It seems that barely a week goes by without Los Campesinos! creating a news story for DiS. We owe them for keeping us in crisps and arcade money. And so we honour them, with a slot in our 'Records That We Are Quite Excited To Hear In 2010' preview week. We phoned up guitarist slash songwriter Tom Campesinos! on a dreary November afternoon to get the low down / scoop / details on what this new album, Romance Is Boring (due February 1st, tracklisting here), entails.
You've got what is probably your biggest tour yet coming up in February – how does it feel going from playing student venues to KOKO in just a few years? What do you put your success down to?
I have no idea. From looking at the way the music industry is at the moment I can only put it down to luck. I'm not sure what we've done right. I feel like there's so many good bands that don't get the opportunity. I don't know. I think we've been really careful with who we've worked with. Our management in Wales have been incredible, and obviously Wichita are a great label. Making those key decisions at the start made a lot of difference. I feel like we've taken our time over things. Whatever has grown has grown organically, so it feels quite healthy. We're obviously not massive, but the people that are into us seem to be into us in quite an honest and big way, which is great. I'd rather appeal to less people, and have those people really into you. Since we've had the blog that's become really apparent as well. People can respond to us, and they seem to be genuinely be into us. We've got a tight knit group of fans.
We've heard two fairly different tracks from the new album so far – 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think About The Future' seemed to take a different direction, whereas 'There Are Listed Buildings' is more like the previous records – is this album going to see more diversity in sound?
It's hard to say, because there are a few tracks on there that stretch what we do, but 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think About The Future' is the melodramatic peak of the record. We've tried a ballad as well, which we've been playing live called 'Who Fell Asleep In'. And there's this melodramatic song called 'Coda: A Burn Scar In The Shape Of The Sooner State' at the end. The intention was for it to be quite diverse. It was the first time we've gone into the writing process knowing we were making a proper album. The intention was really to have something with a thread running through it musically, and lyrically as well. Obviously that needs to be diverse for it to be interesting. I feel like we've still got our sound and we're still exploring that and pushing that in a certain direction. We're trying to push ourselves as much as possible, but I'm in no hurry to genre hop. I think our music has tried to incorporate as many elements as possible. It was an interesting reaction to 'There Are Listed Buildings'. People were saying “Oh, it's the same old LC'. I'm quite comfortable taking our time at the moment and letting things build organically – I'm reluctant to change our sound too much early on. I sometimes find it a bit cynical when bands completely change their sound for the sake of it. When we do completely change our sound I want it to be for the right reasons. But ideally I'd like that change to come about naturally.
You've got to have faith in what you're doing.
Exactly. Sorry, I'm kind of rambling a bit. This is the first conversation I've had other than shouting at the Xbox.
Romance Is Boring was recorded in three different places. What was that like?
We did the first half of the recording in Connecticut, and that was posh, urban America, quite surreal. We were basically stuck in a converted barn. But it's an amazing studio, and it's where the Pixies mixed Doolittle, so it's got a lot of heritage. It's run by good people. Seattle is becoming a second home, we've spent time recording there before. Being with John Goodmanson, he's such an easy going and nice guy, wherever you are with him, you'll be comfortable. That's kind of testament to him. Then we ended up finishing bits in Monnow Valley in Wales, which is a 40 minute drive from Cardiff. That place is amazing, like a country retreat with 9 bedrooms, so we could all sleep in there. It's got an amazing drum room, and a really nice soundboard. It's a great place to spend time, chill out, and completely involve ourselves in the recording process.
How was it working with John Goodmanson again? I guess you've got used to the way each other works now.
To a certain extent. We're definitely comfortable enough to say what we actually think to each other. In that sense it gets the best out of both of us. If he thinks something is not working he'll tell us, and we'll feel comfortable enough to argue our point back. He's a really creative guy, but at the same time he knows what makes a good pop song. We know all the great bands he's worked with, and we'll trust his opinion. If he thinks something isn't right, he'll think it for a good reason. At the same time we'll stick to our guns if we're feeling too proud. The relationship seems to work. We're definitely comfortable around him, and it feels like what we come up with works.
With so many members, are there conflicts over decisions and the way songs develop? How does the band work as a unit when recording?
There doesn't tend to be too many arguments. With this album particularly it became more collaborative. The process tends to start with me coming up with a musical idea, then I record a demo for Gareth, and he'll start coming up with words over the top of it. Then we'll start shifting the arrangements about and trying out new ideas. I remember this time around Neil has been contributing a few ideas, adding extra drum fills, things that I'm not particularly good at. That process allows for a lot of happy accidents to happen. This time, because we gave ourselves so much time, we were able to sit down as a group, John, Gareth and I, and we'd go through the lines. Inevitably they were nearly all brilliant, or at worse we wanted to try different rhythmic ideas, or shift structures around. We were able to do that more freely. There probably were occasions when there was friction. I remember one occasion when me and Gareth got in a sulk with each other. I think that was more to do with fatigue and having been in the studio for 10 days at the end of a tour. I think we always end up being quite open with each other as a band.
How long did the whole process take?
A really long time. Probably longer than would be perhaps ideal. We've always recorded in quite a haphazard way. That leaves the records being quite spontaneous. While I'd like to keep that spontaneity I think going into this record we deliberately gave ourselves more time, although it still felt like we were running out of it by the end. A lot of the songs I had the musical ideas for over a year ago, and they shift from then on. We started recording in February this year, and finished by June. The nice thing about this time was that we were able to record in sections, which gave us the time to think about we'd done, and how we want to develop what we'd done, and how we wanted to approach the rest of the record. We were trying to make a proper album for the first time, and I think that approach was really useful. Every song needs to react to the next, informing that narrative process.
Are there any overarching themes to the lyrics on the record?
You'd have to ask Gareth. I remember him saying We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed was more about him, and this record is more about people he knew in relation to him. I know he enjoys writing in a much darker style. I think lyrically they've become very aware of death. I think that features prominently throughout the record. It's hard talking on his behalf, but he said he's feeling much more comfortable with the person he is, and for want of better phrase, grown up. He's letting things he might not otherwise have let into his lyrics are coming through a bit more. Lyrics about football – the Maltese national team, himself being their star player. So, death and football. There's plenty of sex as well.
[Gareth has since said: “It is a record about the death and decay of the human body, sex, lost love, mental breakdown, football and, ultimately, that there probably isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel.”]
Who are the influences on the record?
A few songs were written after we came off the Shred Yr Face tour with Times New Viking and No Age. I was doing a lot of the writing at the time. I remember asking Randy from No Age if he'd come on and play guitar with us. He reluctantly said he didn't want to, because there were too many parts: middle 8s and bridges. It was probably a polite excuse, saying it was a bit too complex for him. But, like I do with everything, I took that to heart, and just from watching Times New Viking and No Age, realising how direct some of their pop songs were. It was something we were moving away from on We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. That was kind of a reminder that I did still want to write direct pop songs. There's a few songs on the record where I've tried to do that. On the other hand there's part of you that wants to shoot in the opposite direction as far as you can. I guess to please yourself, and for variety across the album. Not in the sense you don't want the songs to be enjoyable.... Sorry, I'm trying not to be pretentious and get ripped to shreds on the message boards. You want the whole process to be enjoyable... it's trying to write a song that maybe won't reveal its hooks, and its more catchy elements immediately, and will maybe take longer to digest, and for its more positive elements to become apparent. Trying to deliberately write songs like that has been quite tough. I'm not necessarily sure we've succeeded. We're still trying to write the perfect pop song, but also trying to stretch that as far as you can. Maybe the perfect pop song is the one that isn't catchy, but is more subtle in revealing its secrets. I'm not sure what I'm talking about any more.
On Romance Is Boring you've collaborated with members of two of the most respected bands from the American underground in Xiu Xiu & Parenthetical Girls – what exactly was their contribution?
It was mostly just vocal parts. Zac Pennington from Parenthetical Girls sings a couple of vocal lines. In fact, he does quite a significant part of the backing vocals on 'Who Fell Asleep In', about halfway through the record. He's got such a unusual voice that it brings a unique character to that song. It's the same with Jamie Stewart. He does a smaller section. They're such recognisable voice that they imbue the songs with their characters, it gives the songs an extra dimension. It was especially exciting for Gareth, because he loves Xiu Xiu, so to have Jamie Stewart on the record is a dream come true for him, for want of a better cliché. I think they bring a lot to the album.
It has come to that time of the year where the whole music world is obsessed with assessing the past and predicting the future. In that vein, whose albums are you looking forward to next year, and who are your tips for success?
I’ll probably get the new Magnetic Fields and Midlake albums when they’re out, but I’m not really aware of what’s coming up, even after a quick search on Google. I’m also really bad with new bands and any awareness of who’s ‘hot’ right now, so I’ll save myself the embarrassment of predicting… but my friend Chris from Inspector Tapehead will finally have an album finished, and I’m really excited to hear that. There’s also Islet, who are good friends of ours from Cardiff. They seem to be getting lots of positive attention and it’s well deserved.
And similarly, which albums / bands have you enjoyed the most this year?
Though it wasn’t until I saw them live that it properly clicked, I really got into Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca. tUnE-yArDs supported them at that same gig and were great, so I bought her album last week, and it’s lovely. I listened to Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast a lot too, which is brilliant – he’s an insanely talented songwriter. Obviously the Girls’ album is amazing too. After touring with them in the US, those songs are sort of attached to some good memories over there… Neil introduced me to Woods this year and that album is great. It also got me onto the Real Estate album which I bought last week. I really liked Califone’s latest and I thought the Dark Was The Night compilation was surprisingly great too. Oh, and Copy Haho’s EP makes life better.