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Friday, Sept. 5, 2008

Cardiff band get Los in translation


Special to The Japan Times

Los Campesinos!, a pop septet from Cardiff, Wales, were an inspired choice to open the Marine Stadium stage at Summer Sonic Tokyo last month. Each tune kicks off with a catchy riff and proceeds to burn rocket fuel as lead vocalist Gareth twitches and yelps — nothing the band plays is slow, or even mid-tempo. Not yet blasted by alcohol and sunshine, the audience literally danced to beat the band. There was nothing for Gareth to do but plunge straight into the teeming mass — a good 2 meters below.

News photo
Beachy keen: Los Campesinos! wish they'd remembered their swimsuits.

"It was quite a drop," he says later in the press hospitality area, where he's taking questions with bandmates Ellen and Neil. "I do it sometimes, but only if things seem to be going well. Fortunately, I remembered to bend my knees."

On stage, Gareth is the most visibly arresting member of the group, but he doesn't come across as the leader or even the main person. In line with their name ("the peasants" in Spanish) and the fact that they replaced all their surnames with Campesinos for professional purposes, the band is a true collective of equals. When heard for the first time, their music brings to mind hyperactive preadolescents locked in a roomful of musical instruments. They channel this quality into sophisticated songs, a testament not only to their creative focus but also to their camaraderie.

"I've known you now for, what, four years?" Neil says to Gareth, who corroborates this estimate and points out that Neil was the first person he met when he arrived at Cardiff University. None of the members are Cardiff natives; they come from all over Britain.

"Generally, I think you find your friends in the first month after you arrive," says Gareth. "In our cases, you could say we didn't really meet anyone else for the next three years."

The nucleus of Los Campesinos! was Neil on guitar, Ollie on drums and Ellen on bass. They jammed on Wednesday afternoons, and over the next two years the other members came aboard. "It was just us knowing other people who play instruments," says Ellen. "There were no vocational ambitions. We were just having fun."

As a university town, Cardiff has places where groups can play, but LC! don't see that as having made any difference in their evolution, since they didn't play those places.

"Considering that Cardiff is a capital city, it's not really that good," adds Gareth. "It's nowhere as exciting as American college towns like Olympia or Portland. In Cardiff, music is centered around fashion, with bands copying one another."

LC! was a reaction to this situation. Gareth's reference to Olympia and Portland is significant given the band's affinity for 1990s American alternative rock. He and Neil initially bonded over their mutual appreciation of Sonic Youth, and in concert the band covers Pavement songs.

"We never had a specific aim, except that we wanted to be a pop group," says Neil. "We didn't want to do the same old thing of trying to be The Libertines or The Strokes."

The creative turning point was the addition of second guitarist Tom, who became the band's songwriter. Gareth joined later, but the only instrument he could offer the group was glockenspiel, whose tinkly notes have since become the group's signature sound, in a development that Gareth finds ironic.

"I've come to resent it enormously," he says. "It was a case of, I have a glockenspiel, I wanted to sing in this band, so I'll take the glockenspiel with me."

"It wasn't like we needed another guitar," interrupts Neil. "But a glockenspiel!"

"Yeah, it's a really lame instrument," says Gareth, "but it does the trick."

Being the main vocalist — keyboardist Aleksandra provides female counterpoint — Gareth became the lyricist almost by default. And if anything distinguishes LC! from the guitar bands they're reacting against, it's the words, which are funny, literate and strangely familiar. In the band's de facto theme song, "You! Me! Dancing!," he verbalizes the happy desperation that accompanies total musical abandon. "If there's one thing I could never confess," he sings deliriously, "it's that I can't dance a single step." So, of course, he tries.

"A lot of the lyric-writers I admire take a similar approach," Gareth says. "It just seems too easy to write generic, catch-all lyrics. I like to write things that mean something to me personally and which go into detail."

When LC! finally played their first real gig in the spring of 2006, they had a repertoire of finished songs, which they posted on the Internet. Various music blogs heralded their fresh approach to orchestral pop, but the group put off full-time music-making until they graduated in the spring of 2007, and by then they were a full-fledged phenomenon. They signed to Wichita in the U.K. and Arts & Crafts in North America, and opened for A&C standard-bearers Broken Social Scene, a connection that the group believes received too much hype.

"We've only played with them twice," Gareth says. "I doubt if they would know our names."

Nevertheless, BSS's Dave Newfeld produced the band's debut EP, "Sticking Fingers into Sockets," and the followup LP, "Hold on Now, Youngster . . . ," doing an admirable job of maintaining the complexity of the songs without losing that manic quality. "He doesn't think in straight lines," comments Ellen. "He tried things we would never have thought of. It was mind-boggling."

Though the band have been touring nonstop for the past year, they've managed to make another record, due out in the fall, called "We are Beautiful, We are Doomed." Gareth is careful not to refer to it as an album. "We just recorded 10 songs and we're going to release them," he says. "But no singles."

"Singles don't sell that well anymore," adds Ellen, sounding as if she's thought carefully about the matter. "The idea used to be, 'Oh, I've heard the single, I've heard of the band, I'll buy the album maybe.' It was something you attached a name to. Not any more."

"I think people will find (the new record) exciting because it's not us doing the exact same thing again," says Gareth.

Does that mean Los Campesinos! will at last attempt a ballad? Ellen and Neil laugh, but Gareth accepts the question thoughtfully. "I sort of consider (debut album track) 'Knee Deep at ATP' a ballad," he says. "I mean, it's ballady enough for me."

Los Campesinos! perform Sept. 9 at Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo (7 p.m.; [03] 3462-6969); and Sept. 10 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka (7 p.m.; [06] 6281-8181). Tickets are ¥5,250 in advance.


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