From Bassey to Burton, from Cale to Jones, from Hopkins to Zeta-Jones, it’s not unusual – if you’ll pardon the pun – for the finest Welsh talents to up sticks, relocate to America and find themselves lighting up Hollywood, Vegas or Broadway.
Yet it was surprising to hear that the Welsh singer Cate Le Bon had moved to Los Angeles, just over two and a half years ago, if only because she seemed so intrinsically tied to the Principality. Here was a native Welsh speaker who sometimes sings in the language, is heavily inspired by its more left-field musical heritage, and who frequently collaborates with Welsh rock royalty, including members of Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and the Manic Street Preachers. One expected Le Bon to be among those cult figures – like Meic Stevens, Heather Jones, Geraint Jarman or Huw Jones – destined to remain a secret to a few in-the-know Cymraeg hipsters.
But Le Bon’s own music has always been filled with fascinating contradictions: at once cutesy and ferocious, cuddly and angular, whimsically Welsh but also terrifyingly Teutonic. Moving from rural Carmarthenshire to California just added another intriguing layer of complexity to her music.
Even more complexity comes in the form of Drinks. It’s a duo that puts Le Bon alongside Tim Presley, the Californian musician who played in assorted hardcore bands, Darker My Love and The Fall, before creating his own ultra-lo-fi psych project White Fence and collaborating with the likes of Ty Segall to much acclaim. The resulting album sounds unlike anything that either Le Bon or Presley have ever made.
Both Presley and Le Bon are united in their love of Faust IV (“We both agree that it’s the greatest record ever made,” says Le Bon). Other records that Tim and Cate played each other for inspiration included an album by Henri-Jean Enu’s dadaist experimental jazz project Fille Qui Mousse, a Soul Jazz compilation of British punk entitled There Is No Such Thing As Society, the minimal post-punk of Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants, and John Peel’s favourite Welsh-language band, Datblygu.
For the most part, Drinks sound neither Californian nor particularly Welsh, mixing touches of shambolic indie pop, mutant disco, Krautrock and free jazz. But, if there’s a guiding spirit to the album, it’s that anything-goes DIY avant-gardism that characterised the weirdest British post-punk, from Swell Maps to Josef K.
The first two tracks set out the band’s stall. On “Laying Down The Rock”, the guitar lines sound both utterly random and metrically precise, while “Focus On The Streets” sounds close to the shouty, shambolic, lo-fi 1977 English punk that Presley clearly adores. On both tracks he sings in a vaguely English yawn, equal parts Syd Barrett and Vic Godard, that will be familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed White Fence’s output.
The wonderfully strange title track seems just a few tweaks away from being a pop classic: a smart shift from Casiotone jerkiness to Talking Heads-style punk funk, with a smart Beatles-ish middle-eight, all of it hilariously sabotaged by wilfully gibberish rhymes (“Six past the eight/Cop-u-late”).
Like the best tracks on the album, it’s sung by Le Bon, whose voice is a wonderfully adaptable instrument. On “Hermits On Holiday” it’s a soft mezzosoprano; on the haunting waltz “Spilt The Beans” it starts as an imperious, low-pitched Nico bark before leaping up an octave; on “Cannon Mouth” she gurgles through an effects unit, as burbling synths underneath her resemble an arcade game on the blink; on “Cheerio” she whispers, hauntingly, while a drumless, atmospheric and improvised soundscape rumbles ominously in the background.
Indeed, Drinks are particularly engaging when they go nuts, as with the psychedelic freeform voyages of “Tim, Do I Like That Dog” or “She Walks So Fast”, or in the “Day In The Life”-style breakdown of “Spilt The Beans”, all unhinged guitars and echo-laden piano freakouts. What’s clear is that Le Bon and Presley are not just copying the tics and tropes of the shambolic post-punk and experimental music that has inspired them, but are actually using its methodology – delving deep into improvisation, randomness and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The end result is something that’s freaky and funny, as rigorously experimental as it is gleefully entertaining.
Cate Le Bon
How did you come to collaborate with Tim Presley?
I met him on my first headlining tour of the US. We liked his band, White Fence, and they supported my band. We got on well and I ended up playing guitar with them. Then, when I moved to Los Angeles, we hung out a lot with mutual friends and talked endlessly about making a record together. In the end we thought, ‘Oh, this is getting embarrassing, let’s just get a studio and record something.’ We listened to lots of stuff together and applied complete abandon to the songwriting process. Most of the songs come from us playing guitar at each other and improvising.
What the hell is going on with “Tim, Do I Like That Dog”?
It’s a stupid game we’d play on the road. I’d see a dog and ask Tim if he thinks it’s the kind of dog I like. His success rate was initially only 50/50. I think he’s now up to about 70 per cent, which is quite an achievement.
How are you going to play this live?
We’re gonna have to do some serious homework! Neither of us can remember who was playing any of the guitar parts. We’ve sent the record to a drummer and a bassist to learn, and they’re both currently a bit bemused…
Do you miss speaking Welsh in LA?
Well, I’m here with my partner, and we speak Welsh every day. But I do miss the people in Wales. And there’s a certain shade of green – a particular shade of grass and leaf – that you just don’t get over here. LA is more… khaki and gold.
INTERVIEW: JOHN LEWIS
The History Of Rock – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – is now on sale in the UK. Click here for more details.
Uncut: the spiritual home of great rock music.