Everything Sort Of Hits You: A Q&A With Los Campesinos!
Los Campesinos! might be known for their lyrics fixated on death and romantic failures, but the Cardiff, Wales-based band’s outlook is decidedly not bleak. They released their third official full-length album, , in November 2011. With a new line-up featuring keyboardist/guitarist Rob, drummer Jason and keyboardist/vocalist Kim, the record delivers a sharper, more mature installment of the seven-piece group’s signature melodic sound, with lyrics still filled with vivid imagery. Featuring characteristic raw wit and diary entry honesty, the songs on Hello Sadness are as relatable as ever.
American Songwriter sat down for a cup of tea and cake in New York City with Rob, Neil (guitar), Ellen (bass), and later Gareth (vocals).
Congratulations on the new album. How was writing and recording it different from the previous ones?
R: This was the first album that I was in the band for.
N: It was all the same, apart from he was there. (laughs)
R: The approach was different, wasn’t it? It was a lot more measured and planned in advance, probably because I suppose you were originally going to record it in November of last year and then it ended up being pushed back for touring. So we rehearsed the songs as a band for quite a long time before we recorded them, and that allowed us to make decisions earlier on about things. We made a conscious decision to keep the arrangements as simple as possible and not have strenuous instrumentation. When you have the pressure of a short time in the studio, it’s a temptation to pile things on, whereas we had a little bit of time to take things out and arrange things. Tom is very hard-working, he made very extensive demos. The drums were something that were worked out to the nth degree.
N: There were things we had never done before, especially because Jason is such an intelligent drummer. We would work on drums in one song for an hour or so. That sounds really tedious and boring, but it was actually really fun to just be able to hone in on certain things.
Basically, we had a lot of time to really work on it. We knew what we were going to do, and we had a lot of time to get there, we just hadn’t had a chance to do that before. We were touring, kind of learning in soundchecks before recording.
R: (To Neil) You had longer in the studio, didn’t you? And I think that reflects a little on the album, because there’s some experimentation where we only had a month for this one. We had to be more organized with our schedule.
You recorded this album in Spain. How did that influence the feel in the studio?
E: I think it made us all feel very relaxed in terms of recording things. We all felt very refreshed. Also, there was the fact that we were isolated from everything. There wasn’t that much around, so we didn’t get distracted by anything. It was kind of us all together.
R: The producer, John Goodmanson, warned us beforehand that recording in a rural environment would actually make the songs slower. We recorded during the day as well, rather than at night, because we had to leave the studio around 12 every night because the owner had to come and lock up and go to bed. The poor guy was half asleep every night, he was quite old.
N: Looking back, the songs probably are slower than we realized at the time, especially comparing them to songs we previously recorded.
R: They’re awful measured, aren’t they? Ollie and Jason are very different drummers, just in their approach. Ollie was all about energy, whereas Jason is a real precision guy. He’s spent a long time perfecting his craft in higher education. He’s done a lot of session drumming before this.
What tends to come first, music or lyrics?
E: Music, I guess.
N: Yeah, most of the time. Gareth, he’s the wordsmith, he basically wrote everything while we were there in the studio.
E: He doesn’t like writing for the sake of writing, he only likes writing when he feels the lyrics coming to him.
R: He enjoys the pressure, it sort of gets him. Also, it’s very interesting from a content point of view, because he was in a relationship up until two weeks before we went away to record. He’s very sort of heart-on-sleeve, he does write a lot of himself into his lyrics. When we went out, he had this urgency, suddenly. I think he had tried to come up with stuff beforehand, but he struggled. From a personal point of view, having written lyrics, I always found it very hard to write lyrics when I’m happy, about positive things. It’s much more easy to be navel-gazing and get into a sort of creative vent when you have something really crystallized in your head. Happiness is so abstract, you’re just not as internalized.
E: The last thing you want to do is write about it when you’re really happy.
R: Yeah, you don’t want to analyze your happiness, do you? When you’re happy, you don’t need to analyze anything, whereas when you’re sad, everything sort of hits you.
Which songs on this album are you the most proud of?
N: I really like “By Your Hand.”
R: That one was interesting, wasn’t it? It became very different from the demo. It started off as being quite a dark, wintry sort of song and then, probably because that chorus is so triumphant, it became something else. We saw the album as being very sad and dark, and that was originally going to reflect in the cover art.
N: Do you mean in the demo phase or when we recorded it?
R: When we recorded it, even. A lot of people said, subsequently, how positive and uplifting it was, probably because of that opening. We’re really happy with them all.
N: We’d never written one like “Hello Sadness” before, just having more drumbeat, and it’s going all the way through with one marked climax toward the end. It’s kind of a song in two parts where it all really kicks off. We’ve never had a song like that.
E: We weren’t even sure if it was going to be on the record. It just seemed to evolve and evolve and evolve. That one came the furthest, I think, to where it is now.
R: Another one that seemed to have come from nowhere is “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II.”
E: It’s quite sparse.
R: We recorded that one right at the end, and we all did the vocals together in a big room in various distances away from the microphone. That was a really special thing to record, it was like a choir. It was also partly because we were about to leave Spain, from that point of view it was very spiritual. (exaggerated voice)
N: I always find it amazing that the songs on this album, we did longer rehearsals, and we had this idea–or at least I did–of what a song was like in my head. The lyrics brought all that to life, which is why I really like “By Your Hand,” I just didn’t know what to expect.
R: I thought “Every Defeat a Divorce” was going to be completely different. I had a vision of that as a completely different song to what it ended up being. I love what it’s become, but it’s kind of strange how everyone has different ideas of where they’re going to take it. It’s the really fascinating part of the process of recording with seven or eight other people, to see how everyone follows their instincts.
One of the songs that really stood out to me was “Baby I Got The Death Rattle.”
R: That was naturally the [album] closer before we recorded “Light Leaves,” because it has that resolution at the end.
E: That’s one of the funnest ones to play live as well, at the moment. It’s one of my favorite ones to listen to.
N: It’s one of my favorite songs as well. A lot of people I’ve spoken to really like it. It’s funny talking about it right now, because it was done in March, so long ago.
R: “Death Rattle” was one of the first ones we finished, with the lyrics on it. I suppose Gareth had just broken up, so his lyrics were maybe more dark in the beginning. And then they ended up being a bit more philosophical as he started getting away from it, being in Spain.
To me, “Death Rattle” seems kind of like the ultimate Los Campesinos! song in the way it combines the morbid aspect with the detached sexuality and romantic rejection.
G: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. That was a genuine attempt to write a song, but I think because of the way the song was laid out, it didn’t have to rely on going from a verse to a chorus, so it made sense for it to just be a narrative that continued. It was just an attempt to tell a story, and an inevitably sort of woe-is-me, self-deprecating story as they usually are. With the way the song was laid out, with the second section, where it sort of springs back into life, that’s sort of the defiant denouement of the song.
R: I really like the palmistry theme as well.
G: I don’t know where that came from.
R: Yeah, I didn’t realize what the girdle of Venus was for ages. (Holding out hand) That’s the girdle of Venus there, right? It’s like the life line?
G: The girdle of Venus is the line that’s to do with romance, sort of your susceptibility to it. So the girdle of Venus having one down on their knees makes sense.
R: That was one of the first ones you recorded your vocals for at the beginning, so your state of mind was probably different at that point to how it would have been had you finished it later in the recording. So maybe you have sort of the superstitious imagery, that clutching at straws, “This was destined to be!” cycle. It doesn’t really fall like that though, does it?
G: I think the album generally sort of goes between “Oh, this is really terrible, the world is ending” to taking a step back and looking at myself, rather than looking outwards at everything that’s supposed to be terrible. It’s sort of turning the magnifying glass on myself, I suppose.
R: I love that in the ending with “Light Leaves,” you have a crystallized microcosm of a biographical moment, where it’s almost in the cold light of day. And that’s a great resolution, because that seems like you’re a bit more balanced about the whole thing.
G: Totally. I think “Light Leaves” is very much a resolution, and although perhaps the wounds haven’t healed, it’s an attempt to get in somewhere where at least you know how things are and how they’re going to be.
Gareth, Rob was explaining that this is about as much of a breakup album as it possibly can be?
G: I guess so. Lyrically, it was all done very rapidly after a breakup. Labeling it a breakup album always seems a little bit trite because most music is about a breakup or love or the related themes. It seems a bit grand as well to be like, “This, everybody, is a breakup album.”
R: But you ended your relationship specifically for the album. (laughs)
G: Well, there was sort of a bittersweet moment where after I’d done a vocal take, which I assumed was a good one, and our producer said to me, “Well, Gareth, I’ve got to say, I was a bit worried when Tom told me that you had a girlfriend, so I was kind of relieved when I heard that you’d broken up with her.” So lyrically, it made the album a lot easier to write, and I think those sort of feelings are easier to tap into than happy or nothing feelings.
What would you say are the major themes explored on this album? In the “Hello Sadness” video, you see a sense of not being in control of your own destiny.
G: To be honest, reading anything into the videos is unnecessary because that’s the one area of the band that we’ve not fully brought under our control.
N: I think we really could, because Ellen had a big work in the “The Sea Is a Good Place To Think of the Future” video, and I think that’s the best video we’ve got.
G: I have a really weird relationship with videos because I almost find them either a little patronizing or offensive. I feel like when the lyrics are there, the songs are given a narrative, and that’s what the song’s about. Then when you have somebody come in to make a video, they interpret it in their own way. When I see this come together, I’m like, “This is our work.” Does that make sense? With the “Hello Sadness” video, which I like in ways and dislike in ways, it’s applying meaning to lyrics that I’ve written, but that song doesn’t mean that. It’s weird. And I can appreciate why that wouldn’t bother a lot of people, but I think as a songwriter, it does leave me a little bit cold.
N: I think it works both ways. Often you’ve got to have a music video–why? Because you just have to have a music video. If it was a case where there’s someone we know who makes really good music videos and we’d really like for them to interpret our work, that’s different. But I think a lot of the time we just have to have a music video.
G: Which is a rather defeatist. I’d just rather not have my face filmed, amongst other things.
Did you have any new musical influences on this album?
R: I’d say there are a few reference points that we were looking at. A lot of it comes from what Tom has been into, and then we sort of add a layer of our own influence. New Order was something we were interested in, and I think “Hello Sadness” has some of the hallmarks of that.
G: Rather than any specific influences from bands or songs, it was just a way of approaching writing the music. We wanted to show a lot more restraint in our writing, and a lot more patience. In the past, we approached songwriting very much like a battering ram, sort of head down, charging into it, and this time we wanted to step back and think, “What directions should these songs go in? How is the best way to achieve that?”
N: There were probably more influences in terms of production and arrangement.
R: It’s interesting, for instance, now having Jason, who comes from a slightly different background.
N: Blink-182 is the greatest influence on the new album. (laughs)
Hello Sadness is out now on Arts & Crafts.
Los Campesinos! will be touring North America with Parenthetical Girls in January and February. Dates are as follows:
01/19 Boston, MA @ Paradise
01/20 Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rosa
01/21 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
01/22 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
01/23 London, ON @ London Music Hall
01/24 Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
01/25 Columbus, OH @ Outland Live
01/26 Bloomington, IN @ Bluebird
01/27 Chicago, IL @ Metro
01/28 Madison, QI @ The Sett at Union South
01/29 Minneapolis, MN @ Varsity Theater
01/31 Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
02/01 Salt Lake City, UT @ Club Sound
02/03 Vancouver, BC @ Electric Owl
02/04 Seattle, WA @ Neptune
02/07 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
02/08 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
02/10 San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
02/11 Los Angeles, CA @ Echoplex
02/12 San Diego, CA @ Casbah