rick Parfitt passed away in late December. “We’re losing so many people at this point,” says Segel. “We don’t usually stop between songs, so it’s hard to make dedications. The song itself is the tribute.”
Although violin and East European influences are elemental to Camper Van Beethoven’s sound, Segel has previously claimed that he doesn’t consider himself a proper violinist. “I’ve gotten away with it for so long that I’m actually starting to learn how to play it,” he says.
Camper Van Beethoven’s tour continues a regular partnership with Cracker. Members including Segel, bassist Victor Krummenacher, and guitarist Greg Lisher have played with Cracker in the past. David Lowery fronts both bands. “He has the ability to sing for three hours if he needs to,” says Segel. “It’s pretty intense.”
Segel says that there’s minimal competition with Cracker and maximum camaraderie, which stems from gratitude for simple survival within the industry. “When you consider that you’re in a band that’s able to play around the country in 2017, it’s like you’ve won the jackpot. Even if you’re not making a ton of bucks like the big pop stars, it’s very lucky.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.