For a band that once seemed synonymous with youthful exuberance, Los Campesinos! is acting pretty mature.
It was born as a college band that giddily parlayed a Myspace-hosted demo into a pre-eminent place among rising groups buzzed about breathlessly by the indie cognoscenti. Los Campesinos! has long since shrugged off the shooting-star career trajectory of many peers — and its moves are still followed by an approving music press and a core of adoring fans — but it was unclear as recently as about a year ago whether the band would remain a going concern.
There were only three original members remaining in the septet that first got together at Cardiff University in Wales back in 2006. (Newcomers followed the practice of cheekily adopting the emphatically punctuated last name Campesinos!, at least for band purposes.) More importantly, the financial backing for the band was faltering.
“Los Campesinos! isn’t really a viable career choice. Some of us have chosen it as the backbone of our lives and everything we do fits in around the band, but that’s not necessarily a sensible thing to do,” says frontman Gareth. “When you have people who are giving financial support to that situation, there is only so long that they’re going to realistically want to enable you to keep touring and doing it when they’re not seeing any return.”
The money had dried up from a lucrative (if counterintuitive) placement of its breakthrough cult favorite “You! Me! Dancing!” on a series of Budweiser commercials. There was no record label interested in fronting a big advance. Founding bassist Ellen became the fourth original member to depart the band, playing her last show in December 2012.
The group’s shaky finances in particular sparked a “crisis of conscience,” Gareth says. But a pub summit on the future of the band, with guitarist and principle songwriter Tom, yielded a quick decision to persevere.
“Each time there’s been a big change the question has been raised about whether we would carry on,” say Tom, who like Gareth is 28. “I think before this record it was the biggest question mark, whether we can still make it work financially and whether the hunger’s still there. But we sat down and had a chat, and I think me and Gareth are hungrier than ever. I still feel, in a way, young and ambitious and like we’ve got stuff to prove.”
Crucially, the songwriting core of the band remained intact; Tom continued to write new songs, demo them, and pass them along for input. Gareth continued to step in with witty, quotable lyrics later in the process.
The resulting album (“No Blues,” released in October) sits cozily in the band’s busy discography, which now spans five LPs and assorted ephemera released since a debut EP in 2007. (“I notice in the reviews of the record, we’ve entered that phase where people are almost respecting us just for still being here,” Tom says with a laugh. “The Myspace dream is being realized.”)
The bouncy, zig-zagging guitar riffs and sweet-and-sour boy/girl vocals of the group’s earliest work has evolved into a style of pop that offers a less intense sugar high but coalesces into a denser musical palette. It’s still powered by propulsive rhythms, colored with grit and packed with sing-along choruses — but playful swagger no longer comes effortlessly. Nowadays, when the band wants some of the giddy group vocals that were once a hallmark, it may summon the local cheerleading squad Cardiff Cougars — as it did for standout track “Avocado, Baby.”
As always, the new songs are dense with Gareth’s twisty wordplay, meditating on familiar themes of romantic misadventure and existential gloom. “I’ll be gloomy ’til they glue me in the arms of she who loves me,” he sings on one new song, “ ’till the rats and worms are all interned at least five feet above me.”
All the references to graves and coffins on the past few albums aren’t just a product of melodramatic brooding, though. Gareth has a weekend job tending the landscape at a cemetery, and says it’s a great place to draw inspiration.
“I’m not as maudlin as my lyrics would often suggest, but I’m not party animal either,” he says. “I know that people often listen to my lyrics and think I’m definitely someone who over-thinks things. I suppose that’s true, but I just try to write honestly and naturally and whatever comes out, I’m happy with.”
In the current order of things, band activities have to make way for the members’ day jobs. Shows are a rarer pleasure, for band and fans alike. A UK tour in support of “No Blues” had five dates; the US trip that visits the Paradise on Tuesday will hit only three other cities. “There’s sort of a weird superhero vibe to it — mild-mannered, normal office workers by day, and then this one week in dreary January we get to go to the United States and pretend to be rock stars,” Gareth says.
Especially at one of the band’s sweaty, upbeat shows — packed with fans who shout along to every lyric and steam-roll through a gentler, Millennial version of moshing — the “rock star” title doesn’t seem so inappropriate.
Los Campesinos! may be growing up. But it still knows how to have fun.