Los Campesinos! produce rich, layered sound, family-style
Plenty of bands stylize their names in an odd way — with !!! almost certainly the reigning champion — but it's the rare outfit that extends unconventional punctuation even to its individual members. So it goes for Los Campesinos!, an eight-piece pop outfit out of Cardiff, Wales, that's christened each member with the band's name — Spanish for ‘peasants' — along with their own corresponding exclamation point. So we have Gareth Campesinos! (lead vocalist), Tom Campesinos! (lead guitarist), Harriet Campesinos! (the violinist). And so forth.
This is appropriate for three reasons. The ‘peasants' moniker suits a band that's immensely humble. The shared faux-last names tell you that Los Campesinos! approach their band as a family, an ever-fluctuating ensemble in which the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And the punctuation — well, Los Campesinos! trade in Pixy Stix-evoking pop: big, boundless anthems where vocals pile on top of guitars pile on top of strings pile on top of keys, Gareth shouting his wry, angsty ruminations on love and loss and music and soccer and life in general. In other words: This is exclamation-point pop.
Ahead of Saturday night's headlining show at La Zona Rosa, founding member and guitarist Neil Campesinos! took a few minutes to talk about the band's post-rock origins, what British musical movement they emphatically didn't want to be a part of and the benefits of having a lead musical visionary.
It seems like you've been on a Bob Dylan-style never-ending tour essentially since late 2006. After logging so many miles, do the individual tours still have any sense of identity?
No; somewhat strangely, I suppose, they do have an individual identity. But I'm not sure what gives them that identity. Perhaps the different venues and cities we play in have an impact, although we're not really playing a lot of new cities or even venues right now. But no, every tour still feels fresh and different and equally exciting regardless of whether we're doing it for the first time or the tenth. This tour, for instance, we're having a lot of fun. We're just in a really good mood. So far it's been kind of everything we've ever hoped for — lots of good people and good beers and lots of laughs. The all-around package.
Do you get to spend much time in Cardiff anymore?
Yeah, we do, actually. It probably seems like we're on tour a lot, but this year we spent a good few months at home. We tour a lot, but in between bouts there's often a month or so we get at home. Which is good, because it's nice for the first few weeks and then it gets a bit dull. I miss being out all night and having no responsibilities. Living the rock ‘n' roll dream.
You sound like you're being a bit facetious.
Yeah, no, touring is literally the opposite of that. For us at least.
Los Campesinos! started with yourself and some friends at the University of Cardiff, and Tom and Gareth came in later. Since those two are so integral to the sound of the band, what did you sound like in those first sessions?
I don't remember, honestly. I think other interviews we've done and band bios and Wikipedia or whatever make it out to sound like it was a long period before Tom and Gareth came in, but really I think they were there by our second practice. What I do remember is that for a while we just messed around and didn't do anything serious. We would have a song idea and just play it for ages, over and over again. So for one song we'd repeat the interesting part for 15 minutes, until finally somebody popped up and said, ‘Wait, we haven't done anything exciting in 10 minutes.' It was kind of post-rock there for a bit, where we'd play an interesting bit for 60 seconds and then four minutes of quiet ambiance. I think we didn't really know what we wanted to sound like; we just knew how we didn't want to sound.
What were you trying to avoid?
There wasn't a goal or a particular style we were trying to stay out of, but we knew we didn't want to be another British lad rock band. Like the Libertines. That was so massive in the U.K. then, and it still is now, but it's kind of dying out slowly. ... And I think another important thing was that the Arcade Fire were a newish band at the time; ‘Funeral' had been out a year. And when we first heard that, a lot of us thought it was amazing. I think we just kind of realized we could do more than a lot of bands that just had guitar, bass, drums and vocals could do. We wanted to not restrain ourselves. We were like, ‘Why not get violins and girls singing and make a pop band that has a lot of options?'
‘Romance is Boring' has been out for a few months, so you've had the opportunity to thoroughly road-test all of its songs — do you learn new things about the songs when you play them live?
Oh yeah, pretty much everything, really. When we record, generally, we don't know how the songs are going to sound as a live band, because we never really play them before that. We rehearse them a bit, but we don't put the violins or the background vocals or the keys or all the layers until we've got the basic track down and the record's kind of half-mixed. So until we start learning the songs for tour, we have no idea where they're at. For this record, the big difference is that as we've toured the songs we've had Rob around. And he's pretty much the most heavenly multi-instrumentalist ever. He does guitars, keys, percussion, glockenspiel — so the songs sound a lot bigger on the road than we thought they were going to.
To what extent are the bands' songs collaborative? I know Tom composes the initial melodies and Gareth does the lyrics.
Everyone gets involved, but Tom is like the mastermind behind it in many ways, if that makes sense. He kind of has that neural picture in his brain of how it's going to sound at the end of the day, which is something none of us have. But that's not to say he rules with an iron fist. We're all involved and we all get the chance to chip in. But I think it's really good to have that sort of central vision, rather than to try to have all of us having equal say. Some bands can do that, but because there are so many of us, if we went in with a lot of ideas without one kind of cohesive idea behind it, so it could be very time-consuming and ugly.
Is ‘Romance is Boring' more or less of a team effort than your previous albums?
Probably more. I think we're all just getting along really well and we're all kind of on the same page musically. I think at the moment we're feeling very optimistic, and we feel like we're able to do a lot of things we haven't done in the past. And I'm being vague, because I really don't know what I mean, and I don't know what the future holds. But we feel very optimistic.
Los Campesinos! with Johnny Foreigner
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: La Zona Rosa, 612 W. Fourth St.