“Everywhere is far, by our terms,” said Tom Campesinos! from the dimly lit bowers of New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. “The UK seems miniscule after traveling around here.”
Tom is a guitarist, and he’s been traveling with his band, Los Campesinos! The constantly touring synth-’n’-strings pop ensemble has been busy as of late releasing its debut album. That record, “Hold On Now, Youngster…” just yielded a crowning 8.4 from Pitchfork, and the band is scheduled to play alongside Of Montreal and Sebadoh in the fabled All Tomorrow’s Parties festival this May. Not a bad start — but according to drummer Ollie Campesinos! (indeed, the entire band has adopted the moniker as surname — think the Ramones), no one involved had any inkling of such success when their story began.
“We started about two years ago in university, as a three-piece with Neil on guitar and Ellen on the bass,” he recalled. “Sort of just mucking around on Wednesday afternoons.”
Shortly thereafter, Neil met Tom one night in a club (an event that the band admits sounds “rather seedy”), and promptly recruited him to join the ranks. Deciding they needed some strings and a girl vocalist, the sprawling coterie pooled friends and came up with Harriet and Aleksandra (respectively), as well as the keyboard-slinging, glockenspiel virtuoso Gareth. Explained Tom: “We had no real idea of what we were doing, just a few ideas of what might potentially sound good … So we just invited more and more people to come along.”
Despite the Campesinos!’ early lack of focus, Wichita Recordings wasted no time snatching them up, adding the band to their repertoire alongside Bright Eyes and Bloc Party. Indie rock supergroup Broken Social Scene took note as well, signing them to their Arts & Crafts label for North American distribution and producing their debut EP and subsequent recordings. While many were surprised that the label would place bets on a group of unproven young guns, it does make sense; outside of the Social Scene’s own albums, the collective has produced an excess of equally renowned offshoots, such as the dance-punk grrrl-rock of Metric, iPod diva Feist, the orchestral pop of Stars, and hip-hop emcee K-Os among others. The multi-talented lads and lasses in Los Campesinos! have yet to go solo, but they’ve got the size and the skill that makes a future side-project empire likely.
Still, the band has retained a sharp sense of humor through all the sudden praise and profit. They proclaim themselves “the second most punk rock band in Britain” (second only to a band called Gallows, who naturally win because “they have tattoos and they swear onstage,” Tom confided), and last year released the self-parodic “International TweeXCore Underground” single, a playful response to the press’ tendency to pigeonhole the band into the fey, sometimes condescending “twee” moniker. The story behind this “concept single”: twee boy meets hardcore girl, twee boy and hardcore girl start band, twee boy and hardcore girl form new genre, tweeXcore is born.
“It’s a piss-take of a genre,” Neil revealed. “A scene that doesn’t actually exist, at least not outside of Gareth’s songs.”
But once again, it makes sense; a decade ago it was Belle & Sebastian who scoffed at the dogged “twee” misnomer, and Los Campesinos! closely resemble those heralded chamber popstars in both size and sound — albeit a bit spunkier, more upbeat. To call them “the punk Belle & Sebastian” wouldn’t be completely inaccurate.
That descriptor is tidily evidenced by their fresh debut long-player, “Hold On Now, Youngster…” Lead singles “Death to Los Campesinos!” and “My Year in Lists” find the band shouting and grooving their way onto “rather seedy” club playlists worldwide, but there’s also a newfound maturity here with songs like “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks,” wherein Harriet’s swooning violin provides an eloquent complement to Gareth and Aleksandra’s bleak rambles on paper cuts and broken skulls. The band doesn’t see the record as a be-all-end-all statement, though, but rather another progression in their discography, a reason to be excited for their next creative explorations.
“It’s more about us having fun,” Tom said with a smile. “But if other people enjoy it, then that’s fine, too.”