Los Campesinos!: A Band Who Care About the Past Because We're All Scared of the Future
How dwelling on mundanity and escaping through nostalgia has kept "your ex-girlfriend's favourite band" thriving for over a decade.
When it was cool to be sad or at least apathetic, Los Campesinos! were eager and earnest. The Cardiff-formed seven-piece were the very embodiment of unapologetic enthusiasm when they burst onto the scene in the mid-00s, with screeching, shredding walls of sound and flamboyant, multifaceted arrangements.
Less dreary than indie rock staples like Pigeon Detectives and more powerfully concentrated than pop outfits like Architecture In Helsinki, their first album Hold On Now, Youngster… was an honest portrayal of the chaos of growing up – everything in extremes all the time, high highs and low lows, making something bombastic out of mostly nothing – and incredibly exhilarating to hear. The word "twee" got thrown around a lot as a descriptor in the beginning, but it didn't fit them for very long, if it did at all. "We did invite the label upon ourselves," Gareth said speaking to Noisey earlier this year. "I'm not sure if it's ever really accurate but it was a useful pigeonhole for us." Lead guitarist Tom added: "Our thing was just to be as anti-macho as possible. It was more about that and whatever the word was didn't really matter."
Los Campesinos! has always been more than the sum of their cardigans. But the question, really, is: how has a band whose commercial peak arrived with "You! Me! Dancing!" – their first-ever single – and refer to themselves knowingly as "your ex-girlfriend's favourite band" managed to sustain a healthy career going on 11 years?
The band's unique strain of indie pop is not easily qualified by rigid genre signifiers. It's a rhapsodic amalgamation of guitars, violin, glockenspiel, synths and vocals with the kind of lyrics that could tell you everything need to know if you heard them at the right time in your life. Like a lot of other fans who discovered the band in their mid-teens, Los Campesinos! were the first band I ever truly, utterly loved; they either were describing things that had happened to me or things I assumed would happen to me, with all the drama and gravity I thought my experiences merited. "Oh we kid ourselves there's future in the fucking / but there is no fucking future," I sang fervidly to myself after almost kissing my crush at a music festival during a Death From Above 1979 set. Now, the intensity holds over, but where have all our teenage feelings gone? Sick Scenes, released this past February, finds the band and its listeners on the cusp of real adulthood, trying to figure out how to cope with the rest of their lives.
This new album sees the band living in the midst of adulthood rather than dreading its monotony from the vantage point of youth. It's a compilation of equally cringeworthy and heartbreaking tableaus about fading adolescence and the uncertain future. Of course, Los Campesinos! have always clung to the past just a bit too much than is socially acceptable, whether through regaling tales of football matches long forgotten by most people or holding onto romanticised ideas of people they dated in their teens. They wear their rose-colored glasses proudly, with an admirable stubbornness. On this new album however, there's a particular lens on the past the band haven't used before; they're older now, but they've grown kind of used to it.
Musically, strong plinks of glockenspiel are just audible against blown-out walls of guitars and heated vocals; it's a successful exercise in total flagrancy. The band tells us that it's OK to gravitate toward our pasts so resolutely; after all, it is the only concrete thing we have when the present is too anxiety-inducing to really comprehend, and the future looms, blurry and inevitable, in the distance. They also hint that you never know what you might find when you turn back to the past – I'd made internet friends through mutual Los Campesinos! Tumblr appreciation when I was 15, and five years later when I ended up in their city, 4000 miles away from where I'd grown up, we got on splendidly.
Sick Scenes reminds its listeners that we can talk about football and exes in the same way that we discuss mental illness and mortality. Los Campesinos! have always conflated objective tragedy with the painful banality of everyday life, and managed to make it all sound grand. On this album, it's clear that everyone (the band, their idols, and their fans) are getting older; the songs are tinged with a measured sadness and hope for a happy-ish ending somewhere in the middle of the monotony of adulthood. Peppy first track "Renato Dall'Ara (2008)" cheekily references both a famous overtime victory for England's football team, and the heyday of the band themselves. They're making a statement with this song as the opener, as if they're waiting for someone to remind them that their first album received the most critical acclaim.
"I think Sick Scenes is very much a record about being confused and uncertain," Gareth said in an interview earlier this year, "and I think the main thread running through it – and I think this is something that's probably shared by a lot of our listenership – is that I'm in my thirties now, but all through my twenties I thought that things were gonna get better because as you get older you won't be depressed anymore and you'll know what you're doing with your life, and it'll all be fine; and now here I am in my early thirties and I'm less sure of what I'm doing than ever before."
And so whether on "A Slow, Slow Death", tapping into the misery and anxiety of Brexit, "Here's to the Fourth Time!" parlaying the urgency of finding something meaningful ("All we've got's the need to breed before we rot"), or tearjerker "The Fall of Home" rooting the band's years-long melancholy in the empty high streets and boarded up pubs that now comprise many British working class towns, Sick Scenes feels very much displaced. It's hard to pinpoint if that's all to do with age or the larger political landscape in general; the sense of deflation and the self-awareness that comes with not having a clear idea of the near future combined with the fear that you're running out of time to figure it out is palpable.
"Now I can see that it's absolutely fine to not know what you're doing with your life in your twenties," Gareth continued. "If I was ten years younger then I'd think, 'it's fine, I've got it all ahead of me', if I was ten years older I'd think 'It doesn't matter, I'm on a downward slope now anyway,' but it's this weird thing being 31 and sort of knowing that you can't resign yourself to nothing now, and I still need to work out what I'm gonna do."
The third installment in their discography-long "Heart Swells" series comes near the end of this record. These songs tend to operate as softer moments of reflection on otherwise lively albums – interludes that remind the listener there are other ways to enact sadness besides drunken mania and regrettable sex. There's distance between Gareth and everyone he's trying to reach here, analogous to the isolation that comes with dissolving relationships and the sudden, crushing weight of chronic illness (earlier, on "5 Flucloxacillin," we're reminded that depression is "a young man's game"). Their second album, 2008's We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, tells us that there is no future – but now there is nothing to go back to, so we might as well go begrudgingly forward.
As a teenager, and now, my anxiety always felt like this canyon inside me that was too big to comprehend, but Los Campesinos! is still able to articulate that massive yearning; the depths at which we want to be loved and understood and the bitterness we feel when it does not come. Shout at the world all you want but eventually there will be no one around to hear you. Friends are great, but you can't throw yourself into their problems forever and as you get older. You have to self-reflect eventually. How are we supposed to balance desperation, loneliness, and self-making when the end of the world appears closer than ever before? No band has the answer for us, but if it helps, Los Campesinos! are in the same place we are, in the space that we've created for each other over the years. They've got our back, whatever that's worth.
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Lead image taken from the artwork for Sick Scenes.