In the spring of 1986 (or 1987, depending on whose foggy memory you consult), the Bay Area outfit headed off to a cabin near the resort town of Mammoth, hoping to work out rough sketches for its next LP. Unfortunately, drummer Chris Pedersen broke his arm during a makeshift-toboggan run. Switching gears, the band decided to down a bunch of Pedersen's painkillers and deconstruct Fleetwood Mac's bloated 1979 opus, Tusk.
Why Tusk? Camper violinist Jonathan Segel explains: "Because it's so ridiculous. I think that, more than the hair bands, Tusk really showed the stupid excesses rock had gotten to. ... They spent a million fucking dollars on that record and half of it was recorded in Lindsey Buckingham's basement."
"It was also really uncool to like Fleetwood Mac in the indie rock circle of 1987 or '86," Camper singer David Lowery recalls. "It was just the continuation of the Camper tradition of continually fucking with people's heads, but at the same time play[ing] really good music."
In order to complete the project so quickly, the musicians played along with the original album, taping the results on a four-track. Because of his broken arm, Pedersen resorted to programming beats via a drum machine called the Drumulator. To duplicate Fleetwood Mac's triumvirate of singers, Segel, Lowery, and bassist Victor Krummenacher took turns, with the latter gravitating toward "the Stevie Nicks ones," Lowery says with a chuckle.
Soon after the weekend was over, Camper Van Beethoven went through what is politely called "infighting," with Segel getting booted before the band dissolved altogether in 1990. The tapes for the Tusk remake were lost -- until Camper guitarist Greg Lisher found them in his parents' shop in Santa Cruz in early 2000. By that time, the musicians had reconciled enough to tour with Lowery's post-Camper band, Cracker. Those shows weren't always smooth, but the Camper numbers sounded as good as ever. "Jonathan's better, actually; he'll even tell you that," Lowery says about Segel. He quickly adds, "Ha ha, that's kind of a joke."
Segel, however, agrees with that assessment, saying, "We're all better players." As for Tusk, he reveals, "The one thing David and I have in common is we're closet obsessives: We have to finish everything we start."
In April 2001 the members of Camper began reconstructing the tapes, which had been badly damaged. Using two Apple iBooks and a Power Mac G4, they put the songs back together, looping fragments into whole tunes and rerecording some parts. (The group left clues as to what's new -- listen for such modern sounds as cell-phone rings.)
The result is far better than it has any right to be. As on all of its previous efforts, Camper plays the role of world-traveling tour guide on Tusk, infusing Fleetwood Mac's drugged-out L.A.-isms with global soul. "Angel" has a relaxed reggae beat, "I Know I'm Not Wrong" features bagpipelike synth, and "Brown Eyes" bounces along to a dub-disco rhythm. Segel buoys the simplistic balladry of "Honey Hi" with plaintive mandolin, car horn beeps, and Spanish lyrics, while the title tune becomes a nightmarish mélange of tweaked marching bands, processed bird noises, and evil-sounding guitar drones.
Lowery, however, attempts to downplay the record's merits. "In some ways we're trying not to make a big deal about Tusk -- it's mostly for completists," he says. When the band (including drummer Pedersen, who's flying in from his Australia home) reunites for two shows this week, it'll play only a handful of the Tusk songs, filling out the sets with material from its other albums. Either way, Camper fans will probably leave the shows singing a line from the last tune on Tusk: "We will never forget tonight."
Camper Van Beethoven performs on Saturday, Aug. 24, at 9 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall. Tickets are $20; call 885-0750. The band also plays on Sunday, Aug. 25, at 8 p.m. at Slim's. Tickets are $20; call 522-0333.