Los Campesinos!, On Pitch

Published October 29, 2013

ABOVE: LOS CAMPESINOS! PHOTO COURTESY OF KIRSTEN MCTERNAN.

The UK indie-pop sextet Los Campesinos! are veritable emotional streakers, wearing their hearts on their sleeves and nothing else. Their 2008 debut, Hold On Now, Youngster…, featured, for instance, a breakup song with: a 14-word title, unison screaming about bikes on fire, and a spoken-word monologue that namedrops LiveJournal, the early ’00s blogging platform. It was hypermanic but hyperbrainy, completely open and guileless, the sort of music perfect for awkward college kids to dance to in their dorm rooms while dreaming of crushes or getting over high school exes.

On follow-ups like We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed and Hello Sadness, lead singer and lyricist Gareth Campesinos! taught himself to peel off even more—to reveal the bone, cartilage, and sinew underneath, sometimes literally. Working through sexual obsessions, eating disorders, and an ever-present anxiety over death, the energy remained but the themes got grimmer, the music gaunter.

But for their latest release, No Blues, Los Campesinos! pack it all back on—candy-colored synth lines, a cheerleader shout-along hinging on an extended avocado metaphor, and overflowing-stream-of-consciousness reveries on love, death, and soccer. In a career that’s never been lacking in it, No Blues might be the boldest step yet. Gareth, just as open as you’d expect, spoke with us about his band’s newfound confidence, their tight-knit relationship with their audience, and co-songwriter Tom Campesinos!’s ambition to cross modern-day hip-hop trends with ’90s emo.

ADAM D. SMITH: How’s it going? What are you doing to prepare for the release?

GARETH CAMPESINOS!: We’re at the stage where there’s very little that you can do. It’s weird—it’s kind of nice to feel powerless and know that the album is being pressed currently and the promo copies have gone out and you can’t change anything. You can’t change the record, and you can’t change how it’s going to be perceived. You’re in this state of purgatory. But it’s exciting. People chatting about the album have been super positive. We’re feeling really good about it. To us the record is three, four months old? And I do still like it. That isn’t always the case—sometimes you release something and within a month you think, “Oh, I’m not so sure about that now.” But this is still feeling good to me. I feel like it’s what we needed to do after Hello Sadness, the last record.

SMITH: What’s changed since then? Even if you only compare the titles—from Hello Sadness to No Blues—it sounds like a more optimistic record.

CAMPESINOS!: When Hello Sadness came out, I was super defensive about it—it was well received, but people were saying maybe it’s a little bit po-faced, maybe it’s a little bit overly serious. And at the time I was adamant, “No, it’s not, this is a great document of where I’m at right now.” Which it was, but, equally, it was kind of lacking in a sort of knowing wink. The subject matter on No Blues is pretty much as depressing—kind of about different things, but still pretty bleak and pretty downbeat. But it’s done in the spirit of, “Things are gonna be like this, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but you may as well enjoy yourself.” I think it’s a little more knowing, a little bit cockier, a little bit cheekier, a little bit more confident. And I’m happy with that.

SMITH: “Confident” is totally a word I would use—it’s like you’ve created this little world for yourself and you trust listeners to find their way in.

CAMPESINOS!: Yeah, more than ever, we are confident, in our ability and in the record. We’re happy with where we’re at. We’ve kind of created a—not a big following by any means—but a very devoted following, and it seems like they want us to do what we want to do. And by approaching what we want to do with 100% conviction and making the record that we want to make, everybody else seems happy with that. The two tracks we’ve put out so far, “What Death Leaves Behind” and “Avocado, Baby,” are both pretty big, bold tracks, and the reception has been unanimously positive. Way better than we could’ve dreamt. And because we know where we’re at as a band and that we’re not going to make it big and sell thousands of records, we know that all we can do is be true to ourselves.

SMITH: I once read an interview with where you claimed your goal was to become so famous and successful that every girl who had ever rejected you would feel badly.

CAMPESINOS!: That does sound exactly like the sort of thing that I would have said. Isn’t that everybody’s aim in life, though?

SMITH: [laughs] Absolutely.

CAMPESINOS!: Like, what it boils down to is… all the partners that have wronged you in the past, making them feel slightly regretful, a sense of “What could have been?” I’m nowhere near that. But I’m fortunately on very good terms with most people that I’ve ever been in a relationship with. I still wish they regret things massively, obviously.

SMITH: So what is your goal as a band now? Is it just, like you were saying, to make the music you want to make and connect with the people who are into it?

CAMPESINOS!: Yeah, it’s that, and it’s being able to maintain people’s interest in us. I think the only time we’d ever choose to stop doing it would be if we felt like we’d lost our audience. It’s probably the same in the States, but there are quite a lot of British bands who had a heyday and then suddenly they realized they were on their sixth record and nobody’s really listening anymore. And they become… not a joke, but there’s a sense that they’re shouting into the void. I don’t want to ever feel like that. If we could just get gradually, slightly more famous each time we play, so that when we go back to New York for a gig there’s just one more person than there was there last time, we would consider that to be a success. Just that we don’t show any big sign of dropping off in popularity. We don’t want to be way more popular, but it would be nice to not be any less popular than we are.

SMITH: You wanna always sort of be on the way up.

CAMPESINOS!: Yeah, even if it’s a very flat incline.

SMITH: You seem to have a really personal connection with your fan base. Sometimes—there’s a line in “To Tundra” about it, or the “ex-boyfriend” bit in “Glue Me”—your lyrics seem self-aware that they’re “playing therapist” for people.

CAMPESINOS!: Yeah, that is a deliberate thing. I think that one of the worst things that a band can do with their fan base is to patronize them. We’ve always tried to ensure that there’s no hierarchy that exists between us and the fans. Like, when on tour, we still sell our own merch. As soon as the gig’s finished, I will walk from the stage over to the merch desk, and I will meet people and talk with people and sell people merch. That’s really important, because the people who come to the gigs are exactly the same as us. If we weren’t in this band, we would be going to the same gigs that they were going to, and looking up at the stage in the same way that they do. A lot of bands are kind of condescending to their fan base in that they’re afraid to upset them, but I think the best thing you can do is treat your fans as though they were your friends. You don’t have to agree with them all the time, and you can take the piss out of them, just as they can take the piss out of you. And I think that makes for the best possible relationship. It means that you can connect as people, not just as band member and fan of band, which is a kind of soulless relationship. I think the best example of a lyric where I am referencing that massively is a track from our Heat Rash series—did you know about that?

SMITH: I did, yeah.

CAMPESINOS!: There’s a track called “She Crows”, and the first lyric, goes, “Writing sleeper hits for all these weeping dipshits.” It’s an acknowledgement of this role that we’ve kind of taken as “therapists” and mocking it slightly. And I guess mocking our audience slightly, but in a very playful and friendly way.

SMITH: Hello Sadness was recorded in Barcelona, but you made this record in Wales. Do you think that made a big difference on the record?

CAMPESINOS!: This was the first time we’ve ever stayed at “home” and recorded in the UK. Initially we were a little bit put out, because having recorded in glamorous climes previously, for it to then be like, “Oi, you’re just gonna go 200 miles down the road,” was kind of underwhelming. But just by cutting out things like flying time and acclimatizing, it allowed us to make what I would consider to be quite a well-thought-out and patient record. We got to the studio and it was the first time that we had a week at the start of recording to just rehearse. So it was really nice to have this time to try things out and come up with ideas and finalize parts and things like that. I don’t think we would have had that if we weren’t in Wales.

SMITH: It does sound more thought out. Your lyrics, in particular—before they’d seemed pretty autobiographical, but on this album they’re a lot more abstract and more poetic.

CAMPESINOS!: Yeah, it was kind of a weird situation—going into making this record, I was happy. I mean, I still have the same neuroses as I’ve always had and the same worries and concerns, but, like, in my everyday life I was happy. So while I plumb depths and explore memories within the songs, I don’t think I could have relied on that for a whole record. So it is perhaps a bit more abstract. My main thing was going over each individual line way more—I paid much more attention to not just the words themselves, but how the words sound, how the words sound next to each other. And I think generally we set out to make a more melodic record this time around. That was Tom’s main goal, I know that. So I just wanted to be a lot more playful with my language, with the sounds of words.

SMITH: What influenced that direction? What are you guys playing in the Los Campesinos! tour bus?

CAMPESINOS!: You know, that’s the sort of thing that two records ago we would all have had an answer for. But I think we know what Los Campesinos! is now. A lot of bands would get to their fourth or fifth record and be like, “Okay, we need to throw a curveball now,” and—well, we’ve never done that, we’ve just tried to perfect what we broadly do. It’s changed in that it’s matured and we’ve all improved as musicians and as songwriters, but the core is pretty much the same from the start. Influences-wise, I know Tom has said that he wanted to make kind of a Jimmy Eat World-meets-Clams Casino record. On “The Low” in particular, the production, the electronic noises, the textures and the sounds are reminiscent of that. The first half of this year I was on a real Nick Cave bender, just listening to Nick Cave constantly and devouring his lyrics and the way he writes, and I think he’s probably the primary example of a great, poetic lyricist. I just wanted to just write honestly. I’ve only ever wanted to be honest in my lyrics. Be that in recounting personal, real-life stories, or just only ever writing what I wanted to write, and not being afraid—not thinking, “Oh, what will people think of this? Will they laugh at it?” Just not caring about that, and saying, “Fuck it, it’s what I wanna write.” On this record that I really stuck to that, and if I liked the lyric I couldn’t consider if people might mock it or think it was trite or stupid. I just went with it.

SMITH: Like throwing in lots of lyrics about football?

CAMPESINOS!: My primary interest is soccer; that’s what rules my life, and to me it’s amazing that it’s not used more often in songs. All pop songs pretty much are about love and death, and essentially that’s what sport is—it’s love and death, it’s glory and failure. The travails and letdowns of love… the only thing I’ve felt in life that can compare to those is the sensation of winning and losing football matches. So to use those similes and metaphors to me seems to make perfect sense. But I guess I perhaps only allowed myself to do it fully on this record. Some people love it massively; when soccer fans hear a reference that they get that they wouldn’t expect to hear in a pop song, I think they feel closer to our band, because they’re thinking, “Nobody else is really doing this.” But equally, it’s an easy way to isolate people.

SMITH: One of my favorite lyrics of yours is about “that time in Canada when you got drunk and threw up on a football pitch.” I’m Canadian, and even if I haven’t thrown up on that particular soccer field…

CAMPESINOS!: It’s nice to hear it, because that is equally something that people like about our band and will criticize our band for. You’re not really allowed to be that specific in songwriting. Either because it dates your songs quickly or because it’s easy to laugh at. People have said about that lyric, “Why is he writing about eating crisps and being sick?” But equally, when we play it live, that’s one of the lines that will get shouted back at me the most vociferously. People do buy into it. And I do like putting those sort of markers down and tethering the songs to a place, so that people can maybe understand better not just where we were, but where we were at as people, where I was in my headspace. It just comes back to not shying away from writing what we would like to write about. To honesty.

NO BLUES IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON LOS CAMPESINOS!, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.