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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Los Campesinos! at Koko, Feb 25th – Live Review

Cardiff septet's largest headline gig to date, a whirlwind success and jolly great fun

Written by Ian Steadman

Illustration courtesy of Zoë Barker

From outside, look the Koko in Camden looks a bit like one of those Swiss clocks – the ones where a girl in lederhosen comes out on a rail every hour to strike the chime. The bare white front façade is broken only by the large ‘KOKO’ illumination and the two doors at either edge of the building which allow the audience access to the smoking balcony, generic and there’s a fair few of them pacing backwards and forwards. Imagining them as clockwork Bavarians is the kind of thing I find amusing. It passes the time, try waiting in the coffee place across the road for the rain to ease and the doors to open.

Los Campesinos! are a band that I’ve had to convince myself that I actually loved, because for a while I was in denial. As far as my last.fm statistics go they’ve been my favourite band of the last 18 months, and I even found myself buying a ticket for their latest tour as soon as physically able and not really being sure why. It always felt like some kind of weirdly innocuous indulgence that support groups put out literature for – y’know, you swear it’s not a big deal, you could walk away at any second, it doesn’t control your life, etc. etc., only to wake up one morning and realise that you’re deeply addicted and in trouble. It’s frightening to realise you’ve had a new favourite band for so long and not even realised.

Illustration courtesy of Zoë Barker

Once inside the venue, I buy a drink and text my erstwhile companion, struck down with food poisoning. “I’m probably the oldest person here – where are the adults?“ I ask (and I’m only 22) – there’s a distinct whiff of Lynx in the air (at a guess: Africa). LC! are a bit of a joke to some people thanks to lead singer Gareth’s scribbled-journal lyrics, and frankly they’re right – they can be acutely embarrassing. I try to justify my love (my addiction, you could say) to my friends by being clever – they’re tongue-in-cheek, I say! The literal meaning is totally ironic, but the intent is still sincere! It never works. My first instinct, looking around the venue, is that these skinny, shy kids find Gareth endearing and sincere without any ironic pretension, which would be sweet and naïve if so. Or it could be seen as pathetic – sample lyric: “As if I walked into the room/to see my ex-girlfriend/who by the way I’m still in love with/sucking the face of some pretty boy/with my favourite band’s most popular song in the background/is it wrong that I can’t decide which bothers me most?” – but then ‘pathetic’ sounds so much like ‘pathos’ and I’m sure that their must be some kind of link or derivation at play there, because then there’s my excuse. The band excels at drawing out an emotional response in its audience.

As I’m trying to figure this out (I’m on my own, remember, so those kinds of thoughts are all I have to amuse myself – another excuse) the first bunch of musicians stroll on stage – it’s barely past eight, which leaves me thinking that I’ll probably be home and in slippers before eleven. But as for the band: the lead singer reminds me of Sinbad, and he starts wooping.

“Woop! … Woop! … Woop!” etc. – he’s jumped over the crowd barriers at this point, and is walking through the still-thin crowd, clearly sizing people up. Every now and again somebody will recoil, which I assume is because they assume that he’ll either a) want them to join in (poor, timid children), or b) eat their ears, because he’s mental. I think it’s hilarious. The rhythmic wooping is augmented by the rest of the band joining in with their instruments, using Sinbad as a metronome. They’re a four-piece – Sinbad, fringe girl, moustache guy, and Sweater (his sensible sky-blue knitwear is his most defining feature, I suppose) – and they blew me away. Rotating between instruments, chanting and howling, they managed to bridge the divide between the danceable electro-wash that I so admire in Holy Fuck or Gang Gang Dance and the careful racket of no-wave. One tune sounded like Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ shoved backwards through a plane turbine, i.e. sort of inverted by chopping it up into small pieces and reassembled with the bass brought forward and the optimistic chants turned into these awful, angry shouts… I was a total convert. Only by cornering Sinbad in the lobby afterwards did I manage to get their name – Islet. The internet tells me they’re from Cardiff, and they don’t like the internet, they have no recordings available for streaming or purchase (except this BBC live session), they have no website, they are entirely offline. The only way to experience Islet is as a live band, so go. See them live. They kick ass.

The break between the supports is short, and next on are somewhat-hyped London duo Swanton Bombs. To be fair to them, everything I’ve heard about their album has been positive (including a review on this very site), so I’m going to chalk their disappointing live presence up as unexpected. Every song reminded me of that nasty period in the early 00s when blues-rock groups were two-a-penny, where every song could be plotted on a chart with one axis labelled “Killing Floor“, and “Hey Joe” on the other. In short – it was dull, every song sounded the same, and Blood Red Shoes do this kind of thing with much more aplomb. I drifted out towards the back of the room and then upstairs, where I could fully appreciate how atrocious the Koko’s sound quality is for anyone not on the ground near the front – it’s an embarrassment for London, really, considering how much slack the place has had to take up now that the scuffed and glorious Astoria’s gone.

The audience of kids, mostly bored by what’s happened so far (Islet’s tribal antics went down like a civil servant in Downing Street), persists in ignoring whatever’s happening on stage. They’re very clearly only here for LC!, and it’s something of a relief that they come to life when the main act eventually makes an appearance – making me reassess my earlier assumption, that they were here out of a pathetic sincerity, as completely wrong. Namely: I was being pretentious and snobbish, and these kids just like how enjoyable a band LC! are – the lyrics are just plain funny, the music just plain fun, and whilst people like me with too much time on their hands (I blame my friend standing me up and leaving me to my own interior monologue) might debate the extent to which the band take this influence, or that level of twee irony, or said indebtedness to blah blah, this is bullshit. So I forgot about all that, and started jumping about with the rest of the mosh pit.

Illustration courtesy of Zoë Barker

Gareth’s certainly a livelier presence than I expected (seeing as he can come across as a bit wet sometimes). Tonight he bounds around like an over-stimulated puppy, and keeps thanking everybody – his friends, their manager, the audience (I count seven separate breaks between songs where he thanks the fans), the venue, the tour promoter. It’s sweet. The set opens with the steamrolling “I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know,” which is a bastard of a song, frankly. Their latest album is filled with these, how to say, crunchy numbers, loud and a bit ridiculous, and each one sounds like an anthem tonight – the crowd on ground alongside me is just a heaving sweaty coagulation of fists and smiles, right through the more recent tracks (“There Are Listed Building”, “A Heat Rash in the Shape of The Show Me State; Or, Letters from Me to Charlotte” (it is assumed that if you cannot abide this kind of ludicrous titling of songs then LC! are not a band for you)) to the classics of a couple of years ago (“My Year in Lists,” “This Is How You Spell ‘HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics’”).

One of the best things about seeing these guys live, though, was that their first album suddenly made a lot more sense. Their sound in the flesh isn’t hugely similar to their last two releases (‘We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed’ and this year’s ‘Romance Is Boring’), which were relatively crisp and clean to the ear – live, they sound like the horrible mistake that was the David Newfeld-produced debut ‘Hold On Now, Youngster’, where the levels were all over the place and the whole thing was a sorry soppy mess of a release that would stick to a wall if it was thrown at one and would congeal into just a bloody mass of nothing at the bottom. It was poorly produced, is what I’m saying. But hearing them tonight I suddenly realise that Newfeld had captured them as they actually sound, essentially that exact kind of mop bucket softness, without edges, without any definition to grab onto. They aren’t half as exciting on there as they are here because, well, that’s the nature of live music, but I have greater respect for the Broken Social Scene producer now I can understand his Sisyphean intentions.

The highlight for most people comes towards the end, when the band crack out the song that they will presumably still be ending their sets with in middle-age – “You! Me! Dancing!” – which I detest. It’s a horrible song. I don’t know why it grates when I enjoy everything else that they do so much, but there it is. However, in the interest of balance I’ll say that this once it was awesome because, well, it was. I’d never danced to it alongside a few hundred other people before and the sensation was not, shall we say, unpleasant. When the band left the stage it was the end of their largest headline show to date – despite their quirks, their oddities, their introspection and their glee, I fully expect them to be playing even larger venues within a very short time indeed. They are the biggest and best niche group around. To hell with thought – it’s my gut that wants to see them again as soon as possible.

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One Response to “Los Campesinos! at Koko, Feb 25th – Live Review”

  1. Sarah-Beth says:

    You werent anywhere near the oldest person at that gig. I’m turning 30 in a few month and go and see LC! whenever I can.

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