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Revisiting Los Campesinos’ Romance is Boring ten years on

25 February 2020, 08:00
Words by Rob Hakimian
Original Photography by Burak Cingi

In 2008 the Cardiff-originating septet Los Campesinos! released their first two albums Hold On Now, Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. They received immediate critical acclaim but relatively little fanfare from the British public compared to that of their indie contemporaries.

Those that did latch onto Los Campesinos’ wavelength found a band that expressed depression, heartbreak and brimming hatred with unguarded humour and honesty. Thrown beneath these missives was erratic, slacker-rock-meets-twee-pop-meets-noise-rock created by a bunch of students fuelled by beer and Red Bull.

For some it was abominable, for others it was pure inspiration. Their frenzied sound and the fact that frontman Gareth preferred to jam half a dozen words in where most would use two hindered their chances of ever really cracking the NME crowd. Nevertheless, there was an undoubted vitality to Los Campesinos!, and the one-two punch of their 2008 albums, combined with effervescent touring, meant they surfed beneath the wave of magazine hype but still started amassing a devout fanbase.

Towards the end of the 2000s, the tremors of the mid-decade British indie explosion were fading. After a hail of lauded debut albums around 2005, by 2009 most of those bands were onto their “serious” third album, perhaps feeling the need to channel the bleakness of the financial crash, but all were experiencing diminishing returns. If there was one band who would cut through the grey to deliver something lively and carefree it was surely Los Campesinos! – or so we thought.

On 9 September 2009 Los Campesinos! released “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future”, a song that completely eschewed the fizzing and spiky sound of their first albums in favour of a slow-building, atmospherically-arranged epic about death – real death.

Part-inspired by the writer Ann Quinn, who committed suicide by walking into the sea, it tells the story of a woman dying from allergic reaction to general anaesthetic and her bereaved daughter attempting suicide while the singer futilely tries to pull her out of despair. The band’s emblematic use of the word “doom” was no longer just a melodramatic overstatement of their emotions; Los Campesinos! had raised the stakes considerably.

What might at first have seemed like an about-face for the band was actually a giant leap forward. The musical style and lyrical approach were quite different, but the truth and heart were exactly the same – and the fans made that jump with them immediately.

“That was a really big moment for us,” Tom reflects. “We were trying to surprise people, to show them that we weren’t this one-dimensional twee-pop band or whatever people called us, so it became this huge thing to us that we’re really proud of. That song opened things up for us, we knew we could trust our instincts because it was still connecting to people.”

After “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future”, Los Campesinos! announced their third album Romance is Boring for an early 2010 release, and fans justifiably anticipated a hugely ambitious record.

Although “The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future” turned out not to be representative of the overall sound of Romance is Boring, it did accurately herald the higher level of musical and lyrical aspiration. Standing at 49 minutes, 15 tracks and divided into a clear three-act structure, it’s still the “biggest” album in Los Campesinos’ discography to this day. “It was the first time we had a long time to think about the record we wanted to make,” Tom explains. “Probably too long.”

Apart from the amount of time they had, there was another simple but crucial reason for the advancement: Tom, the band’s ‘musical director’, had acquired recording software Cubase with his new multi-effect pedal. “Before I was having to do it in my head and hoping things would turn into bass line or chords or a riff,” he admits. “Once you can start recording and getting things down you can go a lot deeper. I would spend far too long coming up with ideas and exploring as many possibilities before I even presented to the band.”

Tom remembers “trying to write things that would challenge us, but also maybe challenge the listener a bit more. Sometimes it was just to annoy the listener, because we were dicks like that. There was less instant gratification, but if you stuck with it then we hoped that things could be drawn from it over a period of time.”

The challenge was raised in songs like the post-hardcore meets indie-pop cacophany of “Plan A” and the densely-knotted and gnashing layers of instrumentation of “I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know”. The attentive listener is guided through these passages by Gareth’s involved lyricism and intuitive vocal lines, while former member Aleks seasons them with sing-song back up vocals. Even when the verses are in-your-face and unhospitable, the songs glide into beautifully anthemic choruses, where the melodies shine clear and bright, ripe for gang singalongs at live shows. “I was deliberately experimenting with contrasting,” Tom explains. “If there was a noisy verse with a sugary chorus then it would have more impact.”

“It was the first record where we had the ability to write the songs the way we wanted them to sound. It was properly maximalist pop music to us.” - Tom Campesinos!

One of the most obvious expansions is the frequent use of brass on the record. “I think it’s a cliché way of answering ‘how do we make this bigger?’,” Tom says, explaining their intention. Then-member Harriet also stepped up to the challenge, writing her own string arrangements that imbued their new songs with advanced grandiosity. Where her parts had skimmed along the top of Los Campesinos’ earlier work, here she created melodies that wreathe the songs in an extra layer of drama, whether it’s the elegiac swell of “The Sea is…” or the nerve-shredding tension of “I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know”.

“It was the first record where we had the ability to write the songs the way we wanted them to sound,” Tom believes. “We were a lot more deliberate in our approach and we went really deep on the amount of detail in the arrangements. It was properly maximalist pop music to us.”

Obviously very excited about the work they had been doing, Gareth recalls a visit from Wichita Recordings founder Mark Bowen in Seattle, during the second half of the recording process: “I remember very well having a conversation with him on the Space Needle and saying to him, ‘This is gonna be our Wowee Zowee’ and he said, quite correctly, ‘But you’ve not made your Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain yet.’”

Romance is Boring was recorded in 2009 across two sessions in America, first at Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Connecticut during March, and then Two Sticks Audio in Seattle, Washington during April-May. The band toured the continent before and between these sessions. In a way it was a culmination of a long-standing affinity the band had with the USA. “I think American fans and writers have always seen us as a really English band and I think English fans and writers have usually seen us as being a particularly American-influenced band,” Gareth admits.

At the time Tom told Best Fit about the albums that inspired Romance is Boring, and eight of them were from American acts. They say that genius steals, and Los Campesinos! were certainly not above nabbing from their American idols. Tom believes Gareth’s tripping delivery on “The Sea is…” comes from his having listened to a lot of WHY? at the time; some of Tom’s songwriting emulated former tour mates Times New Viking (“I ripped off at least one of their songs for this record”); Gareth admits to lifting straight from Death Cab For Cutie (“The ‘bah-bah’s in “There Are Listed Buildings” are a complete ripoff of “The Sound of Settling””) – and they even have Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart adding guest vocals on “In Medias Res”.

The list of nods to Americans is extensive, encompassing everything from Sixpence None The Richer to the band they had long been compared to (and had covered multiple times), Pavement. “It’s kind of dumb because Pavement were ripping off a lot of British bands like The Fall,” Tom jokes. “And we’re a British band trying to make music that sounds like them, so I don’t know how that ends up.”

It ends up brilliantly: Los Campesinos! had plenty of their own stories and original musical ideas to amalgamate all these influences into something entirely their own, and with enough breadth to attract audiences on both sides of the Atlantic - something they have continued to cultivate to this day.

For their third album they leaned into the American influence, spending almost half a year there touring and recording. They got to see plenty of the country in those months, although Tom doesn’t remember much beyond working on music: “I get pretty anxious about making records. I just completely lose my sense of humour with everything, so I imagine I wasn’t much fun to be around.” One bright spot comes from when they flew down to South America for a few fondly-remembered gigs, including one in Bogotá that was unexpectedly attended by hundreds of people: “Shit like that brings tears to your eyes, it’s so touching,”

Similarly, Gareth’s main memories are from the live-in Carriage House Studios in Connecticut. “In Stamford I don’t remember much other than working on the songs. I remember Neil slept on an air mattress and I had the top bunk; I remember it was the first time I had Oreos; I remember watching a lot of MTV, some really great trashy TV programs; I remember I got chilli in my eye at one point and that was quite terrifying.”

While the songs are undeniably British, the submersion in America certainly left its impression; in these songs heat rashes and burn scars form in the shapes of specific States, racists are on the radio, and realisations are made on a trip to Mexico. Sub-consciously or otherwise, it’s pretty clear that the grandiosity and expansive nature of America fed into the mentality of Los Campesinos! as they created the wide-ranging Romance is Boring. Although, it’s also pretty clear that watching trash TV had a great influence too.

From the very beginning of Los Campesinos! Gareth’s sharp-tongued, self-gratifying and unfiltered words have been the thing that first leaps out at a listener, and they know almost immediately if it’s something that appeals or not. For those that enjoy them, there’s a feeling of finding a kindred spirit amidst these tales, which are held up by Gareth’s four pillars: “A lot of our discography boils down to sex, death, football and beer – that’s the four cornerstones of Los Campesinos!.”

Each song on Romance is Boring maintains the characteristic energy and bluntness from their first two albums, but Gareth’s stories are more detailed and impassioned: “It was the first time that I started by writing in prose and then turning it into songs.”

Of those four cornerstones, death’s shadow is omnipotent, football’s prominence is always guffaw-inducing, and beer facilitates it all - but it’s the sex that really stands out from this collection of songs. “At the time indie rock was very straight and it stuck to what it knew,” Gareth believes. “But I think it’s silly to ignore the details of these awkward sexual encounters that so much of songwriting is about, so I’m glad I included them.”

Romance is Boring plays out like a series of blog entries from jilted lovers and unimpressed exes attempting to set the record straight by giving all the sordid details about what they were actually thinking about every time they kissed their former flame (football, usually). Gareth says that the majority of the words were inspired by real events that he either experienced or witnessed, but reading or recounting the tales told on Romance is Boring doesn’t exactly shine him in the most flattering light. “I can very clearly see that I was a bit of an arsehole,” he admits now - but that unbridled snark is a big part of the charm, and it ensures that the countless gags always land.

Crucially, he was and remains self-aware enough to always turn the pen on himself: “For the most part I’ve been the butt of the joke. I can’t think of many examples where it’s been the person that I’ve been singing about that has come out of the situation looking worse than me.”

“If romance is boring then I’m not sure how I’ve managed to spend the last 13 years singing about it!” - Gareth Campesinos!

One of the stand-out examples of this is “Straight in at 101”, where Gareth the serial seducer lists off some of his proudest sexual exploits, then ends the song by calling to his friends and family to watch the TV countdown of the most heart-wrenching break-ups of all time, only to shamefully discover he’s not in it. “I’m just mocking myself there. That is me removing myself from the situation, trying to look objectively and saying: ‘Gareth, you are a pathetic arsehole’. It’s one of our most popular songs to this day.”

“When he writes in that diaristic style it’s so personal and it feels very real,” Tom believes. “I’m a little scared that he’s going to get in trouble if people recognise themselves, but I would never try to sensor him. If it makes for a good song and it’s only him that gets in trouble, that’s fine with me.”

With all the makings of a cult album falling into place, there remained a crucial detail to be fixed: the title. The song “Romance is Boring” was one of the last to which Gareth wrote the words, as usual leaving it as late as possible to figure out.

“This is why I was so stressed out the whole time,” Tom recalls. “We had booked out the studio to mix it and there were still songs without any words.” Nevertheless, Gareth, as usual, produced gold, writing “Romance is Boring” under pressure. “That was something of a eureka moment when he did that. The title just felt like one of those kind of emblematic things, it had this iconic quality that summed up what I was hearing in Gareth’s words.”

It’s a neat summation of not just this album, but all of Los Campesinos’ hilariously melodramatic work to date. Throughout we’re sung to by a character who evidently cares so deeply about love and sex, but wants to present a front as though he’s above it all.

“If romance is boring then I’m not sure how I’ve managed to spend the last 13 years singing about it,” Gareth jokes. “But on the other hand it was rebelling against this clichéd idea of romance being a candlelit dinner for two and a faith relationship.”

Accordingly, the portraits of relationships presented on the album are not what one would typically imagine on the cover of a greeting card – but they are, when seen through the right lens, romantic. In an album full of sordid acts, highlights include drunk sex in a car parked in layby, trying to tempt a young woman away from her religion, threatening to take someone’s heart by poisoning them, a secret bruise that becomes a private joke between a couple, and, quite sweetly, begging to be the person to keep track of the moles on the other’s back.

Of course, they almost all end with heartbreak or, at best, insecurity. This is driven home in the closing “Coda: A Burn Scar in the Shape of the Sooner State”, where the insurmountable conflict is summed up in the simple belted statement: “I can’t believe you chose the mountains every time I chose the sea.”

It’s a steep and cathartic comedown from the egotistical heights of the Romance is Boring’s opener. “In Medias Res” features of the album’s most resonant moments, where the sardonic proposition is posed: “If you were given the option of dying painlessly in peace at 45, with a lover at your side, after a full and happy life – is this something that would interest you?”

Ten years older, now in his mid-30s, how does Gareth feel about it? “I don’t think that’s a choice I need to make now. At the time it seemed like a very romantic gesture, but now I realise that things aren’t black or white, there’s a lot of grey in there. I know that’s cheating by not answering my question, but I’m a lot wiser than I was then.”

Upon release, Romance is Boring garnered a heap of positive reviews from publications on both sides of the Atlantic, although it didn’t make a big enough impact to land on many of their “best of 2010” lists come December (a January/February release might have hindered their chances). Nevertheless, among swathes of dedicated fans it only grew in stature the more they listened to it, and continue to listen to it, right up to this day.

People found empathy for the flawed characters and validation in knowing they weren’t the only ones with shameful memories of immature love. This solidarity translated perfectly to the band’s live shows, where people congregate to sing their blues in unison, gleefully losing their voice and dignity among crowds of like-minded individuals in a truly safe space.

For the band it pushed them up a level in notoriety, but also set a path for what was to come in their music in the following years. “I see a lot more in common between Romance is Boring and [most recent album, 2017’s] Sick Scenes than I do with Hold On Now, Youngster,” Gareth states.

Over the course of the decade that has elapsed since Romance is Boring’s release, the band’s eminence has grown, not only through releasing more excellent music, but, perversely, by removing themselves from the music industry release-and-tour cycle. They decided to stick with Wichita, who they knew would never pressure them to do anything they didn’t want to; they became self-managed; and now they only get together to practice, record and tour when it fits into everyone’s life schedules (they all have day jobs, and two of the members have a child together).

“It’s turned out so well, but at the time it was scary going from that world to doing it ourselves; moving from a full-time band to doing it this way,” Tom says. “A lot of that is down to Gareth and his running of the shop.” Gareth is quick to shift the praise to Rob, who designs the unique and diverse offerings found at the Los Campesinos! website and merch stand, emblazoned with iconic imagery and lyrics that have undoubtedly played a part in maintaining their cult status.

Evidence of Los Campesinos’ continued success couldn’t come any clearer than the two gigs at London’s Islington Assembly Hall over Valentine’s weekend to celebrate 10 years of Romance is Boring. Despite the fact that the band hadn’t put out any new music in three years, fans were not slow in pouncing on tickets – while others around the world lamented the fact that they couldn’t be there and begged the band on social media to take it on tour.

“The Islington Assembly Hall gigs sold out in about six hours, but it would have been a lot quicker if we’d anticipated it – we basically just didn’t put enough tickets in,” Gareth admits. “We thought since we were doing two nights it’d probably take a couple of months to sell out.”

This humility is the key reason why, even though their songs are often filled with obnoxious and unattractive posturing, Los Campesinos! enjoy a level of fealty and connection with their fanbase that few other acts can claim. The band’s continued thankfulness towards their audience’s undying love is captured in a beautifully simple moment during the Romance is Boring shows. Following the opening three songs, which are received with Beatles-like rapture, every word shouted back at them, Gareth still humbly introduces them: “Hello, we’re called Los Campesinos!”

While they are unlikely to ever headline a major festival or score a crossover hit, Los Campesinos! will always mean so much to so many people – the members themselves included. Even as they return sporadically, releasing music and playing shows at longer intervals, the level of passion on-stage and off never diminishes; crowds are never sweatier or more raw-throated than those that attended the Romance is Boring anniversary shows – that is, until the next time the band plays, whenever that might be.

This devotion to the band is reflected back just as brightly by Gareth: “I’ve only ever wanted to write for Los Campesinos. I’ve not had any interest in writing for a project that wasn’t Los Campesinos!, because Los Campesinos! is all I’m bothered about.”

The tenth anniversary remaster of Romance is Boring is out now
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