“But If We Did That, We’d Be Lying”: An Interview with Gareth Campesinos!
Gareth Campesinos! talks about how a recent breakup affected the new record, the role that depression plays in his lyrics, and why touring is a weird thing to do.
Anyone thinking that Los Campesinos! had gotten a bit dark around the time of our last interview with frontman Gareth Campesinos! probably didn’t know quite what to make of last year’s exquisitely wracked Hello Sadness, which saw the band refine the thrash and sprawl of 2010’s magnificent Romance Is Boring into their quietest, sharpest, most moving album yet. Their recent live tour confirmed that the band still put on an energetic, frequently astounding show, but on record that energy is now channelled anywhere from songs that recall the band’s more frenetic roots (like first single “By Your Hand”) to more slow-burning, but ultimately equally potent songs (the run through “The Black Bird, the Dark Slope", “To Tundra", and “Baby, I Got the Death Rattle” might just be their finest 12 minutes yet). PopMatters recently talked with Gareth to find out how a recent breakup affected the record, the role that depression plays in his lyrics, and why touring is a weird thing to do.
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I heard—I forget where now, so I can’t remember if I think this is true or just a rumour, but is it true that you rewrote the lyrics for Hello Sadness really late in the game?
It’s true to an extent, because I always, always leave writing the lyrics to the last minute. But in this case, I’d started writing earlier than usual, because we rehearsed a lot more for this album than we had in the past. And at the time I was starting to write, I was in a relationship and so writing… this was the first time really that I’d written lyrics whilst being in a relationship and being happy. Then, a week or so before we headed to Spain for a tour, the relationship, uh, broke up and so kind of by then, everything that I’d written to that point seemed inappropriate or irrelevant… Whenever I’m in the recording booth and laying a track down it’s all, you know, it’s all really fresh and [the original lyrics] didn’t really seem like anything that would have suited me or the band as far as being the right thing. By the time we got this one song called “The Black Bird, the Dark Slope,” which we wrote a couple months earlier and played at a couple of shows and everything, then everything else came together once we were in the studio. Lyrically I mean. Musically, the pieces remained the same.
I know that’s the sort of story I know that people, whether they’re journalists or fans, like to seize on. Like “Oh, he’d written this happy album,” whether or not that’s what it was, and then something happened and then, you know, what you hear on this record is 100 percent the true, accurate story of what happened and how you feel or felt. Are you wary of that being interpreted that way, or…?
One of the most frustrating things [is] just the fact that there are so many people writing about me is the number of examples I’ve seen already of somebody lifting something from the press release, which is fine, but then sort of misinterpreting it and then reporting something incorrect. A few people saying, “Oh, Gareth completely rewrote all the music as well,” so it’s like, “You just made that up.” And I think in a lot of cases, people like to, for better or for worse, lay everything that happens with the band at my feet, rather than the band’s feet. So when people go, “Ah, well, I would like to have heard the songs that Gareth made them scrap” and stuff like that, it’s not like that. That gets frustrating. But I feel like it’s less of an issue because when we made We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, I wrote every lyric on that record in the space of about three days after we’d been in the studio for about two weeks and was thinking, “Oh, shit… I’ll never get this thing together.” It just all came together really quickly, so that’s kind of how I like to work anyway, ’cause I get really embarrassed at the idea of sitting down with a pad and pen and writing what’s on my mind. So any time that I feel comfortable writing, I’ve got the motivation of, shit, I must do this because the rest of the band’s relying on me and I’ve got to pull [my] weight. And that’s when I’m motivated, so to be honest, I don’t think it would have been much different anyway.
If things had been different, because you finished the record earlier or what have you, what would that record have been like?
I think it would have been… I don’t know how I would have done it to be honest, because the things that motivate me to write aren’t happy things. I think the reason I started writing this record early when I was happy was because I was like, “I’m gonna find this difficult. I’ve gotta really buckle down and start doing it now,” and so, honestly, it would have been a struggle to finish it, and I think that in truth, I would have had to sort of lie to myself and I think I may have had to attempt to change the way that I write. So in terms of the record actually getting finished and how the record turned out, I think the breakup, though [laugh] not so great for me personally, was vital. When we were sort of building up to go into the studio, Tom [Campesinos!, guitarist] and John Goodmanson produced, and I think there was one moment… well, there was one moment in the vocal booth after I’d done a particularly emotional take on a song. I think it was after doing “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II” and, you know, the mood was a bit fraught because of the nature of the song and I didn’t really know what to say and it was a bit sad and what have you, but John Goodmanson came out with, “Well, you know, Gareth, I was kind of relieved when Tom told me your girlfriend broke up with you because I don’t know how we would have done the record otherwise.” And, you know, it’s true. It worked out well for the record.
One of the reasons I think that I was curious about those earlier lyrics and I think a lot of fans are too is because it is kind of hard to picture, not you being happy, but you writing happy music. Once again, maybe that’s not what it was going to be on some level, but…
Yeah, I find that really funny, though, because for all the hundreds of times we’re called twee and hyperactive and energetic and stuff and the fact our most famous song is this ridiculous, uh, throwaway song about dancing, we’ve gotten to a point now where people, you know, can’t imagine us writing a happy song. I’m kind of… proud of that.
I know you kind of have mixed feelings about some of the material from the early days. “You! Me! Dancing!” came on in the car recently, and I actually said to a friend at the time, “I hope that he, or they, don’t mind still playing this song at shows; I hope it’s not become sort of a burden.” Partly it was selfish. It’s not like I want you to stop playing that song at shows…
Yeah, it’s fortunate because when we rehearse songs like “You! Me! Dancing!", “Death to Los Campesinos!", “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks", it’s just really laborious. Like, imagine the seven of us stood in a practice room facing each other, playing these songs. We hate it and we always cut through them. Say, if we’ve got a week’s worth of rehearsals, we’ll play each of those songs once because we know them that well and we don’t want to have to back off from playing them. But geniunely, every time we play them at a gig, we love it because of the reaction that those songs get and the way people enjoy them, the way that we see the crowd enjoying it and then we enjoy the crowd enjoying it. You know it’s never anything less than a complete pleasure to play those songs live, so I guess that’s fortunate. I would never listen to the first album again. I don’t really want to think too hard about what I was attempting to do with those songs. I think I was trying too hard. And my voice is absolutely terrible, and the record sounds horrible. So, as long as people don’t expect us to ever be that band again… Some people seem like, “Oh, I wish they’d go back to writing songs like 'Hold on Now, Youngster". But if we did that, we’d be lying, because we were 20 years old then and we were just really excited about being in the band and now we’re like 25, 26, 27.
It’s really hard, I think, when you’re the person who’s made it. It’s easier for the rest of us to still appreciate the earlier work, either because we have memories of when we listened to it originally or, you know, we’re not as close to it. I know if I look at my old writing, all I can see are the things that I would do differently now.
I guess that’s only natural. With anyone who writes, I suppose people who write are generally critical people, so you’re going to be critical of yourself.
I was going to say, in relation to that idea specifically, there’s a part in “The Black Bird, the Dark Slope” where you say, “When you turn me inside out, believe in me without a doubt/The words were all of his and none of mine.” Which I thought was interesting because as a songwriter, you’re very verbal and you talk a lot about yourself in a very articulate way, so this notion, even temporarily, that this wasn’t you—it was this other thing, whether it was depression or something else…
Yeah, well, that was the one song that was written before the relationship broke up. And that song was my attempt to explain my depression, my being depressed, to the person that I was with. It was very difficult for her to understand that I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help feeling like I did, and that it wasn’t her fault. And there was nothing we could really do to stop it. To just sort of bear in mind what the depression is, and it’s not a real thing, it’s a thing that you’re trying to deal with. So I think that, yeah, that line in particular about, “When you turn me inside out,” you know, it’s not how I want to be. It’s just how I how I have to be because of this this black bird that’s living inside me. In the past, before I suffered from depression myself, I dated somebody who was depressed and the boot was on the other foot then, I suppose. I was trying to make sense of it within my head and where I fit in with this other person being depressed, whether I fit in there at all, if I played any part in it, what I could do. It’s a really, really impossible situation for both parties, I think.
You mentioned there the time before you were depressed. Do you have any idea what, if anything, brought the depression on? It seems to be coming up recently with a lot of people I know, myself included, who haven’t really struggled with it in the past. Maybe just because we’re all getting older or whatever.
Well, it’s been sort of a constant through my adult life, I would say. And it began as a reaction to medication I was taking for my throat—a really strong medication, which kind of set it off in me. And since then, it’s been apparent and I’ve confronted it at different times, to different extents, and, ah, I don’t know… I think a lot of it is getting older. And I find touring, in a way, a very weird thing to do. It’s obviously incredible and there are certainly amazing things about it, but I think being in a touring band is also one of the loneliest things you can do. There’s this really, really weird dynamic between going out on stage and playing gigs to, you know, several hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who are really attentive and sort of hanging on your every word and shouting words back at you and are really interested in what you and your band are doing on stage and then two or three hours later, you find yourself in a dark bunk on a bus with your family on the other side of the world. And nothing to really do and nobody to really turn to. Obviously, I’m very lucky that I’m in a band with my sister and my best mates. So that’s good, but it’s still a really, really weird dynamic from going from the sort of quote-unquote adulation of being on stage to now you’re in your bunk and you drive to just another city and you never see those people that you just saw again. So I don’t think being in a touring band is the healthiest situation for somebody with mood issues. But it’s not the sort of thing you ever want to give up, do you?
Has it it been a bit weirder with all the lineup changes? From the outside, the changes have all seemed very amicable and adult and rational, but even if they did go well, is it sort of weird to look around and realize it’s not the same group of people it always was?
That’s something I’d disagree with completely, actually. Every change that’s occurred in the band has been so organic and natural that it’s strengthened and brought us closer together. Obviously, for me, the fact that my sister joined was an incredible experience, but Kim knew everyone in the band before. Jason sold our merch for three years, and Rob went to school with Neil and supported us on tour before. With the people who’ve departed the band, it’s never really been a sudden thing. It’s always been an inevitability or something that we’ve sort of built up to. So where the band’s at now is undoubtedly the closest we’ve ever been, emotionally, musically, ideologically, in terms of what we want to achieve with the band and what we want to do, so, that side of things has been great.