Interview: Gareth Campesinos of Los Campesinos!
The current tour of Los Campesinos! closes with two sold-out shows at the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, February 14 and Sunday, February 15--two nights in which they'll "play every song that we know."
In 2008, the seven member Welsh collective Los Campesinos! released not one but two rather complete compact discs: the 12-song song Hold On Now, Youngster . . . (officially considered an album) followed by the only slightly briefer 10-song We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (designated, by the band at least, as an EP). But while both offerings are undeniably upbeat musically (check out Youngster's "You! Me! Dancing!"), singer/lyricist Gareth Campesino (yes, they're kind of like the Ramones when it comes to surnames) suggests that his lyrics have more recently veered towards the "more personal" and "honest." None more biting than the Doomed title track's dark couplet "We kid ourselves that there's future in the fucking/But there is no fucking future." Blame/credit Gareth's relatively recent obsession with the late (via suicide) B.S. Johnson--a British writer not particularly prone, either personally or professionally, to bullshit.
Two days after Barack Obama's inauguration, we spoke with Gareth Campesino as he awaited check-out from a Super 8 Motel (room 225) in Tallahassee. --Rob Trucks
Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.
Any sort of danger sport that could result in my death. I've never done, or indeed wanted to do, anything as exciting as skydiving or bungee jumping. And I don't ever imagine I would.
Tell me something you've done once and one time only.
I ate octopus once, and never endeavored to follow it up. And I know I never will. I'm a vegan, so that's off-limits now. But not a particularly enjoyable experience. Like rubber bands.
The name of a book you've read at least twice.
Would be Trawl by B. S. Johnson, my absolute favorite author.
You're a Brian Johnson fan.
Yeah, yeah. Are you yourself?
Yeah. I thought the Coe biography [Like a Fiery Elephant] was wonderful.
Yes. I'm actually in the process of re-reading that at the moment. Whenever people ask me what they should read first to get into Johnson, I always say that the Coe biography would be an amazing place to start because it just paints him as such an interesting character. I just think it makes him completely understandable, and it's a really, really great read. For Christmas I got a copy of See The Old Lady Decently, which is like his posthumously published novel and there was only ever one printing of it done and it's quite rare and I managed to find somebody selling it for a foolishly cheap amount on the Internet, so I bought myself that. And that's a difficult read, but certainly really, really fantastic.
So it was worth the effort.
Oh, totally. Within the band, people have their own areas that they're experts on and that they can talk forever about. And besides like soccer and music I've not really got an area I'm particularly well-informed on, so B.S. Johnson is the thing that I'm trying to become almost scholarly about. I'm hunting down everything I can of his. I just find him so fascinating.
You mentioned being a vegan. How tough is following the diet when you're on tour in the States?
Generally it's easier in the States than anywhere else in the world. Like Japan's a nightmare because it's all fish-based. And mainland Europe, if you go to France they cannot comprehend how you don't want the cheese with everything you have. But in the U.S. there seems to be a specifically vegan restaurant wherever we go. I must say, I haven't experienced that exactly in Florida, but I always can have a pizza without cheese or just a big bag of chips.
So I have to ask. You studied history and politics in school and you had a day off on Tuesday [Inauguration Day], which was a pretty big day for both politics and history.
Yeah. We watched the inauguration, and we watched it in a not particularly welcoming climate, I think. We were in Jacksonville, Florida, which I get the impression isn't the most pro-Obama place in the world. We watched the inauguration in like some grill house for breakfast, and people were just talking over the speech. There were a few jeers, a few heckles. I think perhaps the significance is slightly lost on me, not being from the U.S. I just mean the whole procedure of the inauguration and being sworn in and everything, because that's not really something that is a big deal in the U.K. And I guess the whole process is over a lot more quickly in the U.K., whereas in the U.S., from being elected in to actually taking office is quite a long, drawn out procedure.
But no, it was exciting. We're on tour with Titus Andronicus. They're reasonably politicized guys and they're very excited about it. And yes, the excitement has been sort of tangible in some places that we've been, so it's really interesting to be over here at the moment.
The youth of the band--not just your ages, but how long the band's been together-- has been written about. But is that just something that music writers see from the outside? Being on the inside do you ever kind of think, "My God, we've hardly been doing this long at all?"
I guess we're kind of used to doing what we do. Like none of us has ever been in a situation where we've worked a 9-to-5 job over a long period of time and got used to sort of living our day-to-day lives in any other way, so the actual experience of touring and being in a vehicle and arriving at a venue and playing a show is familiar, but I guess the sense behind that is still very new and exciting. We still find it incredible that we find ourselves in a situation where this is what we do day-to-day. Not with regards to playing concerts, because we feel very comfortable in ourselves now and we do think that we can play in front of lots of people and put on a show and entertain and play well, but just the realization that this is what we are paid to do and this is all we do is still really surreal.
And we constantly are excited by visiting new places. Like there's never been a show where we've been like, "Oh, we don't really want to do this." As soon as we get onstage, it's always exciting and we're always incredibly grateful to be doing it. So I think the three years has flown by. I think maybe when the band started and we started doing interviews, we all formed default answers to some questions and one of them was we'd always be saying like, 'Well, we've been together for a year and a half,' and still when we're asked the question about how long we've been together it seems far more natural to say, 'Oh about a year, 18 months,' because it's absolutely flown by.
What about musically? Are there things that the band is capable of now that you wouldn't have been capable of when a year or 18 months was the right answer?
Yeah, completely. I think one thing that happened as a result of the way the band came to fruition, and came to be slightly known, was the release of Hold On Now, Youngster . . ., which was like a year ago now. It was made up of songs that we'd written over the previous two years of being a band. A lot of those songs were, to us, particularly old and were written at the very beginning of us even considering writing songs or writing lyrics. And in that respect, they're really not representative of the music that we would create now because we've had a massive learning curve and our interests and our tastes and our styles have changed, so it's inevitable that the music will. But because Hold On Now, Youngster . . . is still relatively new in terms of music, only being a year old, people think that's us right now. Which can be frustrating. But I think basically we know that there's so much more to Los Campesinos!, and what we're producing, what we're writing now, at the moment, is exciting and is more challenging and is only going to get better and better and we're really, really excited about that.
Well, let me ask you about the change and specifically the quickness of the change. Setting aside the argument of whether We Are Beautiful is a long EP or a short album, you've released two pretty complete records within a calendar year, and that's not done very often.
I think it's a great shame that it's not done more. It seems entirely natural to us as music fans that we want to hear as much music as possible from the bands that we love, within their limits, within what they're capable of. And I think now with record label agendas and the whole nature of PR and publicity and the massive effect that a PR campaign has on the release of a record, it perhaps doesn't make economic sense for a record label to release two records in such a short space of time. And I think generally, you see more and more, a band releases an album and then they tour that album into the ground. For 18 months they tour it, all the way around the world twice. They'll release five or six singles from it. By the end of it the songs won't even seem like songs anymore. They just seem like a reflex.
As I said, we've been playing the majority of the songs off Hold On Now, Youngster . . . for two years, and although we still enjoy it it has come to a situation where it was like, 'Now we're going out and we're playing the same set,' and people that come to see us twice in the last six months, they're going to see us play the exact same songs we were playing six months ago. And it's not fun for the band to be going through the motions, and it's not fair on the fans for them to come and pay money and get excited about seeing you and then being given a replication of what they saw six months ago. And so it seemed like the only honest, natural thing for us to do. We had these songs. There's no point in sitting on them because I think if it was coming to be released now there would be stuff on that record that I would think twice about putting out because I invest quite a lot of myself in the lyrics. I'm really honest with the lyrics, and so inevitably the more time I give myself to dwell on them the less I'm likely to agree with them. So I think that record, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, really did capture a moment, like a couple of month period of Los Campesinos! And to put it out there and then was the only real honest, sensible way of doing it.
I certainly understand wanting to work towards the honest rather than the purely economic, but I think kind of the key phrase was, "We had these songs." Not every band is capable of delivering 22 songs they're comfortable with within a year's time. And you even said, "If we had waited on this a little longer, there might have been a few lyrics that I wouldn't have been as comfortable having out there."
Yeah, I think that's the other side of the coin with what I said about music fans wanting to hear as much as possible from their favorite bands. The dawn of like how MySpace and the Internet generally is so important to a band's music career now and how records leak so quickly and how they're so easily downloadable for free and stuff, it's a lot pressure on an artist as well, so bands have to work within their means. And it really is a fluke. I don't believe that we're going to be releasing two records a year for the rest of our music career. Like that's almost certainly not going to happen. But because we could this time, it was totally the right thing to do. And I think that any band that had those songs and could do that would want to put stuff out as quickly as possible.
You were writing most of the lyrics for We Are Beautiful when you were on tour in the States before. So it has to do with a sense of place, and it also has to do with the relationship that you were in at the time.
So this really is an aural picture of those two months and what was going on in your life, right?
Lyrically, yes. I can't speak for the musical side, but lyrically, yeah, that's what it was.
The songwriting receives shared credits, but we know that you're writing the lyrics and I believe Tom [Campesino] is the musical instigator. What comes first? Do you write lyrics and Tom puts music to them or does Tom give you musical pieces and you put the lyrics on top of that?
Once Tom sends me the track I will write lyrics for it. When we're happy with what we've got, we'll take it to the band and to the practice room and we'll all learn our parts and make suggestions and ways that things could change. It's never complete until we've all played it together because everybody has ideas. Once you start playing it live, obviously that's when it really starts to take on its own form and then we know the best way to take it.
The vocal interplay between you and Aleks [Campesino] is a major part of the Los Campesinos! sound. When you're writing the lyrics, do you write a straight set without a particular voice in mind? Or do you know that you're going to sing part A and Aleks is going to sing part B? How do the vocal parts get apportioned?
Originally, and for the majority of songs on Hold On Now, Youngster . . ., it was a case of writing the lyrics and then deciding which bits we sang were more suited to me or to Aleks. But clearly myself and Aleks have very, very different vocal styles and strengths, so a lot of the time the decision makes itself. But I think more recently, and on We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, as the lyrics are being written I'm aware of what parts I'm going to be singing and how Aleks is going to fit in around that and how she's going to complement what I'm singing and how what I'm singing is going to complement what she sings. So I've got more of an idea while I'm working on it now than I did before.
Lyrically most of the stuff on We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is a lot different than something like "You! Me! Dancing!" or "Death to Los Campesinos!" And as the lyrics that I'm writing become more and more personal it's more difficult to know what Aleks can sing and what Aleks should sing. It's kind of an influence that B.S. Johnson's had on me, his complete devotion to honesty. Within the lyrics I have to know which bits it's cool for Aleks to sing and which bits, perhaps, I have to sing because I'm trying to be honest.
It seems like human nature to want to almost be more proprietary, wanting to sing more of the parts on We Are Beautiful because the lyrics are so personal rather than sharing them with someone else. Does that instinct come into play?
I think it definitely does, and it's something that I don't want to happen too much because I love Aleks' singing voice and a lot of people love Aleks' singing voice and I do think she has a great voice. But when the lyrics that I'm writing are so personal it does seem slightly weird if Aleks was to be singing them because I guess I know exactly what I'm singing about and I do think that when it comes to sort of emoting within the vocals and singing it in different emotive ways, then knowing the context and knowing what it's about, I think definitely does make a difference.
But the lyrics becoming more personal is just one change since Hold On Now. What were your goals for We Are Beautiful?
It didn't really seem like a conscious choice to change at the time at all, but it was just an inevitability because Hold On Now, Youngster . . . , I think, by and large, was the sound of seven like people in their late teens who were just really, really excited to be in a band and to be playing songs and have anybody care about them. And I think certainly a big, big influence on it was the difference between the way that Hold On Now, Youngster . . . came together over a period of 18 months, or two years, and by the time that we actually recorded it it seemed more like a greatest hits collection because it was essentially every song we had up till then sort of put together, often in quite a mish-mash and often lacking cohesion.
When we came to write We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed we knew that we were writing ten tracks. Well, initially we said we were only writing four or five, but when it came to it we had these ten tracks that worked together, I think, really well as a record, like a ten track document of a certain time. And it got to a situation in the studio where we were now comfortable. Like some of the tracks on Hold On Now, Youngster . . . , it's quite difficult for us to listen to them because like "We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes In Unison" is twice the speed we wanted it to be, and at the time it sounded right. But now listening to it, it's like, 'How did we manage to play it that fast?' And it was just a case of us being in the studio, being overexcited, being scared and nervous, and getting through the song as quickly as possible. Whereas now we're a lot more capable as musicians and a lot more professional and I think that shows in the way that the songs are structured and the way that they come together. I think the songs just show that we're getting used to sort of accepting that we have to be musicians rather than just kids playing music. Which we still are, but I guess now we know that we can push ourselves and we want to push ourselves.
Your tour ends up in New York on Valentine's weekend.
We're really, really excited about the New York shows. I think the plan, at the moment, is over the course of the two Bowery dates is to play every song that we know. So if anybody is going to both dates they will hear every Los Campesinos! song that we are capable of playing.
And every Los Campesinos! song you're capable of playing would be the greatest hits collection? All twelve on Youngster . . . and all ten on We Are Beautiful? What are you promising here?
Well, we can't play all the songs off We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. We can only play six off We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed because we've never had time to get the others nailed. But it's going to be exciting because there's some songs that we haven't played for quite a long time. Well, I guess it's exciting for us, but in the end it's inevitable that some people are going to be stuck with listening to album tracks at the gig [laughs].
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