Los Campesinos!: Interview
“I’ve actually come to resent the glockenspiel quite a bit.”
A lot of people here on this lovely planet of ours are simply mediocre. These are the sort of people who do the same thing every day, who never jump up and down with abandon, and who worry about embarrassing themselves in public. Gareth Campesinos!, the lead singer of Welsh band Los Campesinos! is not one of these people. It's hard to be when you're at the forefront of the so-called twee revival.
Los Campesinos! are unique in that they are music fans first and musicians second. They proudly flaunt their influences, and Gareth in particular takes pride in his unpredictable taste. We talked about the band's formation, the necessity for fun, and why the world shouldn't write them off as “the band with the glockenspiel.” Gareth was in fact so eager to talk about music that he started the conversation before I could ask him anything.
Is that an Architecture in Helsinki shirt you're wearing?
Yeah, it is! Good catch, I don't think anyone's figured it out before. I noticed during sound check that Tom is wearing a Deerhoof shirt. And last time the band was here, you wore a Xiu Xiu shirt. Do you purposefully wear band shirts from San Francisco when you play here?
No, it's just because all the shirts I own are band t-shirts. I think I have over 100, and at least ten of them are Xiu Xiu shirts. It's a weakness and a little bit of trying to be more interesting by wearing interesting bands' t-shirts. It cuts out need for conversation and just moves right to a mutual recognition of a shared interest. Not that it's ever really worked for me, though.
You're still a relatively new band, so would you tell me about how the group formed and started playing?
The seven of us came together about two years ago. Initially, it was Neil, Harriet, and Ellen just jamming together. I lived with Neil, and when he started the band, I didn't expect much to come of it. He met Tom at a pub in Cardiff and overheard Tom talking about The Decemberists. They didn't know each other but started talking about being fans of that band. Tom started coming to practices, and he's a very talented songwriter. I heard the demos and changed my mind about the band not going anywhere. So I told Neil that I was going to go to a practice, and all we had were these post-rock songs, which needed something else. Harriet plays the violin, and we thought that, although it's a bit cliché, it would be a nice addition. Ellen and Aleks were friends, and she joined the band even before we heard her sing. We got to seven and called it quits there.
What do you like about having seven as opposed to the more traditional three or four?
Songwriting is a lot easier, and it gives us so much more scope to work with. When you're just guitar, bass, and drums, you can't go much of anywhere. But adding the keyboards, glockenspiel, and violin gives us such a broader capacity. There's also more sound to hide behind if you mess up, which is nice. And more people to talk to if you fall out with somebody. More is more.
"The whole movement with C86 and Riot Grrrl and K records is something I really wish I could have experienced properly, so I guess I'm trying to appropriate it for myself."
Other than the scope you said they provide, is there anything else about the specific instruments the band uses that you think adds to the overall effect?
I've actually come to resent the glockenspiel quite a bit. To a lot of people, it seems that we've become “that band with the glockenspiel.” We went in to a radio program once to do an acoustic session, and the host goes (assumes cheesy radio voice) “I want to see the guy with the glockenspiel!” And I'm just like “Oh, god, not again.” I think the violin is key. When Harriet plays solos or leads on the violin, it's a lot more interesting, rather than on the guitar.
We're working on new stuff at the moment with more instruments. When we tour again in October, we're going to have a second drum kit and proper keyboards. We're excited about that.
Where did the band name come from?
Neil used to be fluent in Spanish, but when he got to Uni and started drinking more, he kind of forgot. It's sort of a hangover from that, I guess. It's phonetically nice and aesthetically pleasing, but the literal meaning is insignificant to the band. I wasn't even in the band when they came up with the name, but don't think we thought we'd get anywhere or that anyone would care about us. If we'd expected to get anywhere close to where we are now, we probably would have tried to come up with a better band name. But it does the trick.
Are you planning on legally changing your names, Ramones-style?
Actually, the night we recorded our demos we were really happy with them and we were a bit drunk, and we went to a pub and the DJ played our songs. People actually liked them, and so we got really happy and said “If we ever play a gig in America, we'll all legally change our names to Campesinos!” We didn't expect anything to actually happen, but lo and behold, it has happened, but we've not [officially] changed our surnames. Nor do we intend to. We overshot our aims, which is a really good feeling.
Bimbo's is a bigger venue than Great American Music Hall [where LC! Played in San Francisco on their last tour.] Have you been playing to bigger crowds across the board?
Definitely. On the East Coast, we sold out both our shows at the Bowery Ballroom, which was really nice, and tickets have sold really well for tonight as well. I also think we've been getting bigger crowds because we're playing more all-ages venues, which I really like. Younger people have no inhibitions, so they're a much more enthusiastic crowd to play to.
Are there differences between fans at home and here in the U.S.?
I think we definitely like the U.S. better. People who like us in this country and in Canada have heard about us through college radio or the internet. Whereas in the UK, it's more of an enemy type thing where you have different sorts of music fans who like one thing and they're very antagonistic toward those who like other things. In the NME, we get lumped in with a lot of other bands, and we get lads coming into our shows heckling us and trying to start trouble. It's because the base of our music is upbeat and danceable and they like the more intense stuff, so they feel sort of angry toward us and like they need to defend their music. But I'm the biggest snob in the band, so if you talked to someone else I'm sure they'd say something different.
Though as much as I like touring the U.S., I do get incredibly homesick sometimes. I live with my sisters and my mum, and I miss them a lot. There's also something ever-so-slightly soul-destroying about the monotony of the days. It's intense and you don't get to see anything other than the bus.
"A lot of the time we're pigeonholed as being this ridiculously happy, upbeat, carefree band, which isn't really the case."
Both the band's music and lyrics make your influences very clear, a good example being the similarity in title of your song “Knee-Deep at ATP” with [Camera Obscura's song] “Knee-Deep at the NPL.” Why is that -- sort of name-checking the older twee culture -- so important?
First of all, you're the only person to have caught that reference to Camera Obscura. But I guess it's kind of inevitable for the band, because I write the lyrics, and most of what I do with my time and what I care about is listening to music, so I can only write about what I know and I only want to write about what I know. It's inevitable that these reference points are going to come up in the songs. The whole movement with C86 and Riot Grrrl and K records is something I really wish I could have experienced properly, so I guess I'm trying to appropriate it for myself. It's inevitable, but I think that some people don't like it and think it's a bit unnecessary. But it's all I know, so it's inevitable that it come up in the songs.
And in terms of the music, you really do like following them, as opposed to say Xiu Xiu, who I know you are a big fan of. I don't hear that as much as, say, Tullycraft in your music.
That's really the band as a whole having their say. I don't have the ability to write music, and Tom [the band's songwriter] isn't as big a Xiu Xiu fan as I am. And we do certainly sound like those more twee bands, but the lyrics I write are often a lot darker than the songs might suggest. That's certainly something that I'd like to develop more. A lot of the time we're pigeonholed as being this ridiculously happy, upbeat, carefree band, which isn't really the case. Hopefully the juxtaposition between the music and the lyrics is going to become more extreme. We'll see how people react to it.
How do you hope people react to the music, or to seeing your live show?
Live, I think we make it a lot about enjoying ourselves. I guess we're a bit selfish in that respect. We played a gig in Eugene a couple days ago, and although we didn't play particularly well, we had such a good time. There were only about 40 people there, and Parenthetical Girls were in the audience crowd-surfing and moshing and fighting each other. I was really quite drunk, but I do remember being heckled to take my shirt off and I did. The set ended with me being led onto the dancefloor and Parenthetical Girls holding my legs and spinning me around and around. I have burns on my back. We really just want to have fun. If we were overly sincere, I don't think it would work.
I don't really know what reactions I'd like people to have to our music. I guess I'd like people to “get” it. If people that like the same bands that we like enjoy our music, it's extremely flattering because it means we're doing something right. There was a kid in a Xiu Xiu t-shirt in the front row in Eugene, and so I got really excited about that.
It really sounds like you all are friends and enjoy being around each other. How does that help the band's dynamic?
Well, we're touring the world, and it's a massive holiday, and it's nice to be doing it with people you love and have fun with. It's incredibly cheesy, but it makes it a lot more enjoyable.