There’s a scene in Kieron Gillen’s comic series Phonogram that has come to define Los Campesinos! since it was published in December 2009’s Vol. 2 Issue #6. David Kohl, the protagonist of the first volume, bumps into the issue’s central character Lloyd at a club. Kohl, a powerful modern-day wizard who uses indie rock music as his medium to cast spells, recommends that Lloyd – a burgeoning ‘phonomancer’ himself – check out Los Campesinos! online. Kohl describes the Cardiff band as a “big group with a layered pop sound” and tells Lloyd they’re “going to be bi-”
He pauses, and corrects himself: “They’re never going to be big big, but they’re going to be big to some people.”
The last time this website wrote about Los Campesinos!, when we reviewed their Sick Scenes album last year, we opened the review by describing that exact same scene. It’s a point that bears repeating though, since Gillen’s comic was uncannily prophetic in describing what happened to Los Campesinos! in the decade since their debut album Hold On Now Youngster… was released. The group was briefly the buzz of the indie rock world when their single “You! Me! Dancing!” dropped the previous year, but the music media soon stopped covering the band with such rabid intensity. While they’ve continued to get great reviews, they’ve never become as big as some of their late 2000s indie rock peers.
In a way, their cult status has kind of saved the band; They certainly wouldn’t have evolved into the group their fans have continued to cherish had they blown up. Instead of making another bright, twee-ish record, they turned into the indie rock version of The Beautiful South, and became one of the most consistently great bands of their era.
Hold On Now Youngster… holds the curious position of containing what is far and away Los Campesinos!’ best known work, but it is also not particularly representative of the music they would make over the next decade. However, it does provide clues to what they became, and stands as an extraordinary early demonstration of their talents as both composers and instrumentalists. Although the record does not have the best reputation with the band, it is nonetheless the beginning of one of the most remarkable and overlooked streaks of great albums (six in total) in modern independent rock music. Ignoring HON,Y and moving straight to their later albums leaves an important piece out of this band’s story.
For most listeners, their introduction to Los Campesinos! came through “You! Me! Dancing”, the nearly seven minute epic found in the middle of the album (or the slightly shorter single version that appeared on their Sticking Fingers into Sockets EP in 2006). It’s little wonder how this song came to define the band, with its 100-second introduction that builds from one guitar, adds a Campesinos as it goes and finishes into a noisy cacophony that births the song’s main riff.
From there, the band hurdles through the story of a Cardiff indie disco night full of patron so caught up in the euphoria of the music that none of them notice or care that not many of them can actually dance. Then there’s that outro, less dramatic than the opening, but notable for a nearly stand-up comedy esque verse in which Gareth namedrops Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make an observation about his fellow indie kids: “We’re undeveloped, we’re ignorant, we’re stupid, but we’re happy.”
“You! Me! Dancing!”, like most of Hold On Now, Youngster…, are songs that had appeared in Los Campesinos!’ setlists for nearly a year by the point they were recorded (or in the case of “Dancing”, recorded again), and its noticeably a different animal than what would come after it. While the band, and Gareth, would develop a reputation as masters of cynical, dry wit as they matured, there really isn’t a sarcastic feeling to “Dancing”’s descriptions of throwing ones cares away on a dance-floor to the music of Bis.
One of the most noticeable things about Youngster compared to later Los Campesinos! Record is indeed Gareth’s lyrics. He’s yet to develop his obsessions for “death and football” or fully hone his gift as a wordsmith, but his nascent strength as a writer appears in other ways. On the giddy “My Year in Lists”, about a long distance romance and a distaste for New Year’s resolutions, Gareth writes one of the best lyrics on the whole record: “You must confess that at times like these, hopefulness is tantamount to hopelessness / And I accept that it’s time for a change, but not in places like this with people like these”. Its a remarkably dry, cynical couplet, that proves early on Gareth’s gifts for Paul Heaton-esque dark humor. Like his Beautiful South-leading hero, Gareth sure knows how to bury bleak lines like that in happy-sounding pop songs.
His sharpest early barbs are saved for British indie rock on “And We Exhale And Roll Our Eyes in Unison”, the band’s most underrated early track. It’s a scathing attack at circa 2007 “NME”-esque music writing and the posturing in the scene at the time, which held up ultimately inessential bands like Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong as the next big thing and acted dismissively towards all-female or co-ed bands. One after the other, singers Aleksandra and Gareth drop the two best lines in the song: “The last man standing is a girl” and “four sweaty boys with guitars tell me nothing about my life”. It’s a great document of the late 2000s British “indie landfill”, noteworthy for having few survivors of any importance and for most of them being the same acts that were dismissed in favor of identikit white dude bands.
The same indie scene they mock on “Readers” also gave Los Campesinos! the twee genre tag that haunted them for most of their career. The band certainly could count bands like Heavenly or The FIeld Mice as forebearers, but that’s a drastic simplification of what they were and certainly what they became. Their frustration with this tag is captured in their bitingly satirical video for “Death to Los Campesinos!”, in which features a quite literal take on its title as the seven band members are killed in quick succession in a recording studio by cutesy things like rainbows and kittens.
Unlike many of their later songs where Gareth’s lyrics are the main attraction, what draws you into Hold On Now Youngster a decade later is the incredible musicianship of the seven band members, who interweave their instruments as a unified force through songs like “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats” and “We Are All Accelerated Leaders”. Two now-long-departed members in particular give exemplary performances here that highlight how much they are missed on later records: co-lead singer Aleksandra occasionally gives worldly counterpoints to Gareth’s wry observations or deadpan schtick (witness the part early on “Readers” where she reminds his narrator that no-one dies in The Breakfast Club). Violinist Harriet has a better showcase on Romance is Boring, but her incredible playing soars over the rest of the band on songs like “2007: The Year Punk Rock Broke My Heart”.
Hold On Now, Youngster… stands today as the culmination of the first two years of Los Campesinos!’ career, capturing most of their early setlist on record in order for them to move on to their next chapter.
Fans just weren’t expecting that next chapter to come just eight months later. Originally referred to as an EP and now correctly considered their second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed represents a complete tonal shift from Youngster and is now regarded as the starting point for the modern Los Campesinos!. Even though their status as a buzzworthy band for indie tastemakers was beginning to fade by that point, Beautiful is the record where the band made a case for their own identity away from the twee tag that had been foisted on them. Certainly, no one was going to mistake a song like “Ways to Make It Through the Wall” as cutesy.
Los Campesinos! have had a remarkable career, and have recorded better records than their debut full length over the past ten years. Hold On Now Youngster, however, still has a place in their discography as a collection of quirky, funny, energetic indie pop songs that prove quite handedly why their devoted following fell in love with them during 2007 and 2008.