"An Adult Person": An Interview with Gareth from Los Campesinos!
In four years, Los Campesinos! have put out three albums, toured the world several times, and become critically-adored indie-rock darlings. So why is Gareth Campesinos! still obsessed with gloom and doom? Atheism, meeting fans expectations, and an aversion to their poppier early songs all make up this insightful interview.
Over the last few years, the output of Wales-based septet Los Campesinos! has put most of their contemporaries to shame.
Not only have they released an attention-getting debut EP, three excellent albums (although they'd tell you the middle one, 2008's We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, is merely an "extended EP"), and one of the best non-LP singles in recent memory ("The International Tweexcore Underground"), but the band has also displayed a range and progression in these releases (to say nothing of their always-inspiring live show) that has been both dramatic and assured. This year's Romance Is Boring saw the band move into darker, more personal territory with aplomb, sonic and lyrical prowess fully intact. Although there's nothing quite like "The Sea Is a Good Place to Think About the Future" or "Plan A" on the band's earlier records, after a few listens Romance Is Boring sounds like nobody but Los Campesinos!, and that's a very good thing. Recently the band's always eloquent and self-deprecating frontman Gareth Campesinos! talked to PopMatters about God, songwriting, death, and growing up -- you know, being in a band.
So how are things? Did the recent UK tour go well?
Yes thanks, it was great. Most extensive UK tour we've done in a while, whilst still missing out a lot of the bigger cities. Played London, of course, and it was probably the best show we've ever played, not necessarily ... music wise, but, as far as the crowd reaction and sheer euphoria went, it'll be pretty hard to top.
Is part of that down to the new songs?
Probably. It feels like being a proper band now that we can play shows and drop some of the songs that people like, haha. The reaction to the new stuff has been completely overwhelming. Songs like "Straight in at 101" and "The Sea Is a Good Place to Think About the Future" have been sung along to every night, and people have actually been cheering when I introduce "Letters From Me to Charlotte" which is completely unexpected.
I wanted to talk about that reaction a bit -- were you guys worried people wouldn't like the change in ... I'm not sure what to say, tone?
Not at all. I mean, naturally, it's nice if people like the songs, and I'd never, ideally, want someone who was a big fan to hear a new record and hate it but, there are more important things. Like, keeping ourselves happy, and making music that we believe in and feel passionate about. I don't think you're really meant to say that as a musician. I just read E from Eels' autobiography (Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett). I actually got it as a gift from a really cool kid at a show the other day, and he said a lot of things that as a musician you're not meant to say, but are totally true. And one of them was how he was always surprised when he made a slightly different sounding album that people would react badly, or like they were owed something that sounded similar. I think all we can do is be honest.
That's interesting, because on the one hand you guys clearly not only have a really devoted group of fans but you've got a very good, close relationship with those fans. Do you think that they are less likely to react badly to changes like that because they're more, in a sense, involved?
I think it works both ways. There will be some who totally want us to push ourselves, because they feel invested, and they want to come on this journey with us, as we learn to write and create differently. But there will also be those who think that we're cheating by not making music like that which attracted people to us initially, like we're cheating them in some way. It's probably worth mentioning that I don't feel like what we've done on Romance Is Boring is a million miles away from Hold on Now, Youngster.... And it's also funny how equal amounts of people have said that we've simply refined the HON,Y... sound, or that we've created a very similar record, as have said that we've made some sort of drastic change in our sound. I find that quite funny. And complete justification for me to avoid trying to second-guess anyone at all, and just write how we want to write.
How do you guys feel about the older material? I know you've mentioned things, possibly jokingly, along the lines of being relieved not to have to play certain songs, I'm pretty sure I was at a show where you swore to never play "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" again. I know it's not necessarily as if you think newer or older songs are 'better,' but is there a feeling that you've progressed?
A lot of my issues, if not all of them are just with the lyrics to earlier stuff. Most stuff I've written since then has been very honest and emotionally draining. And to perform that kind of material (and I do put a lot into it, physically and emotionally when we play) and for it then to be broken up with something like "We Throw Parties," seems weird and dishonest almost. I wasn't being myself then. I think I was trying too hard.
Was there kind of a definite break where you were able to stop trying too hard and write more honestly?
I think that the point I was trying to be something I wasn't, was just when the band started receiving attention, at the very start. I wasn't used to it, and had never written a song thinking anyone was actually gonna hear it, before. And then I got to thinking "what do people want to hear?" Which is a mistake for any band I think.
What helped you move away from that? Just having people listening for long enough?
I've no idea really. Perhaps the realization that if you attempt to please anyone, if they don't like it, you're damaging yourself. So the only person you can really attempt to please is yourself. And I grew up a lot in that year or so period, changed and developed a lot as a person. An adult person. Of course, the best case scenario is you make something that you personally love, and then others like it too. That's the jackpot, and I'm really happy that by and large, people that like our band have remained so supportive.
I know with the last album you told me that people -- well, not people, journalists -- had kind of misread what the songs were about. And as you say you're not really worried about that on some level -- you're not going to let that effect what kind of music you make -- but does that still get frustrating?
Ummmm. I'm almost tempted to say I'm kind of at a point now where the songs are so detailed and honest that it's hard to misinterpret them. They're all pretty literal these days. I just get frustrated, with other bands' reviews as much as ours, that some music writers write in such definitive terms what the artist was intending, but really they more often than not have no idea.
There's a line in "I Warned You: Do Not Make an Enemy of Me" where Aleks sings "And if this changes your life, did you have one before?" So again, you guys clearly respect and like your fans, but is there a certain weariness there in terms of people relying too much on these songs that are, like you say, very personal for you?
That line's intended to be more self-deprecating to ourselves than confrontational, really. I do find it odd (and incredibly, incredibly flattering) that some people invest so much emotion and belief into the songs of seven or eight young adults that are as clueless and bumbling as they themselves are. I guess that's mocking us and them, to an extent.
I think those people invest so much partly because the songs do acknowledge that you're just as clueless and bumbling as we are, though, even as they make that sort of existence feel ... if not heroic, at least worthwhile. Is writing so personally partly a way to deal with things for you? I know at least some listeners find the songs cathartic or helpful.
Yeah, definitely. Especially on this last record. And the things to do with death and religion, they're things that I can't or don't want to talk about outside of the band, generally speaking, and the songs are a way of getting them off my chest. The love and sex stuff, I'm pretty open about in real life, I suppose.
I do think it's interesting that RIB is the first Los Campesinos! album to really tackle those subjects. I know you work(ed?) in a cemetery when not doing band stuff, and some of the lines in "Who Fell Asleep In" talk about the rows of gravestones as being in a way inviting. Is that related at all to the part at the end of "In Media Res" where you talk about dying (relatively) young and happy?
Yeah, totally. The lyric is "when I see the cemetery I don't see headstones, I see rows of engraved headstones, hungry waiting for me." I don't like the lack of control.
Like, you go through life taking care of your own shit, making your own mistakes and making the good things happen for yourself. And death's some thing you can't really control. It just happens. Doesn't seem like a cool deal.
Does that issue of control relate to the sort of skepticism you seem to have towards religion?
I don't know if I am skeptical of religion really. I know it's not for me, but if it comforts other people I'm not pig-headed enough to want to take that away from them. I'd not go up to someone and say, "I don't believe in your God" any more than I'd not expect someone to try to turn me onto theirs. At this moment in time I'm unsure of if I don't believe in a God, or if I do and just hate him/it.
I'd been hearing "it pains me, but I'm sure she's still yours" in "Who Fell Asleep In" as directed at God, which suggests the latter, although I may be way off.
Yeah, that's where it's directed. But, that doesn't necessarily suggest the latter, not to me. 'Cos if the girl believes in him, then he's real.
So if God did/does exist, why would/do you hate him?
I just think he's done some pretty shitty things. It's not really something I can explain. If I could I don't think I'd be wasting my ideas in pop songs. Haha.
I think it might seem from the outside that as the songs have gotten more personal they've also gotten darker ... do you think that's true?
Yeah, I think that's fair to say. I think, because of early subject matter and the often upbeat nature of the music, a lot of folk have always expected me to be some upbeat party guy, which isn't the case. I mean, I love to get drunk and have fun with my friends and to enjoy things, but, y'know…
With your early work, one of the reasons it was great was that the songs were really positive and upbeat in form without necessarily being that way in content -- you had these neat moments where something like "When the smaller picture / Is the same as the bigger picture / You know that you're fucked" becomes kind of uplifting. I think you guys still do that sort of thing, if a bit differently.
Yeah, I'd agree. I mean, I think there are always these glimmers of light, because if I couldn't find them there'd be no point in writing it.
Does a song like "Romance Is Boring" necessarily mean you're cynical now? Is there an element of self-mockery there as there is in the "if this changes your life..." line?
"Romance Is Boring" is a crack of light, I guess. It's more of a hotchpotch of ideas that fit in with the record. I guess it's a call for excitement, and for romance really. I'm kidding myself there.
How does the rest of the band feel about the shift in songwriting? I'm assuming the corresponding shift in the music (becoming more complex and so on) is a group thing, and it certainly fits the darker, more personal lyrics.
Well, the songs are primarily written by myself and Tom, so I suppose we hold more control over the direction the band goes in. But certainly, there have been no dissenting voices within the camp. I think everyone's at a point where they want to push themselves as much as possible to test themselves as musicians and to allow the band to be everything it has the potential to be. It seems a natural way for us to progress, I think. And as we've grown up, our interests have changed I suppose. We're not really the same group of kids who were buoyed by the excitement of writing songs and skipping lectures that we were four years ago. I think if anybody ever questioned what I was writing lyrics about (generally, rather than objecting to one specific lyric or something) then it'd put us all in a difficult position.
Do you think it's fair to say that a lot of your songs struggle with the question of whether it's better to be happy but ignorant or miserable but aware, or maybe more generally just struggling with the latter condition? Even the end of "In Media Res", with "If you were given the option of dying painlessly in peace at 45 / But with a lover at your side, after a full and happy life / Is this something that would interest you? / Would this interest you at all?," seems very much like a quality versus quantity kind of question.
I've never really though of it like that, but I think that's a fair synopsis of my writing. The happier, more hopeful songs do have a certain ignorance, or, innocence, to them, and the rest of the time it seems like I'm combating a doom that I'm well aware of. I suppose that's what I'm like in life though. I think and worry too much. To a stupid, almost childish level. I can be having the most fun and suddenly I'll become stopped dead in my tracks by the thought that "shit, everybody I love is going to die" or something equally basic, and this doom just descends over me. I realize that's a stupid way to live and to think, but I'm not able to escape it at the moment.
Last question: Is "I can't believe I chose the mountains every time you chose the sea," in context, the saddest/most-heart wrenching line you've written?
Perhaps so. That lyric pretty much wraps up all the record's worries and insecurities. I think its exasperation and despair comes across pretty well, especially after what comes before on "Coda." I hope to have people weeping by this point. It's a weird thing, wanting to make people weep. One of the compliments people most frequently pay us is "your music makes me so happy" or "whenever I feel sad I listen to your music and feel better". How dare people get enjoyment out of my despair?