A word of mouth success story, a bona fide cult before the music rags had even heard their name, Los Campesinos! emerged from almost total obscurity to become one of 2008’s hottest new acts. Their twee-core sound is a million light years away from lad-rock dullards like The Twang or The Enemy, as they describe love, loss and long-forgotten indie labels over a backbeat of frenetic guitars and coo-ing vocals.
Clashmusic.com caught up with the groups violin player Harriet Campesino! to find out more about this remarkable new Cardiff based group…
So you played Scotland last week, the famous King Tuts in Glasgow – how did that go?
That was brilliant, yeah, we had a great time. We played King Tuts before, about four months ago, and we had a good time then but this time we managed to sell it out – we got our King Tuts whiskey! The crowd were great, and we spent the day in Glasgow so you can’t complain.
…when we started we were reacting against the UK music scene
Apparently you formed through a University “Battle of the bands” – what were the group’s origins?
We all knew each other, or at least we connected in some way and Neil decided to start a band in second year. Wednesday’s were free afternoons for sports, and Neil wasn’t very sporty so he decided to start a band instead! He just recruited his friends, and we became a seven piece that used to practice in Ollie, our drummer’s, bedroom. We never really thought it would go anywhere, it was just quite fun really.
Have you all left University now?
We’ve all finished, apart from Alex who is a Medicine student and has had to go on a little hiatus. All the rest of us have finished. Our label were really good, we got signed at the end of second year and they said “well just finish” because we’d already put two years in already and no one knew what the future of the band was going to be.
With seven people in the band, how do Los Campesinos! approach songwriting?
Well mainly Tom writes the songs, he’ll come up with ideas and do demos of them. Then he’ll send them to all of us, and Gareth will come up with lyrics, I’ll come up with violin stuff and it’s Tom who is the main musical force in the band, the rest of us add our own stuff. When we did the album a lot of different parts and arrangements came together then. David Newfeld produced it, and he added so much to it. So it’s a collaborative thing, but Tom is definitely the main force.
The album’s out soon, are you all happy with it?
Yeah, I think it represents what we were and who we were at that point really as a band. It was obviously great being able to work with one of our idols, and it is what we set out to do I think. I mean I can’t listen to it without seeing flaws in it, thinking “oh I wish I’d done that better” but at the same time we never set out to make a perfect album. We know what we are, and its rough around the edges but that’s part of its charm.
How has the band changed since those early Myspace demos? Did the studio help the group evolve?
No, I think we’re always discovering things, I think we do have a definite sound but that isn’t necessarily something we’ve planned, and don’t want to be constrained by. Its just what happens. We made demos of all the songs in Cardiff, we knew we had about fifteen songs or something to record. We wanted to make the best album, so we had no idea what would end up on the album and what wouldn’t. So obviously some of them were going to end up as b-sides, but when you write a song you don’t think “ooh that’s a great b-side!”. So we just recorded them all, and a lot of it took days because Dave had lots of exciting equipment and funny little boxes that did magical things, which became part of the sound and wasn’t something we could have done on a demo. I guess there’s a lot going on in it, and it just seven people with loads of ideas.
With seven people in the group it must be difficult to discuss influences – any shared themes within the group?
I would say we disagree musically, though we do all have different music tastes. There are a few core bands that overlap and bring us together. But its brilliant because you get introduced to a lot of new stuff, I mean Gareth has introduced me to so many bands that I never would have discovered. I like to think that we all have our own tastes that we bring to the band, but groups that we all love are stuff like Pavement, Broken Social Scene and so on. There are a few bands that bring us all together.
Do you feel more in common with North American artists?
…we’re just not rock ‘n’ roll at all
We like to think so, when we started we were reacting against the UK music scene. We just wanted to do something different from the post-Libertines wave of bands that all seem to sound quite similar. We did look to America and Canada, but that’s probably changing now since there are a lot of exciting new bands in Britain. But there are a lot of four piece Led Zeppelin types as well. I like to think that since they’re our idols that we do look to them for inspiration. Although the UK music scene is changing anyway.
How important was the internet to the emergence of the group?
Oh god it was everything, I mean we probably wouldn’t be where we are without the internet. We got our demos on myspace and got loads of positive feedback basically immediately. That was so unexpected! Within a few days there were labels interested in us and getting in contact , and I think that now there is so much competition within the industry that it does seem that with new bands the industry will be onto them straight away – they know that if they don’t someone else will. We had loads of friends after just six gigs, it was just bizarre really.
Los Campesinos are based in Cardiff, away from the London-centric music scene. How has your ‘Welshness’ affected you?
I think its probably worked for us. None of us are from Wales, but we love being considered to be Welsh. I’d hate to move to London and disown that identity, and Cardiff definitely has its own thriving scene which is completely separate from London. I guess our label’s based in London, but playing London shows isn’t exactly something we all look forward to, really.
How has the band adjusted to its meteoric rise?
I don’t think we have! We’re really lucky, because we’ve got a good team of people to work with us. In terms of playing live, now it does feel as if we’ve got to a different level. Probably a level that we don’t really belong at, but we’re there so we have to go along with it, and enjoy it. I don’t think we have adjusted, and I hope we don’t since I don’t want us to think of ourselves as “oh we’re a professional band”, since that’s basically bollocks. I think in terms of paying live we want to give the best we can, because if people are coming to see you then you want to give them a good show. Other than that sense we’ve not adjusted at all.
Signed to Wichita, a fine UK indie label. How does the band interact with the label?
They just love music, I mean genuinely, rather than the money side of it. They’ve given us complete freedom really, they come to our shows and it’s just like having friends there to talk about music. They’re really good people. When people were getting interested in us, there weren’t that many labels interested in signing us but there were a couple and Wichita just stood out a mile. Obviously, the bands that are on their roster and also them as people – they just came Cardiff and got us drunk! We just went to the pub all day and talked, it just seemed really genuine. In terms of the album, they just let us do it as we wanted. Its kind of a weird situation in the industry at the moment, we want to do the best we can for them but also stay true to how we started. I think Wichita can help us find a good balance with that. They don’t push their bands to become these huge things that they aren’t really ready for.
With three girls in the band Los Campesinos! stand out from the masculine UK indie scene. Who are you contemporaries or inspirations in that regard?
I never think of us as fitting in with the rock ‘n’ roll history, mainly because we’re just not rock ‘n’ roll at all. Personally, PJ Harvey is one of my favourites. There’s all sorts of bands doing exciting things, it’s not really about gender it’s about doing something interesting and true and not “ooh I wanna be rock star and take drugs”. We want to fight that because it’s just not very exciting.
Have you ever found any difficulties being a woman in a rock ‘n’ roll band?
We haven’t really had any problems, I mean we are quite tame and dour really. We just do our own little thing. Personally, being a violinist I don’t really fit into any rock ‘n’ roll template so I just kind of do what I’ve always done and get on with it. Sometimes funny thins will happen, people I bands will come up to us and say “oh its really weird talking to a girl in a band”. And it’s not, just talk to us like a normal person! It just doesn’t feel like an issue.