No Monkeys on Bikes

Los Campesinos! refine and conquer as they prepare their third album in two years

On Hold on Now, Youngster ... (Arts and Crafts), the first 2008 Los Campesinos! album, there are guitar and violin lines zipping about wildly, handclaps and exuberant shouts (in unison or solitarily), and pummeling instrumentation that can metastasize or collapse in on itself.

On We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (Arts and Crafts), released later the same year, the party was over; collective singing bellowed on about hopelessness; violins and guitars slinked around; and the instrumental buildups led to hallucinatory valleys of dissonance.

Now, as 2009 approaches its final months, this Welsh septet is prepping the release of its third album, an as-of-yet untitled set of 16 or 17 tunes, clocking in around an hour. The group consists of Neil (guitar), Ollie (drums), Ellen (bass), Tom (lead guitar), Gareth (vocals, glockenspiel), Harriet (violin) and Aleks (vocals, keyboards)—each taking "Campesinos!" for a last name. On paper, it shouldn't work (glockenspiel in a feature role?), yet the band's execution is a masterful blend of zeal and precision.

Set to embark on another globetrotting tour, Los Campesinos! barely blinked while losing a member, endlessly recording and making themselves available to fans. Speaking from a car in Britain ("I'm not driving; that would be very dangerous"), Ellen Campesinos! spoke about the group's upcoming farewell tour for band member Aleks. She's returning to school.

"There are going to be a few moments of sadness over it, but we're going to try to give her the best farewell we can to make sure she goes out with fond memories," Ellen said. "I think we might have some surprises for Aleks, but I can't say much, because she might read this, and then she'll know."

The tour looks to have something special, if logical, for fans, too. "We've got a couple of new songs from the new album we're going to play, but as far as surprises, nothing like monkeys on bikes."

Those used to the rave-ups of Los Campesinos!, like the clangorous ping-pongs of "Death to Los Campesinos!," the sparkling eruptions of "My Year in Lists" or the swishing, driving "All Your Keyfabe Friends," may be surprised by the solemnity of parts of the new album. Musically, the band's hyperactive style remains intact (if more lush and restrained). Bolstering the group's already ample roster are Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu and Eric Corson of the Long Winters (providing backing vocals), and an assortment of schooled musicians playing everything from trumpet and flugelhorn to flute and saxophone.

"I think it's kind of moving away from our original roots and highlighting our musicianship," Ellen said of the new album. "It's got some absolutely amazing violin lines on it, and some complicated arrangements with trumpets and such. It's pushing our sound in the direction we've been going in a lot more. It's definitely going to surprise people; still, it's what you kind of expect from us."

Ellen continued: "There are some songs that could be called the epic ones of the album, but it's really very varied in style. There's one that you could almost call a waltzing ballad-y type one, and then there's one that's a very crescendo-y epic one, and there are a few which are very poppy. There's a definite variation to it so that listeners can't get bored. I guess that's the point to it: There are all these variations of our style."

As for the lyrical content, the downcast Doomed serves as a preamble for the upcoming album.

"I think it's probably an extension of Doomed. ... Lyrically, Gareth has kind of excelled himself in terms of the elements he's touched upon," Ellen said. "There's a lot more dark imagery, and he touches on the subject of drowning. ... He definitely touched on some darker elements of his psyche as well. Even the songs you would immediately think might be upbeat have lyrics that are approaching that darker element."

Ellen admits the forthcoming album benefited from increased band maturation, confidence and experimentation.

"This time, it was very much a collaborative effort," Ellen said. "People came out of their shell maybe, or people got more comfortable with being musicians; it definitely shows that we've grown up a little bit."

The forthcoming album gleefully rejoins the group with producer John Goodmanson (Blood Brothers, Death Cab for Cutie), who also produced Doomed.

"He works perfectly with us," Ellen said. "He's really brilliant in all he does, and he's a really chilled-out guy, and he's really easy to get along with, and makes us feel very comfortable in the studio. He knows how to push us, and has really good ideas as well."

Three albums in two years is the kind of pace that no one could be expected to keep. Appropriately, the band's upcoming album is "probably it for a little bit," which is suspect, given the band's prolificacy.

"You record the material when you have it, but then it's like four or five months before the album actually comes out," Ellen said. "We always said if you've got the material, there's no point in really holding on to it. It just kind of makes sense that when we have the time to record, we record."

Even if the band stops releasing music for a stretch, they are not hard to track down. Thanks to their extensive group blog (—where they write about films, food, their lives and, of course, music—the band members are able (and quite willing) to communicate with fans.

"It's really great to find yourself communicating with fans based on something you really like," Ellen said. "With some bands, there's the whole, 'We're a band; you're a fan,' separation thing, but at the end of the day, we feel very humbled by our ability to do this."

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