“Misery loves company.” It’s the kind of adage you see on a ceramic mug and greet with a half-cynical, half-sad smile. But there’s a reason the phrase has been around for so long: Often, the best cure for romantic and artistic malaise is to sequester yourself with friends—preferably in a place not easily found. And that’s exactly what Los Campesinos! did.
The sprightly, smart, power-pop outfit, whose members met as students at Cardiff University in Wales, quickly gained a following for its cheeky lyrics (and nicknames), as well as its crunchy, catchy, art-punk songs. Love, heartbreak, football—they’re topics that never stray from the minds of young people, and as a result, Los Campesinos! came to epitomize youthful energy in its purest form: limitless, sexually charged and plastered with a gap-toothed grin. But everyone grows up eventually, and inevitably and painfully, someone’s heart gets broken. As the band began to prep its fourth record in the vast valleys of the Pyrenees, lead singer-songwriter Gareth Campesino! ended a long-term relationship, setting the tone for the most potent, mature LP in the band’s discography: Hello Sadness.
“It’s never a good time for any of that to happen, but we went through that together, away from everything, so it was nice that we could channel a lot of those emotions,” says bassist Ellen Campesino!, a note of fatigue punctuating her cool cadence. When I catch up with her, it’s noon on a Friday, and Ellen’s at home in Bristol, dealing with a bout of jetlag. The band has just wrapped up a short tour of the U.S., U.K. and Japan: nearly two straight weeks of shows, with just enough time to get from place to place (and plenty of time to listen to the guys in the band talk football).
Ellen says the crowds have been terrific: pulsating with energy, just as eager to hear new hits like the victoriously pessimistic “By Your Hand” as they are to mouth along to every word of “You! Me! Dancing!” Japan brought a bit of a shock, though: “The crowds in Japan, they’re really polite. They don’t really talk at all. You think ‘oh, they hate this,’ but they are enjoying it. They’re just quite polite,” she notes. For Los Campesinos!, life on tour is a different adventure every day: scoping out the coffee shops in a dusty American college town, kicking a football around in an abandoned lot not too far from the venue.
So how did such an easygoing group of people make such a disciplined record? Call it introspection. “We kind of started to pull ourselves together and really focus in on the concepts that had been unfocused in the past,” says Ellen. “We wanted to take a more direct approach with this record…to have it be a little bit more of a “less is more” thing and more disciplined.”
Hello Sadness resulted from a self-induced sea change, rather than the product of emulation. Out in the Spanish countryside, Ellen recalls, “there wasn’t anything to distract us. We couldn’t just spend the day in a coffee shop or a record store. It was just the countryside, the sunsets.” The isolation had profound musical effects as well: the sound on the album is less confined and more dynamically aware, while still maintaining the rudiments of intimacy: “Hate For The Island” looms cavernously, while “Light Leaves, Dark Sees” offers a telling glimpse into the feelings of loneliness and catharsis that would otherwise dissipate if stuffed into a tiny room.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Los Campesinos! never lost its groove, and in fact, the gang listened to a lot of New Order over the course of its rural retreat. For every tale of heartache, there’s a delightfully quirky anecdote not far behind: a narrative scrap garnered from a fuzzy night out that seems almost too funny to be true. Ellen says that most of the band’s songs “are based on real people and real experiences.” And what about the goings-on in “Baby, I’ve Got the Death Rattle”—Gareth drawing a penis on the snow-covered windshields of cars for every girl who wouldn’t sleep with him? Jokingly, she half-worries if there are “tons of people in Cardiff, who will go to our show, hear the song and then be like, ‘I do remember waking up and seeing all these penises drawn on my car!’”
Los Campesinos! will resume touring in 2012, and while Cardiff isn’t on the itinerary (yet), there’s no telling if such an exchange will indeed occur. More likely, audiences will marvel at the growth of Los Campesinos! and the band’s evolution from a bunch of football-loving college kids to, well, a bunch of football-loving adults: older, wiser, with some heartbreak under their belts but still making music as witty and infectious as ever.