Creative Quarantine: Musician Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven

Jonathan Segel | Photo credit: Bengt Alm

1. How are you holding up?

How am I holding up? It’s really up and down. When I can focus on something, I feel ok, but then looking out at the whole world and considering the future, I start to crash. I don’t have a clear idea of what I will do, how I will continue. For the past number of years, I’ve been dividing my time between performing and recording/mixing, and most of the studio work has been at home in my apartment home studio, so I’m used to working at home, but I had been balancing that by going out into the world! Last year was good, I toured with Camper Van Beethoven in the USA in the winter and the summer, with Øresund Space Collective in Europe in the spring and some shows in the fall, and did several weeks of solo shows in the US in the summer as well. In between, I worked mixing some ØSC and my own music, and I was looking forward to continuing that type of schedule.

Obviously, that hasn’t happened, so I’ve ended up focusing on unfinished projects, which have become increasingly esoteric as the months roll on. I’ve done a few video-manipulation videos for people like the Bye Bye Blackbirds and The Third Mind. I really have little concept of the future. 

I really have little concept of the future. 

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

I’m not what you would call a successful artist as a solo artist, most of my audience knows my work solely from my involvement in CVB, which gives people only one facet of what I do, so often they’re surprised when they pick up one of my albums at the merch booth—they’re all very different. The Øresund Space Collective is, of course, a collective, so I’m fairly anonymous as a member of it, though I have been responsible for mixing many of our albums in the past few years. Turning the CVB audience on to ØSC has happened a bit, but not really vice-versa—ØSC is an entirely improvised instrumental space rock group, we basically groove and I play lead guitar and violin. I’ve been able to bring that style into the CVB arena in solo shows at our Camp-Out and Camp-In Festivals, turning some heads. But the real value in that type of improvisation is the interplay of musicians, and that is something I am SORELY missing during this period of time. Improvising alone is quite a different thing. And much quieter, in an apartment. 

the real value in that type of improvisation is the interplay of musicians, and that is something I am SORELY missing during this period of time.

I had done some improvised recording with the Cracker rhythm section in Athens, GA after our winter tour earlier this year, so that was the first music I worked on at home in Stockholm when it became obvious that nobody was going to be going anywhere. That became the Transatlantic Space Connection. After that, I thought I’d better figure out how to do live streaming to stay in contact with any sort of audience that might be interested, and that took several tries to get decent sound and video. I’m not sure I’ve really adapted to it very well for several reasons. One is, of course, the lack of audience response when you can’t see or hear them! It’s much more like you’re filming yourself playing and acting. In your own living room. Another issue I’ve had, beyond the technicalities of doing it by myself, is the time zone problem: I’m in Europe, most of my potential audience is in the US. So there’s no way I can do an “evening” show, and living in an apartment building, I can’t be too loud in my evenings, so the US listeners have had to tune in in the early morning! Maybe that’s good when you consider the fact that the venue—the internet—is the only venue available and that *all* live-streaming concerts are going on in the same venue, so you’re up against every possible performer vying for your ears. Again, as a non-mainstream artist, my audience is rarified and small, so I can at least count on a dozen or so listeners whenever I try to set up the gear and play. 

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

After a couple of live-streaming tries doing either various songs from recent albums or instrumental improv, I got it into my head to try to reconstruct my very first solo album from 1988, “Storytelling”. I don’t know why exactly. As a challenge, I guess, something to work toward and re-learn how to play. To prove to myself that I could still play it, albeit slower. It took a few attempts, but eventually, I did it. It was a double album, so it’s an hour and a half long! The response was generally good, though there were even fans who were like, “I didn’t know you played acoustic guitar!” Having done that now, I’m not sure what’s next on that front, but at least I know now how to set up a decent sounding live stream using my studio interfaces for audio with the OBS streaming software, and using a phone camera as the video device. So that’s potentially useful knowledge for the future. 

The recorded music I’ve been working on has become very “inside”, that is to say, inside my own head, perhaps very “outside” stylistically. I’d been recording things that are barely music and making them into music for a while, using near and far microphones or leaving the doors open and recording the outside world and bringing it inside the recording. Rubbing rocks on loudly amplified electric guitar strings instead of using my fingers, weird things like that, and as sheltering-in-place goes on and on, these essentially esoteric sounds are sounding more and more like music to me.

Rubbing rocks on loudly amplified electric guitar strings instead of using my fingers, weird things like that, and as sheltering-in-place goes on and on, these essentially esoteric sounds are sounding more and more like music to me.

Some of the pieces are just field recordings with a pulse added, a drum with reverb as if that was you, the listener, marking time inside your own head (which has reverb, right? the inside of your brain?) It’s very deep listening. There are only two actual “songs” in this collection which is called (appropriately) “Outside Inside” and it’ll be out at on Aug 7th, to a collective “huh?” from the world, I imagine. I can only hope it reaches the right ears. Again, those ears will probably be a very small segment of the CVB audience, and I don’t really have any idea how to publicize to an art crowd. But that’s what I’m working on anyway. 

4. Of the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?

Most of the artists who I see that are doing this well are those that are singer-songwriters, which is only a small piece of my repertoire, but for example, Robyn Hitchcock, Steve Wynn (from Dream Syndicate) and Johnny Hickman (from Cracker) seem to have set up regular live-streamed concert events and have garnered their audience. They seem to be doing well, keeping on keeping on, changing it up, and doing exciting concerts from their homes. I haven’t tried to access any of the higher-profile types of streamed events, those that are done on actual broadcast stages, for example, but again, the time zone thing is an obstacle. I appreciate that there have been successful ‘out-of-character’ albums released by people like Fiona Apple and Taylor Swift chronicling the time period. I’ve been thinking about the comparisons to the Spanish Flu pandemic era and considering that post-pandemic, all people wanted to do was dance, so I’m expecting loud dance music in a few years (provided we clear this pandemic hurdle.)

5. Are there any artists, albums, or genres of music you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?

As for music I’ve been drawn to during this period, I have been re-discovering the Grateful Dead! My history with the Dead is bumpy, I was never a deadhead despite being very in psychedelia. In high school, I was more the Zeppelin/Hendrix/Floyd guy until the late 70s and the advent of college radio and the weird DIY mixed up with punk and new wave. When I moved to Santa Cruz for college, (and met CVB) everybody in the dorms knew Dead songs, and I had learned some playing bass in a band with ‘older guys’ when I was in high school, so I knew some of the songs. We went to see the Dead a few times there in the early 80s but I thought they were terrible. During the 1980s, the deadhead phenomenon was so unappealing and the music was way too slow, so I never listened to it. Then more recently several things happened. One was that I heard a feedback improvisation from one of their early shows on the radio and thought it was modern music until it was back-announced. So I watched the documentary, “Long Strange Trip” and several things jumped out at me. Jerry Garcia is brilliant, and as he stated that all he wanted to do was to play the guitar, regardless of the popularity or hype, I understood him much better. Me too! Really, all I want to do is play guitar.

Jerry Garcia is brilliant, and as he stated that all he wanted to do was to play the guitar, regardless of the popularity or hype, I understood him much better

Then I got a box set of their shows in the Pacific Northwest from 1973-74, and there are several incredible long improvisational sections, even some songs that stretch out to 45 minutes, and I thought, wow, how *allowing* that was to have an audience that came along with them as they went off musically in any direction they wanted to. It’s a different type of improvisation than I’ve worked with, at times totally falling apart and building back up. I appreciate it now, and the generally slow tempo of things is comfortable. (When I [say] that listening to classic rock was like comfort food, the Dead are like macaroni and cheese.) So I’ve been finding old recordings of theirs—they had tapers from the beginning, incredibly!—and enjoying the development of their improvisation. There’s still a lot I *don’t* like about the band (like when they have two drummers, it sounds like they’re trying to play with a bunch of hippies in a drum circle, but there is a period with only Bill Kreutzman drumming) but in general, I enjoy the early period quite a bit, into the mid-1970s.

After that, it’s a bit rough, but even to the end they kept that psychedelic aspect around and had some very outside improv in their sets. It’s also made me think a lot about the “scene” and the current of psychedelia that passed through culture in the 1960s and 1970s in music and art. I think we could all use some mind-opening soon, but the current world is so scary and violent it would be hard to find a safe set and setting, and just now even harder to simply have friends to be close to, to hold and share an intimate conversation with. It makes me feel even more isolated where I am in Sweden when all of my very close friends are in the US and travel is impossible (the two most useless passports, currently!)

On the summer solstice, I released a single of the Grateful Dead song “Here Comes Sunshine”, one of those unfinished projects, done by passing audio back and forth over the internet with Victor Krummenacher (from CVB, etc) and Kelly Atkins (from Kitka and 20 Minute Loop, someone I started working with a few years back for my last solo album, “Superfluity”). It’s a positive piece of comfort-food music. 

Jonathan Segel is a composer, performer, and multi-instrumentalist. He plays guitar, violin, computer, keyboards, electric bass, and sings. In the 1980s he hooked up with Camper Can Beethoven, apparently for life.

Jonathan has composed music for the Cid Pearlman/Nesting Dolls Dance Company since 1992 and has composed music for Curt Haworth’s Dance Company, Deborah Slater Dance Theater, and Maxine Moerman Dance Theater

He has scored several films, both feature-length and shorts.

Material Press in Germany are the publishers of Jonathan’s Chamber Music scores, available in PDF form.

You can keep up with him at his website and Bandcamp.