Jonathan Segel of 'Camper Van' Fame

A friend of mine had been trying for about a year to hook me up with a Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven interview. Every time they came into town I was able to squeeze in a "Hi, nice to meet you," and got a, "yeah, we're not ready to interview yet, but soon, soon." Thankfully, they kept coming back into town because I was finally able to catch up with Jonathan Segel who had in the past and was currently touring with the reformed Camper and not so newly formed Cracker. I got to tag along with him during sound check, sushi eating, getting coffee with old friends, and waiting on the tour bus until the show started. The bulk of our conversation occured during sush-itime.

Jonathan Segel at the Fox Theater in Boulder, CO.

What I am most interested in for the magazine is not the history of the band...
Good, good, because people ask the same questions all of the time and it's so boring...interviews with musicians...I mean, Jesus Christ...

Well, it's amazing to me that people make music and I want to talk about things that would inspire other people to make it.
I ran into my friend David Costanza, in Santa Fe, and he reminds me of WHY. [He said] music is every note that you play; it makes you. Every sound that you make when you're making music is making you better and is making the world better. The process of making music is sort of a self-bettering process. Music can never hurt people, you know...There are so many professional musicians like classical players who practice eight hours a day and they get no enjoyment from playing music.

So is it more personal for you or do you get a lot out of the interaction and communication..
Communication! I love improvising. Camper does some improv. The thing about playing with Camper that's beautiful is that I know all of the people so well and we know what we play and when we play together it feels really good. It's like we're playing in this group and we know how each reacts to each other. We all have our own idiosyncrasies in personality, but musically we are a really good group of people. And I love improvising because it's like I'm very reactive...

Well, it's like a conversation when it's done right.
Yeah, when you're improvising, you never know what will happen. It's kind of like a different set of know when you're playing pop music and classical music and all those sorts of things, there's this set up of expectation and fulfillment by rhythm and cadence that leads the people. The whole process of rhythm and cadence sets up this whole cycle where you start to get things in your brain that you project into the future. Like you go: [on the table: bonk, bonk, bonk...] you know what happens next. And so you set up these cycles of expectation and fulfillment in normal sorts of tonal music.

One of the great things about improvising is that you don't necessarily have those. And you can hear that sometimes when Camper's playing, like when we're in the middle parts of Tusk or things like that, it goes way outside. I have to say, there's kind of a special thing about being able to listen to that kind of music where you free yourself from those cycles of expectation and fulfillment and when you let things wash over you; every new event is a new thing. It's a reaction to the world around you rather than a reaction to what's been set up by this process of leading you by the nose.

I read that you have a masters degree...
Yeah, I got a masters degree in composition at Mills.

I hear a lot of that in what you're saying..
Well, that's what they say... I try NOT to think when I am making music.

Why did you go back to school?
Because I worked in Hollywood for three years. It made me so ill that I decided that the only way to prove to myself that I had any sort of ideas at all and wasn't just following somebody else's orders. Making music was to go back to school and see what the "endless vista" of creative possibility was.

You're teaching now?
I teach sometimes. I was teaching this last semester; I'm not teaching this semester...

You're touring..
Touring, yeah. And doing some scoring. I did a score for a PBS documentary last month.

Which one?
It's a P.O.V. (Point Of View) piece. This one is called, Bill's Run, and it's about a republican guy in Kansas who's a farmer who gets so sick of the politics that he decides to run for office himself.

Do you like touring?
Yes I do. Sometimes it gets really, really hard. Sometimes I get frustrated because...for a number of reasons, like if the sound is not right and it's hard to play correctly; it's hard to be inspired. Like, if the audience is a bunch of ya-yas, you know, like these big-ass bubbas drinking beers saying, "Why don't you guys ROCK more!"

How do you deal with the repetitiveness of touring?
Well, people do it in different ways. One major way of dealing with repetitiveness is to get really drunk or stoned or something. For me, I'm into place. I like travel, I like seeing new places. As far as playing goes, I think I'm very, very zen about it. The things that are improvised, I get really into. The things that are not, like things that are written with a really simple melody, I've gotten into this trick of trying to play it perfectly.

Let's go to the very beginning. When and how and why did you start making music?
I was probably inspired by my parents. They're not musicians, but they listen to a lot of music. It's hard to tell, because I started playing instruments when I was very young.

How young?
When I was four I was playing the recorder and had piano lessons. And I got a clock radio when I was five and I would go to bed at eight and listen to it until like eleven. I was really into the Beatles...I was listening to all of that music when I was five. And I started playing guitar when I was seven.

How did you pick up guitar when you were seven?
I believe that my mom had a classical guitar and so I started learning how to play it. Then, I lived in Tuscon when I was in sixth grade and our school teacher there played guitar, so I was learning stuff from him. When I came back, my friends and I, at the age of twelve, decided to form a band, which became Burnt Toast.

What about the violin?
I started to play when I was ten, but then I stopped when I was thirteen because I was into getting stoned and playing electric guitar. I started playing when I was ten because of Susanna Stein, who was a violin player that I had a crush on. She would play, Pop Goes the Weasle, and she she would pluck the string for the pop and I was like, that's so fucking cool, so I wanted to play violin. So, I stopped when I was thirteen and I started again when I was in college. And I was playing electric guitar through all of high school.

Anything else, now?
I do a lot of computer stuff now. I play guitar and bass and violin mostly .. viola, some keyboards. I have travelled a lot in Asia and South America and I pick up instruments.

Do you play them regularly?
Yeah, yeah. I own my own house and I have instruments all over the place and I can play them any time I want.

Did you ever foresee traveling and touring and being in a big, well-known band?
I never thought I would do anything besides that. To tell you the truth, it's a little bit weird because it's kind of what I thought I was going to do, so when I wasn't doing that (when Camper broke up in 1990...well, I got kicked out a little bit earlier than that...), I still kept trying to still do that, and failing. That was hard. I ended up drinking a lot. Then I kind of re-evaluated things. Went back to school.. But yeah, I've always thought that I'd like to travel and play. It's just natural.

Ok. For young kids who have the itch to make music, what can you tell them?
Don't try to copy anyone. Find out what interests you; what sounds interest you, what styles interest you, and try to make your own music. Don't worry about whether it sounds good or popular. That's completely irrelevant. The only thing that changes what popular music sounds like is people with their own ideas.


Jonathan has put out a number of cds as well as running the independent music label, Magnetic, with bandmate Victor Krummenacher. You can find a bio and some mp3s of his solo work at Also check out the Pitch-a-Tent site for all the old Camper stuff.

More pictures of Jonathan Segel and the Cracker/Camper show coming soon!