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Sparky Deathcap and the charm of nostalgic imperfection

19 December 2023, 08:00

Rob Taylor, member of cult indie act Los Campesinos! and the man behind the Sparky Deathcap moniker, tells Maddy Smith about life following unexpected viral success and the rise of soundtracks as an outlet.

Mono no aware: The Japanese concept of an empathy or sensitivity to ephemera explores the awareness of impermanence and transience; a softness and wistfulness towards their passing, as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state in the reality of life.

Capturing the wistfulness, intricacy and depth of this emotion is rare, but beautiful. To command the attention of billions of listeners within the first few seconds is another inspiring anomaly. It’s been 15 years since Rob Taylor, otherwise known as Sparky Deathcap, first released track “September”. Now, having seized both feats, the songwriter has quite unexpectedly risen to worldwide recognition.

Initially released in 2009, the soft tune is now plastered across social media platforms far and wide. One cursory search will churn up hundreds of thousands of videos, all soundtracked by the twinkling, tender arpeggio from the Cheshire-based Los Campesinos! member.


Raw, exposed and intimate lyricism offers each listener an introspective personal relationship with the track’s candid storytelling and dreamy soundscape. Swathes of comments below its grainy, home-style YouTube video discuss the sentiment of nostalgia it emanates. However, considering this on a deeper level, the feeling it bestows is more complex; ideologies which are not necessarily commonly expressed in the English language. Within a few brief seconds, “September” has mastered something few can describe, it sonically captures transience in soundscapes, heavy and intricate feelings of melancholy, impermanence and distance with music that echoes lightness and fragility. The bittersweet realisation of the ephemeral nature of all things.

“I think the feeling is a German word which is ‘Fernweh’”, the singer-songwriter muses, as he sips a pint in a cosy London pub and explores the bizarre and unexpected rise of the track’s success. Ahead of a signing event at Banquet Records in Kingston, Taylor glances up at the kaleidoscopic rainbow of beer mats in all shapes and sizes tiling the ceiling, while the soft glow of yellow Christmas lights twinkle in the background. “That’s the ache for distance, or taking pleasure in the melancholy. Or, it feels like sonder – where you look at a big cityscape and you realise that there are masses of people living their own lives, with their own intricacies and successes, independent of one another.”

The feeling of malaise, associated with travel, hails from a combination of ‘fern’ and ‘weh’, respectively meaning ‘far’ and ‘pain or woe’. It translates to ‘farsickness’ or a longing for distant places which one perhaps hasn’t yet experienced. It feels apt for “September” to mine these ideas of distance and impermanence, both in a sense due to the distance from its own original release date and for the nature of the platforms on which it rose to fame. Its growth on the transient, ever-changing and evolving realms of Instagram reels, Reddit and the like have amassed over 8 billion TikTok views in 2023.

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A monumental shift has occurred for Taylor since the song’s virality spiked this past year, fundamentally stemming from a place which is unfamiliar and at a distance from the artist himself. “It’s changed my life a lot in pretty much every way”, he smiles. “For something that was such a bolt from the blue. I wasn’t on TikTok so I didn’t know how it works or realise the growth, or [understand] the weird ecosystem of how it operates.”

“Honestly, I notice a lot of people who get a large degree of success early on never totally realise their success, because we like to tell ourselves it's meritocratic because that gives some kind of order to the world, doesn't it? It justifies the faith you place in your investment, but actually it’s just really unfair and random. The best people often don’t get any recognition and the worst do, sometimes. You’ve just got to accept [the chaos], I suppose.”

Continuing, Taylor explains, “it was bizarre because it's been almost a year since it started to go viral, it was very unexpected and it’s been very exciting. There was a weird period, maybe around Christmas Eve, when I heard it out of context on Reddit. It was a video of a moth [emerging from] a chrysalis, on the r/nextfuckinglevel subreddit. It was just a moth doing its thing, so to me that’s not next level, but I wanted to look at the comments because I was complaining about this categorisation. Then, the sound took over and things became very surreal. It was a period shortly after that I realised it was out of control – flying around like a balloon, ping-ponging around the internet.”

The nature of its rise has not been an inherently smooth transition, as ownership is difficult to account for online and the rights are regularly claimed by artists ‘reversioning’ from across the globe. Reversions form the DNA of TikTok, which has proven to be a frustration and point of interest to witness the way in which this ebbs and flows. “The song has its own life, it’s almost independent to me and out of my control. It’s one of the really cool but slightly unsettling things about it, I think.”

Traditionally, TikTok revolves around collaborative culture, sampling, repurposing, and collaging different artforms. “Its nature goes against the grain in a world that cares so much about intellectual property and copyright”, he considers. “It’s a Chinese app, so that kind of makes sense because [they] have different cultural standards about copyright and intellectual property. TikTok mimics sample culture in a way, with hip hop and different genres in the 70s and 80s. It’s particularly very exciting and inspiring to see a lot of very young people take on something I did when I was also quite young myself - and adapt that from something that you produced 10 to 15 years ago. It’s really mind blowing to see people do much more technically proficient covers than me! It’s a very different world to live in.”

Vulnerability, frankness and heartbreak all lie at the thematic core of “September”. To have such tender emotions exposed, the reopening of old wounds decades on, calls for an interesting and complex dichotomy of success and anguish as it experiences another lifecycle. “I wrote this in this trough of life; my first serious relationship ended and I was really struggling in a way that I think you only ever do when your first one ends. I felt like she had left me for a more successful musician, basically, which is still the case,” he laughs. “A big part of it was me trying to use the song as a vehicle to try and get her attention, which is pretty pathetic. I was in the phase to think, ‘fuck it, I’ll be way too open’. If it was raw enough, maybe that would work. Of course, in the end, it didn’t really go anywhere.”


“The girl that the song’s about actually got in touch a little while back to congratulate me on everything. I apologised, and told her I hope it’s not weird for you. She didn’t mind, in a way it’s been so long now that she felt it was quite a cool thing to be a character in the story. That was weighing on me at the beginning of this. It must be a horrible experience for the world to be hearing something so vulnerable; you go on Instagram or TikTok and it’s on every single video. It feels like a different person to me, because it’s something I wouldn't do now. My lyricism is more pared down and a bit more mature now. People comment that they think it’s cosy. I find it very funny that it was intended to be this incredibly raw torch song.”

From the ashes of a relationship, Sparky Deathcap’s noughties outpouring has ignited the imaginations of so many listeners online. Everyone becomes a director, spurring vivid imagery in their mind of the film which they envisage would be the ultimate footage for “September” to soundtrack. Such a powerful and raw sound, instrumentally as well as lyrically, really resonates on a broader scale. “Well, that's interesting, isn't it? Because something that has changed in the interim period is that when I wrote and released it, the channels for putting music out were [just] radio, and it was never really a radio song. Even now, it's not really taken on that form but another usage has come about – the soundtrack. That fits perfectly with the democratisation of it all, but there was never really any role for this back in the day.”

Perhaps the charm also derives from the analog, rustic authenticism of the track’s production. “I didn't really have that much specialist knowledge but I was learning Logic while I was remastering, experimenting with it. Back in the day I had this insane process with hundreds and hundreds of tracks to work with. I didn’t EQ it or anything, because I didn’t know how. There were a lot of low-end frequency range guitars, background noise with the hiss of the tape machine, no compression and no EQ. You don’t really get that on modern recordings now, so it feels old fashioned and anachronistic and something that’s from a different era; maybe that chimes with the modern era a little bit.” Building and mixing as he went, sometimes on cassette, the production and timing was therefore incredibly inconsistent. In fact, when the new version was released, Taylor was taken aback by comments of its difference to the original.

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“Looking back, I totally misunderstood what people wanted, what the charm of the song was, and I was trying to take the charm out in a way – which is something that people do a lot. I think it’s the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where you realise how bad you are at the myriad things you don’t know. It’s really easy to become constrained and conservative about the fear of not being taken seriously. Originally I had no idea about how little I knew and thought these songs were the best I’ve ever heard. That kind of confidence I’ll never have again, but it’s taken away the hang ups and technical perfection. People actually create fake ‘mistakes’ now to make their music sound more human, more authentic.”

As a professional illustrator with ADHD, Taylor expresses that he often struggles to balance the line of refining his art – knowing when is best to stop finessing a product. “It’s Roland Barthes’ theory of The Death of the Author; you have to treat everything like the author has died and that it’s an open book for everyone to interpret. I spend way too much time trying to perfect things, [especially] when I was writing this EP, because I hadn't released anything solo for such a long time. I didn’t want to hear: ‘Oh, that's what you've been doing all this time’, and for it to be terrible."

Expectations would likely be high for anyone who has experienced rapid, soaring success, but the whirlwind nature of popularity online points to a low likelihood for replication of virality. Work is underway on writing and recording a new album, with next year looking likely for release and touring. With a couple of records of old material to his arsenal, Taylor hints at the revival of old material in the coming year.

Retrospectively, what advice would Taylor give his 22 year old self at the time of the track’s original release? It’s an entirely different landscape, one which is constantly shapeshifting and exploring new ideas. “Keep recording and putting it out there,” he states. “Don’t get hung up on [perfectionism] because there’s a lot of stuff that I wrote and never released or finished, I think that goes for all creative endeavours. The act of releasing it to the public is really important, it’s just becoming part of a conversation, isn’t it? I think that’s the thing: to enjoy life and do it for you, for the right reasons.”

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