You know there’s something going on when you roll up at a five act bill and the venue is one-in-one-out by the time the first band get onstage. You’re away from home, and it’s a band you’ve never heard of, you were headed somewhere else but the buzz is too electric not to stick around and see what it’s all about. Cardiff’s Swn Festival, held in late October, is a multi-venue wristband hop with a strong bias towards Welsh artists, and that band was Y Niwl. Y Niwl translates as The Fog – a name which makes some kind of sense when they start playing.
North Wales, like much of Britain’s western side, gets quite a lot of fog out on the coast. Put it this way, you’d be more likely to find fog round there than, for example, crystal blue water with white rip-curl waves and balmy temperatures. The streets of its coastal towns don’t echo on warm summer evenings to the sound of sportscar engines as bronzed and toned dudes slow down for beach-babes with sun-bleached hair. It’s not quite the last place on earth you’d expect to find a surf band (Kiev, perhaps, or Khartoum, would be weirder) – but it’s not exactly the first either. But then Y Niwl are not one of that crop of new young bands in thrall to the Beach Boys and Jan And Dean, singing simplistic words about catching a wave and falling in love. They don’t sing at all, in fact – and their tunes don’t even have titles, just numbers (in Welsh, and written out as words). In place of Hawaiian shirts and sun visors are Nordic retro patterned jumpers and woolly bobble-hats. Sion Glyn, Peter Richardson, Gruff ab Arwel and Alun Evans are possibly the least likely surf band ever.
Or perhaps not. Turn the clock back fifty years to when at least some of Y Niwl’s parents weren’t even born, and a group of musicians hastily assembled to back a young British singer on his breakthrough hit a couple of years earlier start branching out on their own. Away from their teen-pop leader, they create twisting instrumentals characterised by twanging single-note guitar lines; upbeat and summery but with a sinister darkness bubbling just below the surface. They were of course The Shadows and it was a very British take on a sound that was gaining ground on the other side of the Atlantic where a young Bostonian named Dick Dale, uprooted in his teens to California, was making music inspired by the feel of surfing. And it’s these twin pillars of the genre which echo through Y Niwl’s sound, not the frothy Cali-pop that came later. The intervening half century has seeped into their consciousness too. The indie bands along the way who have soaked up the same influences (Pixies spring to mind, and British Sea Power’s great early surf-punk instrumental “Scottish Wildlife Experience”). The garage psychedelics from the other end of the sixties, with “Deg” (AKA “Ten”) in particular picking up ? And The Mysterions’ Farfisa trail and running with it. That night in Cardiff they justified that packed venue and got everyone’s night off to a fantastic, dancing start – delighting existing fans and making new ones out of pretty much everyone in the room who’d never seen them before. They’d not played too much outside of Wales at that point, but they were coming to Manchester in seven weeks’ time. And I found myself genuinely excited about this.
In the space of those seven weeks, lots more people outside Wales have learnt the Welsh for “fog” and “ten” and caught on to the glorious joy of these tunes. Wales’s best-loved indie pscychedelic Gruff Rhys has invited them to support on his national tour in February. Their self-titled debut album – ten tracks, each a perfectly-formed two to three minute nugget, like pop albums used to be – came out at the start of December causing a few list-makers (yep, this one included) to rework pre-prepared end-of-year albums pieces. I stuck it in at number eight but its constant presence in my ears since then is telling me it should have gone in higher. It’s now picking up reviews from the mainstream press. Their late-night set at Red Deer Club and Cloudsounds’ Christmas party in the tiny, friendly upstairs room at Withington Fuel was every bit as exhilarating as that first time – yet again, existing fans’ serotonin going into overdrive with the opening notes of each tune and those previously unaware coming away impressed. Only this time I was in the former camp, and I suspect there are going to be a hell of a lot of people joining me there in 2011.