Kevs arrives carrying a bag with the ten album covers. Elfyn opens the door. He has been to his studio today and is still in his work clothes. Paint caked thickly on his trousers. Spatters that make him look like a walking Jackson Pollock.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ he asks.
‘No, I’m ok. It’s not that bad.’ Kevs, one half of the band Llwybr Llaethog, shrugs in just a short sleeved Tshirt.
We are at abstract artist Elfyn Lewis’ house in Grangetown to chat about Llwybr Llaethog’s latest release,
Dub Cymraeg, and to see the ten album covers Elfyn has painted for the limited edition vinyl release.
They are taking photos of the covers for the website where the record will go on sale 1 March. While Elfyn puts the kettle on, Kevs spreads the covers out on the dining table. ‘I like that one,’ he says, and points to number seven. ‘And that one…and that one…and that one,’ he laughs. ‘I just want to keep them all.’
‘John and I met at school. I couldn’t play any instruments, but we wanted to make music, so I just had to learn. We’ve been playing together ever since,’ Kevs tells me, and I ask him about the label ‘pioneers’ that is often used to describe the band. ‘I suppose that when we started Llwybr Llaethog it was a plan to make music that we perceived no-one else was making in Wales at the time. I don’t think we ever thought this would lead to us being branded pioneers.’ It may not be a label he is too comfortable with, but the hat fits. Hailing from Blaenau Ffestiniog, they are now based in Cardiff and continue to record, with an impressively high output, from their home studio. ‘We finish one project and we start another. We are always working on something.’ Merging a sonic cat’s cradle of electronica, dub, hip hop and post punk with left-wing politics, humour, Welsh language and a DIY ethos they introduced the techniques of sampling, scratching and cut-and-paste to Welsh music and recorded the first Welsh rap in ’85.
Collaborations with, among many others, Super Furry Animals and Datblygu and four sessions for John Peel are all feathers in the cap, and there is no sign of slowing down any time soon.
‘I think we’re dubbed out for a bit now,’ Kevs smiles. ‘We’ve almost finished recording a very experimental album, just to do something completely different, and then we’ll be starting the next Llwybr Llaethog album.’
Porthmadog born Elfyn also made the trip to Cardiff in the mid ’90s and his striking and haunting paintings have won him the Gold Medal for fine art at the 2009 National Eisteddfod of Wales, and the 2010 Welsh Artist of the Year prize.
Every painting has a Welsh name as title. ‘It’s about remembering people and places. Yes, there is a political reason for it. It’s not about kicking against the pricks just for the sake of it, but I am Welsh. Welsh is my language, and if you don’t use it you lose it.’
Elfyn’s artwork has been used by Welsh bands before, and in 1996 one of his paintings was used on the cover of Catatonia’s Way Beyond Blue. ‘I remember being in Sydney and seeing the Catatonia CD in a record shop. It was a great feeling, and it just confirmed to me that art is an international language.’
‘We found all these old trophies and just decided to make out own,’ Kevs smiles. He’s telling Elfyn about the Annual Llwybr Llaethog award for outstanding contribution to Welsh music.
Award season is upon us, and John and Kevs have taken it upon themselves to create their own award. 2014 will be the inaugural year.
‘There are a lot of talented Welsh musicians who don’t get any recognition, so we are going to give the award to someone we think deserve the attention.’
The award will be given out on St David’s Day, the same day the limited edition Dub Cymraeg LP is released. ‘There will be some kind of ceremony. I’m not sure what yet,’ Kevs laughs. ‘I’m going to leave that to John. I’m really busy this week.’
‘How did you guys meet?’ I ask. Kevs and Elfyn look at each other. ‘I remember you coming to our gigs back then,’ Kevs says.
‘Yeah, and then I did that video for you.’ (a YouTube search for Llwybr Llaethog Ffansin Ynfytyn finds a young, dreadlocked Elfyn burning NME’s in the video to the guitar-heavy, jolting track).
‘But I don’t think we really knew you yet then.’
‘No, it was more when we all ended up in Cardiff,’ Elfyn shrugs. ‘It’s a small scene, and people just see each other around. This collaboration is something we’ve talked about for a long time, and now just felt like the right time.’
As an album Dub Cymraeg delivers. Strong, consistent, accessible and absolutely amazing. Opener, ‘Bwled Dub’, immediately pulls the listener in. A gradual build of horns, keys, simmering bassline and the filthiest snare drum I have heard in a long time. Along with ‘Mwydro Dub’s’ warm blanket of reverb and panoramic delay they create a dreamy, other-worldly aura.
‘Ed’s Dub’, with strong vocals by Geraint Jarman and David R Edwards, and the almost avantgarde, contained chaos of ‘That’s Better Dub’ have a more familiar Llwybr Llaethog sound, but still ad to a homogenous overall flow of the album.
Picking a personal highlight from this collection is almost impossible, but ‘Caru Ti Dub’, with Gwenno Saunders’ sweet vocals over machine-gun echo, thunder and aggressive syncopated guitar, is the essence of what this album is about. Juxtaposition, impact, escapism and one hell of a dub groove.
The notion of escapism is also strong is Elfyn’s work, which is one of the reasons this collaboration is so effective. ‘Sometimes you want something to just take you away from that everyday life,’ he says. ‘I’ve done record covers before, but not like this. These are individual pieces of art.’
‘I’ve never heard about it being done this way before,’ Kevs adds.
‘I trust them, and they trust me, and you have to to work like this.’
‘Both John and I have always appreciated Elfyn’s art, so we are very pleased that he’s given us the opportunity to release these unique album covers,’ Kevs says. ‘I think that we still try to make music that is different than anyone else’s, the way that no-one else does art like Elfyn.’
The covers, though each very distinct, are instantly recognisable is Elfyn’s art. The paint is thickly layered, dripped and manipulated into abstract idioms. Though dark and aggressive they are also dream-like and beautiful statements.
Llwybr Llaethig and Elfyn are in many ways similar in their approach. They use the Welsh language as a political tool, an expression of identity, but refuse to be defined by it. In an environment where ‘safe’ and ‘middle-of-the-road’ is often encouraged, they stay left of centre. Pick up their cultural heritage and takes it with them rather than stay stagnant. It is about moving forward and expressing yourself in your craft, and this is part of what makes them exciting, innovative artists that warrant credit on merit rather than affiliation. They are talented and Welsh, not talented because they are Welsh, and though the lyrics may be Welsh language it makes no difference to an audience who does not speak it. If nothing, it adds to the spellbinding and vast atmosphere of the album.
As Elfyn says, ‘a language is more than just words’, and this is a situation where, despite the minority language and culture, the music and art is so captivating it easily translates to an international audience.
Dub Cymraeg is truly a DIY effort. Mixed in the home studio and released by the band themselves. Not only are the limited edition covers individually painted by Elfyn, but the actual sleeves were handmade by Kevs. ‘I couldn’t find any blank record covers for him to paint on, so I just had to cut and make them myself.’
It is this kind of ethos that hopefully can inspire young musicians and artists looking to define and distance themselves from a culture of poetry recitals and harp playing, but still maintain the identity of a progressive Cymric culture. ‘Play the harp,’ Elfyn smiles ‘…but mix it into a dub.’
Elfyn’s work can currently be seen at Wales Millennium Centre until 16 May as part of AUR; and exhibition of ten years of Gold Medal winners in Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.
He will also be part of the upcoming exhibition Gwanwyn at Gallery/ten, Windsor Place in Cardiff, from 7 – 29 March.
The Dub Cymraeg limited edition LP will go on sale from Llwybr Llaethog’s website www.llwybrllaethog.co.uk on St David’s Day, so for a truly unique collectors item keep checking the website for a chance to be one of the lucky ten, and get there quick to get your favourite cover, because these will be gone in no time.