Los Campesinos!: ‘We’ve Always Been True To Ourselves’
Few bands reach album number five unscathed, and it's not been without its hurdles for Los Campesinos!
There’s a line in ‘Baby I Got the Death Rattle’, one of the tracks from Los Campesinos!’ last album: “On the walk back to your house in the cold from City Arms.” A Cardiff pub not too far from the station, City Arms, it turns out, has quite a history with the band. “In recent years, City Arms has become a good place in Cardiff to come to because it’s got a good beer selection, and it’s not full of screaming teenagers,” frontman Gareth explains fondly. “When we recorded our first ever demos, of ‘Death to...’ – known as ‘Track One’ in those days – ‘It Started With a Mixx’, ‘Sweetcheeks’, ‘You! Me! Dancing!’, we did it for two days at a youth centre.
Posted 15th October 2013, 8:10am
“There used to be a DJ booth just there,” he points. “Our friend Gary DJ’d. We bounded in, like puppies or something, and asked him to play our record. He did, and we danced to it, shamelessly. Nobody else knew what was going on. He played ‘You! Me! Dancing!’, and for better or for worse - for better - that is the song that has underpinned our quote-unquote career.” Gareth says it almost sarcastically, but Los Campesinos! have a career a lot of bands would love. “We’ll take compliments for working hard any time. It suits us.” Guitarist Tom joins in: “It’s all we’ve got really, isn’t it?”
Well, no. They are a hard-working band, of course. Reluctant to go too long without touring, they’ve wedged a short run of gigs in at the end of the year, with a full tour for new album ‘No Blues’ coming in 2014. But their work ethic isn’t the only thing they’ve got. Los Campesinos! fans can be… enthusiastic. It’s a fact they’re grateful for, as Gareth notes: “Now, more than ever, we feel very lucky to have a band to be in. And that makes me think, it is what it is, whatever happens, happens, and don’t stress about it too much,” but it’s also slightly the reason Gareth doesn’t like reading press about the band.
“I’m not as bad as I used to be; that’s probably still pretty bad,” he admits. “The one thing that’s changed with my reading of press, and comments from people, is that I find the ones that are really hyperbolic and worship us as ridiculous as the ones that say we’re absolute dog shit. I’ve kind of reconciled myself to decide everyone’s stupid; for every person who thinks you’re amazing, there’s another who thinks you’re shit. We’re not the best band in the world, and we’re not the shittest.”
‘What Death Leaves Behind’, the first track to be revealed from the album, is however, very, very good. On why they chose to put it out first, Tom gives a fairly simple, but powerful statement: “I thought it was a really good pop song, and I thought it would surprise people after ‘Hello Sadness’, and there’s a part of me that likes that reaction. I think we’ve realised we just like making pop music. The lyrics ended up being a good statement to put out there first; ‘we will flower again’.”
It’s "We're not the worst bands in the world, and we're not the shittest." almost strange that the band might not have expected the positive reception the song’s received, but Gareth explains: “This, five albums in - even people who’ve been a fan of us for six years or whatever, they’re six years older now. They might’ve been 16 years old and we were singing these songs from [debut album] ‘Hold On Now, Youngster’ that they really connected with. And now they’re 22 and there’s no reason they should still like us. Because I don’t like all the same things I liked six years ago; none of us do.”
Of course, what he’s forgetting is that the band themselves have changed; grown up, even. “The thing about maturity,” Tom muses, “is that every year you’re like, ‘Now I’m mature. I thought I was mature last year, but this year, now I’m mature’. I’ve kind of learnt the lesson that in 10 years’ time, I’ll think ‘Wow. You thought you’d matured then, but you’re still a dick’.”
The two bandmates continuously bounce ideas off each other, often resulting in some less than savoury metaphors. “I think the first time was after ‘We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed’,” Gareth starts, broaching his occasional writer’s block. “It’d be like, ‘I literally cannot write any more songs. Can’t think of anything else that I could possibly write about’. And then ‘Romance is Boring’ comes around and it’s like, ‘Okay’. And then afterwards, ‘That’s it’. It happens after every record.” “You make it sound like when you’re puking up,” laughs Tom, “and that final retch, there’s nothing else. Then you’re like, ‘Oh wait, there’s more’.” “That’s probably the most accurate metaphor of my songwriting,” Gareth grins.
As with previous albums, the lyrical lines of ‘No Blues’ were written after everything else. “The vocal is the centrepiece of most pop songs, and having that last…” Tom pauses. “There are advantages and disadvantages to it. Sometimes I get too close and want it to just follow a guitar riff, and it doesn’t always work. But sometimes Gareth will come up with something brilliant, and I’d never have come up with it. You just have to try different options out, and we had time to do that this time.” Gareth adds: “This record was the one where we had the most time to work with the lyrics and vocal melodies. With ‘Hello Sadness’ especially, it was pretty much last minute.”
‘No Blues’ was recorded in Bethesda, a small town in north Wales. And according to Gareth, it was “perfect”. “For the last two records, when there’s been talk of where to record, there has been mention of doing it in Cardiff, because there’s a couple of good studios in Cardiff. For a little bit of time we’ve gone along with it, but in reality, we need to be taken away from what we know, and put together the six of us in a house. You live together, so you have to get along with each other. There’s a shop down there... that’s it. And that works well for us. It’s a working holiday. To go away to record and be in each other’s pockets for that time is a really nice thing to do, on a friendship level as much as anything else.”
Of course, there’s a slightly darker element to this as well. “It was especially important for this record,” Tom reveals, “because – well, not because, but with [bassist] Ellen leaving, and trying to work out if it was even possible to carry on doing the band – me and Gareth had to come for a drink in Cardiff and say, ‘Should we still be doing this?’ We all said we wanted to do it, and that was reason enough. But having those six weeks recording really hammered home that it is what we wanted to be doing. We’ll make it work, whatever. But it was pretty dark leading up to that.”
Both "It's kind of amazing that we've not done cheerleaders before." of them are pragmatic about it; after all, Ellen isn’t the first to leave Los Campesinos!, and she may not be the last. “There are only three founding members of the band, four people have... ‘passed on’, left, since we’ve been together,” Gareth points out. “I think we’re expected to be really emotional about it, and it can sometimes seem cold. I think it’s natural to be a bit defensive, because we’re still doing this. But you do kind of get used to it. It’s still horrible, you’d rather your friend didn’t leave the band.” “We have longer to digest it,” Tom continues, “before people hear about it, we’ve probably known for six months. If you look on Wikipedia, it looks like one fatality after another. It’s happens over a long time.”
For the upcoming tour, Matt from Among Brothers – a band who supported them at their Christmas show last year – will be joining them on bass. There aren’t really any signs of nervousness, despite the fact they haven’t played this year at all. They’re both just excited, to play the new songs as much as the old ones. And they’re armed with a backing track. “We’ve made mistakes in the past of worrying about how to do things live before you record them, to the point where you don’t record them,” says Tom. “Come up with the ideas, record them, then worry about live later.”
One of the tracks on ‘No Blues’, the brilliantly titled ‘Avocado, Baby’, features vocals from the Cardiff Cougars Allstar Cheerleading Squad. It’s not the easiest thing to recreate live, but as Gareth points out: “It turned out great, and it served exactly the purpose that we wanted. It’s a good texture within the record, and it’s kind of amazing that we’ve not done cheerleaders before to be honest.” No sniggering at the back there. With hindsight, they might not be in a hurry to repeat the experience, or ‘do cheerleaders’ again.
“We felt a million years old, because they looked at us like we were absolute idiots. They were lovely girls and boys, but we might as well’ve been their parents,” Gareth admits. Not quite the excited ‘we’re going to be on a record’ you’d expect, then. What’s crazy is that ‘Avocado, Baby’ nearly didn’t even make it onto the record. Gareth reminds Tom that it was the one he was least sure of. “Oh yeah, it nearly didn’t make it, did it? It’s quite weird, there’s a lot of strange sections.” Tom thinks. “It’s easy to over think it. Instinctive reactions are really important in that sense.”
Elsewhere on ‘No Blues’ is ‘Let it Spill’, a track Gareth considers to be quite an underdog. “No-one knows this, but do you know when I came up with the initial idea for that song?” Tom asks. “It was when we were recording [2007 single] ‘Tweexcore’. It’s that old. It’s totally different to the initial idea now; I record any idea I come up with, and I just listen back to them. I changed it enough that it’s barely noticeable, but it’s funny that it’s from that period.”
“We’ve always been true to ourselves; we’ve never tried to mature too quickly,” Gareth claims, “or pretend to be something that we’re not. Equally, when people say, ‘Oh, I wish they’d sound like they did on ‘Hold On Now, Youngster’, there’s never been even the slight temptation to be like, ‘Okay, let’s record a song really badly and put glockenspiel on it’.” There isn’t even a slight chance of hearing any glockenspiel on ‘Let It Spill’, but it’s still amusing to think that an older part of Los Campesinos! lives on in ‘No Blues’. Perhaps it’s because the band have got their wink back.
Tom points out that the album title is taken from a lyric: “The title is taken out of context, and we like that.” Gareth expands: “The lyric is: ‘There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine’. So it’s the notion that my blues, my sadness, is the saddest.” “Which is what every person thinks,” Tom adds. “But it’s done so knowingly,” Gareth says. “I think ‘Hello Sadness’ might’ve been missing a bit of a wink, which ‘Romance is Boring’ had and ‘No Blues’ has.” Tom distils ‘No Blues’ into one final statement: “This album is the embodiment of an idealistic conversation, four or five pints into a night; it’s not practical or pragmatic, but there’s this sense of belief that’s detached from the everyday.”
Los Campesinos!’s new album ‘No Blues’ will be released on 28th October via Heart Swells / Turnstile / Wichita Recordings.
Taken from the new, free DIY Weekly, available to read online or to download on iPad now.