Los Campesinos!: "People encouraged us to stop being a band.”
The past few years haven’t all been sunshine and roses for Los Campesinos!, but new album ’Sick Scenes’ sees them take control and coming back fighting.
Published: 11:52 am, February 24, 2017
It’s easy to take being in a band for granted. You’re living the dream, making albums, playing shows and travelling the globe. But what happens when things get a bit sticky, and real life takes over? For long-standing indie rock heroes Los Campesinos!, the past few years saw the most frustrating period of the band’s existence, one that has only recently come to an end with the revelatory recording of their sixth album, ‘Sick Scenes’. It’s a record full of their typical exuberance but tempered by an added maturity as the band went through their darkest period and came out fighting.
For singer and lyricist Gareth Campesinos!, the fact that the album exists at all is a testament to the band’s spirit forged after a period of hardship and inactivity. “By the time this one comes out it will be over three years since ‘No Blues’,” he begins. “It was a difficult, boring time for the band. Going into ‘No Blues’ was the time where we all got proper jobs. Previously we’d all been very fortunate to be doing the band as a full-time thing. We knew that wouldn’t last forever.”
Forced to take a back seat to the realities of making a living, the band came under pressure to call it quits. “People we worked with previously encouraged us to stop being a band, said it wasn’t worth doing anymore,” explains Gareth. This negative response forced them to confront some nagging issues. “We were frustrated with how ‘No Blues’ was handled. We felt it was dusted under the carpet as soon as it came out.”
Coupled with their lack of touring and inability to visit America, the band decided to take things into their own hands. “We stopped working with the label and started self-managing. That was a huge positive,” says Gareth. That was a decision that proved to be the making of ‘Sick Scenes’. “The great thing about managing ourselves at that point was that we could raise money and choose what we did with it. We were in a position where we were able to record an album, and it was very clear that was what we wanted to do.”
There’s no doubt that fans are very happy to have Los Campesinos! back, fit, firing and brimming with the kind of irresistible, smart bangers that they specialise in. Los Camp! are an important band to a lot of people. In many ways, they’ve been the quintessential gateway band to a whole generation of indie fans since they emerged eleven years ago, even if Gareth thinks people bafflingly want to hide it. “I think there are a lot of bands who are influenced by us, but I don’t think we’re at that point in our legacy when people will openly admit it,” he says.
‘Sick Scenes’ arrives at a point where the band are embracing becoming older and more mature by imbuing their music with the sense of exuberance and joy of their earliest albums. It’s a perfect mix of the spirit of the old, and the confidence of the new. “Tom, our guitarist, said for a long time that the truly honest record you make is the first one. That’s the first batch of songs you’ve written, and you make them without consideration for how people will react. We felt like that approaching ‘Sick Scenes’ because it felt for so long that we might not get to do another record that when we did come to write it, it was a celebration of just being in a band.”
Part of the celebration was the band itching to get out there and play live. These songs are designed to be shouted out loud and clear. “It was written in mind of playing directly to people,” explains Gareth excitedly. “That’s probably why there’s that energy in the songs and the recordings that we maybe didn’t consider on the last couple of records. It has the excitement and enthusiasm of being in a band. We never lost that, but this time we were more aware of it.”
The sense of ageing and adapting to growing older is an inescapable theme of the album, but it’s one that fits with a band who produce songs to hit home. They write about stuff that matters to us all. “One great thing we have with the relationship with people who like our band is that we’ve grown up with them. People who’ve been into us for the duration were in their teens or early twenties at the beginning. As we’ve grown and matured as a band so have they, and they’ve gone through the same shared life experiences. That’s forged a tight and unique bond.”
For Gareth, someone who has a deserved reputation as one of this isle’s sharpest lyrical minds, the process of penning a song is not as effortless as it may seem. “I don’t like writing,” he says. “I don’t see myself as a creative or artistic person. I like football, wrestling and drinking. I feel like if I sit down to write for any reason other than I have to, I’m taking myself too seriously. It’s a constant battle I have with myself.”
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To combat that battle Gareth came up with the most brutally honest and reflective Los Campesinos! album yet. “Compared to ‘No Blues’ this album is a lot more plain-spoken and direct,” he says. “I’m 31 now and very aware of it. I’m lucky to have had the band for the past ten years but other than that I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I’m aware of my slowly declining health in terms of not being as good a footballer as I once was, being knackered at any exercise, being dependent on mood altering drugs to keep me sane. It’s about muddling to work out where you are and who you are. The subjects have been done a thousand times over in indie rock records, but it’s where I’m at in my life right now.”
Unlike most Los Campesinos! songs, the album pays reference to current affairs and is set against the backdrop of last June’s EU referendum, which took place at a time when the band were recording in Portugal. “All the shit going on surrounding that was so surreal when we were away from home,” he says, recalling that whole rotten summer. “Initially we were grateful to not be in the UK for it because we didn’t need to feel the full level of despair. Being in contact with people back home and through social media, though, it was apparent. That mood and the state of the world and the UK is the backdrop to the record.”
Through the confusion and resentment at the leave vote came album highlight ‘The Fall Of Home’, perhaps the most touching and tender song the band have ever recorded. “It’s difficult because one of the things that frustrated me the most in the fallout from the vote - apart from the obvious, as it goes without saying that Los Campesinos! are pro-remain and very disappointed about the result - was the amount of people, largely from London, pointing blame at the regions and small towns for allowing this result to happen,” says Gareth. “It’s about these people who have left their hometowns to live in London and then are really surprised when they go back to their hometowns, and they’re not the places they used to be. Everything is dilapidated and dying, and the politics is not the way they want it to be.”
Away from politics, the album again features prominent references to Gareth’s great love of football. The sprinkling of football-based lyrics across the band’s songs in recent times has been a joy for lyrical magpies. As ever, though, there’s a deeper meaning. “I used to deliberately not put stuff like that in because I thought it was inappropriate. Especially on the first two records as I felt indie rock was not a place for football. That was when a had this conflict of how do I make peace with the fact I love this horrible macho sport of football full of thugs and idiots, but I’m also a very sensitive male who likes indie music. I was an arsehole for ever feeling like that.”
Now, though, football plays a key part. “I’m amazed that football doesn’t crop up more in lyrics ‘cause y’know, football is war, football is love, football is every emotion that you can find. There are these great stories within football that work perfectly as metaphors for other things. For love and depression, happiness and despair. They’re really useful tools. In songwriting, there’s a definite need and urge to say something that everybody can empathise with, the perfect line or chorus that everybody is going to connect with. If you stumble upon that then fair play, but I have much more luck doing that by zoning in on something much more specific. There’s a whole load of people who that’s going to connect with even more because you’re talking to them on a level that they’re going to understand and want to hear. It’s probably only since ‘No Blues’ that I’ve really committed to that and I really enjoy it. It’s a fun way of writing songs.”
It’s nice to hear Los Campesinos! talking about having fun again. Times have been tough and misery hasn’t been too far away, but they’re still here. Relegation has been staved off, and they’re all set up for a championship push. The position the band find themselves in now is one of frenzied excitement to get back out there. They recognise that they’re never gonna be seventeen again and in the full glow of youth, but that just makes them a more interesting and rounded band. You can hear all of this in the fizzing closing track. “’Hung Empty’ encapsulates every element of Los Campesinos! There are a lot of words in it, and it says everything we want to. It’s a hopeful song. The lyric ‘Not right to call this old age, but it certainly ain’t youth’ is the lyric that sums up the record and my mindset more than anything.”
Los Campesinos!’ album ‘Sick Scenes’ is out 24th February.