It started simply: A few kids at Cardiff University hung out between classes and wrote songs about algebra homework, fizzy party drinks and dressing up in costumes. Effervescent happiness and a chipper attitude permeated the university halls, where seven college kids messed around with instruments. Drummer Ollie and the other six members of Wales' Los Campesinos! (who all use the surname Campesinos!) didn't expect their quirky collective to evolve into a beloved indie-pop band.
"We never really thought it would actually come to this," says Ollie. "We started this [in 2005] in our second year of university. We never wanted this in any way."
Since then, the band has seen pretty much every corner of the world by touring. Ollie still sounds shocked when he talks about their unexpected adventure.
"We are just in this amazing position to get to play festivals like Lollapalooza," he says. "We are getting paid to come there and play, and people are coming to watch us."
Lollapalooza marks a full-circle turn for Los Campesinos!, who played their first U.S. show on the fest's smallest stage in 2006. Small stages proved to be a challenge, since the septet's guitars, glockenspiel, drum kit, horns and keyboards take up plenty of space.
"Countless times we have been squeezed onto a stage that's even too small for a three-piece band," says Ollie. "It's quite cramped, and everyone has to avoid hitting each other with their instruments. But we still manage to make it work. And sometimes, they're our best shows."
As the band builds a larger fan base, it worries less and less about space constraints. LC! recently kicked off their U.S. summer tour at New York's Webster Hall, a venue large enough to make Ollie nervous. A 1,500-person capacity might be a blip on Chris Martin's radar, but the self-proclaimed "quietest Campesino!" admits to bouts of nerves before big shows.
Venue size isn't the only change for LC! in the past few years. The band has deviated from its peppy, silly and — let's face it — adorable early material to play what Ollie calls "energetic pop music with a dark side" on its most recent release, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. The album's pessimistic tone comes from singer Gareth.
"He has developed even more as a songwriter," says Ollie. "And I think this is just the road he's going down."
LC! recently returned to the studio to tweak material for a new album, perfecting every element. They cut tracks at three studios in Seattle, Wales and Connecticut. Tom writes the music, Gareth adds lyrics and the rest of the band tinkers with the details.
"With our first songs, it was all about getting as much [sound] as possible," says Ollie. "But now we sort of realize that it's about adding things at particular times. We've become much more aware of making things come in at particular points in songs. We're getting better than we were when we started."
The new recordings reflect the still-young band's maturity. While the band's debut album, Hold on Now, Youngster, overwhelmed the senses with shots of guitar, trilled horns, glockenspiel chimes and a bunch of other all-at-once whimsical touches, the new music is more polished. Still, the same lively flair remains, and the band will most likely benefit from the exposure it gets on this year's festival circuit.
"When it comes to festivals, we're quite selfish," says Ollie. "We are more concerned about seeing other bands we've never seen. Sometimes, you'll come offstage at a festival and leave some of the others to pack up the stuff, and you'll go and watch a band. We know our priorities, really. We're still music fans at heart."