Cardiff's Los Campesinos on internet infamy

With their catchy pop and violin solos, Los Campesinos! have won loads of fans. But now the band can't agree on whether to despise the lot of them, says Alexis Petridis

Seated around a table in their manager's Cardiff office, the seven members of Los Campesinos! are arguing among themselves. It is not the first time today that the interview has been derailed by heated intra-band debate. They have argued about the worth of their education at Cardiff University, where the septet first met and formed following a drunken statement of intent from guitarist Neil. Another guitarist, Tom, has suggested that the band are "sensible young men and women" who had always prioritised their studies over music: they toured during reading weeks, and the drummer, Ollie, was once forced to exit a London show at high speed in order to sit an exam. This set the singer, Gareth, off on a long harangue about how he hasn't even bothered to open his degree certificate to find out how he did in his finals, because "I realised that whatever I do in my life isn't going to rely on me having a modern politics and history degree".

There has also been full and frank debate about the meaning of the word "pop", about ideology in music, and about ambition, the latter sparked by Tom's admission that he hasn't got any idea how many records the band have thus far sold: "I've never asked - I don't really give a shit." Perhaps it's an inevitable consequence of having seven people in a band, but you get the impression that if you asked Los Campesinos! the way to the nearest bus stop, there would be full, frank and impassioned debate about that as well.

Briefly, they manage to carry on a straightforward discussion about their sudden internet-assisted rise in commercial standing - which happened so fast, bassist Ellen confides, that "we feel a huge amount of guilt. We're almost embarrassed because we didn't really have to work at all to get into this situation." But this turns into an increasingly exasperated quarrel regarding Gareth's attitude towards their burgeoning fanbase, which he smilingly describes as one of "tough love". He rigorously vets the band's potential MySpace friends to weed out anyone he considers sexist.

It's worth noting that Gareth's definition of a sexist seems to include anyone who suggests they find the three female members of Los Campesinos! attractive. "People contact us going, 'You've got chicks in the band!'" he sighs. "A general attitude I find quite disgusting."

But that's nothing compared to his definition of what constitutes unacceptable music taste. One potential fan was swiftly rejected on the grounds that his profile picture featured him in front of a poster advertising the Fratellis. The blokeish Scots trio are apparently at the top of Gareth's lengthy blacklist, closely followed by the Pigeon Detectives, who have incurred his disapproval not just because of their limp brand of ITV indie, but also because of an admittedly feeble-minded incident in which they encouraged female fans to join them on stage and participate in a wet T-shirt competition. Needless to say, on-stage wet T-shirt competitions don't really fit in with Gareth's musical worldview, informed as it is by the rigorously feminist early 90s punk movement, riot grrrl: "They're not doing anything any good at all," he says with another sigh. Nor does he have much time for Coventry trio the Enemy ("hugely macho"), the Kooks ("depressing"), Hard-Fi or Razorlight ("completely mundane").

Gareth relates all this with unmistakeable relish. "I'm a completely horrible snob," he says, in a tone of voice that suggests he holds being a completely horrible snob among mankind's most appealing qualities. His bandmates, on the other hand, appear less convinced. But they don't mind the feminism. "People are still automatically surprised if you play an instrument in a band," concedes Ellen. "A lot of the time people think you just sing."

They are also uncomfortable with what mainstream alternative rock has become in the post-Britpop era. "When we formed, we didn't want to be lad-rock," says Tom. "We didn't want any sort of macho element to the music; we didn't want the cliched guitar sound." He pauses. "We didn't have, like, a meeting to decide these things."

Nevertheless, Los Campesinos! seem a little aghast at the notion of rejecting potential fans because their musical taste doesn't match the band's - "It's like you're actively encouraging people to hate you," says Tom - particularly given Gareth's musical tastes. These run to the shouty femme-punk of Huggy Bear, and also the winsome brand of pop released on Sarah Records, the oft-reviled 80s label that combined exactingly socialist ethics with fey jangling and, at one stage, regarded releasing anything other than 7in singles as an unacceptable capitulation to the capitalist oligarchy. Gareth may not be the only NME-tipped 22-year-old to fetishise a music scene he is too young to remember, but he may be the only one whose idea of an annus mirabilis is not 1966 or 1977, but 1986, birthdate of the wilfully underachieving indie movement C86.

Even at the time, most people thought C86 bands - the Pastels, Talulah Gosh - were perhaps a little twee for their own good. Needless to say, Gareth thinks being called twee is less an insult than a badge of honour. Hence the recent Los Campesinos! single The International Tweexcore Underground, part of an oeuvre that also includes Knee Deep at ATP, a tale of cuckoldry at the holiday-camp based indie festival All Tomorrow's Parties, featuring a romantic interloper clad in a T-shirt advertising K Records, the tiny American label beloved of Kurt Cobain.

"It's just as simple as always wanting to like things that people I know haven't liked, trying to take these things and make them my own, something I don't share with other people," Gareth says - which is pretty much the antithesis of the prevalent belief that rock music should be a communal activity, something best experienced as part of a vast crowd, bellowing along at a festival. "Going through sixth form at school, everyone liked music that I didn't like, so I associated that music with people I didn't get along with and who disliked me. I got into a lot of things that people around me wouldn't have heard of. It's wanting to have these secret things."

Given their attitude, musical influences and song topics, Los Campesinos!'s appeal should theoretically be restricted to a small coterie of like-minded obsessives. But something about them seems to have caught the imagination of a far wider audience. It's probably to do with the music, which is gobby, youthful and effervescent, and features chantable choruses, lyrical barbs aimed at Gareth's extensive hate-list of bands, and a nice line in violin solos.

Gareth, however, thinks their success may be precisely because of their ideology and arcane musical influences: "There must be something quite refreshing to people about seeing 20-year-olds doing something that hadn't been forced at them through the popular music press or radio or TV channels."

It was the online community that first took to their demos, with a speed that seems startling even in an age of the "internet phenomenon". Tom recalls: "We recorded the demos in a community centre, put them on MySpace, put a link on Drowned in Sound's website, went to the pub - and when we came back there were loads of responses." Then it was the music industry: with a certain inevitability, there was a brief and apparently ill-starred scramble for the band's services. One record label's talent scout offered the band the option of lunching anywhere they chose, and ended up eating in Subway. Another, on whom Gareth's indier-than-thou dress sense had perhaps made a lasting impression, turned up with a stylist in tow - a move that, understandably, failed to secure their signatures.

Now, the general public have caught on, although their interest in Los Campesinos! seems to be causing more difficulties than one might expect. There's the problem of stage invaders - or, as Ellen would have it, "massive attention-seekers spoiling it for everyone else". During one traumatic incident at a recent London show, a member of the audience clambered on stage, took a photograph of himself with a cameraphone and jumped off again. "He looked like the sort of person that, six months ago, would have been playing rugby, but now they know it's cooler to wear tighter jeans, so he comes to our gig, puts his arm around me and tries to take a picture," says Gareth, who could sound no more disgusted if the interloper had given him a communicable disease into the bargain. This brings us back to the topic of rejecting Fratellis fans from their MySpace page.

"I don't like the idea of limiting people who can listen to our music," complains Ellen. "As much as I don't agree with everyone's music taste, I think music is the kind of thing anyone can appreciate, and I don't think we can judge why people like us."

"We're really lucky to be in this position," agrees Tom. "If anyone likes us, regardless of who else they like, it's fucking brilliant."

Keyboard player and vocalist Aleks nods, then turns to Gareth. "You have to admit, it's a bit of a childish thing to do," she says. Apparently not: "I don't care what it is, I stand by it. I know I'm horrible." He laughs. "I'd be nice to his face."

"Yeah," says Tom, frowning. "You're nice to our faces." And another heated discussion begins.

· The album Hold On Now, Youngster ... is released on Wichita on February 25


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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