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Classic Tracks: Camper Van Beethoven’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men”

Camper Van Beethoven formed in the founding members’ hometown of Redlands, Calif., but it was in their college days, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, that the band began to take off. Camper’s amalgam of punk, ska, country, rock, and international trad folk sounds—all undercut by David Lowery’s sardonic vocal tone—tapped into both of the main musical arteries of Norcal college life in the 1980s: Their music was adored by hippies and punks alike.

Camper released their first independent album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, in 1985, including a song that quickly became a signature, the college radio hit “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” Two more indie albums followed in 1986 (II & III and Camper Van Beethoven), accompanied by nonstop touring. Their live sets spanned not only their already exten­sive catalog of original music, but also some memorable covers, such as their country-folk version of The Clash’s “White Riot,” a sweetly faithful rendition of Ringo’s “Photograph,” and this month’s Classic Track, an in-genius, freaked-out interpretation of the Status Quo’s 1968 hit “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”

“We were pretty good friends with the guys in a band called Spot 1019 at the time, and one of the songs they were playing was ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men,’” explains Camper bassist Victor Krummenacher. “I don’t remember who, but somebody said, ‘The violin would be great on that.’ So we did our own cover, and there was just something about that pocket that worked well for our band.”

The violin intro that replaces the Status Quo’s original electric guitar part on “Matchstick Men” was developed by multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, who had been in Camper since their earliest Santa Cruz days, and it sets up the wild but earthy, almost anthemic rock arrangement that the band had already realized by the time producer Dennis Herring saw them perform in L.A. at Al’s Bar in 1987.

Herring had scored his first real hit as a producer in 1986 with Tim-buk 3’s “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades).” “Suddenly, I was a buzzy producer working out of my basement,” Herring recalls. “People were telling me about bands I should do next, but I wasn’t hearing anything I wanted to do.

“So, I talked to this guy at the L.A. Weekly named Craig Bell, who was really opinionated,” Herring continues. “I asked him, ‘Who should I go see?’ He suggested some bands to me, but I hated all of them. Finally, one day he said, ‘There’s this band I hate. Since you seem to hate everything I like, you should probably go see them.’ That was Camper. They blew me away.”

The CVB membership had changed some during the band’s first few years, before settling into the lineup of Krummenacher, Segel, frontman David Lowery, guitarist Greg Lisher and drummer Chris Pedersen. Her-ring and the band connected, and their new producer helped them nail a deal with Virgin Records. Then work began on their next album, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, using a method that was somewhat… revolutionary for the ’80s: They cut basics in Ocean Way, but did all the overdubs in Herring’s basement studio, Dustbowl.

“All of our friends who were signed were going into big-name studios and under a lot of pressure to perform, but not being given a lot of say or influence in the process,” Krummenacher says. “Looking back, we had a lot of leeway, working with Dennis at his little studio. There was a lot of experimentation and a lot of time. That really helped us.”

Herring and the band considered putting “Pictures of Matchstick Men” on Sweetheart, but Herring felt that there was danger that their first major-label release could be hijacked by a catchy cover. He wanted the band to break through with their own songs, so “Matchstick Men” was tabled.

When it came time for the next album, Key Lime Pie, the band planned to work with Herring again, and Lowery told him he had a collection of songs written for a “dark folk record.”

“At first, I groaned inside,” Herring says. “I had Virgin telling me, ‘Make the right rock record and they’re going to blow up.’ I thought, ‘a dark folk record,’ that’s the opposite of what Virgin wants. But David played what he had, and it was all great.

“He goes, ‘I’m psyched about this, but if you’re not, I’ll scrap these and write a bunch of rock songs, because I bet you money that’s what Virgin wants.’ And I’m like, ‘That is totally what Virgin wants, but I think we should do this.’”

Herring and the band used the same basic process for their Key Lime Pie, this time recording basics to a 24-track Studer machine in Capitol Studio B with the late, great engineer Csaba Petocz.

“I thought about David’s music, and I didn’t want there to be a sheen to it,” Herring says. “Records in the ’80s had a typical kind of EQ’d top end, and I thought that was going to be wrong. We had this low-midrange thing happening, and we didn’t want to spoil it. So I told Csaba that he could not add any EQ above 1k.

“Csaba always thought I was crazy,” Herring adds. “But he would enjoy these different rules I’d make. I worked with him a lot, especially in that era of alternative music. He told me it was like telling him to record music with one hand behind his back, but he accepted the challenge.”

Because Petocz controlled equipment choices for the basics at Capitol, Herring has little memory of the gear, but Krummenacher recalls a few details: “I remember compression was frequently 1176s. They tried to get a fairly roomy sound. The drums had Neumann overheads and a combi­nation of close and distant mics. All the amps were gobo’d,, but they put them out beyond the band to get more room sound. I was direct, but they also miked my amp, which is the amp I still use today—a MESA Boogie Bass 400 with a Q15 cabinet.

Krummenacher recalls Lowery sang a scratch vocal to a Shure SM7, and the frontman’s guitar went to a Roland JC 120 amp, while lead guitarist Lisher played through a Musicman R112.

There were two rounds of Capitol sessions: After capturing the original set of tracks that Lowery had auditioned for Herring, the producer began to worry about the label’s reception, and the public’s, if the album lacked an obvious single. So, he suggested late in the game that they add “Matchstick Men.” There was only one problem: They were between violinists.

Segel had left Camper between the release of Sweetheart and the beginning of Pie. A Santa Cruz-based violinist named Don Lax had played on most of the Pie tracks, but he’d left after the first set of basics were done. So the band invited another musician they knew, Morgan Fichter of Harm Farm.

“[Krummenacher’s side project] The Monks of Doom had played with Harm Farm quite a bit; they opened for us, and I knew Morgan,” Krummenacher says. “She had fiddle chops that were nice, pretty accomplished. She had a good stage presence.”

Fichter’s performance of Segel’s intro was one of the parts that was overdubbed in Herring’s Amek/TAC Scorpion-equipped Dustbowl Studio. Herring doesn’t recall exactly how he captured Fichter’s instrument, but he thinks the mic was likely an AKG C414.

“Before working with Camper, I literally had never recorded violin before, so I just made it up,” Herring recalls. “‘Let’s see, violin can be kinda screechy, so I won’t use an 87. Maybe a 57, or probably we use a 414, be­cause that’s going to give a little bit more loudness—curvy and pretty.’ That’s how my mind works.”

Lowery’s final vocals were also overdubbed at Dustbowl: “I still have two Neumann U87s. One is stock, and one is Stephen Paul-modified to make the diaphragm thinner, so it was brighter. With David, that stock 87 worked great. He’s got that weedy, nasally, heady sort of voice, and the 87 was good at finding a lot of his chest and tone.”

Backstage at Santa Barbara County Bowl in 1989. Seated in front: David Lowery, left, and Victor Krummenacher. Rear, from left: Producer Dennis Herring, Chris Pedersen, Morgan Fichter, Greg Lisher, manager Jackson Haring.
Photos: Greg Allen

As on Sweetheart, the overdub process allowed Herring and the band the time to fine-tune their sounds meticulously. Then they took the project to Ray Parker Jr.’s Ameraycan Studio to mix on an SSL .

“I remember I was nervous about the cost of mixing to half-inch tape,” Herring says. “Csaba told me Sony had just given him a DAT machine, and we decided to try it. We mixed the first song to half-inch and to DAT to compare, and I liked the way the DAT sounded better. The DAT added a kind of defined point of brightness that seemed good for that record at the end. So we mixed the whole record to DAT. I had queried Csaba quite a bit on the stability of the format, and it seemed like it was all good. When we were finished mixing, we took the DATs to mastering and it was a nightmare.

“We first went to Doug Sax’s Mastering Lab, and they started playing the DATs, and none of them would play,” Herring continues. “So Csaba suggested I go sort them out at MCA Mastering in the valley ’cause they were doing a lot of remastering of old stuff to CD; they had all that noise-and racket-elimination stuff sussed. So we went over there, and some stuff played, but some had dropouts—all kinds of errors. It was cold-sweat time: ‘My record is all f—ked up, I spent all the money.’ But we solved the prob­lems one at a time, looking at the screen: ‘There’s a glitch. I can draw that wave differently. Oh look we don’t have that glitch anymore!’”

Their musical rescue efforts paid off. “Pictures of Matchstick Men” became a Number One single on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, and Herring continued to build on the buzz; he went on to work on seminal records with Throwing Muses, Buddy Guy, Counting Crows and others.

Camper actually broke up after touring to support Key Lime Pie. Lowery co-founded Cracker and Sound of Music Studios (Richmond, Va.), and the others dug into their own music projects, day jobs and personal studio setups. Krummenacher became a graphic designer, and continued to play in various groups and as a solo artist. But over time, Camper became something more fluid, where bandmembers could come to­gether in different configurations. They’ve recorded a few more albums, and they’ve toured occasionally, often on a double-bill with Cracker. In addition, once a year, the two bands, and all of the members’ side proj­ects and musical friends, gather in rural Pioneertown, Calif., for Campout, their own mini music festival.

“Everyone in the band has a lot of gratitude that thirty-four years on, Camper Van Beethoven, for all intents, is still a core band,” Krummenacher says. “If there’s a certain group of people in the room, then it’s definitely still Camper Van Beethoven.”