From The Desk Of Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel: Swedish “Progg,” Then And Now

CamperVanBeethovenLogoLa Costa Perdida (429) kicks off Camper Van Beethoven’s 30th-anniversary year amidst an orchestrated (if deserving) surge in recognition for the group—everything from Paul Rudd donning a vintage Camper concert tee in the film This Is 40 to glowing quotes from members of R.E.M. and the Meat Puppets. The LP is CVB’s first album since 2004’s New Roman Times and was mostly recorded at multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel’s Oakland home studio a year prior to his move to Sweden. “The process was similar, perhaps, to the recording of Camper’s third album, in that we could experiment and had time to work on things,” says Segel. “The first two CVB albums were recorded in a weekend.” Segel will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our brand new feature on the band.

Prog

Segel: I moved to Sweden last summer. This was brought on by a combination of forces, number one being a Swedish wife and now a half-Swedish daughter, but having the daughter and still trying to live in California precipitated a tsunami of financial misfortune—first, my wife wasn’t working in order to take care of the baby, so it became difficult to afford the daily expenses with my $20/hour job at Pandora, and then they fired me (more on this all later), which resulted in us short-selling our house and leaving town. Big loss for us, money wise.

So I’m in Sweden. As with most Americans, I don’t know a hell of a lot about Swedish music (and I don’t like Abba, I’m sorry to say.) I did know about Dungen, which was a good start, and somehow found my way to some other recent prog-rock type bands like Gösta Berlings Saga, an incredible instrumental band who have three albums out so far.

By luck, there was a festival in a small town nearby my wife’s family’s sommarstuga (the cabin that everybody has out in the woods to go to in the summer) at which Gösta Berlings Saga played last July. By further luck, a man selling records at this tiny festival happened to be Stefan Dimle, who runs the label Mellotronen, which is a reissue label with a huge catalog of old recordings reissued on CD and LP. Check the site out; it’s amazing what’s there. He used to run a record store in Stockholm, too, sadly gone now, but now he’s doing such things as a Mellotronen-band based cruise! They had the first rock boat to Riga this past fall.

Anyhow, I was able to ask him about music and where to start with the Swedish rock and “progg” scene, and he has guided me well. So I started at the beginning, with Mecki Mark Men, from way back in 1967 or so (shockingly Hendrix-y vocals, sort of early Mothers Of Invention music) and went from there to Älgarnas Trädgård, Hansson & Karlsson (remember that Lord Of The Rings record by Bo Hansson? Take a new listen to that!) and November (who are said to be the original Scandinavian metal bandl they were sort of like Blue Cheer) and to Träd, Gras Och Stenar. There are so many bands, so much excellent music, more than I can list.

So, as the prog rock developed in the 1970s, the bands here was all political, socialist-political, much more like Henry Cow than Genesis. And bands like Nationalteatern also had members who were responsible for a great deal of children’s music and television! The music and the message were all pretty amazing.
Obviously the ’80s brought out the bands like Europe, who actually started as more of a metal band (wtf happened there?), but meanwhile the undercurrent of folk prog kept at it (Swedish folk music is pretty rocking), and even into the ’90s there were bands like Änglagård, and I’d even include Garmarna, though they are mostly folk-based.

And in the past decade there are more musicians coming out of the prog-rock closet. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not just musical style that determines “progg” here, it’s also politicization. For example, I turned on Radical.fm and set the sliders to only Swedish Progg, and got Doktor Kosmos, whom I love also, but I wouldn’t consider them musically “prog rock,” so much as political pop.

So here’s another interesting thing: The old dudes are still at it. At the festival I mentioned earlier, Träd, Gras Och Stenar were supposed to play, too, but one of them died. He was probably about 70. Doing a little post facto research, I found out that not only were they still making records, but that even Reine Fiske (guitarist from Dungen) had been playing with them. I got their last record, Hemlösa Katter (Homeless Cats), and … wow. Talk about a band of guys who’ve been playing together a long time, and I don’t mean that they’re tight. They are incredibly loose, this is some of the spaciest echo-laden weirdness I have even had the pleasure to listen to. It’s amazing.

And then Trettioåriga Kriget are still at it (a true 30-years war!) They’re on the Mellocruise next year, as is Opeth. Plus I just found out about a new band called Goat. They sound like Amon Düül II, a bit. From up north. Which means they were weird to begin with.

Video after the jump.