By Ace Ubas
Though the average age of Los Campesinos! is around 25 years old, the Cardiff-based seven-piece are considered veterans in the indie music scene. Since 2006, they’ve released four full-length albums with the latest, entitled Hello Sadness, having been released this past Tuesday. This month of November is shaping up to be their busiest as they played a few dates in the UK last week, only to arrive in New York on Wednesday for the beginning of a brief East coast tour.
Before their show, I had a chance to speak with lead vocalist Gareth Campesinos over the phone to talk about the new album, the lyric-writing process, and their relationship with their fans.
I want to congratulate you on the release of your fourth album, Hello Sadness.
Thank you very much. Our heads are a bit all over the place at the moment. We arrived in New York late last night. A mixture of jet lag and excitement of being here means we’re all a bit stir-crazy today.
Having recorded the previous albums in the US, how did you end up recording Hello Sadness in Spain?
Well, a series of very fortunate circumstances, I guess. Originally, we were going to try to do it cheaply in Cardiff. The Manic Street Preachers, who are a Cardiff band as well, had a studio we were hoping to use. And every time we nearly managed to book the studio up, they said “we actually need it to do this or that in that week.” Eventually, we were offered two overly paid gigs in Spain in the space of three or four days; one opening in a club and one playing a festival. We thought that seeing as we were in Spain and we’ve been paid this money to go there, we might as well stay there and make the most of it. We recorded in a studio that our management (Turnstile Music) has used before. They also manage Super Furry Animals, so they were familiar with the studio. We ended up recording there with John Goodmanson once again. It was the most incredible recording experience we’ve ever had; it was the most fun. It was a really enjoyable month that we spent there.
Speaking of John Goodmanson, this is the third album he has produced. What makes him the ideal producer?
By now, we know how he loves to work and he knows how we best work. I think going into recording an album, there’s enough things to worry about with regards to how ready the songs are and how you want the songs to finish up. Having to get to know a producer, both musically and socially, would be another really difficult thing. I think the fact that on Romance is Boring and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, the experiences that we had recording with him, those were so enjoyable. He’s such an easy-going, fun, and kind guy. It’s just really nice to be around him, let alone his production ability. It was never really a question. We always assumed that we’d be recording with him and hopefully he assumed that he’d be doing the record as well. I think that this is certainly the best production job we’ve achieved on the record. That’s a testament to the relationship, both working and personal, that we forged with John.
Before entering the recording studio, all the music had been written, but the lyrics weren’t. Why did you choose to write the lyrics when you got to Spain?
To be honest, the last two records as well, I always leave writing lyrics to the last minute anyway. I’m not the sort of person that will sit down with a notepad and pen, and be like “I need to get my feelings out and put them into a song.” I find the notion of that incredibly embarrassing and I wouldn’t really ever think like that. What generally motivates me to write is the pressure of knowing that I have to and that these songs are complete, and what they need is lyrics and vocals. When we recorded We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, all the lyrics for that record were written in the space of about three days because I was under pressure to do so. That seems to be how I work best.
In this case, I sort of attempted to start writing a bit earlier to see how that worked out for me. About a week before going into the studio, the relationship that I was in broke-up and that kind of meant that everything that I’d written for the record, up ‘til then, the context was entirely different. And perhaps the sentiment that I was putting across in the song, in the lyrics, wasn’t appropriate and wasn’t something I could connect with anymore. I sort of started from scratch and just worked on it in the studio. I’m very fortunate that my band-mates and Tom especially, who writes all the music, are understanding and sympathetic to that. I’ve been very lucky, that on every occasion where I’ve written like this, it’s all worked out well. But I’m sure in the future it will come back and kick me in the face.
Did the city you recorded in provide any inspiration in writing the lyrics?
In this case, I would say not at all. I think the environment that we were in was a very nice working environment. We recorded in a place called Figueres, which is in Girona near Barcelona. The surroundings were filled with trees and mountains, the weather was lovely, and there was a swimming pool. There was plenty of space to relax and to have peace, if you needed it. The surroundings, in that respect, allowed me to concentrate on writing and not be distracted. But actually being in Spain didn’t really find its way into the lyrics so much because it was just like being anywhere peaceful, quaint, and nice.
Your lyrics are very honest and straightforward, but they’re also dark. Are darker lyrics easier than happier ones?
Yeah, completely. When I was attempting to write lyrics initially, I was in a happy relationship and I found it very hard. It’s a lot easier to write a sad song or an unhappy song than a happy song. Themes and ideas that bring sadness to people are pretty universal, so I think writing a sad song is a lot easier in that respect. It’s fortunate enough, for the fate of the album, that my private life ended like it did.
Do you think the audience can relate more to the lyrics with the way they are?
It’s difficult to say. The specific points that I talk about in the song are personal to me. I try not to think any further about what people will take from it or what they’ll think about it. The ideas of heartbreak, sadness, and depression are pretty universal ones. I’d imagine that there’s a lot in these songs that people can empathize with.
The somber lyrics are paired up with upbeat music so there’s this sense of duality. What do you like about this juxtaposition?
I think it’s very interesting in how it allows people to take different things from the music. From the way people comment about our music, the initial feedback we get from people at shows, or in messages people send us, it’s clear that many people take comfort or enjoyment in the dark nature or the descriptiveness in the lyrics. There are also an equal number of people who enjoy it because they hear this upbeat music. It’s always really surreal when people will say “this song really, really cheered me up,” and I just think “well, that song’s about how depressed I am and how lonely I feel.” The fact that somebody can get such enjoyment out of that is weird, but it’s great that people can take different things from the music. Performing live is a very visceral experience for me to be singing these lyrics, which are quite dark I suppose, atop of this energetic, raucous, and aggressive music. Perhaps it’d be more suited, in theory, that these lyrics to fit atop some sparse, gloomy minor chords. To perform them as we do, in the way that we do, it means it can be quite a classic experience.
In the past couple of years, the band has seen some line-up changes. How was the songwriting process different for this album compared to the previous three albums?
Hardly at all. One thing people kind of miss when discussing how three people who were originally are in the band have left the band, those three people never contributed to writing songs when they were in the band. I don’t think the band would be, in theory, any different in direction now if they were still in the band.
Jason is one of the best drummers I’ve ever had the pleasure to see play. Kim (vocals/keyboards) has got a gorgeous voice and a music degree, so she’s well-informed on the technicalities and details of music, something that we haven’t necessarily had as much of in the past. And Rob (guitar) is used to writing and recording his own material. He’s recorded EP’s in the past of his solo stuff and produced it. In the three people that joined, we’ve got people who can really contribute in very important and very definite ways. I think every change that has occurred, not even considering the line-up as it is, we’re the most united and happy. We’re enjoying each others company more than we ever have. I also think that we’re undoubtedly strongest musically and technically.
Los Campesinos! tends to have a strong, personal relationship with a very devoted fanbase. How important is it to maintain this kind of relationship?
I certainly think it’s very important. If wasn’t important, I don’t think we’d make the effort because sometimes it can a bit strenuous and occasionally frustrating. The main reason we do it is because it makes the whole experience so much more enjoyable for us. You have to travel to the UK, then to come over to the States, South America, and all over Europe and Asia. We have this amazing opportunity to play to these people, who shouldn’t really have to know who our band is. There’s no reason why anyone should know who our band is. And then to get to meet them by selling merch after the shows, hanging out while watching the other bands play, through direct e-mail communication, or even something so small like Twitter or Facebook, it’s so nice to see that these people who care about our band have names, faces, and accents. If we met them in any other circumstance, there’s a huge number of people that we’d probably become friends with.
On the other hand, you do meet a lot of other people that are extremely irritating and often quite horrible people, who sort of feel like because they’ve come to your show, that you owe them to listen to what ever differences or irritating opinion they’re spouting . It’s only natural that you’re going to meet a lot of incredibly nice people, but not-so-nice people as well.
That relationship you have with your audience translates over into the live setting. Your band is very interactive with the crowd. Do you think bands should do more to break down that barrier between audience and performer?
I don’t think bands should do more. I think a lot of bands would enjoy it more if they did. There are probably some bands that breaking down that barrier wouldn’t suit things so much. A lot of bands’ music benefits from a sense of mystery or keeping things behind closed doors. But perhaps because of the nature of our music and our lyrics, it makes sense to break those barriers down and be as one-on-one with every person in the audience as possible. Equally, I wouldn’t say that any other band should do it that way because it just might not suit people. I think it should be something that bands do because they enjoy it, rather than they feel obligated to do it. And we certainly do enjoy it.
You’re currently on the East coast for a brief tour. Are there any plans to head out West?
Yeah we do. We’re very excited to. With this trip to the States, it kind of makes sense to just keep it to this area because it’s a very flying visit. I think mid-January next year, we’ve got a very long and expansive tour planned, which will be equal parts exciting and crippling for us because of the length of it and the nature of it is going to be intense. We haven’t really done a proper tour in the whole of 2011 because we’ve been recording, completing all aspects of the album, and playing festivals. We did a five-day tour in the UK last week and it just felt like we were kind of getting into our stride and getting into the swing of things of being on tour, and then it ended. We’re going to crawl all the way down the West coast next year. We’ve got a lot of friends on the West coast and we’ve played a lot of memorable and exciting gigs over there.