The Welsh septet Los Campesinos! rose to indie-level fame with a few simple but irresistible tricks — dense songs with convoluted titles; tart, boy/girl traded vocals; witty pop-cultural references that barely disguised deeper emotions; a messy but giddy sound with plenty of energy and glockenspiel. The band's approach has produced some of the decade's most fun singles (especially "You! Me! Dancing!" and the Heavenly vs. Black Flag grudge match of "The International Tweexcore Underground") and a fine debut album in early 2008's Hold on Now, Youngster....
Barely eight months later, Los Campesinos! returned for the apparently not-so-difficult second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. Originally meant to be an EP-size throwaway, Beautiful toned down the sugarcoated frenzy and the name-dropping, and was perhaps even better than the band's debut. Lest it appears to be approaching burnout level, Los Campesinos! has most of its next album written and ready to record during the course of the next few months. It's a rare thing to come across a band so prolific and so willing to take artistic risks — and rarer still when it so consistently works. (Take note, Fiery Furnaces.)
Los Campesinos! guitarist/songwriter Tom (they all go by their first names for press purposes) spoke about the band's Cardiff homebase, songwriting approach and love of limited-edition pressings from the '90s.
Mike Appelstein: Are you all from Cardiff?
Tom: None of us were actually born here. Six of us are from England, and Aleks, our singer, is originally from Russia. She lived in the States for a while as well. We all moved here for university, we met here, and the band is based here, so we vaguely adopted Wales.
Would you say that there's an old guard in Wales, and you're perhaps the young guard? Are the older folks glad to see younger bands coming up?
For us it's always been a bit awkward because we are British, and in a stereotypical fashion, there's kind of like a rivalry between the Welsh and the English. But Cardiff is pretty cosmopolitan. It's still very Welsh, but magnified in a way. A lot of the traditional Welsh bands, like the Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci — it's almost like they're the "proper" Welsh bands. We aren't really in with that whole scene. It's like they've got their feet up by the fire, and we're the youngsters hanging around. It's almost awkward for us to determine where we lie culturally. It seems like a bit of a cultural limbo being English in Wales.
Does it feel isolated as opposed to England, or a city like Glasgow or Edinburgh, where there's more media attention?
It does seem on its own. A lot of the time, England becomes "Britain." There was an instance where the EU released a map, and Wales wasn't even on it! But I think rather than having an inferiority complex, Wales celebrates its own traditions and cultures in a proud way. It's nice to be a part of that as much as we can and are allowed to be.
You released We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed a few months ago. That's the second album in a year.
We Are Beautiful really wasn't meant to be the second album. We were meant to do an EP, and then we had so many songs we decided to make it a ten-track release. It's not officially the "second" album; it's just a weird sort of interim record. We were delighted with it. It's an EP in mentality, so it's a strange one.
Is that why you chose to make it a limited edition, because you saw it as an interim album?
Completely. We decided to do it like a neat package. It's something we care about a lot as indie fans, when bands really put an effort into a package.
Especially in the age of the download, when you're not even getting the physical product often. I still prefer the tangible item.
That's how we feel about it as well. While we're happy to listen to bands that way, there are bands you love where you want to hold a twelve-inch piece of plastic in your hand, have the poster and limited seven-inches with it. I guess it's quite an idealistic thing, and we'd be happy carrying on doing it ourselves as long as we can. It's exciting for us to personalize it; it makes it feel really individual and really special.
How do you account for your prolific streak?
The thing about that is that we're full-time musicians. It's embarrassing in a sense. There's so little to do when you're not touring, it almost feels like you have to put all your efforts into songwriting. I think when one album's tied up and finished, it's natural to think about the next one. There's a sense of panic that you won't be able to better it and competitiveness that you want to better it. You learn very quickly as a band that a record is quite a permanent thing. There are always things you wish you'd done better.
Have you started thinking about the next one?
The definite second album is almost done. We've got fourteen or fifteen tracks ready for that. We'll try to learn it on tour and record it in the next few months while we're in America.
It seems like there are fewer pop-cultural references this time around. Was that a natural development, or something intentional?
Well, Gareth writes all the lyrics, and I think there was a definite change from his perspective. He's very self-conscious as a writer, but he's also very autobiographical. And I think also he's aware we became a band known for our pop-cultural references. Rather than embracing that and risking parody, he wanted to do something new and unique to him. I think it works for him, and he comes out with pretty candid thoughts.
Who's the big K Records fan in the band?
We're all big indie fans, but Gareth is definitely the nerdiest. He introduced me to a lot of K Records and Kill Rock Stars. Sarah Records was an area he knew particularly well. We bonded over a lot of Pavement, me and Gareth. The more esoteric side definitely comes from him.
Who's "the other Kurt"?
That's a really good story actually. While we were recording that song with John Goodmanson, we were talking with him. I think he was the first person to record Nirvana live on the radio before they got big. It basically revolved around a friend of his called Kurt who was going out with a girl. He was at a party, went upstairs and found his girlfriend kissing Kurt Cobain. It was a bit before Nirvana got huge. This song was then dedicated to that particular Kurt who'd come across his girlfriend with Kurt Cobain. It's almost cool that your girlfriend is cheating on you with Kurt Cobain, but at the same time, maybe it kind of sucks.