Camera Obscura's Carey Lander on Desire Lines

As Camera Obscura ready the release of fifth album Desire Lines, we distract Carey Lander from band practice to discuss old friendships and new directions

Feature by Chris Buckle | 03 Jun 2013

In the four years since the well-received My Maudlin Career, it's seldom felt like Camera Obscura have been away – what with a certain dinner party game-show and its attendant wine ad sponsor seemingly never off-air, keeping French Navy a regular ear-worm for half the population. But away the Glasgow indie-pop quintet have been, forced into hiatus by circumstances beyond their control – indeed, beyond anyone’s control. In the press release for imminent fifth album Desire Lines, mention is made of ‘sickness and sadness’, hinting at personal struggles faced over the last few years. But elsewhere, the catchwords are more hopeful, with talk of resilience and survival. On a sunny(ish) bank holiday afternoon, keyboardist Carey Lander takes time away from rehearsals and fills in some of the gaps.

“We finished touring and we’d started taking a break,” she explains, “and then I got ill, and was basically out of action for a year and a half. But the band waited for me, which was really good of them.” While Lander underwent treatment, the band (as well as Lander: Tracyanne Campbell, Gavin Dunbar, Kenny McKeeve and Lee Thomson) started tentative work on new material, demoing songs and occasionally convening for rehearsals, “but otherwise it was generally on hold until we could do things together again.” Now, she says, “it’s nice to be back doing something” – even if the time leading up to Desire Lines’ release seems to be disappearing fast. “If feels like last week we were mixing it,” she smiles. “I still don’t know how lots of elements are going to come together, but hopefully it will.”

High on the agenda is fitting in the aforementioned rehearsals ahead of a wave of radio sessions, festival appearances and tour dates – as much a means of “getting the band’s confidence up” after the longer than usual inter-album gap as a need to nail down arrangements or whatnot (although there’s some of that too, with Lander jokingly rueing, “now’s when you wish you hadn’t done eight keyboard parts when you’ve only got two hands…”). But while Lander expresses certain anxieties about the readying process, she’s also quick to note that, with several albums’ experience behind them now, re-finding their feet isn’t too difficult. “You always think you’re going to be terrible when you get back into the rehearsal room,” she explains. “But when we’ve been doing this for so long, and have played the songs that many times, then really it comes back quite quickly. Despite my negativity and worries, it’s usually not that bad.”

"We weren’t looking to make another chamber pop, 60s girl group album. we’ve been there and done that" – Carey Lander

Even the new complication of having a member reside at the opposite end of the country (drummer Lee, who moved to London last year) hasn’t shaken the dynamic too significantly. “We don’t all hang out together quite as much as we used to,” says Lander, “but just because, you know, when you get older you don’t leave your house as much...” she laughs. “It’s not that we’ve found new friends or something – still, if I have a birthday party, I can’t think of anyone to invite apart from the band most of the time.” What’s more, in her words, “absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that,” meaning time apart has its benefits. “I think if we get a break from each other, we’re always pretty pleased to see each other when we get to the studio,” she muses, “and that’s no bad thing,”

In typical Camera Obscura fashion, Desire Lines began with bare-bones demos by vocalist and principal songwriter Campbell – ideas on which the whole band subsequently worked, layering and delayering till they found the sounds that stuck. “Before we start any album, we always talk about how we wish it would turn out, whether that happens or not,” says Lander. In this case, that meant a deliberate move away from the lush string arrangements that marked My Maudlin Career. “That was mostly a conscious thing,” Lander affirms. “I mean, we didn’t roll it out, because if the song wanted [strings] we put them on. But we weren’t looking to make another chamber pop, 60s girl group album. We feel like we’ve been there and done that.”

The need to break new ground also influenced the decision to record in the US for the first time, electing to work with Portland-based producer Tucker Martine after two records with Jari Haapalainen behind the desk. “Jari would have made another great album,” says Lander of the decision, “but it seemed a bit too safe and repetitive to work with him again. So we were looking around for ideas – which is quite hard because you don’t really hear about producers that much, apart from the couple of really big names. It can be a bit of an unknown thing.”

Tucker was first mooted by M. Ward, at the time passing through Glasgow on tour (and, on a side note, with whom Camera Obscura will share shows later in the year, co-headlining with She & Him on a raft of Stateside dates). The suggestion stuck and the band packed their bags and headed to Oregon. “It’s a bit of a leap of faith,” says Lander, “because you don’t know that much about the person. You have a few emails and discussions, you let them hear some demos and you just hope it’s going to work out – and it did. He’s a great producer.”

A great producer with an impressive Rolodex, no less, with Tucker arranging for Neko Case and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James to join the band in the studio. “Tucker said Neko had volunteered to do any backing vocals we wanted,” says Lander. “She was probably joking, but we were like ‘Right then, let’s see if she means it!’ So she flew over and just sang solidly for two days and did as many tracks as she had time for.” While both guest contributors are renowned for their powerful pipes, they’re a subtle presence on Desire Lines – always complementary, never front and centre. “They’re always on backing vocals because, as amazing as it is to have those people on the album, we didn’t want them to take over,” says Lander. “And we wondered how it would turn out – Neko’s got such a massive, strong voice, and we didn’t know how that would work with Tracyanne’s quiet voice. But it was worth the risk.”

Personnel aside, opting for Portland offered plenty of additional perks, not least the opportunity to get out of this country and “live a different life for a couple of weeks,” in an area renowned for its vibrant arts scene. “It’s one of our favourite cities in America, and one of the places that seemed like a realistic option to go and record in, because it’s quite music-oriented and cheap to live in,” says Lander. “It doesn’t feel like trying to go and record in LA or something – it’s a different mindset.” From the sound of things, the only downside to the venture was the weather. “It’s a pure beautiful summer there,” she enthuses. “It’s lovely all year round – apart from winter, when it rains as much as it does here. And we went in winter, and it rained every day. Which is probably a good thing when you’re supposed to be in a studio and not getting distracted…”

While it contains notable extensions to the Camera Obscura palette, Desire Lines is by no means a stylistic volte-face. Anyone who’s fallen head over heels for past releases will likely relocate the object of their affections somewhere in its running, whether in the achingly direct way that Campbell issues Fifth in Line to the Throne’s rending ultimatums, or the foot-stomping, ear-hugging chorus of Break It to You Gently. “I think you always try to push yourself” says Lander, “but ultimately we’re the same group of musicians and we like certain sounds. It’s nice to think you can do your fifth album and reinvent yourself or whatever but it’s just not really going to happen. You just have to take each song and make it as strong as you can, and try and have some kind of new ingredient or a new feel. On this album I’ve been learning to use my keyboards more, and introduce a bit more technology and stuff – which I’ve always been a bit baffled by.”

For Lander, the driving Troublemaker – which places Campbell’s dulcet vocals atop a motorik beat while rippling synths and crisp guitar lines interleave beneath – stands out as the track that pushes their parameters furthest. “That’s the song that probably feels the most different from what we’ve done before,” she states. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit more modern or something…” She pauses and smiles. “As modern as we ever get anyway.”

Later in the conversation, a comparison is drawn with Yo La Tengo – an act often held up as a textbook example of how to undertake a gradual musical evolution on one’s own terms. “They don’t have to totally reinvent themselves,” Lander says of the Hoboken trio’s appeal. “People can buy it if they like, listen if they like, and that’s fine – it’s only the press that sort of pressure you into thinking you’re supposed to have done something completely different every time, or stormed the charts or whatever. I guess the pressures are different early on in a band’s career, and maybe we’re getting to that point where – hopefully – that pressure is slightly subsiding. Or maybe,” she reflects, “that’s still to come.”

Desire Lines is released via 4AD on 3 Jun. Camera Obscura play The Liquid Room, Edinburgh on 4 Jun, Manchester Academy 2 on 5 Jun, and RockNess Festival, Dores on 9 Jun