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Eyes Wide Open: An Interview With Los Campesinos!

Welsh speed-pop septet Los Campesinos! have ascended the indie-rock ladder at a rate that has even stunned co-founder Neil Campesinos. Touring with Broken Social Scene and releasing a critically adored full-length: all in a day's work for a band that didn’t even exist three years ago.

Needless to say, things happened pretty quickly for Los Campesinos!

Conceived at Cardiff University two years ago by three friends who subsequently became an active seven-piece band, they played their first show in May 2006 and were periodically drowned out by Pendulum in the adjoining room. Two years on they've released a critically acclaimed debut album, supported heroes (and label-mates) Broken Social Scene on the road and toured through both Europe and the States; and the gathering pace of their fledgling musical careers shows no sign yet of relenting. Neil Campesinos! (you suspect somehow this isn't his real surname), one of the septet's two guitarists, admits to a certain degree of bewilderment at how quickly the band have progressed. Fresh from an "absolutely amazing" first taste of SXSW, at which the troupe played three warmly received sets, he traces their growth with a sense of straightforwardness that can't quite belie a certain awe at how quickly it all came about.

"It's times like this, when you're doing an interview, and you can't really pick out little bits and everything kind of floods together ... I mean, chronologically it was probably quite linear, quite simple. We formed in February 2006, played a gig in May, made some demos in June, played some more gigs, then a lot of us went home for the summer -- Ollie went to Greenland. We put the tracks up on MySpace and then within days we'd got label interest, which is ridiculous. Then we spent that summer meeting labels, then that November we signed to Witchita and released our first single in March. We finished uni in June, went to America, went to Canada to record the album, came home, did a massive UK tour, went to America and Japan and Europe, then it was Christmas and now we're here!"

"It's that simple" he laughs "that's our story of success".

Though he recites all this with relative ease, Neil's subsequent doubt about whether he'd inadvertently omitted a year of his band's history ("Wait, is that only one year? Nah, it's two.") highlights the pace of the Los Campesinos! ascension, something that is all the more striking given that they harboured few expectations of musical livelihoods, let alone of international success.

"It's really ridiculous", says Neil "because we were still at uni and we didn't really try or mean for any of this to happen. We just recorded these demos and then people cared, and that was weird ... when you lay it out like that it's really odd, it doesn't really make sense!" That said, it's clear that the band, upon having got a foot or seven in the door of the music industry, are not intending their visit to be a fly-by one, even they were not quick to ditch their respective studies in favor of overnight success. "I think when the idea of being a band became a realistic possibility, when people started taking interest, one thing we always said was we want to finish our degrees and that the longevity of the band is more important than just putting out a top ten single and being like a massive 'hype' band. So yeah, longevity was always something that was way more important, but you can never see [the future] realistically -- hopefully we could do it until we completely hate each others' guts. But I guess it's nice that we have degrees to fall back on, and then if and when the band does end we can all go and be teachers ... "

Hit singles might not be their goal, but Los Campesinos! drew some unexpected praise last year when a mutual appearance on Irish television with Pop Idol judge and all-around music guru Louis Walsh resulted in the latter playing up the chart credentials of the gleeful gambol of their album's opener "Death to Los Campesinos!" "Well, he's obviously got an ear for talent" jokes Neil, adding with more pragmatism that Walsh was "much the gentlemen, and very polite," even though by the guitarist's own admission they trade in "completely different realms." And while this latter point is patently true, you can't help but think that the poppy luster that jewels the band's debut Hold On Now, Youngster ... perfectly lends itself to crossover appeal, even if it's knowing, wryness and the specificity of its subject matter doesn't always follow suit.

Neil agrees that the band's appeal is diverse. "Our audience is really quite mixed. I mean, my Mum quite likes it, but then there's a lot of younger kids who read the NME and are into NME bands, so we do have a wide audience. But every now and then someone will be like 'I like all these bands, and I like Los Campesinos! as well', and that's always a massive compliment, when someone who likes bands who are better than ours likes us as well." But while such crowd credentials are something Neil values, he is quick to reinforce that the band were never aiming to appeal to a specific demographic, instead having notions only of what they didn't want to sound like. Likewise, says Neil, the tempting poppiness of the band's sound is something that came freely, rather than by design. "We never set out to be anything in particular, but I think we were always going to be a pop band, I think it was only natural because we had fun with it. We never wanted a particular sound, we just didn't want to have that kind of boring, tired post-Strokes, post-Libertines sound. So I guess upbeat, poppy stuff is kind of a reaction to that 'four boys with guitars' kind of thing."

It's perhaps as a consequence of this rejection of "four sweaty boys with guitars", as also expounded by Los Camp! vocalist Gareth in "…And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes In Unison", that the band's media coverage has featured an unfortunate and fettered ubiquity of the word "twee." Though it's something the band play upon and perhaps almost mischievously invite on "The International Tweexcore Underground", its not an adjective Neil finds easy to square up with his band's music. "I think people just use it because it's easy, or they probably don't know what it means. I don't know ... I don't think we're particularly twee. I mean, we have twee elements I guess -- we did a Heavenly cover and we have glockenspiel and handclaps and boy/girl vocals and stuff, but we're not really a twee band, or I don't think we are. It's nice that people care enough to give us some kind of label but, you know, I don't personally wholeheartedly agree with it. I guess it's just lazy journalism, like easy comparisons, you know you get like 'Oh there's seven of them -- they're like the Arcade Fire'. But you know, it's flattering to be compared to those bands, but realistically we're probably not much like them. They influence us, but we don't really sound like them. It's weird isn’t it? How people will just label you. It's quite interesting actually, when you start thinking about it ... "

As well as, PopMatters suspects, providing Neil with an idea for a dissertation in pop culture, you sense that the steady flow of words written about the band -- misguided or not (particularly on blogs and music sites) -- has served Los Campesinos! well. Indeed, the manner of their underground success on an international scale is something that would have been impossible not so many years ago, and Neil himself highlights the web as a factor in their growth. "I guess with the Internet and stuff [being from the UK] doesn't really make any difference," he says of their popularity in the States. Nonetheless, you sense that the band's burgeoning popularity in America despite minimal first-hand contact has still left him a little wide-eyed. "We haven't done an extensive tour over there, we've played a few gigs on the west coast and a few on the east coast, but there's always been quite a lot of people there which has always really surprised us. And we always seem to go down well, people are fans, which is quite mind-boggling to fly across the Atlantic and just have people there ... so obviously that's something we're grateful for."

Their debut sojourn at SXSW was also an eye-opening experience. "We played gigs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they were all really amazing. It was kind of different to any UK festival I've ever been to, like 1700 bands played and it's set over three or four main streets, and every single building on the road is a venue or a bar that has bands playing from midday to about half one. In terms of our gigs we played were really surprised, we had really big crowds, and we really didn't expect that. On the Friday we played outside at about 1:30pm and we nearly got sunstroke because it was there was no shade and it was pushing 100 degrees, so that was a memorable experience..."

With tours and festival appearances worldwide planned for the remainder of 2008, plenty more memorable experiences no doubt await Los Campesinos! Neil in particular picks out a debut performance at ATP, which he confidently expects to be "the highlight of [the band's] lives," his voice lilting with enthusiasm at the thought of being part of a weekend bill of numerous favorite bands, who his earlier modesty suggests he doesn't quite yet see as his contemporaries. Only time will tell if this humility is dispensed with; regardless, there are plenty of people, it seems, who already see it as unnecessary.

Needless to say, their teaching careers can stay on ice a little longer.

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