Los Campesinos!: The Circle of Life Continues

By • Feb 1st, 2009 • Category: Features

loscampesinos_articleFrom the outside, Spillers Records doesn’t look much different than any other record store. The windows of the Cardiff, Wales establishment are checkered with album covers. Super Furry Animals. Stereophonics. Feeder. Tom Jones. Manic Street Preachers. John Cale. Funeral For a Friend. Dave Edmunds. Duffy. The Pooh Sticks. The acts don’t have to be Welsh, but they all could be. The coastal country has a rich tradition of guitar pop, and the little independent store located at 36 The Hayes has heard most of it. Yet the store has been around for more than just the duration of rock ‘n’ roll’s relatively short lifespan: it’s been there for 115 years, to be exact. And during that period, the quaint shop that took its founder’s namesake in 1894 has gone on to Guinness Book of World Records status as the oldest record store on the planet. Music didn’t start in Wales, but selling it to obsessive collectors did, and generations of local college students who would rather scour the store for rare imports than waste time sitting in class owe a great deal to Henry Spiller.

Chicago InnerviewLos Campesinos! lyricist Gareth Campesinos was one of those students. “I buy too many records. Besides playing soccer, it’s pretty much all I do,” said the Spillers Records regular, who — like his six bandmates — favors his group’s moniker over his real surname. “Really, I’m nothing more than a music geek. All of us in the band are. So when we get to play shows with all these other bands, I find myself still in a bit of shock that I’m standing next to them when I used to have to go out of my way to hear their music. It still amazes me that some of the people I used to look up to and envy now are my friends. And it’s even weirder to think that there might be people out there who think that way about our band.”

Not far removed from his college days, the 23-year-old singer holds on to those music fanatic roots that made him and the other Campesinos fixtures at Spillers during their time at Cardiff University. Working toward politics and history degrees, Gareth Campesinos spent his afternoons studying the dates of the past and his nights immersed in the sounds of it. Now as a member of his country’s latest tuneful indie-pop export, he now finds himself on the other end of the record-buying community.

Founded in 2006, the Wales-based act has been on the fast track towards lo-fi hipster stardom status ever since. Despite its Cardiff home, none of the band members are Welsh (co-vocalist Aleksandra Campesinos is Russian and the other six Campesinos are English) — which meant the group was all too familiar with U.K. label Wichita Recordings when it came calling after Los Campesinos! had played only about a half-dozen shows. And the members’ extensive knowledge of all things music history meant that the gravity of the situation wasn’t lost on them when they were slated to open for fellow expansive indie-popsters Broken Social Scene less than four months after forming — and without any recorded material. Their story stands in stark contrast to the horror tales that record store clerks like to tell one another about struggling bands who spend years on the brink before catching a glimpse of success.

“[Getting a record contract] was incredibly easy. It’s something that all of us in the band have got a bit of guilt over,” said Gareth. “We know the stories of bands driving around in an old minivan, having to cancel shows because they’re broken down on the side of the road, sleeping in bus stations because they have nowhere to stay. That wasn’t us. We just started the band for fun with never a thought or hope — or intention, even — of doing it for real. And the next thing we knew, we had a record deal and were getting sent out on tour. When we got signed, we didn’t even know if we were just friends who played gigs here or there or if we were a ‘real’ band like the ones you see in the stores.”

It’s the band’s understanding of those perceptions (the ones of basement critics who have one hand updating a blog and the other thumbing through a weathered copy of High Fidelity) that has helped shape the young but prolific Los Campesinos! catalog. In that same spirit, each LC release comes tailored for collectors — with the septet paying special attention to deluxe packaging, unique content, and giving likeminded music lovers a reason to buy the albums’ hardcopies instead of just downloading individual songs.

Sticking Fingers Into Sockets, the band’s 2007 EP, is laced with debut kitsch. A combination of two early 7-inch singles, the quirky, raucous pop album includes a Pavement cover, one of the group’s collective favorites. Last year’s full-length, Hold On Now, Youngster… was released in February, then again on Japanese import featuring versions of Black Flag and Heavenly songs. But it was the band’s second 2008 output, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, on which the power of their exclusive content was fully realized. Complete with a self-produced documentary, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed also comes with a hand-drawn poster, a 30-page magazine, and contributions by other artists such as Xiu Xiu, Menomena and Grandaddy. At its fullest, it’s a record made by people with expansive music collections and intended for people with even larger ones. At it’s simplest, it’s a way for a few friends to offer up proof that some of their favorite musicians think they’re pretty cool too.

Despite its 10 songs, Gareth Campesinos is quick to dispel the notion that his group released two LPs in a single year. It’s this concept of the “mini album” that led to limiting copies to only one worldwide pressing and forgoing any radio singles, both measures which should increase the album’s swap-meet value. It’s something the band’s North American label, Arts & Crafts (home of Broken Social Scene, Feist and others), doesn’t appreciate as much as the seven Campesinos. “I spend a great deal of time on the phone with [Arts & Crafts] trying to explain why we don’t want this to be a big thing. The U.K. label understands what we’re trying to do, but the North American one kind of got carried away,” said Gareth Campesinos. “I find myself having to tell them, ‘no, we don’t want this to be a big release,’ and trying to convince them that fewer is better because we don’t want [WABWAD] to get treated like a proper full-length. It isn’t. So you’ll only see things saying ‘sophomore album’ in North America, and we’re really trying to dissuade them from using terms like that when they refer to the album.”

However defined, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is on shelves in six continents and places the band in the relatively unique position of being three Wichita outputs deep into its career only 19 months after its first release. “I don’t know what we are,” Gareth Campesinos concluded. “I guess we’re a new band because we haven’t been around long, but we’re not really that new because we have a lot of stuff out there for people to hear. I guess, maybe, the people who have their finger on the pulse of music have heard about us for a while, but we’re in a weird place because most people aren’t like that. Most people don’t spend their free time hanging around record stores.”

But some people do. And some of those people start bands of their own, some of whom inspire others to do the same. And so the circle continues. But don’t take my word for it. One peek into the dusty old windows at Spillers Records tells you everything you need to know…

Chicago Innerview Magazine, February 2009

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