Despite having existed for the best part of six years, Los Campesinos! have become something of a rarity in these times. They were one of the original ‘internet hype’ bands in 2006-07, back when online buzz around a band really felt genuine – not now, when any old song can go viral in a day via Facebook and YouTube – back when ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ on MySpace made you dizzy with the promise in its exuberant, bouncy pop sound with fuzzy guitar scrawls all over it. They’re rare because if they were unsigned now, you’d wager the chances of people caring in six months would be slim, never mind six years. They’re rare because since they formed they’ve amassed some 45+ songs across four brilliant albums*, yet they’re still something of an insider band, a band you have to seek out, rather than a band that come to you via seemingly omnipotent media messages.
(*To me, We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed must be a second album, since it is 10 songs long and contains surely their best opening track to date).
They’re rare, too, because they realise this and appear to have wry and pragmatic self-deprecation in spades: I can think of no other band around today who, after writing four LPs in six years, would introduce their breakthrough track from the previous decade by all cheerfully clinking bottles of Budweiser – the beer ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ helped advertise in a commercial at the end of 2010 and into 2011. Yes, of course that sort of deal is great news for a band that spent their first years gigging in between writing dissertations and taking exams, but there’s a certain irony in that their breakthrough song is only recently standing up on its own merit, years later.
You can forgive them poking fun, because really Los Campesinos! should be so much bigger than they are. Their musical trajectory to date somewhat mirrors the progression of lyrical subject matter: from furtive introverted dancefloor romances, all sweet cheeks and doe eyes, Gareth’s masterfully colourful way with a story has turned increasingly sour, without that early coyness wrapped up in enigmatic metaphor. Take tonight’s first song, latest album opener ‘By Your Hand’, where Gareth laments: “here it is, this is the crux/she vomits down my rental tux/I’m not sure if it’s love anymore”. This new ethic may well be a result of Gareth’s personal life – there’s certainly fewer anecdotes about football this time around – but on record, and tonight, this seems a Los Campesinos! in no mood for waxing lyrical about pencil cases and faux romantics.
They are, no doubt, a band better off because of it. To stand still would have been silly: they write great, seriously great songs, some of which sound exactly like others they’ve written, and some that need at least four listens to even register, but nearly every one has a unique quality to it. However, though it is a testament to their catalogue that their three previous LPs have been acclaimed and largely well-received, it’s Hello Sadness which has had many reviewers citing it as their most complete record yet.
It goes down well this evening, with six of its tracks delighting a crowd who clearly know the new stuff. It’s hard to judge whether these fans are old or new; most of them look as if they were at junior schools when Death To Los Campesinos! was released. Regardless, the room is heaving as the seven Campesinos! give the Electric Ballroom an electric start with a blistering run of songs, including ‘Romance is Boring’, recent single ‘Songs About Your Girlfriend’, ‘There Are Listed Buildings’ (in which it becomes abundantly clear to me just what a talented guitarist Tom Bromley is), and Hello Sadness’s hidden gem ‘The Black Bird, The Dark Slope’. In fact the pace of tonight’s gig doesn’t let up until the sedate start to ‘To Tundra’, a heartstring-tugging pounder of a song, on which Gareth really lets loose, his face contorted in anguish as he roars out the culminating lyric: “take a body to water/take a body to tundra/just take me with you as well”. The aptly named song is like distant relative to ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future’, where despite its intense instrumentation the desolation in the words envelops the atmosphere – it’s perhaps not a surprise that the two songs do appear on the setlist tonight, either side of what you might call their classic ‘You! Me! Dancing!’.
‘Baby I Got The Death Rattle’, which closes the main set, brings the temperature right back up, and is perhaps as close as the band have yet come to writing a ‘straightforward’ rock song – it’s a pretty gritty garage rock sound with lusty lyrics to match, but it gets the blood pumping through the band and the crowd as the refrain bounces back and forth: “not headstone/but headboard/is where I wanna be mourned”.
That atmosphere maintains as the band, having left the stage momentarily, return to tear into a short encore: Romance Is Boring opener ‘In Media Res’ and their long time show closer ‘Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks’, which channels the band of 2007 and gets everyone in the room grinning, not to mention bopping up and down like 14-year-olds (n.b. about 60 per cent of the audience are). Then, too soon, the Campesinos! offer genuine affection to those in the Ballroom for the support tonight, thanks for the belief over the years and the modesty to deprecate the right they have to keep making brilliant music and thrilling audiences, and Gareth leads the band off.
It’s rare to see a band more than half a decade in existence remaining so solemnly matter-of-fact about the reality of making music and being in a band. Their gentle and not quite so gentle cynicism – or perhaps it’s dread – is tempered by the desperate need they have to write and be creative, and get those feelings out somehow. And it’s lucky for us, the crowds that they continue to delight on nights like this, that they do want to make music, because they are evolving slowly but deliberately into a critical band that the British music scene should be grateful to embrace.