Bukowski wrote ‘what matters most is how well you walk through the fire’.
On this spring day when I sit in a Carmarthen beer garden with David R Edwards it is clear that that walk is over. The all-devouring flames of chaos and inner turmoil are under control, and the fire that burns now is one of creativity, expression and defiance.
Thirty-two years ago, in Thatcher’s post-punk West Wales, Dave formed Datblygu. Two years later Patricia Morgan joined him. Over the years members came and went, but the two remained the nucleus of the group with a bond that went beyond that of being collaborators and former lovers, but a bond of true friendship, affection and a genuine belief in what they do. Datblygu is a band. As Dave says ‘With me and Pat, it’s 50/50. It’s magic how it works’, and on June 7 they will be releasing a new mini album, Erbyn Hyn, on Ankst records.
I met Patricia the day before. Intelligent, articulate and thoughtful, we spent a couple of hours in her living room drinking tea, talking experimental music and laughing. She is an easy interviewee. Open about the band, the creative process and the new album. Like those close to him, she is protective of Dave. David as she calls him. When I suggest he may not always be easy to work with she answers ‘No, but we have gotten used to each other’s ways. He does listen to me if I feel strongly about something.’
John Griffith, one half of Llwybr Llaethog, joins me on the trip to visit Dave. John is a long time close friend of his, and often collaborator over the years. The new album was recorded at Llwybr Llaethog’s Grangetown studio. When I initially asked him to put me in touch with Dave his words were ‘Dave is one of my favourite people in the world and I love him very much’. On the train trip to Carmarthen we talk about how they first met.
John: I first met Dave because we were both releasing records through the Anrhefn label at the time. I started writing to him, because I didn’t understand all the lyrics, and wanted him to explain them to me a bit better. So I started a relationship, through letter, with Pat and Dave. Then meeting them at gigs, and it developed through that.
Sarah King: You’ve worked together quite a few times over the years.
John Griffith: Yeah. The first time Dave recorded stuff with Llwybr Llaethog, we’d been talking about it for ages. We were in a studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog, in 1992, and we got to a point, which we often do, where we have a lot of instrumentals and need someone to come in with some vocal ideas. I called him up in Cardigan, and he arrived a few hours later, falling out of the back of the car with a bottle of rum in one hand and a sheath full of lyrics in the other, saying ‘take me to the microphone’. He went in and basically did it all in the first take.
Sarah: How was it decided they would record at Neud Nid Deud studio?
John: That was Dave and Pat’s decision. I think because of our friendship they thought it would be nicer, more relaxed to come and record at our studio.
Sarah: What were your roles?
John: Kevs (the other half of Llwybr Llaethog) was very much in charge of the sound engineering side of it. I was just trying to look after everyone. Offering suggestions. Whatever Dave wanted. He always works really fast. There is no messing about. He’ll quickly get to a point where he’ll say ‘no, stop, don’t touch that, don’t change a thing, just leave it exactly as it is’. They like to capture the je ne sais quoi that usually happens in the first take, and I think the new album is brilliant.
Dave meets us at the train station. Dressed smartly in a pinstripe shirt, and with his hair combed back and a cigarette hanging from his fingers. We stroll through town. Old friends catching up, laughing. ‘It’s good to see you, John’, Dave says, ‘Well, we are kindred spirits, John and I, and they are very rare. He’s been in my band, I’ve been in his band, and there are no questions asked.’
We settle in the beer garden of a quiet pub and I ask him about the state of Welsh culture.
Dave R Edwards: The difference between yogurt and Welsh culture is that yogurt has a living culture. All that flag waving patriotism at rugby games doesn’t just leave me cold, it annoys me. My mother tongue is Welsh, and that’s why Datblygu has always operated solely in that language, but I dislike the culture associated with it. Not just male choirs, the National Eisteddfod, the rubbish that’s on Welsh language TV and radio most of the time. Cerdd Dant. But also most of the rock and pop music. Dylan Thomas must be turning in his grave with the industry that’s associated with him. The authority of the antiseptic National Assembly, where each member earns £54,000, should be abolished and the budgets divided equally between Wales’ inhabitants. Including children.
Education and children’s rights are recurring topics in lyrics and interviews, and Dave even forayed into teaching briefly in the mid-90s.
Dave: My education was oppressive, boring and without purpose. Schools are evil places run by monsters. I suffered a number of menial jobs under the terror of the Thatcher regime. I became a teacher but they sacked me because of my smoking and drinking. They said I was influencing the children. That was over twenty years ago. I left my work and became penniless and unemployable. Pink Floyd had a song called ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. How come the people who bought that record now send their children to school?
It is human nature to categorize and try to explain by comparison, and Datblygu often gets called Wales’ answer to The Fall.
Influenced by The Fall, and other bands such as Joy Division, Sex Pistols, The Birthday Party and Killing Joke, the comparison is understandable considering the drinking, chaos, anger, madness and volatile stage performances, but Dave is not Mark E Smith, and Pat’s music is far more experimental, evocative and bare.
Dave is undoubtedly one of Wales most clever, articulate, aggressive counter-culture lyricists, yet open, vulnerable and tender. When I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic ‘No. I fucking hate poets.’
Dave: The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not really a singer. A singer to me is Bryn Terfel, who I can’t stand, and a poet is somebody like Meirion McIntyre Hughes or whatever his name is. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet. It’s easier to listen to something than read something. It’s more accessible.
I ask about the new album.
Dave: We went to the recording studio, and we just hit the ground running. With the help of Kevs and John, obviously. It was just so easy.
John: Hit the ground running is putting it mildly. You were barely in the door. The coat was just on the peg, and the first track was done before I’d even made a cup of tea.
Sarah: What’s the creative process like?
Dave: Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol helps oil the creative machinery. Composing songs is a lonely business. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that.
Back at Pat’s, she makes me another cup of tea. I ask her how she met Dave and started playing in Datblygu.
Pat Morgan: I was in a band with my sister. Very twee and psychedelic about Merlin and love and birds, but I got a bit bored with the Welsh music stuff. I gave up on it. It had nothing to offer me. But then punk came out. Things like Anrhefn, and I took and interest again. I heard a Datblygu cassette and I just thought who are these people? Where are they? Like I was really missing out. And then I got carried away and thought that’s it, and went to a Datblygu gig, and started writing to Dave. I was actually playing in another band at the time, a bondage band. I played bass guitar. It was bit of fun, and I told Dave I can play bass guitar and he said come along then. I did a gig with them and that was it. We just got on with each other as people. Interested in the same music, and what we had to offer each other. We had very similar tastes in music. We liked The Fall, The Cure, bleak stuff. It just developed from there. He said come along to the next recording session, and the rest is history. We became a couple, and went out for about 3-4 years, but we managed to still keep working together after we split up. The music seemed to be stronger than anything. It was more important to keep the music going.
Sarah: What was it like recording again?
Pat: It’s always an event when we record. It’s never just plain sailing. It’s always an occasion. I can remember where we were, how we did it and the mood at the time. It’s not an easy process and it’s fraught with all sorts of unknowns. You never know what the final thing is going to be like until you do it, it’s that experimental. For me, personally, I find the studio difficult. I just want to get out of there. I like the creative process, but not the whole, recording, mixing and listening to it over and over again. That’s why, with David, it’s just one take, warts and all. That’s just how it is.
Sarah: And you worked with Llwybr Llaethog.
Pat: I thought that, for my benefit, it would be somewhere we wouldn’t be pushed around. We could take our time, have a cup of tea and chat in between takes, and we get on so well with John and Kevs. It made it so much easier. We did it very, very quickly. John had got this new synthesizer for me to play with. Just to try. I touched one key and Dave said NO. I thought ok, fine, there is no point quarrelling. Why add? It may just be the bare bones, but if it has the effect you want, why keep adding? There is always the temptation to add something else and do a bit more.
Sarah: Tell me about the production of the album.
Pat: We keep in very minimal, which makes it more real, because those sounds are actually what we are doing then. No playing around too much to make it sound artificial. There is always something important to say. Dave’s lyrics are so important. He’s such a good writer. It’s nice for me to have the medium to just make them stand out.
Sarah: What’s the process like?
Pat: This time I invited Dave up here to just do a few demos. So we had the tunes, we knew what we were doing, and we could try things out. And… (laughs)… it was all a bit fraught, because I sent him a ticket for the train and it wasn’t a ticket, it was a receipt, and he got thrown off the train, and I had to go get him. It was all chaos. This was going to be the nice weekend where we had loads of time to just chat and create and catch up, but sometimes those chaotic and traumatic situations are sort of what we thrive on. I bought this little Casio synthesizer that I tried a few things on, and I don’t know… it just seems to develop. I don’t really think about how we do it. There is a definite intuitiveness about it. The effect is the most important thing. More than the technical ability.
Sarah: What are your hopes for the new album?
Pat: That we have something relevant to offer. For us it’s about who we are, and what we do. We don’t change to suit anyone, or please anyone. We don’t copy anyone.
Sarah: Did you ever worry that singing in Welsh could be a hindrance?
Pat: That never bothered me at all. Success wasn’t on the agenda. It was about expressing yourself. What you wanted, how you wanted it, and to hell with anyone else. I found the whole Welsh pop scene too embarrassing. The punk genre in Welsh sounded brilliant, and there was no holding me back. Because it was in Welsh it was almost more relevant to what we wanted to do. Adding to your culture as Welsh people, rather than just copying what American bands were doing. That just wasn’t for me. That was why Welsh, in that format, became important to me. We didn’t want to do it any other way.
There was not much support for Datblygu to be found at home on Radio Cymru, and the few interviews with Dave were always, and still are to this day, pre-recorded.
Dave: I suppose they were worried about swearing and adult themes. They would bleep out f-ing, which is just ridiculous. Without fucking none of us would be here.
It’s tempting to think that swearing was the least of Radio Cymru’s worries, and the real reason was a censoring of the anti-boring middle-class cultural dormancy stance of the band, and the criticism of the media for supporting it.
The band did have one very important champion, though. John Peel. Datblygu did five sessions for him, and he regularly played their songs on his program. This opened them up to an English speaking audience, which proves that the feeling and attitude of the music transcends the borders of language.
Pat: We were super excited when we were being played on Radio 1, when Radio Cymru wouldn’t play us. They said the standard was too bad. That’s the official line. They probably didn’t like the fact that it was so direct and suicidal. Not what the happy Radio Cymru listeners wanted to listen to, or what Radio Cymru wanted people to listen to. And it’s still like that. Let’s get some nice folk music on and it’s awful. It’s exasperating that it’s all coming back full force. All the stuff we were raging against. We are always going to be a minority, esoteric listening anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t bother me. It would just be nice to have a bit more of a broad selection of music on Radio Cymru. If the agenda is just to get more and more listeners, then they are just going to go for the lowest common denominator. There are a few songs of ours that gets the occasional play, ‘Can i Gymru’ and ‘Y Teimlad’. But they still don’t like the difficult stuff.
Dave: There was so much excitement. 1987 was the first session. We did something completely off the wall, which he didn’t really expect, but he kept saying excellent after every track. He was very positive, and he played everything we ever did after that. I used to write a synopsis of every song we would play, and he would read it out before. Just an effort to communicate. I don’t want to exclude anybody. He became a friend. We corresponded. He used to phone me and Pat up when we were living together. It broke my heart when he died. We did five sessions for him. We would have done more, but I became ill in the mid-90s and I couldn’t really function as a writer.
In the mid-90s Datblygu went off the radar. Pat worked for the NHS, continued composing, and Dave walked through the fire of Bukowski’s poem, ‘How Is Your Heart?’.
But those days are behind him now, and the person I meet is positive and self-aware. He is kind and sharp, and with the vulnerability of someone who thinks and feels too much. The drink is still there, but not too much. He writes every day, chain smokes, and is proof that true artistic talent is something you have despite of chaos, not because of it. A quiet life holds just as much inspiration.
Over a cigarette at a birthday party I chat with Osian Gwynedd of Big Leaves and Sibrydion about Datblygu, and the new album. He is looking forward to hearing it, but he is nervous. He really wants it to be good.
I say it is great to see young bands now that are obviously inspired by them. He takes a drag of his cigarette, nods and says ‘we all were’.
One of the young bands obviously inspired by Datblygu is Y Ffug. I ask singer Iolo Selyf James, still only seventeen, what Datblygu has meant to him. Within half an hour I receive a recorded message.
‘I’m currently listening to ‘Gwlad ar fy Nghefn’, which translates to ‘Country on my back’. That sums up what it’s like to live in Wales, and have all this culture that you don’t necessarily believe in or feel is relevant to you. Some of the main things I like about Datblygu is I still find them incredibly relevant on their standpoint on Welsh language and our position as Welsh people and a culture that we depend on and cling on to. I think Dave would agree that the future is much more important than gripping on to this weird, backwards, nationalistic part of the country that we don’t necessarily need any more, because young people don’t connect with it. I say Datblygu have been an incredible influence on me as a musician and one of the main reasons is they just did not care. They didn’t give a single fuck about what people thought about them. And I thought that was just brilliant and so refreshing to see a band that didn’t play it safe and they believed in what they were saying. I would say that Datblygu has influenced me in the way that with our EP, Cofwich Dryweryn, we talk about a culture that’s irrelevant, that we don’t need, that’s holding us back. Without Datblygu I probably wouldn’t have those sentiments. It’s a weird Welsh frustration that comes out through a Datblygu album. Again, just heroes. Giants of Welsh culture and Welsh music’.
Everywhere I turn people are willing for Dave and Datblygu to do well. The affection from friends, and the admiration from anyone connected in any way to Welsh counter-culture is tangible.
Erbyn Hyn is a fantastic record. Auto-biographical and defiant with depth and urgency Album opener, ‘Achos’, is a tale of sex, alcohol and loss. The most accessible and melodic track of the album, with beautiful backing vocals by Seren Cynfal. The aggressive and snarling Can Werin compares two of Dave’s biggest hates, animal cruelty and the brutality and indoctrination of the school system. The biggest bullies are the headmasters.
‘Pwynt’ and ‘Bydolwg’ are two of the most hauntingly honest and emotional songs on the album. Acceptance of a situation and self-awareness cradled in evocative, beautiful, experimental sound-scaping. The lyrics and music of Datblygu are always symbiotic. On ‘Pawb’ Pat takes the vocals, over an angular and gritty track, and proves that though Dave’s lyrics are very personal, their artistic merit is strong enough to stand without him, and the themes are human and universal.
I can’t recommend Erbyn Hyn strongly enough. On June 7 the album will be launched at The Parrot in Carmarthen. Dave will be reading some of the lyrics, and Pat and Dave will be answering questions from the audience and signing cds.
Datblygu are without doubt one of the most important and influential post punk bands to come out of Wales, and Pat and Dave have not lost the ethos and edge that still puts them firmly on the far, peripheral left of Welsh culture and music, and the music and message is just as strong, important and angry as it was thirty-two years ago.