Los Campesinos! on Sick Scenes
We speak to Los Campesinos!' Gareth David about life, the universe and everything
Sick Scenes, the sixth Los Campesinos! record, sounds like a welcome purge. Since their last major record No Blues was released to high praise in 2013, the cult Cardiff-formed indie band released the low-key and lovely A Los Campesinos! Christmas EP 14 months later, followed by a few sporadic shows each year. Otherwise they’ve lain dormant – a big slowdown from their prolific early period between 2007-2012, with the band fresh out of university.
When we ring lead vocalist and lyricist Gareth David, aka Gareth Campesinos!, at his home in North East Somerset, he’s just spent the day preparing for the band’s upcoming trip to the U.S. and Canada, their first full North American tour in over five years. It’s a prospect that comes with much excitement but also much anxiety for him, faced with covering visa applications, tax waivers, booking flights: lots of high-stakes stuff that he’s mortified of fucking up.
The necessities of touring aren’t the most romantic of topics, but there’s certainly a more serious mindset at work than we previously would have associated with the band who once revelled in being impractical. It leads us to ask what Los Campesinos! have been up to over the past few years and what exactly has changed for the seven-piece.
“Since No Blues, we’ve all been working proper jobs and attempting to find ourselves some careers in the real world, I suppose,” David says cheerily. “But it’s [also] been a lot of frustrating record industry nonsense: leaving our previous record label, setting up on our own and becoming as self-sufficient as possible.
“[It’s been] frustrating in that it has slowed us down and hasn’t allowed us to record for a while but it’s been fulfilling in that we are now completely self-reliant and don’t need to rely on a record label or management to exist which is a really great position to be in.”
LC! haven’t been living the band lifestyle for the past three years, with most of the band’s members coming into their own as freelance illustrators, account managers and tattoo artists, scattered across the country from Cardiff to Bath, Brighton to London. Only a few get their main crust from the music industry: lead guitarist Tom Bromley has been touring with Perfume Genius, while David is still figuring out what to do after leaving a job at a record label.
David admits that at times it may have made sense for the band to pack it in, with some industry know-nothings even suggesting they should. Yet the break has been a spur for Los Campesinos!, heartened by knowing that their earnings are now solely theirs and buoyed by their devoted fanbase.
“When you are tied in with a record label you’re releasing because you’re contractually obliged to and you get in this sort of album cycle: you release it, you promote it, you tour it, you stop for a bit and you make another record,” David explains. “We enjoyed doing that, but I think the fact that we did have to take a little time away from it meant that when we came back to writing the new record and ultimately recording it, it was with a real sense of gusto and excitement.”
That awareness of needing to make up for lost time is obvious in Sick Scenes’ rumbling opening track Renato Dall'Ara (2008), LC!’s snottiest song in years. While the band’s chipper flurry of whirling Casio keyboards, gang chants and nerdy football references remain, the song shows LC! on a more exasperated streak, railing against a suddenly-realised malaise. Once Los Campesinos! were a band that paid big for PR and landed guest slots on Soccer AM; now they’re one that DIY pseuds don’t invite to all-dayers and disco DJs don’t even prioritise their requests. The song’s appreciation of ‘living off 2008’ is self-deprecating and funny, but one senses there’s real frustration underneath.
As with previous Los Campesinos! albums, Sick Scenes was recorded abroad, this time over a month in Fridao, Portugal last summer, co-produced by long-time collaborator John Goodmanson and the blossoming Bromley. After funding the trip by selling over a thousand LC! football shirts in a week, the band’s visit coincided with Euro 2016, particularly referenced in the racing lead single I Broke Up in Amarante.
The band witnessed England’s embarrassing loss to Iceland and the scenes in the streets after Portugal’s eventual victory – David marvels in describing his memories of the flares, car horns and wearing a flag as a cape. It's made clear that the heat and isolation of their small Portuguese base made for a “really suffocating” environment, with only three band members working on Sick Scenes constantly and the others flying over for as long as their work allowed.
“It was a strange month in that respect – lots of day-drinking and trying not to subsist solely on crisps, things like that,” David laughs. “It wasn’t the best time but it was conducive towards coming back with an album that we were really, really happy with.”
Experiencing your own humiliating failure on the scene of your rivals’ absolute victory is perfect Los Campesinos! subject matter, but Fridao also proved to be the backdrop for the band’s experience of another monumental event: the EU referendum. David says that the referendum ended up being the inspiration for Sick Scenes’ centrepiece The Fall of Home, a twinkly and tender track written on the morning of the result after being unable to sleep. The revelation adds poignancy to the song’s line: ‘Left your hometown for somewhere new / Don’t be surprised now it’s leaving you’.
“The reactions of people I know in London [to the result] were just sneering at towns that weren’t as cosmopolitan and aren’t as with it as London supposedly is,” David says passionately, in a moral that applies to our other urban centres. “Most of these people have moved from their former towns and villages to London and don’t seem to understand that part of why their own towns are like they are is because people leave them behind… I think it’s important not to completely remove yourself from people who think differently to you.”
But one senses that Europe isn’t everything to Sick Scenes. In The Fall of Home’s wistful wonder, we also hear a litany of time: rising rent, family friends falling sick and teenage pubs boarded up. On the next track 5 Flucloxacillin, David decries depression as a ‘young man’s game’ before concluding, ‘This certainly ain’t youth no more’ on the celebratory final track Hung Empty. A decade into their career, are the eternally young Los Campesinos! becoming more aware of personal and social changes? We put this to David, and while he stresses he never writes an album with a theme in mind, he accepts we may just have stumbled upon one.
“I think you’re probably right there, yeah,” he says, thinking over the point. “Now, having turned 31 and having no clue what I should do with my life, [I’m] at the point now when [I’m] realising… not that the band’s going to stop being a band, but it’s never going to be a priority. It’s never going to take up more than 5% of my year anymore. Now that I’m older and I realise I’m older, [I] understand that it’s important to think about how you exist within the world rather than just within yourself.”
The world may seem bleaker as our responsibilities grow but a beacon of hope in friendship lies at Sick Scenes’ core, best summed up by I Broke Up in Amarante where, after a breakneck three minutes, David tries resuming the chorus before asking his bandmates for help and getting it in rollicking force. Despite facing newfound autonomy, jobs, and mental health, Los Campesinos! have pulled each other back with as much energy as ever, and David is unequivocal about Sick Scenes’ main achievement.
“Especially after the long period of time without releasing where we were fucked over a bit by elements within the music industry, to come out the other side of that and to still be able to go on stage together and perform in front of crowds that are just as big and excited as ever is a really amazing thing to share with your mates,” David concludes. “When other things are shit and you know that you’ve got that to rely on, that’s a nice feeling.”
Sick Scenes is released on 24 Feb via Wichita Recordings; Los Campesinos! play Liverpool Arts Club on 27 Apr, and Stereo, Glasgow on 28 Apr