“It’s been a pretty long road.” Since their fourth full-length, My Maudlin Career, met with the kind of positive reception that’s become virtually obligatory for Camera Obscura records, we’ve heard upsettingly little from them. They toured – more extensively than ever, in fact – but the past three years, for a host of reasons, have involved almost total inactivity, musically speaking.
“I think we wrote the first couple of songs for this record as far back as 2010, when we were just finishing up touring for My Maudlin Career,” says Carey Lander, who entered the fold as keyboardist shortly before the release of their breakthrough LP, Underachievers Please Try Harder. “There were a few demos floating around at that time, but we needed a proper rest before we’d be mentally ready to try and make a new album. Then some other stuff happened that meant it took longer than expected; we didn’t really get down to it until last summer, and we recorded in November and December.” The ‘other stuff’ is likely a reference, at least in part, to Lander’s cancer diagnosis – and successful treatment – in the intervening years.
For Desire Lines, the band decamped to the alternative Mecca that is Portland, Oregon, making it their second successive record to come to fruition outside of their native Glasgow. “We always felt we’d like to get away and get a new perspective; we made the last one in Sweden, and it suited us to leave the distractions of home behind and go away just as a band, as a unit. Obviously, Portland was very appealing – it’s pretty affordable and a really hospitable environment for musicians. Our producer, Tucker Martine, was out there, so it made sense in that respect.”
Martine is probably best known for his work with The Decemberists – he co-produced The Crane Wife with Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, as well as the The Hazards of Love and The King Is Dead in the years since – but Lander and her bandmates were new to his work when he first emerged as a contender to sit behind the desk for Desire Lines, after a recommendation from M. Ward.
“We weren’t really familiar with what he’d done before. I think it stemmed from a conversation we had with Matt Ward when he was over in Glasgow – he spoke really highly of Tucker, and mentioned that he was good friends with My Morning Jacket and that they really rated him. That made us go away and think about it because we all like My Morning Jacket – Tracyanne really loves them – and the work he’s been doing with Neko Case sounded really interesting, too. It’s always a bit of a leap of faith because there’s only so much you can read about a producer, really. You’re not going to know how they work or what input they’re going to have until you get to the studio.”
Both Case and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James feature on Desire Lines, and the ability to harness Martine’s influence to land a couple of dream collaborations proved a nice bonus. “We just sort of pestered Tucker for a while about whether there’d be any chance of getting Jim involved, and thankfully it came off; I think he did it as a favour to Tucker as much as anything else. We already knew Neko was a fan of the band, but it was great that she was good enough to fly into a different city and spend the weekend with us – it’s exciting to see people you admire working on your own material.”
However difficult blowing off the cobwebs might have proven, the actual process of composing the record remained true to the rest of the Camera Obscura canon. “It was pretty much the same as it has been in the past, insofar as it being Tracyanne bringing the songs she’d written to the group and us kind of fleshing them out in the studio,” Lander says. “I think the difference was that we were determined to take our time a little more. We were making a lot of demos, recording plenty of rehearsals, taking stuff home to think about and tweak and so on; we wanted to be absolutely sure we’d got it right. There’s less orchestral stuff on this album, fewer players, so you can hear a lot more of the band, I think.”
In keeping with the perfectionist approach to recording, the band came together early on to discuss which direction they saw themselves taking, and to elucidate their vision for the record. “We did sit down to talk about the ideas we had and how the album might end up sounding, and there’s always a few names thrown about of bands that we all love – there was a lot of talk of Fleetwood Mac this time, actually,” she laughs. “I think we knew we wanted to get away from that sixties sound a little bit. There’s plenty of other influences we’ve always had, eighties influences especially, that we wanted to explore properly this time round. You only want that to be a part of the process to a point, though; if you try to shape things too consciously, you end up sounding like a parody of somebody else.”
One of the major trials that the band have continually come up against since their formation, back in 1996, is the lazy pigeonholing of their sound as merely ‘indie pop’, or constant comparisons with C86. “It might’ve been that basic back when we started out. We were influenced by that sort of thing back then, so it was probably accurate to call us indie pop or twee or whatever.” Continued experimentation, though, means the tags no longer apply. “To my ears, it sounds a lot different now, purely because we’ve tried out a lot of different things down the years. I think maybe it’s a bit of a generalisation based on Tracyanne’s voice, which is obviously a big part of our sound. We’ve certainly always tried to avoid anything that sounded clichéd.”
As recently as the 2006 release of Let’s Get Out of This Country, Camera Obscura was still, essentially, a part-time venture, with most members continuing to work nine to five to support the project. “It wasn’t until we first signed with 4AD for My Maudlin Career that we were all able to go full time for touring,” says Lander. “That’s obviously the ideal state of affairs, and it lasted a good while, but because it’s been such a long gap between that album and this one, a few people had to go back to day jobs for a little while. There’s really less money than ever to be made in music these days, and even when we are getting some sort of wage out the band, it’s pretty minimal.”
“You’re always looking ahead and thinking about the need to save some money for making the next record, too, so it can be pretty tough. We’d love to tour more, but this is the reality of being in a band at the minute. Plus, as we’re getting older, people’s lives are starting to get in the way a little bit. We can’t go off for three months at a time anymore.” Indeed, their current plans for the road grind to an abrupt halt in midsummer, after a slew of dates with She & Him in the U.S., with Campbell’s pregnancy the likely cause.
Hailing from a city with a musical fabric as rich as Glasgow’s – and often bearing more than a passing sonic resemblance to some of their local contemporaries – the place itself clearly holds a resonance for the band, even if they tend to record elsewhere these days. “There’s absolutely no pretension about the musicians in Glasgow. I think that’s what I like about it most. You don’t always feel like part of one big happy gang, by any means, but there’s a lot of musicians who have always helped us out and been very supportive. That was definitely brought home to us when we did our charity gig in February . There were people there from Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, The Pastels and so on, and you think, “well, they’re still coming out to see us.” It’s things like that that feel special; you know you’re doing something worthwhile.”
Desire Lines is available now via 4AD. Listen to the new album in its entirety here at The Line of Best Fit.