Let It Spill: An Interview with Los Campesinos!
After losing one of their founding members, Los Campesinos! were at a turning point, wondering whether to go on. Good news for us, they did (in the form of new album No Blues), and sonic architect Tom Campesinos! tells PopMatters all about it ...
Much like the characters in frontman Gareth Campesinos!'s funny, self-lacerating lyrics, Los Campesinos! never seems to get quite the respect it deserves.
Since 2007, the British (read: not Welsh) group has released five LPs and two EPs containing some of the cleverest, most affecting, and most consistent guitar music in the indie rock world. LC!'s blend of sharp wordplay and pop anthemics inspires a particularly passionate response in its ever-growing legion of hardcore devotees -- do a quick Google search for "Los Campesinos tattoo Tumblr" if you need evidence -- and routinely receives heavy praise from critics with every new record. But the band never seems to be courted as indie rock royalty by the blogosphere, despite its track record. If there's any justice on the internet (oh, boy), that will all change with the release of Los Campesinos!'s fifth proper LP, the fantastic, subtly challenging No Blues.
Tom Campesinos!, the man behind group's killer hooks and deft arrangements, sees No Blues as a turning point in Los Campesinos!'s career -- though he's not sure what lies around the corner. Founding member Ellen Campesinos! left the band earlier this year, an amicable split but one that stung enough to put the future of the group in question.
"It sucked pretty bad," Tom says. "After her last gig, there was a lot of headscratching about what to do next and whether we'd make another record." He and Gareth sat down for a conversation -- in a pub, of course -- to hash things out. "We decided we wanted to carry on, that we had to make it work," he explains. That sense of dedication sent fresh energy into the writing and recording of No Blues -- as Tom puts it, the band felt "we've got nothing to lose" from pouring everything into another album.
He's candid, too, about another difficulty plaguing the group in addition to seeing Ellen move on. "It's getting harder and harder to make it work, financially," he says. Speaking again of the band's decision to push forward, he explains, "This record's wasn't so much like a last throw of the dice, but this is all we've got. And we're going to throw a bunch of money at it, and we're not going to make any money from it."
That sense of urgency spurred him and Gareth to approach the writing of No Blues in a different way than they'd collaborated in the past. Rather than sketching out rough ideas and sending them to Gareth and the band for further development, Tom says the process became more about dialogue. "I think I was given the freedom to arrange things more before I presented them to people," he says.
And Gareth approached the writing sessions with a different mindset, as well, as Tom explains: "The biggest difference was that Gareth was open to trying out different melodies. And this is mostly down to giving more time to him -- he would come up with ideas and send them to me, and I'd send changes back. We'd have a more in-depth conversation, there'd be more time that way."
After he and Gareth finished outlining the record's material, the freewheeling attitude extended to the actual recording process. "We didn't start rehearsing until the actual recording session," he says. "It's always different, a demo's idea to a full band's, and it becomes pretty clear which songs will work and which won't, and I think that sort of excitement carried on through the recording."
For a band that packs so many members onstage -- the band's current iteration has six members, plus the bass player that will tour in Ellen's absence -- it can come as something of a surprise to learn that one person is responsible for the majority of Los Campesinos!'s songwriting. Explaining his process, Tom says, "I need to keep track of any idea I have, so whenever I have an idea, I'll record me whistling or humming or whatever. So there'll be this kind of horrible, 3 AM recording of myself singing this out-of-tune idea." He laughs, and continues, "And I have a whole playlist of these things, and when we have downtime, I'll go for a walk and listen through these and start organizing them into different ideas."
Afterward, he shares the ideas with the rest of the band, and together they decide on structure and instrumentation. Though he does write the fundamentals of the group's songs, Tom seems anything but a control freak. Self-deprecating to a fault, he explains the feelings that come with handing a demo over to the band: "I shit myself before I give songs over to people," he says, laughing. As he puts it, "I do get attached to certain songs, and even though we've been doing it a while, the songs I think will go down really well never do." He's learned to anticipate that opposite reaction, at least, and he's ready to be wrong. He felt ambivalent toward his demo for one of No Blues's best tracks, early single "Avocado, Baby0," and he's glad the band convinced him it deserved further polishing and a place on the record.
Elsewhere, he's gotten used to the necessity of being politely dressed down by the band's drummer, Jason Campesinos!, when he presents his rough demos of drum programming. "I'll normally come up with a crap lead," Tom says, "and we have this drum emulator now where I can program drum parts. There's always this hilarious moment where I hand them to Jason, and because of the nature of how I try to arrange everything, he'll say, 'It's not possible to play these parts -- you'd need six limbs.'" The conversation gives insight to how much Tom values his bandmates as collaborators: "Jason's got a really good instinct for pop composition and arrangements," he says, "so not only is he great for arranging drums, but I know if an idea is good he'll take to it, and he's not tactful enough to disguise not liking songs, so that provides a good early assessment of a song and whether it's worth keeping or not."
Similarly, he admits his attempts to write vocal melodies for Gareth often fall short, "If it's me [writing a vocal line], sometimes it's too obvious or sticks too close to the music." He and Gareth seem to intuit the other's strengths and weaknesses more readily at this point in the band's career. "It's different every time," Tom explains. "Sometimes Gareth will come up with a vocal melody straightaway, and sometimes he'll say he's struggling. Sometimes it's a combination of both. Again, advantages and disadvantages ... I think we've gotten better at leaving room to discuss it."
But Tom also wants to push his own songwriting into new territory, which shows itself on No Blues's use of fresh textures for the band. Many of the tracks on the album show a sharper focus on synths and electronic elements when compared to the more straight-forward guitar rock of 2011's Hello Sadness. Tom is aware of the slight sense of dread that may accompany reading about a guitar brand's embrace of electronics in its later career.
"That's always one of my worries," he says. "If you do take that element [of electronics and programming], it needs to be there for a reason. If you just take those textures and put them in for a superficial reason, it will feel dilettante-ish. Let's not just put an 808 on everything and a bunch of blips here and there. It needs to feel natural to the song."
Instead of a random collection of blips and bloops, the electronics on No Blues display a careful attention to texture, with pitchshifted vocals and synth melodies adding depth to the recordings. "If you have that texture going across multiple songs, it binds the record together and gives it a slight concept," Tom explains. As ever, he's quick to anticipate criticism of the band's experimentation. "There's a bit of a stigma of doing too much in the box with what's cool or real [in rock music]," he says, "but I took pleasure in doing more digital manipulation, and then we'd run it through an analog board or put analog recordings on top, still letting the computer be a part of it, in a way. I know that's not cool, and it's sort of anathema in the indie world, but."
That attention to audience expectations is part of what makes Los Campesinos!, and Tom himself, so endearing. The band has never pretended to be playing its songs onstage behind a fourth wall, detached from its audience. Tom and Gareth regularly engage with fans on Twitter and Tumblr, and it's always apparent they're doing so with a desire for real, genuine feedback on their art, not as a way of stroking digital egos.
He's anticipating the reviews for No Blues, saying, "For us, reviews are pretty important, because we're not going to have a lot of money pushed behind us. So, if we can get good reviews, it's pretty amazing. We probably get more nervous about that than we'd like to admit." To see what people really think about the record, Tom will just need to check Tumblr in a month or two for the next new crop of Los Campesinos!-inspired tattoos. With a record as heartfelt and laser-sharp as No Blues out in the world, he's likely to find plenty of fresh ink there.