She Let Me Wear Her Clothes: The Enduring Queer Legacy of Los Campesinos!

The year I turned 21, I got my first tattoo. I’d had the design sketched for three years, and had been waiting for the right moment to present itself to me. That summer, as I paid too much money for a cramped and sweltering room in Brooklyn, it did. Los Campesinos!, my favorite band, announced that their drummer Jason Adelinia would be tattooing in New York for a few days in July. One hot afternoon, I took my tattoo design to the shop – the words HEART SWELLS formed into the shape of a heart, a reference to one of the band’s recurring lyrical themes. A couple of hours later, I walked out, feeling like my body was more mine than it was before.

I first discovered Los Campesinos! through Myspace’s music portal when I was 13. At the time, I was hyperaware of what music was and wasn’t socially acceptable. The bullies on the school bus made sure that I knew that the popular emo and pop-punk bands – Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Panic! At The Disco, and the like – were too gay for any ostensibly straight boy to listen to. So, while the theatrical vulnerability of those bands interested me, they were forbidden to my ears. 

As a substitute, I sought out bands with a similarly anthemic us-versus-them philosophy, shorn of the outwardly transgressive gender performance and “whiny” emotionality that drew the other boys’ attention; I found a rough approximation in an ascendant indie-rock culture that considered itself more thoughtful and sensitive than mainstream rock.

But as I filled my iPod with tastemaker-approved indie music, I struggled to actually like a lot of it. For every Stars or Broken Social Scene – bands whose heart-on-sleeve emotionality and surging melodic gifts connected with my teenage heart – there was a Wolf Parade or Vivian Girls, whose relatively abstract approach and thick tangle of references went over my head. I might have loved some of this music, but it was a kind of loving that came from the need to love something, anything, just to prove that I could have opinions of my own. They were good bands, but they were not mine. And then I found Los Campesinos!.

With seven band members – vocalists Gareth Paisey and Aleksandra Berditchevskaia, guitarists Tom Bromley and Neil Beale, bassist Ellen Waddell, violinist Harriet Coleman, and drummer Ollie Briggs – Los Campesinos! were a big band that made equally big-sounding music. The songs from their early period were dense with references, one-liners, and in-jokes: their debut album Hold On Now, Youngster… cites both Jane Eyre and the post-rock band Meanwhile, Back In Communist Russia on the same song, while the single “The International Tweexcore Underground” was the first place I heard about Henry Rollins, Sarah Records, or Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher.

But these callbacks to unfamiliar cultural markers never felt like they were meant to exclude me, because the music itself was so energetic, welcoming, and communal – frequently giving way to waves of gang vocals, breakneck guitar riffs, and candy-colored keyboard tones. This dichotomy made it feel like the band was offering me a place to go next, bringing me into their world instead of asking for my credentials.

For me, their music was a simultaneous primer on and passage into underground culture – and the way they used the music they liked to build intimacy with listeners set a precedent for me to follow. I met one of my oldest friends because I wore a Los Campesinos! t-shirt to a queer student meetup during my first week of college, hoping that someone would catch the reference. It’s a practice that Nina Posner, a music writer who authored one of my favorite pieces about the band, recognizes.

“Flagging Los Camp!, yeah,” they said to me when we spoke over Zoom. “I had a similar thing when I went to the radio station for the first time in college. I was scared, I’m 18. There was a guy wearing a Los Campesinos! shirt and I was like, ‘Okay, I feel totally comfortable and at ease.’”

Their comparison to flagging – the queer practice of signaling through clothing, often used to indicate sexual interests to potential partners – is funny, but it gets at part of what I responded to about the band. For a group that came up during the blog-driven indie rock scene of the late 2000s, roughly contemporaneous with the uncritical hedonism of indie-sleaze and the sharply defined boys-versus-girls gender politics of mainstream pop-punk, Los Campesinos! presented a vision of the underground that was surprisingly queer. While none of the band members are openly LGBTQ+, from the beginning, their music offered a way for queer listeners to project themselves into it.

As a closeted queer person listening in 2008, I heard their cover of Heavenly’s “C Is The Heavenly Option” – one of the b-sides to the “Tweexcore” single – and noted the way they gender-flipped the original, assigning the lines that started with “my boyfriend…” to Gareth and the lines that started with “my girlfriend…” to Aleks. Later that year, after the release of their second album We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, my ear was caught by one of Gareth’s lines from the song “Miserabilia”: “I held him too close / It was a grave mistake / He never came back again.” 

Later albums included lyrics that appealed to my own sense of gender confusion. “I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know,” from 2010’s Romance is Boring, slows down in the bridge as Gareth sings, “I’m 15 years old and my parents’ only son / Like I barely survived a girls’ school education,” while the 2011 banger “Songs About Your Girlfriend” inverts its faux-bravado when Gareth confesses, “The last time I was there / She let me wear her clothes.” In Gareth’s writing, supported by the band’s fervent and occasionally chaotic instrumental lines, I found something that spoke to the confusion and alienation I felt, and that helped me to articulate my still-nascent ideas about what my future could be. As I reached out to other queer writers and musicians for this piece, I wondered if my impression back then was accurate, or if it was a product of my own grasping for identity and belonging.

When I spoke with Posner, they also noted Gareth’s lyrical style as a point of access. “There’s a lot of really self-effacing lyrics, lyrics about self-doubt, about failed masculinity,” they say as we toss our favorite lines back and forth. “None of them are gay, but I think there are gay characters that feature in Los Campesinos! songs… [They don’t portray] a traditional masculinity that you might find in emo music or the Pitchfork darlings of that time. They were guys in a different way.”

They reference the “girls’ school education” line from “I Just Sighed” as a particularly resonant lyric from a transmasculine perspective – a line that I co-opted for my own transfeminine self-actualization. After all, I once was my parents’ only son. Though our experiences were in some ways opposed, we both found a sense of recognition in the exact same line. The band’s music was big enough to hold both of us.

Ash Jones of the Belfast-based punk band Strange New Places talks about finding an equally capacious space within Gareth’s lyrics. Strange New Places contributed a playfully ramshackle version of “Songs About Your Girlfriend” to the 2022 comp Los Compesinos!. (Full disclosure: I am also featured on the comp as Leah Angel.) When I bring up the line about wearing girls’ clothes, Jones responds, “It’s performed in a way that’s almost macho bragging, but then is actually really vulnerable in a way that does challenge gender and sexuality. It brings in a really interesting element that’s not just, like, ‘I had sex with your girlfriend.’”

She contextualizes this line’s sudden vulnerability within the band’s larger project, one that’s characterized by duality and contrast: “[There’s a] dichotomy between a sort of writerly presentation, an almost camp, performative element of, ‘I’m writing lyrics and there’s metaphors aplenty and it’s all coming through!’ And then behind that, having – I mean, it doesn’t have to be sadness, but it’s usually sadness that is pressing up against it and poking through at points, and in some songs is sort of breaking and shattering that barrier. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed about Los Campesinos!… ‘Songs About Your Girlfriend’ is an example of that. [It’s] sort of braggadocious and then swings open to say, ‘I’m just nothing.’”

It feels like an outgrowth of what Posner spoke about with respect to the band’s portrayal of masculinity. On these early songs, Los Campesinos! didn’t just relay masculine norms and ideals; instead, they found ways to poke and prod at those expectations, allowing emotional vulnerability and volatile coping strategies to peek through the surface bravado. (It feels apt that one of the hooks in “Songs About Your Girlfriend” goes, “Your mask is slipping.”)

By contrast, a mainstream masculinity would require a total lack of vulnerability, and might turn any hurt feelings or insecurity into a joke; as Jones says, “It’s not like what a Blink-182 song might be. And I love Blink, but if [‘Songs About Your Girlfriend’] was their song, it would just be, ‘I fucked your girlfriend!’”

This breadth of expression applies to the band’s musical choices as well. Their songs incorporate a wide swath of instrumental textures and melodic techniques, covering both straightforward rock textures and softer, more idiosyncratic counterpoints like glockenspiel and violin. When I spoke with Emily Rose Reed, who records as How I Became Invisible, she said that the band’s musical multiplicity was one of the main reasons she was drawn to their work: “It was the juxtaposition of the twee [and] indie-rock stuff – having a lot of glockenspiel and violin, instruments that are not traditionally quote-unquote ‘rock.’ The way they were used was such an interesting sound collage of the different instruments together, weaving in and out of each other. The guitar’s doing one thing, and sometimes the violin is matching it, and sometimes they’re doing completely different things… It was using the instrument in its own capacity, rather than to replicate a different sound.” 

Their music’s multidimensional quality allows them to travel between genre definitions in a way that feels unique. “I don’t see them as fitting into any specific prescribed genre, and it’s one of the reasons I love them,” Reed explains. “They have such a wide sonic palette. You can really put them in a number of different genres and they would kind of fit, but nothing really completely describes it – like, they’re not a pop-punk band, but they could play with them. They’re not an emo band, but they could play with them. They’re not an indie-rock band, but they could play with them.”

I mention that genre labels often feel context-dependent and variable, and Reed agrees: “[Bands] get lumped into the same category because it’s easier to define or dismiss them… You could say of someone, ‘They’re a pop band,’ and people would go, ‘Oh, I know what that is,’ and not bother listening to them.”

Genre is as much a marketing tool as it is a way to articulate a band’s sound; while it can be a useful way to reach potential listeners, it can also feel artificial and limiting, more related to the audience that a group cultivates rather than their actual music. I discovered in middle school that a stereotypical “emo fan” was more gender-aberrant than I felt comfortable embodying, which kept me from actually listening to emo music until I was old enough to not care about living up to gender norms.

But my conversation with Reed made me remember that one of the band’s earliest songs – “The International Tweexcore Underground” – is explicitly about creating a community across genre boundaries, staging an argument between a stereotypical indie-pop listener and a stereotypical punk-rock fan before they come together on the chorus.

One of my favorite tracks on Los Compesinos! is the indie-pop band American Poetry Club’s playful cover of “Tweexcore.” Rather than singing about Ian MacKaye or Calvin Johnson, the band changes the song’s references to be about Los Campesinos! lore, shouting out their old record label Wichita Records and name-checking Gareth’s favorite band, The Beautiful South. And where the original song ended on an energetic restatement of its instrumental hook, lead singer Jordan Weinstock ends the cover with a heartfelt monologue about the impact the band has had on their life: “Thank you for reminding us that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you create. What’s important, what really makes the difference, is loving the people you’re creating with.”

Over Zoom, I asked Weinstock what the band’s music represents for them. “Community, you know?” they respond. “I think Los Campesinos! was one of the first bands I listened to and I was like, ‘Not only do I want to make music one day, but I want to make music with the people I care about. I want to sing in a basement about how much I love the people around me, and about how no matter what fucked-up things are going on outside, we are going to find a way to keep each other safe and to have fun.’”

Moreover, Weinstock links the communal qualities of the band’s music with their increasingly explicit political stances. In recent years, Los Campesinos! have raised funds for LGBTQ+ support organizations like Trans Lifeline and Trans Aid Cymru, ensured access to gender-neutral bathrooms at all of their shows, and offered no-questions-asked low income pricing for tickets and merch.

“You definitely don’t see other bands of that size or that generation explicitly take that approach to things and say, ‘If you’re not down with this, you don’t belong in this community.’ And I think that’s very much aspirationally the kind of mentality I want to foster, and has made me feel not only more comfortable as a fan being in the atmosphere they put together, but as a musician. If they can be out there doing this, what is stopping the rest of us from having the same commitment to inclusivity, to being a real community?”

While the band’s politics have always been present – one of their best-known songs features the line, “You could never kiss a Tory boy without wanting to cut off your tongue again” – these kinds of active expressions of allyship have coincided with a broadening of the band’s musical scope. In their early years, the music of Los Campesinos! was often melodramatic and almost campy in its self-awareness, simultaneously wallowing in despair and recognizing the absurdity of doing so. But on their most recent records – 2013’s No Blues and 2017’s Sick Scenes – their music has become more focused and earnest, coinciding with the widening of their extramusical political lens. Songs like “The Fall Of Home” and “A Slow, Slow Death” from Sick Scenes aren’t just about being sad because of a dissolving relationship, but about watching your hometown decay from economic stagnation and cursing “a queen who feasts while we wean.”

When I spoke with Ash Jones, she contextualized the band’s evolution within the political slide towards right-wing politics in the UK: “They feel a little less concerned with individual suffering – or maybe, individual suffering in the context of everything falling apart. I can’t help but think that that’s [because of] seeing the British government from 2010 was a conservative one – and still is – and that sense of not just ennui, but like, ‘Oh, everything is actively being demolished in front of us, and there’s nothing left.’”

More than anything, I think it’s this context – and the band’s active stance against it – that explains why Los Campesinos! would feel so welcoming to a queer audience. It’s not that they’re explicitly seeking out or pandering to queer listeners, it’s that they’ve cultivated a lyrical, musical, and political identity that’s built around inclusivity and mutual care. Being a queer person in this world is a vulnerable position, and it can feel isolating; at least, it did for me when I first heard their music as a teenager. And Los Campesinos! gave me something I could hold onto.

At the end of my conversation with Jones, when I asked why she thought the band might have a queer fanbase, she said, “For so many of us, we’ve spent a lot of our lives internally having that vulnerability. And it’s cathartic to hear this beautiful production made around it, or a roomful of people shouting it back… Having a recognition that we are not isolated, and that there is a community of people waiting that understands these problems – not that they don’t matter, but that you’re not alone in them – I think that perspective will always appeal to the queer community.”

It sounds a lot like one of the first lines on their debut single: “I’ll sing what you like / If you shout it straight back at me.”