Q&A with Tom Campesinos! of Los Campesinos!
No, Los Campesinos! isn't a band from a Spanish-speaking country. It's based in the U.K. And no, Tom Campesinos!'s last name isn't Campesinos!. He and his fellow bandmates perform under half-pseudonyms, Ramones style. As for his real name, Tom didn't spill -- but he did share plenty of other stuff in the entertaining Q&A accessible after the jump, conducted for a profile published in advance of the group's April 7 gig at the Bluebird Theater.
Tom begins by talking about his home town, his lack of stringent musical training, and his frustration at only being able to figure out one Oasis song on violin -- a trauma that inspired him to switch to guitar in his youth. From there, he segues into an account of the Camp-ers' birth; the group's transition from post-rock art project to pop group thanks largely to his previously unrealized aptitude for writing catchy songs; the evolution of the combo's sound; the surprising speed with which he and his not terribly ambitious bandmates caught the attention of music-industry pros; the players' decision to release their second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, just months after their debut, Hold on Now, Youngster...; their sort-of collaborative, sort-of-not tunesmithing process; and the repercussions of being called "twee."
Isn't that everyone's favorite descriptive term?
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
Tom Campesinos!: I'm from a place called St. Albans, which is just north of London. It's famed for bands like Enter Shikari, I guess. It's not a great place, but it's home.
WW: Is it considered part of metropolitan London, or its own city?
TC!: Its own city, but it's almost like a commuter town. It's close enough to get into London easily, but also close enough to be able to get out, too. It's kind of an ideal place. My parents still live there, so I can pop back when I want.
WW: Tell me about your parents. What do they do for a living? And do you have any siblings?
TC!: I've got one brother. He's working as a photography assistant. My mum's a French teacher and my dad's an engineer of sorts.
WW: Of sorts?
TC!: He kind of works in the building world and improving standards for buildings. That's his kind of vague job title that I've always struggled to describe since I was young (laughs).
WW: Are any of them musicians, even as just a hobby?
TC!: When I was younger, my mum used to play piano quite a bit. She's kind of self-taught. She's as amateurish as I am. I guess that was influential in some ways. She used to sit and play Beethoven on a pretty crap '80s keyboard. I used to try and imitate her and play Moonlight Sonata if I could, and mostly failing. But my parents have always listened to music. They haven't always had the best taste, but they've always listened to it, regardless. I had a long musical journey as a child, sort of in a cliched way. We listened to Queen, Don McLean, Eurhythmics: standard sort of '80s music. I guess that was my early instruction to music. I played recorder as well, as every child in the U.K. does.
WW: Is it some kind of law?
TC!: Pretty much, yeah. If you don't do it, you'll be shunned by society.
WW: When did you move on to the guitar? And were you self-taught on that instrument as well? Or did you go through the lesson process?
TC!: When I was younger, I started to play the violin for a few years. At first, I really enjoyed it, but later I found it frustrating, because I couldn't play any of the songs I was into. I got into Oasis when I was about ten, when it was the height of Brit pop. I couldn't play enough Oasis songs, but I could only learn how to play one on the violin. And my friend, who I'd just met at my new school, was a guitar player, and he taught me a few basic chords. Turns out that was enough to play any Oasis song. I think you need three or four chords and then you can learn the back catalogue. That was ideal for me. Then I just kind of plugged away, and I haven't really stopped. I guess I've been playing guitar now for about twelve years now, which is really scary.
WW: I have to ask: Which Oasis song were you able to play on the violin?
TC!: "Whatever," which is the one with all the strings in it. It was kind of like a non-album release [it came out in late 1994, between Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory?]. It basically rips off Pachelbel's Canon. It's a descending line. And when I was ten, that was amazing for me (laughs).
WW: Once you mastered those three or four chords, did you start playing in bands of your own? Or were you a bedroom guitarist for a number of years?
TC!: I was definitely a bedroom guitarist. I jammed with a couple of friends, just playing guitar with a couple of guitarists, and we'd mess around with covers and stuff... But my actual first band was Los Campesinos! I played with Neil and Gareth in a kind of semi-ironic covers band while we'd formed Los Campesinos!, and that was the first time I'd played onstage. But Los Campesinos! is my first band proper, and it's going well so far. So I'm pleased.
WW: What were some of the covers you played in your semi-ironic cover band?
TC!: We played the music we were into at the time. We covered bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, the Decemberists, the Shins, the Mountain Goats. We kind of played them to a pub audience in Cardiff, and because most of the people there didn't recognize the songs, we were able to fob them off as our own, as if we'd written them all. I don't think we got away with it entirely, though. When we introduced one song, a person asked if they could do the intro to it. It was strange that at our first gig, people already knew the words to it.
WW: You managed to stumble onto a Denver connection. Neutral Milk Hotel was part of the Elephant 6 bands, and that whole movement was largely based here during the '90s thanks to the Apples in Stereo...
TC!: Since being on tour, a few of us have gotten into the 33 and 1/3 series of books, and the Neutral Milk Hotel one is really good. It gets into their recording process, which is really interesting. Having read that now, being able to come and actually see the place will be great.
WW: You mentioned that you met your fellow bandmembers at Cardiff University. What was your major? And had you given thought to what you wanted to do as a career? Or did you figure that you'd decide along the way?
TC!: Mostly the latter. I picked English literature and did that. I guess vaguely I'd thought about writing as a career. But I mainly picked English literature because it's a pretty sort of broad, general thing, and it's semi-well-respected in the U.K. as a job. It's one of these very general things you do, and it keeps your options open, because I hadn't decided. I'm pretty grateful I didn't have to decide. It's not a decision I would have liked to have made. For the time being now, we don't really have to enter the real world. We can carry on with this sort of fantasy band/lark.
WW: So you didn't have to go through a lot of self-reflection about giving up your pursuit of English literature in order to be in a band? It was a pretty easy decision to make?
TC!: The band thing happened so quickly that it shocked us. We took it very seriously, because we were aware of what an opportunity it was. But at the same time, especially in the U.K., the music industry is so fickle. Just in our lifetime, within the past few years, we've seen numerous bands appear and then disappear within moments. So we were aware that could easily happen to us, so it wasn't a long-term career decision. We made the decision to finish university and carry on the band at the same time, and the record labels we spoke to, only one or two agreed that it was a good idea. It was a good measure of how good those labels as well. Wichita, in the U.K., were really supportive, whereas a few other labels sort of raised their eyebrows when we said we wanted to not get into the band full-time for a year. It made sense for Wichita as well. We were so young as a band, and it meant that we had an extra year while we were still at university to work on songs and cement things in the band. I think it worked in everyone's favor, and to this day, I'm so glad we made that decision. And it also means that when the band does inevitably crumble that we've got degrees we can use when we re-enter the real world.
WW: All of you finished your degrees, then?
TC!: Aleks is doing medicine, so she's kind of three years into her degree. But she's able to return when she wants.
WW: In reading about the music the band made early on, I keep coming across the phrase "post-rock," which conjures up twenty-minute long instrumentals that go from quiet sections to power-chord rampages. Is that at all the kind of thing you were doing?
TC!: There was definitely a sense of that, but I think it was mostly because we were just jamming in Ollie's bedroom, and it was inevitably sort of twenty-minute long jam sessions. It wasn't structured songs. It was meandering climaxes. It wasn't particularly great music, but it was just finding our feet and enjoying playing with friends. In a few of the early Los Campesinos! sessions, we had these sort of six-minute instrumental songs. I guess specifically it wasn't post-rock. It was just long instrumental songs we didn't really have words for. I guess the only remnant to that is the intro to "You! Me! Dancing!," which has a post-rock-esque kind of feeling.
WW: Had you done much songwriting before you joined the band? Or did you focus on songwriting once you were part of the group, so you could be playing something other than those long-meandering jams?
TC!: I'd written a song when I was quite young and first onto the guitar. It was the exact same chords as a Blur song, and the exact same lyrics, mixed around. It was a pretty bad rip-off, and not something I like to bring up - although I'm bringing it up now (laughs). But this was my first time... When it came to Los Campesinos!, I came up with a few ideas. What I did was, I sat down and listened to my favorite bands, and tried to listen to which kind of chord changes work, and how they structured their songs, and I would imitate that (laughs) to use the best word I can, other than plagiarism. And then I'd take them to Neil, and Neil would tell me that they were really good, and that would give me confidence, and I'd work on them some more, and tried to make them less plagiaristic. That's how it started out, and it's something I've worked on for the past few years. It's something I'm still relatively new at, but I really enjoy it. It's one of my favorite parts of the band, the compositions. It's really exciting when you discover new things, new tricks you can pull off. I'm still relatively new at it, and Neil's positive response is what encouraged me. Then Gareth heard the songs and wanted to join the band, which was equally encouraging.
WW: After finishing one of those early efforts, did Neil ever say, "Hey, that reminds me of...," and then name the very song you'd been listening to beforehand.
TC!: (Laughs) Often it would be, "Hey, that reminds me of this song," and I would be massively relieved that he hadn't spotted the actual song I'd ripped off, and I had disguised it well enough. But once, Neil had a Joe Jackson song that I'd actually ripped off. He said, "Hey, that really sounds like it." And I was like, "Yeah, there's a reason for that." That was actually very embarrassing (laughs). It's long enough ago for me not to dwell on it too much.
WW: In some of the older interviews I stumbled upon online, you talked about your feeling that Los Campesinos! didn't really have a specific sound. Is that still the case? Or do you think you've developed enough of a sounds that when people hear when of your songs, they'll say, "That's Los Campesinos!"
TC!: If I was to be kind of brutally honest, we have developed a sound. It's something we definitely stumbled across accidentally, and it's down to a number of things. The unique sound of Gareth's voice, and Aleks' voice. And the pop element of our songs is something you can recognize. We definitely have a certain character. I'm quite aware of that. But I guess on my more idealistic side, I'd like to think we don't. Because we don't want to feel limited in any way. I'd like to think we can try out a number of things and bend our sound in a number of ways. And also, I think it's symptomatic of having seven people in the band. It sort of feels that we could go any way. We've got violins, we've got glockenspiels. We've got people who can bring in any number of instruments and can turn the songs in a number of directions. In that sense, I feel like we can do a lot of things.
WW: If you came up with something completely different from what you've done before, you wouldn't think, "We can't do that, because that'll confuse people," you'd be excited to go in that new direction?
TC!: Yeah, completely. It's something we're doing currently. I think in some ways you've got to be aware of your audience. My favorite bands, they'd have their sound, and they'd develop that sound rather than changing sounds. It was more of a subtle thing. And I think I much prefer bands to do that: to experiment wildly while still maintaining their sound in some way. But at the same time, it is refreshing when your favorite band does try something totally different. So I guess I'm a bit ambivalent. I wouldn't want to patronize our fans by not experimenting enough, and not believing that people who are truly into us wouldn't go along with whatever way to choose to experiment. But at the same time, I'd like to respect the reasons they like us. Of course, you can't really second-guess the reasons they like you. It's probably something I shouldn't dwell on too much (laughs).
WW: You mentioned earlier how quickly everything happened for the band. Is there any irony in that when you think about those groups that are really hungry for stardom and haven't quite made it, and you guys haven't gotten a lot of attention without having those sort of career goals going in?
TC!: Completely - and I think it's something we still feel kind of awkward and guilty about. And I think that kind of serves us well. At first, we were sort of wide-eyed about everything we did, and everything still is very exciting for us. I don't think we take it for granted because of that. For me, it was completely ridiculous, the idea of being in a band and doing it as a career. It was just not something that happened, so it was stupid to even consider it at any point. And I felt that way even when we started being offered record deals, which still seems kind of hilarious to me.
WW: Your most recent album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, came out mere months after your first album, Hold On Now, Youngster... That's pretty rare, these days. Why the quick turnaround?
TC!: With Hold On Now, Youngster..., those are songs we had from the very start. And in our heads, that was finished quite early on. I guess it was partly due to fear, and wanting to better all the mistakes you make as soon as you commit something to record. As soon as you record something, you hear all the things you wish you'd done differently, and you want to apply that to the next songs you write. So it was partly out of competitiveness, and out of the fear that you're never going to be able to write another song again. Quite soon after that album came out, we started composing again, and we basically had all the songs ready. And we decided to rehearse the songs while we were touring the U.S., and we built in some time for recording. Initially, we wanted to just put out an EP, but we decided that since we had ten songs, we'd put those ten songs out. And because of that, in our heads, it's still not the second album officially. It's more like an interim release, an extended EP. There was no idea of, "Let's put out two records in one year." It was just, we had the songs, and it didn't really make sense to sit on them. I guess we like to push ourselves as well.
WW: You mentioned that you're working on new material as well. Do you already have the foundation for another full-length album?
TC!: Yeah. I had sixteen or seventeen demos made, and we're in the process of recording that at the moment. It's probably going to be a slightly longer album, which is something we haven't done before. It's going to be a bit more of a challenge. Musically a lot of it's ready, and we're building up the arrangements and extra parts as we record. It's going really well right now. I'm very happy about how it's coming along.
WW: Is it possible to generalize the songwriting process you guys use? For example, do you usually bring in the blueprint of the song, and then everyone else contributes in various ways? Or do your demos often sound pretty close to the completed song?
TC!: It kind of varies. A lot of the time, the demos are quite close, because they'll be the foundation of the song. There'll be a number of arrangements built into those, but sometimes, those arrangements are sort of fluid. And Harriet writes nearly all of her string lines, and she brings a really interesting element to the band. Because she is classically trained, she has a much more advanced understanding of harmony, and more interesting elements that she can apply and introduce to the songs. So that's always a very useful thing. And without a vocal line, the songs are only half-finished. Once Gareth puts those down, the song completely changes, and sometimes we'll write arrangements around that. And also, when we take the rough demos into the rehearsal studio with me, Neil, Ellen and Ollie, we'll work on parts and just kind of experiment and see what works best in terms of applying drum fills and how to play other things in certain ways. So it does become a communal process.
WW: Does Gareth write all the lyrics?
TC!: He does all the lyrics, yeah.
WW: Are there times when his lyrics come close to matching what you might have envisioned to go with a certain song? Or are they almost always a surprise to you?
TC!: Sometimes Gareth will ask for help with melodies. But it's mostly a surprise, and it's always a pleasant surprise. I think having lived with songs for so long, the melodic ideas I might have supplied to it tend to be quite obvious. So it's nice to have someone listen from the outside and approach it really differently, and in a really different way. It's always really cool once he comes up with ideas.
WW: In one of the previous articles I found about you guys, you described yourself as the least fun member of the band. [He laughs.] And your fellow bandmembers have talked about you being the go who holds everything together onstage. Have these roles evolved over time for you? Are you the guy whose job it is to make sure things don't spin off into anarchy? Or is that overstated?
TC!: It's probably overstated. I guess maybe musically, I take on that role. But in terms of organization and everything else, we employ a tour manager to look after us professionally. And secondly, we also have Ollie in the band, and he's a born leader, and he's very responsible - far more responsible than I could ever be. He's the one we turn to for guidance.
WW: Well, then, how fun are you?
TC!: Not very fun at all. I'm sure you're desperate to get off the phone already (laughs). Well, I can be fun. I'm not particularly sensible. It's just that I'm trying to construct a serious, artistic, moody image of myself.
WW: Given the effort that you've put into that, does it frustrate you when you read reviews describing your band as "twee"?
TC!: (Laughs) Yeah, it's quite annoying. We're trying to be these serious musicians, and everyone's like, "They're just this twee, stupid pop band" (laughs). It doesn't annoy me, because the music is meant to be exciting. And when we started the band, the whole idea of us being a band was meant to be enjoyable for us. It was meant to be fun. We made no effort to hide that. And it was fun, and I think it showed in the songs. I think things have changed now, though. Things aren't quite as one-dimensional. We've started to take the fact that we're in a band more seriously. And I'd hate to sound like an earnest musician and take things seriously, because to me, one of the most important things about any sort of art is an element of humor, and not to take yourself too seriously. I don't like the idea of disappearing up your own asshole and never seeing your head again, especially in the music industry, which is one of the most ridiculous places to be as far as I can tell. The whole idea of writing songs and selling them is, to me, completely absurd. If you take that too seriously, it's going to fall apart.