Letters from me to Gareth: Los Campesinos! interview

It is difficult to start writing about Los Campesinos! without falling into the same traps of lazy journalism or hipster elitism that have ensnared the band’s reputation for the last five years. Whether describing them as twee-popping indie kids, or miserablist emos (inaccurately in either case), there has always been something of a sense, amongst your more worthy musoes, that here is a band that, in all seriousness, you shouldn’t really admit to liking. In the playground of Pitchfork Elementary, Los Campesinos! is for girls. To accept any such bullshit, however, would be to ignore a band that, since 2008’s Hold on Now, Youngster, have produced four outstanding albums, with a consistent quality that has masked a manifestly developing style. Gone are the glockenspiels, boy-girl duets and cartoon record sleeves; in their place Hello Sadness.

‘You do not like us ‘cos your girlfriend likely does,’ taunts singer Gareth Campesinos! on the second track of the album, and you can’t help but feel he has in mind some of the lasting perceptions of the band that, by this stage, he is clearly tiring of. ‘We brought it upon ourselves at first,’ he tells me, ‘just getting excited and carried away at being in a band, the fact that people were labelling us as anything was exciting. But now the twee thing doesn’t amount to much more than laziness from people who don’t know what twee is.’ In truth though, it was never an epithet that was really fitting. Los Campesinos! have always been ‘far too ballsy and aggressive, and sort of far too… honest’, to be thought of as just another cardigan at the vintage fair of pop music. Perhaps an even less predictable misconception about the band stems from their origins as students at Cardiff University, although admittedly it’s a less toxic fiction: ‘If it wasn’t for sport,’ says Gareth, ‘I probably wouldn’t care that we were described as being Welsh.’

Sport, and specifically football, has been a constant reference point across all of Los Campesinos!’ records, to the bafflement of some of their more indie-traditionalist fans. ‘I think there’s still sort of a disagreement between people who like alternative, real music, and people who like such a popular, masculine sport as football,’ observes Gareth, although clearly it’s no opposition in his mind. For a while the interview devolves into a discussion of nineties football management games and the new faces of Umbro’s England football shirt campaign (‘I don’t anticipate us getting asked to advertise anything like that, although I’m sure my football knowledge is far greater than Kasabian’s.’)  Gareth, it transpires, is a lifelong fan of Welton Rovers (currently plying their trade in Western Football League Division One), having had a season ticket ‘since I was old enough that my mum would let me go out when it was cold.’ And this, I think, regardless of what PE-dodging indie types might tell you (too scared to muddy their Belle & Sebastian t-shirts), is important.

Because supporting a football team, really supporting a football team, is just as unreasonable and passionate a romance as any true love. The rituals of intense devotion, wounded pride and habitual humiliation familiar to any lower-league football fan can surely only inform Gareth’s unique perspective on love and heartbreak on Hello Sadness: ‘It’s only hope that springs eternal’, begins the chorus of the title track, ‘and that’s the reason why/This dripping from my broken heart/Is never running dry’, while ‘Every Defeat a Divorce’, tellingly subtitled ‘Three Lions’, expresses an enduring faith, never disillusioned by failure, as appropriate to the football fan as it is to the hopeless romantic: ‘Every defeat a divorce/Although I look surprised/It’s par for the course I guess.’

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Sport and pop music share a peculiar ability to inspire and nurture a uniquely obsessive dedication, and it is perhaps again to some extent the formative years on the terraces that have produced such a reciprocal relationship between Los Campesinos! and their disciples. Strengthened recently through self-published fanzine, Heat Rash, available to subscribing devotees, the close connection between band and public is something that has always been apparent at their live shows. ‘I just don’t understand why every band wouldn’t be like that,’ says Gareth, ‘the hierarchy of fans being underneath and feeding into the band isn’t something that sits comfortably with us. And chances are there’s a lot of people who watch our shows that we’d be mates with in real life.’ Although he is careful to qualify this (‘You do meet a lot of people who are just dickheads and really irritating.’) he maintains that, ‘by and large, it’s an absolute pleasure meeting all these people.’

There is a team ethic to Los Campesinos! as impressive as anything in the Premier League (last one…). Gareth rarely uses the first-person singular, seemingly naturally to prefer a more democratic ‘We’. Despite the band’s shifting line-up over the past couple of years, it seems he feels like he has now picked his first team (okay…): ‘We’re the happiest now we’ve ever been, the most focused and the most united, and the most capable of actually creating something lasting’; there is a desire to be more than ‘just another band with a few albums lined up in HMV.’ Clearly evident is a real sense of confidence, but one refreshingly short of ego, as he begins to conclude, ‘I think we’re capable of being something slightly,’ pausing bashfully, as if to make sure, ‘ever so slightly, special.’

This confidence in the band’s own ability and significance, if expressed shyly over the phone, is worn firmly on the sleeve of Hello Sadness. With Los Campesinos!, emotions have never been too deeply beneath the surface: ‘I’ve got into a situation where I want to write a lot more honestly, and perhaps only feel that honestly is the only way I’m capable of writing,’ admits Gareth. From the start, his song writing has been open and confessional, his delivery earnest and sincere. What saves it from pretension or self-indulgence – and in my opinion what separates the Morrisseys and Bowies of this world from the Bonos and Stings (apart from the not having fucking stupid names) – is the ability to be really funny, even (especially) when singing sad songs. The effect, on Hello Sadness, is one of real catharsis; emerging from the despondently triumphant closing track with the same lift that follows a night spent crying your heart out.

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In the press surrounding the album, there is a great deal of talk about growing up. ‘When we formed we were in our second year of university,’ Gareth explains, ‘We weren’t real people yet. I suppose we’ve done all the proper adult growing up whilst being in the band.’ And the whole process has been captured on record, both in terms of the musical development, ‘five years of learning to write songs released on albums’, and psychologically, through the camera obscura of Gareth’s candid song writing. Hello Sadness takes as its emotional backdrop the end of a relationship. Two weeks before recording, Gareth split up with his girlfriend. ‘I guess it was both terrible and perfect timing,’ he tells me. ‘It was a weird headspace to have going into writing an album, but also it was a brilliant time to be going away with my mates to Spain to record and to drink and dick about.’

‘I’d written 2 or 3 songs very much form the point of view of being happy and in a relationship and then as soon as that ended it didn’t feel appropriate anymore and wasn’t the sort of thing I was wanting to put down onto a record. So I scrapped it and started again. I didn’t really start writing until we found ourselves in the studio.’ There is a bare authenticity to the lyrics of songs like ‘Baby I Got The Death Rattle’ and ‘Light Leaves, Dark Sees, part II’, a vulnerability bitterly picked from the fresh scabs of a relationship: ‘The pain of the silence before bed/Oh for the sound of your pissing through the thin walls or stroking your head.’ The break-up, says Gareth, meant that ‘everything written before then became void.’

‘I think it feels equally the same band and completely different,’ he admits, and Hello Sadness is saturated with dampened echoes of a past still audible, yet somehow beyond reach: the scratching guitars that open ‘Songs About Your Girlfriend’, like those of an early EP, now surrounded by the unsettling hiss of distant radio noise; the opening chords of ‘To Tundra’ like ghostly reverberations of those on breakthrough single ‘You! Me! Dancing!’, only now, instead of building to raucous primary-coloured abandon, levelling out into minor-key phantasmagoria, all twinkling keys and atmosphere, as desolate as the permafrost evoked in the title. While the themes remain the same – love, loss, heartbreak – this is no longer teenage anguish, yet while recoiling as strongly as ever against the lethargy of ‘maturity’, it is certainly a more grown up kind of despair.