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Sparky Deathcap on September, Los Campesinos! and becoming an overnight TikTok phenomenon

Musician Rob Taylor – aka Sparky Deathcap – can remember the exact moment he realised his song September was going viral on TikTok.

Musician Rob Taylor – aka Sparky Deathcap – went viral on Tiktok. Credit: Rob Taylor

Musician Rob Taylor – aka Sparky Deathcap – can remember the exact moment he realised his song September was going viral on TikTok.

“It was last Christmas Eve and I was on a Reddit thread of vaguely interesting viral videos called Next Fucking Level,” he recalls. We are talking on Zoom, but Taylor’s wry humour punctures any awkwardness. “One of them was a sped up video of a moth pupating,” he continues. “And I was like, ‘Is this really Next Fucking Level?'”

Then Taylor turned on the sound and heard September‘s wistful melodies soundtracking the moth’s larval evolution. “That was when I knew it had transitioned from being quite a niche cult thing to becoming a sound that people were using as a sort of a generic stock sample for videos,” he says.

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Taylor had already noticed a “slight uptick” in his sales on Bandcamp, a website that lets artists sell music directly to fans, because September had been championed by the popular Twitch streamer Wilbur Soot. This in itself was a pleasant surprise because when he first released September in 2009, “it didn’t really go anywhere, which was gutting”.

But after his 14-year-old song exploded on TikTok – “I was told it was number two on the UK viral charts, which I didn’t even know that was a thing,” he says – Taylor found himself dealing with a “deluge of interest” from record companies.

“It was quite a shock to the system,” Taylor admits. Though he is also a member of beloved Cardiff-based indie band Los Campesinos!, he has mainly worked as a professional illustrator and designer in recent years. But within weeks, he was signed to Sony RCA, a major label, and getting a “crash course” in how artists monetise their work in the streaming era.

“Some random guy had put the song on Spotify calling it September by, like, Reno Sparky Deathcap or something, and he probably made about 10 grand out of it,” Taylor says. “I’m pretty philosophical but I’m also like, ‘Hey, I could have bought a second-hand hatchback!'”

Taylor’s song – a richly emotive indie-folk gem – isn’t the first to benefit from the TikTok effect. Duncan Laurence won Eurovision in 2019 with his poignant piano ballad Arcade, but saw it become a global smash two years later after it gained traction on the platform. A TikTok ‘challenge’ where users posed to Aurora’s sparkly synth-pop anthem Runaway pushed it up the charts in 2021 – six years since its original release.

But September feels like one of the most remarkable TikTok success stories because it’s a song from a different era – TikTok didn’t even exist in 2009. Before this year, Taylor admits he was “very much embedded in the older way of writing and releasing music”, which placed less stock on streaming and social media stats.

Signing to a major label for the first time was also a culture shock. “We as a band [Los Campesinos!] have always been very proudly DIY. We’re sort of a cult band with a very loyal following,” he says. “When we first started, we signed to Wichita, which is a big indie label, but we’ve basically been self-releasing our music for quite a while now.”

On top of this, Sparky Deathcap had essentially become Taylor’s side project. He became a member of Los Campesinos! in 2009 after putting in a stint as the band’s opening act. From this point on, he poured more musical energy into the band, who released their sixth and most recent album Sick Scenes in 2017.

It didn’t help, Taylor says, that the band’s former manager viewed his solo work as “a bit of a joke” and made cruel comments about “the Sparky split [of profits] being 25% of nothing”.

Over the last few years, Los Campesinos! has also been scaled back as Taylor and his bandmates have found other, more reliable ways to make a living. “It used to be our day job, but now when we go on tour, it’s more like getting together for a big holiday,” he says.

Now, thanks to September‘s second wind, Taylor is optimistic he can make music his “day job” again. After spending the pandemic with his parents in Cheshire, he has moved back to London to oversee the re-release of Tear Jerky, Sparky Deathcap’s shimmering 2009 EP. He is also working on new solo music and a new Los Campesinos! album. The band’s bond remains so tight that frontman Gareth Paisey is currently acting as Taylor’s manager.

But at the same time, revisiting a song that Taylor wrote as a younger man has proved confronting. “It’s from a time in my life when I felt like an enormous loser,” he says. “I had just broken up with my first serious girlfriend and I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna make an amazing song now.’ Part of it was me trying to get her attention.” Taylor cringes a little, then adds drily: “Which is always a great basis for making art.”

Taylor has also had to relive the disappointment he felt when September failed to take off in 2009. “I really felt like I’d made this unique sort of pop jam,” he says. “But for years afterwards, I couldn’t even listen to it because all I could hear was the [production] mistakes I’d made and the embarrassment of trying to get a girl’s attention. It’s an incredibly personal song, and I probably wouldn’t write something that personal now.”

But now, Taylor is ready to banish bad memories from back in the day. “I had a lot of really terrible gigs and a lot of ‘big breaks’ that never came,” he says. “It became exhausting and it did affect my mental health for a while. Going out as a solo artist is just so exposing.”

He has also rekindled his love of making music without a nagging sense of guilt. “The great thing about what’s happened is it’s given me licence to do it properly again,” he says. “I don’t have to think of music as an ‘extravagance’ that gets in the way of me paying the bills with design work. At this point, I know I just have to get on with making the next Sparky Deathcap record.”

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