The music of Los Campesinos is simultaneously melodic and chaotic. It’s jam-packed with self-deprecating tales of lost love and middle-class misery, as experienced by a bunch of clever college students—in this case, seven kids from the University Of Cardiff in Wales. Their debut, 2008’s Hold On Now, Youngster…, first brought them international acclaim, but anyone who missed them the first time around didn’t have to wait long. Six months later, Hold On’s follow-up, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed provided a tighter, more cohesive take on their already-distinct sound—turbulent pop-punk jammed with hooks and hanging on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Both albums also helped attract a particularly devoted fan base. The songs sounded good through headphones, but they were really built for the kind of punk-rock communion that only takes place in mosh pits.
Los Campesinos spent last year touring, writing songs, and recording its third full-length, Romance Is Boring, due out January 26 in America. On the album, Gareth Campesinos expands upon his role as angst-ridden, debonair frontman, pouring his heart out with a wink. The music is bigger, too, with ambitious arrangements and all manner of instrumental horseplay. The A.V. Club recently spoke with guitarist and chief songwriter Tom Campesinos about the new album, whether romance actually is boring, and bassist blowjobs.
The A.V Club: The new album is called Romance Is Boring, but many of the songs present a heroic, high-stakes vision of romance. What convinced the band to select that title?
Tom Campesinos: There’s something about that phrase that clicks with me, and I instinctively liked it for a title. There’s a certain irony. This character that Gareth is singing for throughout the album—he’s clearly a romantic. The phrase to me sounds like the words of a defeated romantic trying unconvincingly to attest that he was never interested in romance anyway. At the same time, you can double up the meaning of “boring” in the sense of boring into you. It does take over you. I think that’s one of the reasons I like the title, is that it does work on a number of levels. We are aware of the ironies, and how the album is sort of obsessed and completely driven by romance.
AVC: Did you write the songs on Romance Is Boring with an eye toward that concept? In a previous interview, Gareth mentioned that Hold On Now, Youngster… lacked cohesion and flow, with songs that weren’t created with a single end product in mind.
TC: First off, that is definitely how Hold On Now, Youngster… was assembled, and I don’t think it’s necessarily something we regret or resent. Those were the songs we’d written up to that point and then just sort of assembled onto an album. I don’t think there’s necessarily a strict concept, certainly not musically. I still think we’re figuring out what we’re doing. I feel like we are pushing ourselves, and we are changing and improving, but it’s not like we sat down and said, “We want to sound like this now.” I think we probably will reach that stage at some point, but at the moment, these progressions and changes feel sort of organic and natural, and I’m pleased with that. I think from playing a lot more, and learning the process of recording and mixing, we’re in much more control of how we want to sound now. For Hold On Now, Youngster…, those were the first songs we’d ever written. They sound ramshackle because we were ramshackle. We were just sort of putting these ideas together, not really knowing what we were doing. I feel like we’re more confident, and everything we put in now is more deliberate. I don’t think there’s a strict concept necessarily [on Romance Is Boring], although Gareth’s got this story that progresses across the album—not necessarily in order, but it’s a tight theme. It’s about the dissolution of a romantic, or a series of romantic escapades, but I wouldn’t want to guess what he’s writing about.
AVC: There’s also a real sense of experimentation on the new album. How does a song like the album-opener, “In Medias Res,” with all its dynamic shifts and instrumental flourishes, coalesce in the studio?
TC: The general routine we’ve gotten into is that I’ll start off with a musical idea and I’ll structure it and record a rough demo. Then I’ll send that off to Gareth, and he’ll come up with vocals, and then Harriet will come up with string ideas. Then we’ll work through the song with the rhythm section and restructure it, change ideas that need changing. Then when it comes time to record, you can pile any number of things on and everyone’s got ideas, so it becomes a democratic process by that point. I think someone described “In Medias Res” in particular as a microcosm of the album. I think they were actually talking about the album quite negatively, but I quite liked that. It’s got this weird fiddle section that doesn’t fit right—is a little bit awkward—but I really like it for that reason. It’s got the programmed electronic drums in the middle. And then the horns come in at the end. We were definitely trying something new, and so it is kind of representative of all the things we were trying on the album.
AVC: Do you agree with Neil Campesinos’ statement that Los Campesinos have been exploring “darker, slower songs”?
TC: I don’t really know. I was saying earlier that it’s kind of weird, because you don’t really sit back and look at yourself as a band, and the songs you’re writing, until it comes to interviews. And then you’re kind of forced into adopting this self-assessment. I know we’ve always been a pop band, and I still feel like the emphasis is on pop songs—but good pop songs. I think the phrase “pop song” is crucial to us, because it’s quite a vague term. It feels like something you can stretch. A pop song can almost be sort of anything these days, and we take comfort in that. We’re naturally ambitious and want to push things and change things. I think that side of our songwriting will naturally come out, because we have those ambitions. We don’t want to be a one-trick pony.
AVC: How has your songwriting evolved since joining the band?
TC: Again, it feels really self-indulgent to sit here and assess how I’ve progressed. I’m being faux-modest in a way, because you do have those times when you’re thinking about how you want to progress, and you have these moments of musical crisis where you don’t know what you’re doing. A lot of it is abstract and instinctive, and it’s almost like displaying your taste in music, like saying “If I could write a song, then this is how I think music should sound.” I don’t know if that sounds really pretentious, because it’s such an abstract process, it’s hard to discuss. We do try things out, and we are experimenting more with different instrumentation. We’re very aware that we’ve got a loyal and genuine group of fans, but if you think about songwriting too hard and only try to please, then you end up in a rut pretty quickly. You sort of have to be self-indulgent, because it’s the only way you can be honest.
AVC: Two of the new songs include U.S. state nicknames in their titles (“Coda: A Burn Scar In the Shape Of The Sooner State” and “A Heat Rash In The Shape Of The Show Me State”). Has touring changed your perspective on the United States?
TC: I guess the main thing is that it’s so huge. Every city has its own identity, and you can travel for three or four hours, and it feels like you’re in a different place altogether. That sort of variety is exciting. This is going to sound really cheesy, but one of my favorite experiences when we were on the last tour was driving through Texas to Marfa. There’s barely anything there. We drove out into the desert at night so we could see the stars, and I think it was the first time any of us had seen the stars without any light pollution. It felt like a unique experience, because it wasn’t somewhere any of us would have actually gone without this band.
AVC: Gareth said something that’s become a well-publicized quote, where he called Los Campesinos “the second-most punk band in Britain.” What’s keeping you in second place?
TC: I guess it’s partly about always being the underdog and never being quite the best. [Laughs.] I sort of don’t think we’re ever going to be successful, in a sense. It was kind of drenched with irony, that comment, but it’s become a tagline that we stick by. Oh, and there was one thing I wanted to say. There was a piece in The Onion online I saw the other day, and it was about a bassist getting a blowjob. I was a little bit upset by it, because I thought it projected the wrong image of musicians. I just want to make clear that we’re not getting any blowjobs at all, and that we’ve actually had to give quite a few blowjobs to get where we are. You should be aware of that.