If you're going to write a downcast song, why limit yourself to bereft material like Michael "Bluer than Blue" Johnson? Instead, turn up the dark, bitter, self-abnegating wit. "Miserabilia" focuses on those destructive moments in a breakup's wake, those moments when you flagellate yourself while reminiscing about the past, perhaps while turning over in your hands little trinkets and leftovers from before the crash. It's an ideal subject for a pop song, since most ache songs profess a kind of hair-shirted narcissism.
The herky-jerky, call-response guitar riff undergirding the song suggests Pavement, while the sugar-crusted melody owes a significant debt to the British C86 movement. The traded boy/girl vocals recall underappreciated American twee counterparts Small Factory, with their wide-eyed innocence curdled into a wound-picking scorn.
But the musical warmth is wedded to a frigid sentiment. For three verses the psychic anguish builds up to an eviscerating finale. Ellen sings about "collected scab in lockets, hung them around our necks like nooses," as together they note "none of it matters, nobody cared."
In the final stanza, the pair explodes this misanthropic fetish: "I have broken down into the naked breasts of a newly ex. No dignity," Gareth sings witheringly. "I can only guess that she thinks about it when she touches herself." A Greek choir of voices springs up to drive the self-defeating point home: "Shout at the world because the world doesn't love you." This should be required listening for anyone under the age of 20 or under the influence of obsessive self-pity.
We spoke to lead singer Gareth in New York on the eve of their most recent American tour, which brings the band to Carrboro Friday.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did the latest album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, come together? You released it just eight months after the first album.
GARETH, LEAD SINGER: We found that Hold On Now Youngster was quite old to us. We'd been touring those songs for going on 18 months. We got in a situation where, although we still really enjoyed playing shows, we got tired of playing the same songs every night. So we went into the studio right after we finished the U.S. tour. We had a week and a half gap in our scheduled, so we thought we'd go into the studio. What initially was intended to be 4-5 tracks ended up being 10 tracks. Rather than sit on it—I suppose a lot of bands might like to wait six months until they'd completely worn a hole in their brain—we thought we'd get it out there as soon as possible, and we did.
So when you hit the studio, you got a lot more written than you had?
Yeah, a couple of the songs came together in the studio, which was the first time that happened to us. Everything we'd released had been finished going into the studio. I think it was also because we worked a lot quicker than we expected to. I think since recording Hold On Now Youngster, we've grown a lot as musicians, and we're more used to working in the studio environment. We were a lot more productive and got things done quicker than we expected to.
Tell me about the origin of "Miserabilia."
[It] is a very clever found word. It was initially the idea of misery and memorabilia. It was kind of talking about those sentimental attachments that you develop to keep bad memories. And I guess quite closely centered on the idea of the end of the relationship when you may have got together a huge amount of possessions that you link intrinsically to that relationship and things that remind you of going out with that person. That would be miserabilia because of the negative connotations, and the bad memories you might associate with the break-up.
That combination of nostalgia and misery, pop music's built on it from "Bluer than Blue" to "The Letter."
Yeah, I think generally through We are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, it's basically a break-up record. All the songs are written around a two-month period of my short life in which I went through a relationship and the break-up of a relationship, and things going on around that relationship. The 10 tracks: Although they are individual tracks, they're a lot more effective lyrically when viewed alongside each other because they do kind of tell the complete story of the relationship and the break-up.
Now we know why there were so many songs available.
That's the thing: We're going to be recording again this year. I'm kind of needing something to happen. I'm in a reasonably happy situation for the moment, which is based around pretty much nothing. Just being happy and having a lot of time with my friends, and so I do rather need some misery to inspire me. I might just try making that.
Well in the absence of drama, you can always create your own.
You could also go for the novelty of writing happy songs for upbeat music.
I don't really enjoy that in music. I don't believe anyone really wants to hear how happy someone is. I like losing myself in other people's misery. Most of my favorite artists, their songwriting are all love lost and tragedy. That's probably why I want to do it. The things that I enjoy and I'm happy about are like watching tele and drinking with my friends. There's only so much I can write about that.
Not without becoming the Fratellis.
Yeah, and we don't want that.
So a glockenspiel: Was this always the plan? It seems odd to base a band around a glockenspiel?
The glockenspiel was never intended to be the primary instrument, because it's perhaps an unusual instrument to have as a regular part of the band. It gets quite a lot of attention. It's usually just adding to the general texture. But when the band came about and I first went to practice, I had a glockenspiel and I took it along, and it just kind of stuck. It's a very simple instrument, and it requires no musical talent, which is fortunate because that's approximately how much I have. It is good, and I can hide behind it.
How much familiarity and affection did you already have for the C86 movement (Huggy Bear, Talulah Gosh, etc.)?
I was a fan of that genre of music long before I joined the band. I became familiar with it —I've got a friend who was in a band called the Haywaynes, who were not a big band in that scene, but they came from Bristol, which was home to Sarah Records. They were very familiar with all those bands and played with a few of them. A guy who was in the Haywaynes, Paul [Towler], he turned me onto it, gave me a whole bunch of Sarah Record Compilations, and like the original C86 compilation, and I kind of got into it all through that. And I've been a fan of it since. Not all of it, a lot of it is a bit to sickly for me. But some bands I have a lot of affection for.
I'm a fan as well, though some of it gets a bit to pasty, just as Morrissey occasionally gets just a bit too misanthropic.
Morrissey can do as he pleases as far as I'm concerned. I think he's one of the few people who can go as misanthropic as he wants. In fact I'd probably encourage it to see how far he can go.
I do love how he's able to play both sides of the fence. He can be miserable, but there is enough arch self-awareness in the subtext.
You have to be a really clever person the way he does that, and the way he originally crafted his image and how people became aware of him. He's continued to adapt and remain enthralling as he was 25 years ago, which is very exciting for me. I think it'd be hard for anyone to be as iconic and revered.
You've only been a band for about two years, and you just got out of the studio. I was wondering what type of learning curve you experienced and what did you come away from it with.
It's hard to answer that because it doesn't really feel like we've had any sort of learning curve. It feels very much like we've been given this opportunity to make records, and tour and release music and live this other life, and we're just sort of doing it. Like obviously we learn from doing new things and being on the road, but it's just felt like we've gotten this opportunity and we're taking it and enjoying it. We're trying our hardest not to over-analyze it.
Well, that's a pretty upbeat attitude about the music business.
Well, I prefer to save my misanthropy for my personal life. Being in a band is just a job; it's like a 9 to 5, it gets me through the day. I like to keep business and pleasure separate. The tour starts properly tomorrow, so I just think I'm going to get very drunk every night and make ill-advised passes at girls. I don't know if it will result in inspiration, but we'll see.
Los Campesinos! plays Cat's Cradle with Titus Andronicus Friday, Jan. 16. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show cost $12-$14.