We sat down with Gareth and Tom Campesinos! to reflect on the last 11 years of being, as their Twitter bio puts it, "your ex-girlfriend's favourite band."
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Los Campesinos! are one of the few bands with an exclamation mark in their name whose career didn't die in tandem with Hipster Runoff. Formed in 2006 at Cardiff University, the many-membered indie collective exploded off the back of tracks like "Death To Los Campesinos!" and, through a combination of originality and intense cult fandom, have impressed themselves upon countless cities and scenes around the world without really fitting in anywhere.
As a band they've always been something of a dichotomy. Football and literary references sit side-by-side in their lyrics, which are both sincerely poetic and self-deprecating; the "twee" label they were slapped with (for, presumably, featuring female vocals, a glockenspiel, and none of the tragic, thrusting machismo that indie lad-rock brought to the table) helped map them initially but undercut the experimental and often somber pop of everything that followed their first album. And the Los Campesinos! sound is so specific that on a commercial level they peaked with "You! Me! Dancing!" almost immediately after they formed and are now at a point where they have to balance being mainstream outliers with the knowledge that their music is incredibly meaningful to lots of people.
With the release of their sixth (definitely sixth, not fifth) album Sick Scenes in February, we sat down with Gareth and Tom Campesinos! to reflect on the last 11 years of being, as their Twitter bio puts it, "your ex-girlfriend's favourite band."
5. Hello Sadness (2011)
Noisey: Hello Gareth and Tom of the band Los Campesinos! So…. albums.
Gareth: If we're doing this from worst to best, then our least favorite is unfortunately the one we were touring when Ben Gibbard came to see us play live.
Tom: Our producer who lives in Seattle normally comes to the show and brings whatever band he's been working with at the time. He brought Owl City once...
Gareth: We were backstage before the gig and in comes Ben Gibbard, and we're all huge Death Cab For Cutie fans so we were just like, "Oh, hi Ben!" All I really remember is that he drank a lot of coconut water, and we're talking back in 2012 before coconut water was even a thing. He went up in my estimation even more after that.
Did you get a review out of him?
Gareth: I don't explicitly remember him saying anything but if you're backstage drinking another band's coconut water you're going to be polite about it. So I wouldn't really put too much trust in his words.
While I was reading reviews of this album, the general consensus seemed to be that it was one of your best but arrived at a time when indie was sort of falling out of favor. How do you feel about it?
Tom: The way I see it, Romance Is Boring was this maximalist mess where we tried really hard with a bunch of stuff, maybe too hard in places, and kind of got that out of our system. Then Hello Sadness was an attempt at streamlining everything. I think we were shooting for sophisticated vanilla but parts of it just came out a bit beige.
Gareth: I agree that it was us trying to do something a little more grown up. It's the record of ours that's most explicitly a break up album and it really does go hard on that, and in hindsight I think it goes too hard on it. But that was all I could write at the time, so it had to be that and it wasn't a mistake to be that because it's the only way it could be. There's lots of tracks I really like—"By Your Hand," "Hello Sadness," "Baby I Got the Death Rattle" is still one of my favorites—but I think we made a mistake in some of the tracks we left off it.
There's a track called "Tiptoe Through the True Bits" that we released as a free download afterwards, that I think is a really good song, and a track called "Allez Les Blues" which we used for a seven-inch. I think if you took a couple out and put those two in then suddenly it becomes a different and slightly better album. For me, I was too willfully defeated and moping. The middle section in particular trudges a bit too much. We've always been good at upbeat songs and slow songs but when we attempt mid-tempo it's never quite been right… "Life Is a Long Time" is in the middle of that album, which is one of Rob [Taylor]'s favorite Los Campesinos! songs and, without question, Rob's favorite Los Campesinos! songs are always the worst ones.
4. Hold On Now, Youngster… (2008)
Let's talk about the word "twee," shall we. It's nonsense, isn't it?
Gareth: I'm probably re-writing history a little bit here to make myself seem slightly less obnoxious, but: we recorded four songs, made a demo, put it on the internet and people reacted to it and we got a record label offers off the back of that. Suddenly, we had some version of a fanbase without really having to do much to get it. It was at that Myspace boom—and I still don't think Myspace has been matched as a platform for bands to put stuff out – so people were reacting to it and all it took for me was for a few people to say "they're a twee pop band" and I was like, "Yeah! Sure!" because it was just nice for people to be having opinions at all. Then I think I embraced it a bit too much at one point. I hate to mention it but if I don't mention it it's notable by its absence: "International Tweexcore Underground," which is abysmal, and was meant to be sarcastic but then I think it stopped being sarcastic… We did invite the "twee" label upon ourselves. I'm not sure if it's ever really accurate but it was a useful pigeonhole for us and, well, fair enough.
Tom: When we started there was that new rock revolution thing happening, so our thing was just to be as anti-macho as possible. It was more about that and whatever the word was didn't really matter. It's been so long now that it doesn't bother me either way. You could argue about what we were, but arguing about genres… I'm too old for that now.
Gareth: It certainly used to really bother me, as interviews that I did will attest, but now I'm just grateful that people talk about us at all. Some people would use it to reference our most recent records and for me, then, that's just inaccurate. You may as well be calling us trance.
It's weird, isn't it, because your lyrics are all about death and heartbreak and masturbating, which is extremely not cute.
Gareth: Yeah. There's some lyrics from around that time where I totally am playing up to the twee thing. When people started hearing our songs, I started paying attention to what I thought people wanted us to be like as a band, and I did play up to that even if it was only for a four- to five-month period. Fortunately the worst of it never got recorded, which I'm very grateful for. Some of the lyrics are a bit saccharine and willfully pretentious but I think that disappeared reasonably quickly, although many would disagree.
I keep seeing people comparing "You Me Dancing" to the theme tune for Quantum Leap.
Tom: Quantum Leap is where the kid goes through time to change the world isn't it [brings video up on YouTube, laughs immediately]. I can kind of hear it.
Gareth: "I can kind of hear it," he says, as he realizes he's been rumbled.
Tom: We obviously ripped off a bunch of stuff but it wasn't Quantum Leap.
How do you feel about Hold On Now, Youngster… almost a decade on? Do you look back on it fondly or does it make you cringe a bit?
Tom: Once any song's been written I'm kind of done with it emotionally. Playing it live or whatever afterwards, it's already a forced kind of reenactment of those emotions. Everything is nostalgia once it's written. But I was grateful that people liked it at all. The thing I like about this record is that a lot of it is self-conscious but also these were the only songs we wrote. Everything we've done since then we've known people are going to hear it, so it's like the mirror phase or something. When a child looks at themselves in the mirror for the first time their psychology changes. Every track is like a snapshot of where we were at that point. It's definitely honest. I'm sort of alright with it now. It's like when you're 18 looking at pictures of yourself when you were 14 and it's horrible, but now that I'm 32 I look at pictures of myself when I was 14 and I'm like oh, that's fine.
Gareth: I'm looking at the tracklist now and there's only three or four songs I would say I actively dislike, but my voice is abysmal. That's back when I sang as a version of myself rather than myself. I don't believe that was ever my actual singing voice.
I heard a vicious rumor started by you that the lyrics to "You! Me! Dancing!" are actually "It's poo! It's wee! And there's wanking!" Please confirm.
Gareth: That's probably what Neil has been singing for the last five years.
Tom: Me and Neil made a pact to secretly sing that and it lasted about four gigs before it stopped being funny.
3. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (2008)
So, once and for all, is this an EP or is this an album?
Gareth: We used to claim it was an EP for contractual reasons so Wichita had to release another album from us after. It was originally intended to be an EP, and then ended up being more songs than we anticipated.
Tom: I think it comes back to the twee thing again where we didn't even know what it was.
Gareth: I annoyed a lot of people by insisting for a number of years that it was an EP. However, these days, I myself get annoyed when long term fans say "Actually, it's an EP," because I want to be able to say that "my band has released six albums" not "my band has released five albums" because it makes us seem like we've been more important for longer. I'm firmly in the "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is an album" camp now.
Tom: It's kind of a relief that we're even talking about it because I'm realizing now that I just don't care what people say about these albums. This is kind of like therapy for me.
Gareth: We must've recorded it only four months after Hold On Now, Youngster… came out and at that point I wanted some sort of reappraisal of the band almost immediately after we existed. I think We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed is noticeably different. Obviously it's within the same sphere of music, but I think our musicianship and Tom's songwriting developed pretty quickly after Hold On Now, Youngster...
Tom: I was genuinely scared I'd never be able to write another song again. That fear sort of drove me to write as much as possible and all of a sudden we had loads.
You recorded it with John Goodmanson who's worked with Bikini Kill and Death Cab For Cutie, Sleater-Kinney… He became your regular producer after that. Tell me about working with him.
Gareth: He mixed Hold On There, Youngster… too because it quickly became apparent that the original mixes that were happening weren't going to be sound how we'd like them to, so Wichita gave us some producer options and we chose John because he'd worked with Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, he did the radio edit of "Bandages" by Hot Hot Heat....
Well, say no more.
Gareth: The important thing for me is that we recorded it right after a US tour with Parenthetical Girls who are one of my all time favorite bands and I was very much in awe of spending time with them. I felt quite embarrassed a lot of the time performing the songs from Hold On There, Youngster… in front of them, because at that point we weren't playing anything from We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed.
Embarrassed of the songs?
Gareth: Not of our songs, but my role in them. So coming straight off the back of that, going into the studio and writing lyrics, the were a huge presence and the friendships we formed with them were a really big influence.
Shortly after the same year you toured with No Age and Times New Viking, played your first shows in South America. Would you say this was the album where everything "kicked off" for you?
Gareth: If I'm being honest I think our peak of people caring about us was probably Hold On There, Youngster…
Tom: It's kind of been downhill ever since then, hasn't it? But then, there's been this sort of fight on our path to credibility and then we gave up on that and now it's just nice to exist.
Gareth: I think We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed did help us reposition ourselves a bit in terms of what people expected. Now that you mention it, it feels weird to be headlining a bill with No Age and Times New Viking. One thing that's always been really weird is how we're perceived in the States compared to how we're perceived over here. US press has always seen us as being a very British band and UK press, particularly NME at the time, saw us as being a very US-inspired band, so it's been a weird middle ground. To do that tour, which was at the release of We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed, was a lot of fun and it was very good for us to be surrounded by noisier bands which probably did feed directly into where we went next.
Tom: Yeah, it definitely influenced Romance Is Boring. Times New Viking had all these really short pop songs that were super melodic but noisy—and refined, as well, in terms of there only being three of them. Basically what we'd been trying to do, but better. We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed was definitely in between things because it was the first self-conscious record. It was the first time where it was like shit, people are going to perceive us and now we have to think about how we want to be perceived and the kind of music we want to make before we even write any more songs. It was really hard. There's literally a little bit of leftover from Hold On Now, Youngster… and a bunch of other things we were trying, songs we simplified. I don't see it as one of our best albums, thematically it's kind of like a compilation, I guess. It's a little cobbled together.
Gareth: One thing I really like about our band is I don't think there's a standard answer to 'what's your favorite Los Campesinos album?' I know that most people's answer to that would be 'who are Los Campesinos!' or 'I hate Los Campesinos!' but when you're asking people who do like us it's a pretty even mix. A load of people absolutely love Hello Sadness because they've used it as a therapeutic tool going through a breakup or difficult times. That's probably the first record where I'm explicitly writing about mental health and depression and I know a lot of people like it because of that, and that's great, but it's always really nice to see when people rank our records and every list is completely different. We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed is one I often notice is people's favorite though.
2. No Blues (2013)
I feel like this is one of the more optimistic albums. Would you say that's true?
Gareth: Yeah, which seems strange because the reason we didn't go with No Blues as the top album is because it was just a really shit time. It was recorded when the label that we were working with at that point was, we felt, losing interest.
Tom: I think they'd completely lost interest.
Gareth: I was trying to be diplomatic. They'd lost interest. And one thing that's nice to have as a band is somebody cheering for you, be that a record label or management, because you get so involved in the songs you don't really know if they're any good or not. Off the back of promoting [this record] we probably only played a total of ten gigs. So for me it was kind of a missed opportunity. We only released two songs off it, none of them got sent to radio, we kept being told tour dates would happen and they never did—boring tedious music industry stuff that when you get to a fifth album you can pay attention to.
So what did you enjoy about it?
Gareth: Strangely, it was the recording experience I enjoyed the most. We've been really lucky to record in America, Canada, Hello Sadness was done just outside Barcelona, and then we went to Bethesda, North Wales, for this one and I fucking loved it. We just stayed in a cottage that was attached to the studio and every day I'd walk to the Tesco Express, sit in the pub for a few pints and write, then go back and watch Tipping Point and The Chase in the afternoon. It was just my normal life but being able to justify drinking in the afternoon. As a lyricist, it was the point where I stopped caring what anybody thought and just wrote for myself and allowed myself to be as esoteric as I wanted. But as an era, it was tainted by the fact that we didn't get to capitalize on it or enjoy it too much.
Tom: The music is less tainted by the scenario, for me. Everything that's on No Blues works really well; there's a narrative. Normally within a couple of months you're like "Shit, I wish we hadn't done that, I wish we'd done this differently', but this is one of the few records where I don't have any of those thoughts. By this point we weren't trying to make ourselves be perceived a certain way, we just made a record that we wanted to make.
1. Romance Is Boring (2010)
Why, in your professional opinion, is this your best?
Tom: In a weird way, this was probably the most self-conscious record, and it's probably the most try-hard record as well. A lot of it was a reaction to being called "twee" and "pop" so we wanted to make these really aggressive songs in strange time signatures. I would never make songs like that again, at the moment I'm not in that frame of mind where I would, so when I listen to them I'm like, "Shit, I can't believe we made this," It was the record that took the longest and we spent the longest on. There's a lot of detail, a lot of complexity for us, it's like indie-pop-prog or something… There's a lot in there I still like.
Gareth: Yeah, it ended up being recorded over three or four months, beginning to end. Lyrically, it's so dense, there's so many words, it is quite referential and things cut back and forth from each other. I like albums where lyrically it works better as a whole than as individual tracks and I think this is one of those. Also, the first track we put out from it being "The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future" was the first time we'd done something that was slow and quite emo. So that made a lot of people who previously dismissed us step back a bit and wonder if, actually, they do like it after all. For me the thing that puts this in the top spot is that it was when we were touring the most and when I feel like we were being our best selves, I suppose. Looking at the tracklist now there are a lot of songs that we maybe took for granted at the time that have now found themselves to be cult favorites or whatever.
Los Campesinos! has such a distinct sound. Do you find it difficult trying to stay true to that while also keeping things interesting for yourselves and in terms of what else is going on in music or is that something you try not to consider much?
Tom: With the first album, it was just whatever we could play, whatever came out—that was the sound. It's guitars and drums and bass and that's all we could do. That's why it gets weird, because all of a sudden you're doing it as a career and you have to write another record and question why you're doing it and what it should sound like. But I think the advantage our band has is that we've never been cool, so we've never really had to worry about trends.
Everything we do, whether we wanted it to be or not, is kind of outside of what is commercially relevant. We're outsiders and we've always been outsiders and maybe that's why the people who do give a shit about it give a shit about it. I've always admired bands like Pavement or Yo La Tengo whose sound hasn't really changed that much, and when you name those bands you know exactly what they sound like, whereas there are bands these days where it's almost a different genre album to album. Ultimately then they can dilute their personalities because of that. So I don't really mind sounding the same.
Gareth: As far as I'm concerned, Tom is a genius and he can do anything and everything, but it wouldn't be Los Campesinos!. This sounds incredibly cheesy and over the top, but for those of us in the band and those who like our band – because not a lot of people like our band, but those who do really, really like our band—Los Campesinos! has become something bigger than the sum of its parts, and it's not something we're even in a position to attempt to change. Whatever we do is what Los Campesinos! is and for us to make a conscious decision to try to change that wouldn't be true to what the band has become and how much we've put into it. The opportunities Los Campesinos! has given us as people and as a band are countless, and the relationship we've got with people who come to our gigs is overwhelming. I don't feel in control of that at all.
Sick Scenes is out now via everywhere.
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