Los Campesinos! Conquer America
By: Jeremy D. Goodwin
Shortly after 11:45 p.m. on August 9, Los Campesinos! conquered America.
Or at least, one very small and excitable room in New York City.
This septet that started playing together one and a half years ago at a university in Cardiff, Wales, had barely launched into early favorite “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives” when a cluster of a half-dozen enthusiasts down front spontaneously started shouting—and jumping—along.
“Don’t read Jane Eyre!” they yelled, as the population of fist-pumping, pogo-ing concertgoers expanded in excited waves across the room. “Don’t play card games!”
The band, though a bit stunned at the reception, played brightly and crisply as keyboardist Alexsandra Campesinos! traded lead vocals with Gareth Campesinos!, general frontman, lyric fount, and glockenspeil ace.
By the same they tore into “You! Me! Dancing!” at 12:11 a.m., the band was presiding over a gleeful triumph, with the New York City crowd stripped of any indie-snob pretension and, at one point, even lifting Gareth into the air for a brief spell of crowd-surfing.
When the smart, 40-minute set roared to a close, the seven people on stage appeared to be the happiest people in a roomful of happy people.
Just a few months previous, they had put all live gigs on hold because their exam schedules were too demanding.
London versus New York
“I don’t think we expect people to dance yet,” Tom Campesino! offered about seven hours earlier, as he, Ellen Campesinos! (bass and vocals) and Harriet Campesinos! (violin and vocals) studied menus at a Japanese restaurant half a block from the Mercury Lounge in New York City’s Lower East Side. “I don’t feel we’re at that level...I don’t feel like a proper band yet.”
Five of the seven band members were making their first visit to North America on this short tour, which started with two club shows in Canada and a spot opening for Peter Bjorn and John at Chicago’s Double Door before a set at, umm, Lollapalooza.
"When you arrive in New York you can't help but be in awe," Harriet confides.
Ever since the arrival of The Beatles, there's a built-in mythology surrounding a U.K. band's first visit to the United States. But for a bunch of largely provincial kids fresh out of University, it also makes for quite a vacation.
"It's hard not to treat it like a holiday," Tom says of the American adventure. "It's a nice city for us to explore and then there’s the gig that evening and we’re like, 'Oh, we get to play as well.' That's just another part of the experience."
The wide-eyed enthusiasm that seeps from their few records emerges in person, with every “aww shucks” moment tempered by a burst of dry humor. Their debut LP (being recorded at this very moment in Ontario) may very well make them rock stars, but for now Harriet’s eyes sparkle when she asks about a mysterious little tea kettle (the soy sauce container), and Tom becomes the first of the three to make his career sake debut.
The band ate at the same place the day before, and Neil Campesinos! (guitar), Ollie Campesinos! (drums), Gareth and Alexandra are in no mood for a repeat. When cued to the existence of a pizza place a few doors down, Neil finds the development promising but inconclusive. “They’ll give me a big pizza?” he confirms, before the four of them exit.
They’re all tired, and grabbing a post-sound check bite before heading back to the hotel for some nap time. This mysterious band that seems to have burst into the world fully formed—bearing endless hooks, high wit, and a sound and manner that has reduced a stream of bloggers and critics to a giddy daze—had time, however, to speak with a journalist about topics like their songwriting process, origins (as a post-rock band!), and their still-thoroughly-non-cynical view at this key stage of their history.
At a time when the only clue to the band’s creative process has come in the songwriting credits for Tom and Gareth found in fine print on the physical copies of their two singles and one EP (Sticking Fingers Into Sockets) and it’s not known generally, for instance, who among the three female vocalists sings the distinctive lead parts or whether Tom or Neil plays lead guitar, the conversation provided a revelatory look at a band with few published interviews and apparently no major feature stories to their credit.
Though it's common to refer to this assemblage as a "Welsh band," precisely none of the members come from Wales. Six of the seven have homeplaces scattered around England, and Alexsandra's heritage is primarily Russian.
The more one learns about the band, the clearer it becomes that the things working so well for them are not happy accidents. Gareth has been quoted saying they kept adding band members until they could afford rehearsal space, and the unexpected gumbo of glockenspiel, violin, multiple vocalists and the odd melody horn can give the impression that the personnel came together randomly. (Indeed, Ellen calls the assemblage of band members “completely random” shortly after a round of unexpectedly iced green teas are delivered to the table.) However, the band’s self-effacing nature gives way to thoughtful precision when one gets to the details.
“We were doing long, sweeping, instrumental, post-rock songs,” Tom says, “and because of that we decided it would be good to get violin in. We thought that would would go well with it.” (It's only in this context that the compositionally ambitious standout "You! Me! Dancing!" makes sense amid the other songs in the repertoire, three of which could fit into its six minutes.) Their style, of course, changed dramatically, but Harriet stuck and ads an unexpected dimension as she colors the resulting indie pop delightfully.
“We needed to take the edge off Gareth and the vocals and have the sweet contast of a female singing,” Tom continues. And thus came the memorable vocal lines delivered by Alexsandra in songs like “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives” and the new “Knee Deep at the ATP.”
The crowd had provided a less-than-hospitable reception the night before, according to reports from the scene. Playing in the middle of a three-band bill at the less-than-rock-and-roll hour of 9:00 p.m., the band found support in spots (a photographer standing in front kept yelling “Yeah,” recalls Tom, who eagerly monitors every detail of the public’s response to his band) but mainly perceived a sea of judges with arms folded across their chests.
“It reminded me of doing London shows because it’s intimidating,” Harriet muses.
Ellen finds the comparison apt.
“It feels like you’re being judged on stage. New York crowds are like London audiences—they wait to be impressed.”
Hrmm, sounds like the sort of situation the band members find themselves in frequently, if one goes by their lyrics that speak plainly about the concern of being accepted by ones peers via the contents of one's playlists.
The nucleus of the band formed when Ellen, Neil Campesinos! (guitar) and Ollie Campesinos! (drums) started hacking around casually as a three-piece. (“None of us did sport and it seemed like something to do,” Ellen remarks.) Neil’s roommate was the singer before Gareth. At a Cardiff club, Ellen was discussing her newest musical discovery—The Decemberists—with Neil.
Tom, also a fan, overheard the conversation and approached the pair.
“I was quite excited about [The Decemberists],” he recalls. “I was very drunk and I think if I hadn’t been I wouldn’t gave gone up to them and started talking.”
His declaration of affection for the band was not enough to inspire a warm reception initially—he had to pass an indie-cred test administered by Neil.
“He gave me a list of questions to past the test,” Tom says.
“That’s such a Neil thing to do!’ Ellen exclaims.
Assuming a bored, matter-of-fact tone, Tom recounts the conversation. “‘Do you like The Shins? Do you like Sujijan Stevens?’ But he pronounced it [wrong] so I said ‘It’s pronounced [like this]! Then I was in.”
By March of 2006, about four months after the band's origins as a trio, the current lineup of Los Campesinos! was in place.
Ashlee Simpson's Nose, or, The Rise of Tweecore
This creation story of Los Campesinos! seems appropriate, though the “indie snobbery” they claim as an influence on their Myspace page is reflected only in thoroughly bemused fashion. In fact, their original rallying cry was a distaste for the post-Libertines wave of British bands that seemed more concerned with "skinny jeans" (Tom's observation) than making an original musical statement. Gareth’s observational lyrics speak non-ironically about feeling uncool for dancing in public and “trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop” while hoping to impress a lady with a mix CD adorned with “some crappy artwork that took much, much too long to draw.”
Like Lou Reed, Gareth finally concludes that, while in the shared space created by music, everything is "alright."
Unlike the sharp-edged and frequently sour observations in Alex Turner’s celebrated lyrics for Arctic Monkeys, the result here is a thoroughly inviting vibe, laced with self-deprecating wit and scads of humor.
When a band sounds so obviously like it’s having fun, the feeling is contagious.
It’s a measure of the power and precision of their glimmering, grin-inducing indie pop that they snagged the same manager as Broken Social Scene’s Dave Newfeld and were soon signed to that band’s label, Arts & Crafts, as well as netting Newfeld as producer of Sticking Fingers and the album now in process. And of course there's the head-scratching booking at Lollapalooza for this blog-propelled band boasting no previous American live performances and just short of thirty minutes of music available in the public domain. (And that's counting both recorded versions of "You! Me! Dancing!").
That body of work is about to expand, and if Los Campesinos! can multiply the 16 euphoric minutes of Sticking Fingers by two or three, they could emerge with one of the great debut albums in recent memory. Directly after the Philadelphia date following their New York City shows, the band headed to the city of Trenton in Ontario to start six weeks of recording at a converted church. In July, they had filmed a video at The Opera House in Toronto for new song “International Tweecore,” to be the first single from their debut LP. If times allows, they plan to record 17 songs for the album. (Their live set is ten songs long, and Tom reckons they’ve written 20 in total, including unfinished pieces.)
This laugh-out-loud title, by the way, refers to a “political movement” the band is launching, according to Ellen. They’ve also claimed for themselves another title, referred to by Gareth onstage at the Mercury Lounge: “If you need any more proof that we’re the Second-Most Punk Rock Band in England, look—I’m removing the microphone from the stand!”
The amount of electronic ink spilled on Los Campesinos! has spiked upward since that major festival appearance, a trend Tom must have noticed through his automatic Google News Alert on the band. ("It must be strange knowing so much about...us," Harriet remarks when she hears about this.) He says he's read everything published on the band, and in fact between dinner and showtime takes the time to re-read the Spacelab review of Sticking Fingers from the hotel.
The critical consensus is overwhelmingly positive, though Ellen recalls one wag describing the band as "pasty-faced vegan twee." She bites into a piece of raw fish, disproving at least the second third of that label.
"I don't feel like a rock star. It's full-time now so we’re committed in that sense but...I guess it is quite glamorous. It's not as decedent as it should be. There's not enough overindulgence," Tom says as his two bandmates enjoy the sushi-based Early Bird Special. Reflecting on the post-gig visit the night before to a bar on Ludlow Street where he and his cohorts received (too many) free drinks, he finally concedes, "Okay, that was decadent."
They've already logged several "is this happening?" moments, the chief example being their performance at Lollapaloza. Beyond the rush of playing in front of so many people, there was also the novelty of seeing Ashlee Simpson float around backstage. (The band differed sharply on whether her new nose is "rubbish" or "quite nice.") Ellen sacrificed a hair clip to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. ("That was exciting...for them," she quips, shielding her affable enthusiasm with the quick laugh-getter.) They were very impressed when a member of The Wailers approaching them and said his daughter likes their music.
As euphoric as that festival set was, the extreme heat made for some challenges.
"As soon as it ended I had to lie down because I was very, very hot," Tom says. "I felt like I was going to collapse."
"You both turned really funny colors," Ellen says to Tom and Harriet. "When you were playing I wondered if you were going to make it."
It's clear that they're all really excited about music, and they have no trouble owning up to old obsessions with Oasis (Tom) and Pulp (Ellen), or being candid about worrying over how musical preference can shape one's identity in a group.
"The cool thing about when you’re young is you don't discriminate between what’s cool and what's not," Harriet says. "You just like anything and the most ridiculous stuff. There were times when I first started Uni[versity] when in the back of my mind I was thinking, 'What bands would people who are in Uni[versity] listen to?'"
Oddly enough, she's now part of one answer to that question.
Why Billy Corgan is not a member
of Los Campesinos!
It’s easy (though lazy) to make the assumption that a group’s frontman tends to shoulder the bulk of the creative responsibilities. In their few extant interviews, Gareth has usually spoken on behalf of the band. Though it’s clear that Gareth’s voice (as a lyricist as well as vocalist) is key to the identity of Los Campesinos!, Tom is the field general in terms of live performance and is the prime shaper of those little two-minute gems that, for instance, inspired a supposedly jaded New York City audience to join in on the syncopated handclaps in no less than three numbers.
One senses that it's Tom who concerns himself the most with the big picture of the band's identity, who enforces what level of stagecraft they manage, who perhaps feels most acutely the amazement and pleasure at the band's baby steps across the pond and their improbable but auspicious future. It's Tom who “choreographed” the silly hand gestures that all seven members engaged in gamely at the end of set-closing “Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks.” It was Tom who firmly but good-naturedly exclaimed “Get on with it!” and counted four when Gareth’s introduction of the third song started to ramble. It’s Tom who comes into band practice with new songs, in various degrees of completion. And one has a sneaking feeling that it was Tom who insisted the band members identify themselves, Ramones-style, by the name of their band.
He’s quick to share the songwriting accolades, however, and notes that they plan to change the songwriting credits to “By Los Campesinos!” He “sometimes” brings completed songs to his cohorts, he says, but “They’re open to development and I think if I tried to limit it and say ‘It should be like this’ it would kind of suffocate...They're skeletons. Sometimes I have an idea of violin parts specifically, sometimes it’s nice to leave it open. ”
When reminded that Billy Corgan played all the instruments on his band’s brilliant debut Gish, Ellen says that kind of dynamic would never work for Los Campesinos!
“I’d be very confused if Billy Corgan came into the studio and started telling us what to do,” she says. Still, she’s quick to joke that “Onstage Tom’s playing everything,” and the rest of the band are miming.
The lyrics also seem to represent shared experiences among the band members, as a reference to "We Throw Parties" reveals that the first verse of the song, ostensibly a series of observations about University life, is actually a reference to a 1997 novel by Jeanette Winterson (Orange is Not the Only Fruit) about which all three seem equally well-versed...and that's not including Gareth, who isn't at the table. (In the book, a young girl's mother reads to her an altered ending to Jane Eyre in which the book's namesake becomes a religious missionary.)
It's been observed that Los Campesinos! seem chiefly inspired by American indie rock, though it's not immediately obvious from their polished sound that Pavement, that giant dressed in rags, looms the largest in the musical consciousness of Tom and Gareth.
"This is a song by Pavement, the best band to come out of America ever. Which means its the best band in the world," Gareth said at the gig by way of introducing that group's "Frontwards," which Los Campesinos! recorded for Sticking Fingers. Los Campesinos! funnels Pavement into its sound only lightly, but it is probably these occasional bits of detached irony and idiot savant guitar parts that scuff up the sound enough to give it the gravity to keep from fluttering away.
The Los Campesinos! sound indeed seems like a melding of the sour and the sweet into... something that definitely tastes like dessert but won't make you nauseous. Tom's rhythm guitar adds some rough edges and fuzz, while Tom's hooky, pinprick riffing sounds like a boy doing hopscotch with intense concentration. Gareth's acerbic bite is answered (sometimes line for line) with the transporting delicacy of Alexandra's voice. The sweet melodies are given some body by Ellen's sensual basslines.
So how would these avid music fans like their newfound fans to respond to their own music?
"I'd like people to use it to romance ladies," Ellen says without hesitation. "'Hey baby, come back to my place and we’ll listen to the new Los Campesinos! album.' It's music for people to have sex to."
Tom has a different variety of excitement in mind.
"I think I want them to listen and be excited by it generally."
How did they know the songs?
Near the end of their set later that night, Gareth (apparently spontaneously) jumps off the stage and into the crowd, bulldozing into one onlooker who is quite unsure how to respond. Another gentleman, however, takes the opportunity to clamp a bear hug on Gareth and lift him into the air as the nonplussed artist continues to sing "Sweet Dream Sweet Cheeks," without tripping up on the lyrics or falling out of time. A little later the same fan lifts him up again, a move that segues into the onset of some legitimate but short-lived crowd surfing. When Gareth is returned safely to the ground, he says "Thank you" in-between lines and clambers back up onto the stage.
The set—their sixth-ever in North America, and first headlining gig in the United States—is clearly received with great enthusiasm, an outcome that seems to catch the band by surprise. At the Mercury Lounge bar afterwards, Alexsandra incredulously asks a bandmate, in reference to the sing-along contingent, "How did they know the songs?"
Then, pointing at two attendees she presumes to be New Yorkers, she offers a finger-wagging scolding.
"I thought you were supposed to be cool!"
(Assured that the bodega she saw earlier would still be open, she then darted across the street to buy some fruit.)
But hey, that's Los Campesinos! Giddy, enthusiastic indie pop that inspires even the most cynical music fans to lower their defenses utterly.
Welcome to America, where the streets are paved with Pavement.
To date, the band's longest-ever tour was about two weeks long. On October 2 they will start a two-month tour (all the October dates are with You Say Party! We Say Die!) across the UK and into Germany and France, then on October they make their U.S. West Coast debut at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, followed by a night at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. On November 30, they return to New York City to play the Bowery Ballroom.
Will they be headlining? Supporting their debut LP? This is unclear. But it seems certain that, by November 30, there will be even more people singing along. And dancing. And as long as they're there, one supposes, everything is alright.
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