Dirty-haired Christian Stone’s
delicate 6-foot frame is slightly slouched.
He wears well-worn Converse and a vintage T-shirt that reads: i want to be ridiculously rich. He looks like an alternative rock star from the ’90s. And he is, sort of. Or almost was before his band, Campfire Girls, spiraled into a heroin-induced hell nearly
a decade ago. Before that, singer–songwriter–guitar player Stone’s and bassist Andrew Clark’s androgynous sex appeal and raw talent proved irresistible to all the pretty disasters who lived and died for broken music and who weren’t ready for their moment to end that summer following the spring when Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Maybe that’s why, soon after Cobain’s demise, the DeLongpre house where the Campfire Girls lived and played became a sanctuary of seemingly endless barbecues, jam sessions and blissed-out good vibrations. Campfire Girls — with its too fragile and too pretty singer and bass player singing about the girls who broke their hearts and the people who lived in their seedy neighborhood — became something to believe in. The band appeared to be at the center of a burgeoning music scene and provoked one of the most frenzied bidding wars of 1994. “There was an element of vulnerability that no other band had,” recalls Melinda Mara, an artist and musician who was around the scene in those days, “humble and insecure, but doing it anyway. They were like on a tightrope. You never knew if they were gonna fail miserably or be the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen.”
Yet, as with many young, sensitive musicians before and after them, the pressures of youth and success fueled a strong drive to medicate and self-destruct. “Drugs happen more often than not,” says A&R executive Mark Williams, who signed the band to their current (and second) deal at Interscope. “But it seemed particularly sad with them. They never really made it out of the gate. There was so much promise. People just had so much expectation in ’94. They definitely conquered Hollywood, but basically they never got out of the Eastside.”
By the winter of 1995, barely a year after he signed a $350,000 record deal that included the band’s own studio and imprint label, Stone was turning tricks on Santa Monica Boulevard for drug money, and Clark was in his third rehab. Meanwhile, the DeLongpre house had become a vortex for glitter-nail-polished drug addicts and sycophants. Friends, who months before were experimenting in bisexual make-out sessions, were by then attacking each other over drugs. The magic was over, and the band’s lurid misadventures and missed opportunities were becoming legend.
Ten years after it all went so suddenly right and wrong, Stone is miraculously alive and the Campfire Girls are back, having recently released Tell Them Hi, the major-label record they never got around to releasing back then. More optimistic than their earlier trademark melancholia, the new album expresses the kind of joy maybe only a person who has been given a deeply appreciated second chance can understand. Drinking iced tea at a Silver Lake café, the now cleaned-up Stone explains where that comes from: “I was a desperate person. I should be dead now.”
Thirty-one-year-old Christian Stone was “raised on classic rock and pot smoke” by hippie parents who got pregnant with him in high school. He played drums in the elementary school band and loved Neil Young, Iggy Pop and Motley Crue. Stone dreamed of making it to California, which he did as a roadie for a band from his hometown of Methuen, Massachusetts.
Once he got here, Stone met Campfire Girls’ original drummer, Jon Pikus, while they were both staying at a crash pad in the Miracle Mile district. Stone had been invited to live there by the house’s manic-depressive owner, Dano, who met Stone at a rave. Pikus was staying there rent-free in exchange for running the 16-track studio in the garage.
At the time, Pikus was using the studio to record his own band and Dano’s, as well as the initial demos for Weezer and now-forgotten but once-promising bands Plexi and Black Market Flowers. Pikus and Stone hit it off instantly, and the location proved ideal for Stone to develop his guitar playing, songwriting and production skills under the tutelage of Pikus.
“It was a dream come true,” says Stone.
That is, until their host went off his meds and painted everything green — walls, furniture, cars.
“He even painted the grass,” remembers Pikus, now director of A&R at Columbia Records.
When the house’s owner put the stove, refrigerator and microwave oven out on the lawn with a free sign, Stone and Pikus figured it was time to move on. They ended up finding a ramshackle four-bedroom Spanish-style house on DeLongpre, just east of Highland. It was there that Stone and Pikus would start recording together and the Campfire Girls began. It was also there that they and many of their friends would self-destruct.
But first, the good times.
Stone’s close friend Casey Niccoli (Perry Farrell’s ex and fabled muse) was the one who introduced Andrew Clark to the band after she tired of hearing Stone complain about needing a bass player. The story goes, Niccoli singled out the blue-eyed, golden-blond, fifth-generation Californian from the crowd one night outside Club Lingerie. She wrote Stone’s number on a dollar bill and told Clark that he and her boyfriend were destined to make beautiful music together. Clark spent the dollar without calling, but the two finally met later when the Campfire Girls opened for Weezer at the Gaslight.
The next day Clark went over to the DeLongpre house with “a big chunk of hash” and pretty much just stayed.
Everything clicked at first: the cute punk rock girls, the barbecues in the back yard, and a residency at a new club off Hollywood Boulevard called Bar Deluxe. It was far from a fancy gig — the club had no stage — but when the Campfire Girls played, they drew people like Dave Navarro and Eric Avery of Jane’s Addiction, members of Weezer, Hole, Lifter, That Dog and up-and-coming industry figures like Maverick’s Guy Oseary.
By August, the band had released a self-produced EP and had become the subject of an intense bidding war that can only be understood in the context of everybody wanting to find the next Nirvana. They signed with Interscope — considered new and innovative back then — to a deal that included a $150,000 home recording studio, their own imprint label and three full-length releases. At that point they had played less than a dozen shows.
Pikus and Clark started smoking heroin right around the time they were to record their first album for Interscope. Stone was dead set against hard drugs, having seen the damage they’d done to his relationship with Niccoli, a subject that would provide fodder for much of that initial record.
The first night they started recording the album, Pikus and Clark were high and sounded horrible. Stone, feeling the heat as the main songwriter, was furious and blamed the drugs. He demanded that Pikus and Clark give him a third of everything they had.
“At that time, everyone around me was using, and the pressure of making the record, trying to write all those songs . . . I just snapped and decided to do drugs,” he recalls now. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be the worst fucking junkie you ever saw.’”
And he was, with Clark and others around DeLongpre right behind him. Some places have a specific energy to them: the Himalayas, the Wailing Wall . . . the Bermuda Triangle. The DeLongpre house had a magnetic pull for local drug friends. It became an abyss where lives crashed and disappeared. Everyone from former Cobain acolytes to music-biz execs to rock stars was getting fucked up at DeLongpre.
“People were always overdosing,” remembers Jason Pepper, an actor who lived in the back house for almost three years and eventually got strung out himself. “9-1-1 stopped taking calls.” Pepper remembers Stone walking around the house with needles sticking out of his arms and a very loaded Clark burning down part of the house.
It would get worse before it got better for those two.
In the fall of 1995, the band went to New York to play the College Music Journal (CMJ) New Music Festival. Stone and Clark were in such bad shape their skull bones were showing and they fought onstage. Afterward, the band had a meeting with Q Prime, the big-league management company that had signed the band one month prior. During the meeting, Pikus, who despite his dabbling had never gotten strung out, told Stone and Clark they needed to go back to rehab.
“It’s the only way to save the band,” Pikus, who had assumed the role of manager–father figure, remembers saying.
Stone and Clark kicked him out of the band on the spot. The three then got in a fistfight in the elevator, tumbling out into the lobby of Q Prime’s midtown high-rise.
Meanwhile, back at DeLongpre things were so bad, “The animals were committing suicide,” Pepper recalls. One day, Pepper’s dog Sam jumped out of a window and ran across Highland, where he was hit by a car. “He couldn’t wait to get out of there,” says Pepper, who recalls being high on heroin and using a wok spoon to bury Sam. It wasn’t long before Stone and another housemate were burying their cats out back as well. “There was a whole pet cemetery back there,” Pepper explains.
Upon returning from New York, the band members went their separate ways. Pikus managed to parlay the band’s one success — releasing several EPs of local talent — into a job scouting for Interscope. Stone and Clark, hopelessly strung out, had no such luck.
After some unsuccessful tours without Pikus and more stabs at rehab, Stone and Clark pawned everything they had and ultimately were evicted from DeLongpre. Stone started hustling and Clark kicked more times than he can remember. He got arrested for stealing CDs and slept in parks. He almost died from a bad blood disease but returned to drugs straightaway. Stone also had the kind of poor luck that follows junkies and got stabbed one night in the parking lot of Rock ’n’ Roll Ralphs. There were also pilgrimages to Mexico, San Francisco and Sedona, Arizona, in botched attempts of getting straight.
In 1999, something happened that brought them to a screeching halt. D’arcy West, Clark’s former best friend and sometimes girlfriend, overdosed and died. Others had died, friends from DeLongpre, but this was different. West, a smart and sardonic writer, left an indelible impression on most everyone she met. She had been a source of strength for the band, believing in them when doubts or pressure plagued them. She had helped Clark endlessly in his attempts to clean up. She was the last one they thought would die. After that, getting high seemed like a cop-out to Clark.
“She was my barometer for everything,” says Clark, tears building in his eyes. “I thought she was the coolest girl I ever met.”
West’s death not only spurred Clark to get sober but brought him together with Friends of Dean Martinez lead guitarist Mike Semple, who had also had a similar relationship with West. In the wake of her death, the two men helped each other stay sober, and Semple ended up joining the Campfire Girls, adding a level of musicianship previously missing.
If West was something of a guardian angel for the Campfire Girls, their savior came in the unlikely personage of Scott Weiland. The Stone Temple Pilot had long been a fan, going so far as to mention the band in one of his songs. When he heard that Clark and Stone were sober, he tracked Stone down at the West Hollywood coffee shop where he worked.
Weiland convinced Clark and Stone to come down to his studio for some sessions. Soon, Pikus joined in. One day, during rehearsal, Semple did too; it sounded great and seemed like fate to everyone involved. Weiland started producing some demos and wanted to sign them to a label deal he had in the works. The band called old friend Mark Williams, by now at Interscope, who had wanted to sign them back in ’94 when he was at Virgin. They asked Williams if he could help them get out of their old deal. Williams ended up re-signing them instead.
“They are a great band with great songs,” explains a hopeful Williams. “That’s all that really matters.”
For the band, their recent record deal is nothing short of a miracle, and they are not taking it for granted. Released last fall, Tell Them Hi is a combination of reworked material from the doomed DeLongpre sessions and new material. (The DeLongpre album, which was completed in ’95 but shelved by the label, was quietly released to critical acclaim last year.) Tell Them Hi is dedicated to D’arcy West, and the inside artwork is a childlike letter she wrote Semple back in 1993 entitled “How I Spent My Summer.”
The band spent last summer on Lollapalooza and just finished up two tours, one with Epic’s Chevelle and another with RCA’s Eve6. A video is in the works. For the first time in many years, the Campfire Girls’ future looks bright.
“I feel incredibly lucky and blessed,” explains Clark, who is still young enough for MTV. “When I think of everything we’ve gone through, no matter what happens from here on out, it feels right. I feel like I have the best friends in the world. Things happened the way they happened. I love Christian. I will always love Christian. He’s like my brother. We have come full circle.”