sun 22/09/2019

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Gareth Campesinos! | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Gareth Campesinos!

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Gareth Campesinos!

Romance is not boring: Gareth Campesinos! on the romance of the road

And yet, while all three of their albums have been well received, there is still something of the underground about them, especially in their native UK. Their tours sell out but their CD sales trail behind. Perhaps that’s just a natural side-effect of the Los Campesinos! effect itself.

From the beginning the band have never had press pushes or even promoted themselves. They’ve trundled up the mountain of recognition with barely a self-aggrandising moment, or, it would seem, any real effort at all. Theirs is a story of the modern age – where the fans themselves are the PR department, the marketing campaign and the demo round all in one. Their resilience is entirely a product of the songs themselves, which call to a distinct category of music lover.

While their live success continues, neither the band nor frontman Gareth Campesinos! in particular seem to have suffered the adverse affects reserved for others of their standing. They’re self-effacing and grateful, and ever acknowledge the transient nature of the business. More surprisingly still, having met at Cardiff University, the eight-piece continue to be friends. As he returned from touring America, theartsdesk talked to Gareth Campesinos!


ROSE DENNEN: You happy to be back?

GARETH CAMPESINOS!: Since we got back from the States I think I’ve been home for about four hours. It’s insane. I have no idea where I am really. It’s all good, it’s exciting and fun but eventually it’ll be nice to sit down.

Is that very different from how it’s always been with Los Campesinos!? It doesn’t sound like you’ve taken a breath in a few years really.

I think it’s because this period of time is hinting at breaks. It’s coming up to festival season and rather than have a run of gigs, you have a couple of gigs then a few days off and then another couple of gigs and then you go off to another part of the UK for another festival so it’s a bit more difficult to keep track of where you’re supposed to be.

Are you going to have a “hello London!” moment  when you’re actually in Leeds?

I think I’ll probably have the sense to turn around and look at the branding behind me and work out what festival we’re at as a result of that, but I can’t guarantee it’ll be pronounced correctly.

credit_Jon_Bergman3So how do you find the States?

We’ve popped over and done a couple of dates and then done full-length tours but that’s probably the sixth or seventh tour we’ve done. Not always the whole of the US. We do better in the States than we do in the UK. I think they consider us to be more exotic because we’ve got these British accents. As you can hear, my accent is one of the worst UK accents you can have, but any English person in the States – everyone just thinks you sound like Hugh Grant. So it’s great to be over there if for that reason alone.

Do you have a favourite city?

We’ve recorded two albums in Seattle. It’s nice when you’re in a place long enough to develop a favourite bar or a regular path that you walk on. The nature of touring is you wake up in a different city, you’ve got half a day there and then you’re gone again. I feel comfortable there and the weather is very British so I feel quite at home there. I’ve become fond of anywhere where we spend more than two or three days.

It sounds like you had actual time to do the last one and the rest were sort of haphazard.

Hold on Now, Youngster was recorded in really odd circumstances. We arrived at the studio and it hadn’t even finished being built. We had to put in glass panels and lay breeze blocks. And then We Are Beautiful: we intended it to be an EP and it ended up being bigger so we really hurried ourselves and rushed through that. Whereas with Romance is Boring we did a stretch of four weeks recording and then went on tour for a month then did another stretch of four weeks recording then did another tour and then finished it all off in Wales. It was the first time we’d recorded and been able to come back and listen to it with fresh ears.

Watch "Romance is Boring" on YouTube:

Divorce yourself from it.

Yeah, it was really useful. It’s so easy to get caught up in the headspace of recording and lose all sense of perspective of the songs. Also, because there’s so many of us and so much going on in the recordings it’s really possible to take songs in multiple different directions. We were able to have time to work out where we wanted to take the songs.

How do you manage to write with eight people? Is it a benevolent dictatorship, dictatorship or democracy?

Probably a benevolent dictatorship. By the time we get to recording, the songs are pretty much complete. There’s obviously some sonic changes that can be made but as for structure and how the songs are generally going to be laid out, that’s known. Tom writes the music and I write the lyrics and when we get to the studio it’s a case of, I guess, we sort of build it up from the bottom. I think anybody in the band would admit that Tom is the guy that has the ideas and has the song-writing ability to come up with the best things. When we get into the studio I like to give Tom the space... I think he likes the fact that I just let him get on with it. I don’t like being there for the process where it’s being built up. I like to come in and hear it somewhere near completion so that I’m slightly separated from it and can hear it fresh from the off.

In terms of the lyrics I see you more as a lyricist like Gibbard (Deathcab For Cutie) or Elverum (Eerie Mountain) – I know you’re a big fan of Eerie – but how do you see yourself?

I try not to see myself in any way at all. I really try to avoid any analysis of how I write lyrics because however I do it it’s the only way I know and if I was to look at it and decide that I didn’t want to do it like that I’d be screwed. I let it get on with itself. I generally write prose and then turn it into verses and choruses and try to make it flow. But some people have said to me in the past that the cadences and rhyming patterns are really odd and I have no idea. I literally do it and it turns out as it is. I’m a really un-musical person so I really don’t understand it...

I find that more refreshing, it feels a lot more organic.

I really admire people that can set out to write songs in their purest form. Their most traditional forms. Even to the credit_Jon_Bergman1extent that these massive bands that write catch-all choruses and verses – I’d love to be able to do that. I think it’s an amazing talent but it’s just not something I’m able to do.

I think if you were to write a verse/chorus/verse/chorus it wouldn’t work with the music anyway as the music itself is quite complicated and not exactly traditional...

Yeah, in that respect the musical style that Tom has come up with and the lyrical style that I’m lumbered with really complement each other. Me and Tom probably suit each other in that respect.

So how did you manage to get Newfeld for the first album?

Our manager used to manage Super Furry Animals and it was just after Phantom Planet, I think, 2005/ 2006 Furry’s album where they recorded with Newfeld and then we found ourselves supporting Broken Social Scene in 2006 at our seventh ever gig. We had this really weird summer where Ollie, our drummer, was in Greenland on some expedition or something, counting insects, so we were unable to do any gigs. So we had this three or four month period where we couldn’t do any gigs and it was right after our demos had been put on the internet and record labels were interested in signing us. We had this weird period where everyone was like, “We want to come and see you play, why haven’t you got any gigs?” We ended up being put on this gig supporting Broken Social Scene and there were all these record labels there and we really sucked but as a result of that we ended up signing with Arts & Crafts which is another Newfeld connection. It seems like a different world, it seems so long ago.

It does seem to be one extremely lucky, happy circumstance...

Oh completely. Every single thing that’s happened to our band has been timing and sheer luck. We formed the band with no motivation to achieve anything at all. We just wanted to have a laugh. We had friends who were in bands and we’d go watch them and think, “You’re not very good but people are clapping when you finish your songs so why don’t we do something a bit better?” And we did. We never sent a single demo to a record label – we never would have – we just put the songs up on MySpace and Tom put a link up on a messageboard and that’s literally all the promo we did for it. We’ve continued to be very fortunate since.

In interviews when people would mention it I’d be like, “Hang on, listen to the lyrics a bit – it’s not all happiness and light”

Do you still find yourself going...er... What?

Yeah, it’s ridiculous. Last night when we played Liverpool, mine and Kim’s younger sister was there with a few of her friends and we got them backstage. Our sister Amy’s experienced it a few times but her friends had never been backstage before and they were in awe that there was beer you could just take. The Maccabees were backstage so there were more famous people back there. Their reaction to it – they were just slack-jawed and in disbelief. When one of the girls was given a triple-A pass, she couldn’t believe it and started uploading photos of it to Facebook. That made me think, actually this is pretty exciting. It’s so easy to lose sight of what we’re doing. Although it is incredibly amazing, it does have its own monotony about it. You really need those moments to pull yourself together and get a grip and realise what it is you’re doing. As a band we’ve always realised that being in a band doesn’t last for very long, generally speaking, and we’re lucky. The current nature of the music business, any British band that lasts longer than four years – especially at the level that we are – having no commercial success, not much in the way of record sales but still being able to tour and record and have people want to come to our shows is an incredibly fortunate situation. Being aware of that means we don’t get miserable or too jaded.

credit_Jon_Bergman2In interviews you do seem to have this expectation of an end-of-the-band precipice about to careen up at you. I think that’s a healthy pessimism of the reality of the nature of the beast though...

It’s more of a realism to be honest because creatively we don’t anticipate the end of the band at all because we want to achieve so much and we’d love to keep releasing records. As a songwriter, as musicians we have so much more that we can learn and achieve. But equally if we don’t get given that opportunity we don’t want to be too shocked by it because we don’t want it to break us as people.

Speaking of opportunities of that nature, I saw your Carson Daly spot.

That was... interesting... It was pitched as, “This is your introduction to America” and they said things like, “This is their American TV debut”, which it wasn’t. They were still wanting to portray us as these happy-go-lucky kids in a pop band, jumping around having fun, and I think we’ve all grown up a bit since we were like that. But I think we were all just really excited about being on the telly. The idea of being on the telly is still really appetising.

Everyone seems to be saying that the new album is a darker form, but I disagree slightly. There’s lots of disturbing and dark imagery in the lyrics of the first two albums as well.

Yeah, I think perhaps I just started talking about it more. In interviews, when people would mention it I’d be like, “Hang on, listen to the lyrics a bit – it’s not all happiness and light”. The person that I am now, 24 compared to 19/ 20 years old - I’m out of the bosom of full-time education and been through more things and my friends have been through more things and I’m more aware of that fact that I’m growing up and haven’t got the safety of being young to rely on. I think there’s something a bit weird about anyone in their twenties carrying on being so happy and sickly sweet as some of it was. Whenever I see bands pushing 30 doing the whole smiley, smiley, tinkle thing it just seems a bit much for me.

We’re in a band, going round the world, singing songs we wrote for a living. There’s nothing more self-indulgent than that

The idea of Romance is Boring – I don’t think you really think that...

No, no, no, no. If I really thought that I wouldn’t have wasted my time writing that many songs about romance!

Do you think you’ll always be distracted by love? It’s such a basic compulsion of humankind that you can’t really...

If you boil human life down to its bare parts you’re just left with love and death. Love just informs all pop music and it’s for a reason. It’s something that people can empathise with, seek solace or misery in. It’s just a lack of imagination, I suppose. Somebody like Joanna Newsom – I’m not a massive fan of her music – but somebody who can take themselves away from reality as much as that and write so many amazing careening songs is quite something.

credit_Grace_deVilleYou’ve always been really honest in your writing and in interviews – are you learning to lie? Are you going to be able to tell stories that are not necessarily your own or that are fabrications – even of the mundane?

I think I might go further afield but it would have to be a whole record of it rather than a couple of songs on a record. I really like context and things working together across a whole record. If it was, say, eight songs about me and honesty and me pouring myself out like I usually do, and then a couple of songs about different things – I don’t know how that would fit in the lyrical content of the record. I’d have to work that out in advance.

What, like a concept album?

It’s kind of what I’ve done with the last two records – not really a concept record but when it comes to writing the lyrics for an album I do it all in a very short space of time. I didn’t really start writing lyrics for Romance is Boring until we got into the studio and lyrics are always the last thing that is finished. I think it stems from – at the start of the band there were a couple of songs that I wrote lyrics for and then we rehearsed them a couple of times and I decided I didn’t like it so I re-wrote them and a couple of members of the band, to this day, will still taunt me with the worst lyrics from the previous incarnation. Which really, really, really pisses me off, upsets and annoys me. So since then I share stuff with Tom but I won’t share stuff with anyone else until, literally, I’m in the recording booth. They don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth until I’m in there.

But that’s good – it means that every album is a story proper, a complete whole.

Yeah, but the only down side is if we were to get famous I don’t think there’s going to be much for myself doing an autobiography, cos it’s all gonna be there. And I could really do with that cheque at some point.

Or you could have the song titles as the titles to each chapter...

Yeah, which is exactly the sort of self-indulgent crap...

That’s the most oft-used phrase in your interviews: self-indulgent – why do you say that so much?

Because we’re in a band, going round the world, singing songs we wrote for a living. There’s nothing more self-indulgent than that.

credit_Grace_deVille1Well, you’ve got your Kurt Cobains and you’ve got your Jon Bon Jovis - depends on the side you pick.

Just don’t ask me which one I’d rather be.

Which one would you rather be?

Probably Bon Jovi... I’m not a fan of his at all but, to be Bon Jovi...you know...

I reckon your gay contingent would love you in a pair of leather pants.

They probably wouldn’t though because they’d have to be a very big pair of leather pants for me to fit in them. I’ve not quite got the figure for it so they wouldn’t be very attractive at all.

Moving on to collaborators; you’ve got some interesting people on there - Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls, and Jherek Bischoff of The Dead Science. Who would be your fantasy collaborators?

It was Jamie Stewart. It’s just a ridiculous thing; Xiu Xiu are my all-time favourite band. It’s one of those things that perhaps came too soon for the band. Like, we played ATP two years ago and I wish we hadn’t cos I wish we still had it to look forward to. Jamie Stewart was amazing. But I guess my only other favourite vocalist of all time is Paul Heaton from The Beautiful South. One of my absolute favourite bands. I really don’t know. I think it’s such an absurd concept to think that anyone would want to guest on our records anyway so when we got Jamie and Zac and Jherek to do it, it was beyond our wildest dreams. It’s an impossible question.

You sound so grateful.

I’m incredibly grateful! I’ve not got a proper job! I don’t have to go to work tomorrow.

I can never expect anybody to care as much about these songs and this band as I do

I understand that most of the first two albums were written while you were at uni and that you basically had Hold on Now ready to record as soon as We Are Beautiful was released.

Not really, Hold On Now, Youngster was the first one and that was basically every song we wrote whilst we were at uni. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed came about pretty much the month before we recorded it really and I didn’t start writing lyrics until we got in the studio.

That’s an amazingly fast turn around.

By the time it came to that we’d been playing the songs from Hold On Now, Youngster for about two years and... not that we were bored of playing them - well, yeah! We were bored of playing them! We didn’t want people who came to watch us be bored of us playing them. The nature of being in a band is you’re put out touring as frequently as possible because touring’s the only real way of making any money and you need to keep touring so that people are aware of you. People were coming to these shows and we were just playing the same set. We felt bad for doing it. We didn’t play a show in the UK for a year then we came back with We Are Beautiful and it felt... exciting.

Credit_Sarah_WilmerWhy do you refer to We Are Beautiful as an E-EP?

We’d prefer not to have to call it anything at all but the nature of the business... Artistically it was never approached as an album and I think it shows. We thought we were recording an EP and then we had more ideas in the studio. Whereas when we recorded Romance is Boring we really knew we were making an album and as a result we could approach it in that way. It’s surprising just how offended some people get at our reluctance to... The fact that we should dare say something like “artistically we didn’t feel it was an album”, people look at us like we’re snobbishly looking down on them, but it’s relevant. We could have said, “It doesn’t feel like an album, we’ll not put it out.” Hold it all back and then tack a couple of songs onto an album in a couple of years which people would have been equally outraged at. Also, there are so few things in the music industry that you can actually have control over that when you do get to have a stance on something it’s nice to be able to.

How do you mean? Do you find yourself a little bit underfoot with the industry outside of the studio?

We have so many people working around us and I can never expect anybody to care as much about these songs and this band as I do. For that reason it upsets me that we don’t have complete control over everything and I try to as much as possible. It breaks me. I bother myself and care about the slightest things that most people or bands wouldn’t think twice about. It drives me nuts but these are our songs and this is what we’re putting out there. It represents us as people and I don’t want some marketing thing to get in the way of what we’re trying to put across.

It’s why some people home-school their children.

Yeah, I’m locking our band away from the nasty world.

Watch "These Buildings Are Listed" on YouTube

Photo credits: First four images by John Bergman, the next two by Grace deVille, the final image by Sarah Wilmer

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