It’s approaching midday on a crisp Sunday and Camden Town is rife with families heading to Sunday lunch and strandlers in their late-teens and early-twenties recovering from the night before; I am shamefully and regrettably in this latter grouping. Which is a complete lack of good judgement on my part because I have to interview Los Campesinos! – one of my favourite bands – in just under a hour. I say “have to interview”, but I had been looking forward to it all week.
But, you know, there’s something destructive in human nature that keeps leading me to get really drunk the night prior to any major incident in my life. Before job interviews, before meeting a partner’s parents for the first time and especially anything to do with travelling. I think half of my life is spent trying not to be sick on Megabuses and National Express coaches alike, which will make for a really depressing memoir.
So I find myself in a stuffy white-walled upstairs room in the Camden Barfly – where the band will play a special matinee show later today, an introductory gig to their upcoming tour supporting new album Hello Sadness. Waiting for the interviewers before me to finish up and listening to them steal all my conversation starters like Cardiff and Bristol , I force all energy into trying not to let the bass coming from the soundcheck below induce any gag reflex.
By the time the two before me bring their discussion to a close, I’ve managed to pull myself together; salvaging any traces of professionalism I have left and proceeding to talk to Gareth and his fellow vocalist sister Kim about their fourth record – which is being lauded as their most mature output to date – the inevitability of Gareth penning a song about every promising love interest, and, of course, football, all the while calculating in my head the possibility of still being able to fit in some Sunday lunch after all this. God, I love matinee shows.
This is your first full-length release with the new-look set-up, how did it feel coming into a band that had already formed and achieved success prior to your entrance?
Kim: I knew them all really well before, I’ve been friends with them for a long time. So in this way, it felt really natural. It was the most easy thing to settle in to the group dynamic. I went to the studio with them back when they were recording Romance Is Boring and just hung out.
Plus it’s such an intense environment that you’re soon thrown in the deep end. There wasn’t any mollycoddling or what not. But that’s good because it isn’t too long before you know the ins and outs not only of what it’s like to be in a band but also each other as people.
It has seemed like all the additions and changes have been with people who were already really close to you on a personal basis.
Gareth: Kim was already really good friends with Alex, who she replaced as singer after Romance Is Boring. And she had actually done a few bits that appear on that album – she played flute, and sort of some drone on that LP. Then Jason had been with us selling our merch at shows for about three years previously, Rob actually went to school with Neil, and had supported us a few times as Sparky Deathcap – he just always seemed to be around.
Actually, walking here just earlier today we passed the Enterprise which is just a few doors down . And I remembered that we had played a show there for Camden Crawl a few years ago. It’s this really tiny room, half the size than even this venue, so small in fact that the floor started giving in halfway through the gig. People in the bar below started saying that the ceiling was cracking and the set got abandoned halfway through because the floor was actually bowing. So we were talking about that and Rob was like “Yeah, I was at that gig”. We were just like “No, what?” – it seems like he was at every gig we ever did without us even realising. So yeah, every transition has been so natural and effortless because it’s not as if we’ve done auditions or brought in session musicians.
You’re not Bloc Party then.
Gareth: Definitely not. But Bloc Party – are they even Bloc Party anymore?
Did these changes in personnel affect the recording of Hello Sadness?
Gareth:I think a result of all the mix-ups has been that we’ve become a much more able band than we’ve ever been. It’s not like we’ve just added friends to the line-up for the sake of it. We’re all the best we’ve ever been and that meant that we were capable of really pushing ourselves to do things that perhaps we wouldn’t have been able to achieve in the past. The whole thing was a lot quicker and more fluid than previous recording experiences and as a result there was a lot less frustration in the studio. It also meant that we were able to experiment and try new things. It was just very laidback and so much fun, we even had our own pool. This recording experience for Hello Sadness was by far the most enjoyable we’ve had as a band.
I guess you had recorded a few things prior with these guys to ease you in a bit.
Gareth: Yeah, we recorded the All’s Well That Ends EP and a few Heat Rash tracks in between the last record and this one – so that was a good introduction.
Kim: So going in for Hello Sadness didn’t seem too imposing for us.
Gareth: And that whole thing, the Heat Rash stuff, is as much for us as it is for the fans. Previously we wouldn’t have been able to just be in Tom’s living room, set up and record there and then, with things being suitable to put out straight away.
Were you aware of Harriet’s intent to leave while you were recording?
Gareth: She didn’t announce her departure until just after, if I remember correctly. To be honest, I think we could tell previously that perhaps her mind was elsewhere – not to a huge extent or anything, but perhaps a little bit distracted. But when she told us, we were all at the pub and we just all hugged and said “Fair enough!”
Kim: You can’t argue with wanting to go back and study, can you? It’s an honourable thing to want to do. So good on her.
Gareth: But we’ve always been aware and open in this band that this thing isn’t going to last forever or be something that any of us are going to make any large amounts of money from. Really it’s just something that ticks over and when you get things like the Budweiser commercials, you think “Great, we can do this for another year without having to get proper jobs!”
So when Harriet said she felt like she was ready to go back, well it was a brave decision and a happy decision. Maybe she was a little bit offended though that we took it so well, I mean we didn’t break down in tears or anything! In any situation like that, there must be an element of wanting to feel needed. But it wasn’t like a messy break-up or anything – it was a positive decision.
How are you dealing with her absence live?
Gareth: It wouldn’t have made sense to try and replace Harriet as the band doesn’t necessary need a violinist. Glad that wasn’t how we responded to Harriet saying she’s leaving. But, you know, it’s not like it’s a typical and integral part of every rock band.
It actually worked out ironically that there wasn’t that much use of strings on the new record, so that was fortunate. I don’t want us to ever be a band that plays with a backing track. I saw Camera Obscura where they did that and it was really weird. So we’re dealing with it by transposing the violin lines onto different instruments, with Rob taking on a lot more responsibility. There had been times in the past where he’d just be playing a tambourine on some songs, which is not a good utilisation of his talent. But now I can just do that – not very well, but I can try – and he can play the proper fucking instruments!
Kim: I think it’s a lot more exciting for the fans to hear the older stuff mixed up a bit. And it’s been good for us as well, it’s giving us a boost to make changes and keep things varying live.
So you play a special matinee show today, which is always a strange but wonderful experience that means beer in the afternoon and being able to stroll home and have dinner afterwards – are you excited for the gig?
Gareth: Oh yeah, what else is there to do on a Sunday afternoon? This is basically the first time we’re playing the new album tracks live. This is day one of the Hello Sadness Era. We played ‘The Black Bird, The Dark Slope’ a few times last February and at Bestival. We’ve also played ‘By Your Hand’ [first single from Hello Sadness] about twice and, to be honest, we weren’t ready to do so. Everyone seemed into it nonetheless but I think those must have just been two gigs where the crowd were really wasted.
It’s been really fun arranging the set list. We’re trying to get to the point that even if we don’t intend on playing a track live, still being able to if you ever wanted to. But we’re not taking requests just yet! The good thing about having new material is that it keeps things fresh. I can’t imagine now how we managed to play gigs in the early days, just the same songs over and over, without getting bored.
Kim: And we can’t wait for people to hear it and we’re eager to see how they react to it.
Gareth: I think we have a reputation for not really practising. Supposedly most bands practice very frequently, like once or twice a week, well nobody told us! I guess we could use the size of the band as an excuse.
Describing your new record is a tricky one; it’s at once more intense than before but somehow more relaxed at the same thing – how would you say this album is different from those before it?
Gareth: Lyrically, I would consider this to be a lot more raw and honest because the lyrics were written very shortly after the break-up of a long-term relationship. But the songs as a whole, and the music, I would say that our intention was to create something a lot more focussed, more composed and a lot clearer in its aim. I think Romance Is Boring was us trying to do too many things – it definitely feels too long, there are a few tracks that definitely don’t need to be there. But it was good to make a record like that, something that was hard work and bloated, just to get it out of our system.
On this we wanted to do the opposite and make something that feels more whole. We wanted to create a 10-track album that’s direct and welcomes listening to it in one sitting. There are some songs that we purposely left off the tracklist that are nevertheless strong tracks. One song that we left off in particular, called ‘Tip Toe Through The True Bits’, is probably one of my favourite songs that we did for this session but it was intelligent to acknowledge that it didn’t fit within the album. On its own it’s a great song but wherever we placed it in the ordering, it seemed to stand out – slowing things down too much and creating a road block. This was the same with Romance Is Boring too actually; my favourite song actually didn’t make it on the album – ‘Too Many Flesh Suppers’ – which again didn’t fit so we bit the bullet then as well and released that one later on.
Will ‘Tip Toe Through The True Bits’ see the light of day via Heat Rash then?
Gareth: Some of the spare tracks may come out through Heat Rash, but I think this one probably won’t be one of those. I think we might give it a wider release, maybe digital-only or free download, just before we go on tour to draw attention to our gig dates. Hopefully we’ll be able to play that one live by then too!
I recall that when you got to Girona to record, you posted a picture on Twitter of an empty notebook with a caption stating that you had to fill it with lyrics for the entire album in just five days. I remember thinking “Jeez, I am known to procrastinate and leave things late but that’s really pushing it!” How did you find having to rewrite a couple LP worth of material in such a short period?
Gareth: Well, it’s how I’ve always worked really. I wrote the whole of We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed in about three days. We were in the studio and I just couldn’t bring myself to write.
Kim: I think you need the pressure and actually work better because of it.
Gareth: Yeah, I don’t like forcing things. I’m not the type of person in my mindset to write some prose for the sake of it in my spare time – I’d just do something else. It’s when there’s already songs and structures laid out that I can actually do it and be my most focussed and brutal.
I think it’s really frustrating for Tom and I frequently have to apologise because he just works so hard and has put all this together. So it’d probably be good for him to have some help from me, I’m sure he’d like to take some leads from the lyrics and vocal melodies but I don’t even like to show anyone my words until I’m 100% certain that’s what I’m happy with and how they’ll appear on the record. Definitely on We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed nobody had heard the lyrics until I was stood there in the studio singing them, which is of course rude and frustrating but that’s the only way I can operate. It must be annoying for Kim as well, because she has to sing the words too and I’ll just hand them to her two minutes before heading into the vocal booth.
Have you had any moments where the others have had to bring this up, like a “So… written any lyrics yet by any chance? Are we going to actually have a song to record or…?” kind of thing?
Gareth: I think that by now they just trust me. I think on Romance Is Boring there were some instances of Tom saying “Any chance we can record that demo now?” and I’d be like “Yeah, I’ll do it this afternoon” while silently thinking “Shit, I’ve not written anything”.
You have a few instrumentals scattered across your back catalogue, can you honestly say that these are not just tracks that you never got round to writing the words to?
Gareth: (Laughs) Oh no! Generally the instrumentals come about because Tom is just so prolific in his output. He’ll just get up early one morning, go and wake John up and drag him into the studio, saying “Okay, we’re recording this and this”. Like with ‘Between an Erupting Earth and an Exploding Sky’ [from 2008’s We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed] I had finally awoken at midday, just strolled into the studio and he had recorded the entire thing over the space of the morning while I had been asleep. I thought “Wow, this is really good” and then just walked away again. On Romance Is Boring, at the least, these instrumentals just acts as rest bites – and they’re very much needed!
I think it all stems from ‘You Throw Parties, We Throw Knives’ , which I think is a pretty terrible song anyway, originally had a completely different set of lyrics which were even worse. We performed them live a few times and every now and then a member of the band will take great pleasure in reminding me exactly how terrible those lyrics in fact were. So I think that’s part of the reason, now I’m like “Right, from now on I’m not saying a single word until I definitely happy with all of it”.
You should do a special show where you just play the alternate lyrics, that’ll mess with people’s heads a bit.
Gareth: Oh I’d like to think that I can’t even remember them.
Kim: I don’t think I’ve even heard them actually.
Gareth: Good, so that’s some relief then.
Your lyrics have quite a confessional quality to their subject matter, do you ever find yourself in trouble or do you have some pretty good self-censorship restraint?
Gareth: I have regretted – and still do – certain lyrics in our back catalogue, but more because they are bad lyrics rather than the aspect of who or what they’re about. Believe it or not, I’ve only ever experience about two occasions where people have reacted badly or even mentioned me referring to them in a song – one of those was quite civil and the person just had a quiet word, saying “I don’t mind you talking about me, but please just ask me first”.
The other instance was a bit funnier, where the person in question totally misinterpreted what I had written. We performed an in-store at Rough Trade and afterwards a girl who I was friends with came up to me and said “That song ‘We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed’, it’s amazing and just resounds with me so much!”. And it was about her best mate… She never did pick up on that at all.
The only thing I regret about how personal some of my lines can be is that there’s an inevitability when I’m getting in a relationship that there’ll be songs written about them. This can either be off-putting or for another sort of person that can be quite encouraging. It’s when it’s seen as an attractive proposition that it can get particularly bad. But then again when they don’t like it, then that can be quite frustrating for myself.
So are people always tiptoeing around you, not wanting to say too much just in case you go and recite it and encapsulate it in song forever?
Gareth: I should think not! At this point, people are generally understanding that this kind of thing is basically my job now. At least that’s what I hope.
Kim departs the room to get back to soundcheck and as soon as she leaves an air of masculinity seems to have been piped in the room, causing us to venture off-topic and straight into footy talk. It seems to be fated that the amount of abuse that Gareth sends Joey Barton over Twitter that the footballer now respawned as ‘Joseph’ will soon find a band other than The Smiths and will come across ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future’ or ‘Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #2’ and everything, . “I think I’ve taken that a bit too far, I do slag him off quite a bit”, Gareth laughs. “I don’t think we have that many football player fans – it’s a total one-way thing. We’ve stalked Pat Nevin in the past because he’s a man of impeccable taste and even DJ-ed at ATP once and Luke Moore who does the Football Ramble is a fan and was supposed to be coming to the show, but has to interview Bobby Zamora and then go on BBC’s Football Focus instead. So I guess that’s a good enough excuse,” he says.
“Funny thing though: Joey Barton’s lawyer wanted to be our lawyer at one point, to take care of all our contracts and lives and everything. So that’s a fun fact for you.” “I’m definitely dropping that one in to the article”, I respond. And there, I did.
Hello Sadness is out now on Wichita.