Wales Goes Pop! is a well-established, three day festival devoted to all things lo-fi, DIY and indie, held over Easter Weekend (19-21 April 2019) at The Gate in Cardiff. It’s the perfect opportunity to discover your latest favourite band – alumni include The Lovely Eggs, BC Camplight, Gwenno, Rozi Plain, Sacred Paws, The Orielles, Honeyblood, and Haiku Salut. Your correspondents, Trev Elkin, Bill Cummings and Colin Bond went along, and here’s just a few of the things that set their little heads a-bobbin’…
Sitting in the hand-carved middle pews of The Gate’s upstairs theatre, I’m occasionally reminded of the building’s Presbyterian history as shafts of coloured sunlight burst through the stained glass behind me, mingling with the stage lights. A rather curiously attired foursome are busying around their backline and setting up, all wearing a white T-Shirt with the initial of their first name and a pen picture. I spy brass, a cornet no less, which is lovely to see. I’m hopeful this band, Mr Ben & The Bens who have been recommended to me so, so many times (but I’ve never really got around to listening to) are the real deal. I’m not disappointed. There’s an instant appeal, with the disarming charm of Mr Ben (Hall) at the front, and a band who are clearly enjoying what they do. Even the drummer has a massive, infectious grin and it’s so hard not to fall in love with this band before the first song is out. ‘Fall In Love Again‘ and other tracks off their Happy Shopper EP (vinyl duly purchased after the set) sound full and warm. Their style varies from a gently stirring ode complete with a brass solo, packed with delicate grace notes, to Barafundle-like pile-on indie pop. The new single, ‘Nova Scotia’, reminds you of Teleman and is a step up again with its radio-friendly chorus, and is an immediate crowd pleaser. Older track, ‘Cornershop’ is introduced by Ben, who describes it as song about a time when he had no money to go out so he invented “an imaginary nightclub where the drinks are free and they play all your favourite songs”. Sounds beautiful. And so do these Lancastrians. It seems I’ve a lot of Mr Ben albums to catch up on after this weekend. (TE)
Wales Goes Pop! is proving to be an international affair, with France’s punk pop trio The Wendy Darlings playing an electrifying set, followed up by South Korea’s jangle pop maestros, Say Sue Me. As if from nowhere, the theatre is full, with Say Sue Me drawing a crowd of fans right to the front. Many, it seems, have travelled some way. A group of fans from Portugal and Spain are here and are loving the bouncy, surf-inspired, sun-blushed melodies. Not for the first time this weekend, the presence of Daniel Johnston is felt (Sumi Choi wearing the now iconic grunge ‘Hi, How Are You?’ tee-shirt), and there’s certainly a dusting of his magic on the band’s set. Say Sue Me are all about floppy fringes, delicious guitar hooks and songs about being bored in Busan, all served up in a strangely relatable way. They play through their last Where We Were Together album with obvious delight at the crowd’s reaction. A thrashy cover of Blondie’s ‘Dreaming’ takes the pace up a couple of clicks for the front row, who are soon throwing themselves around to stand-out songs ‘Old Town’ and the shamelessly punk ‘n’ roll head-shaker ‘I Just Wanna Dance‘, closing a truly memorable set. (TE)
After tucking into a rather delicious goat’s cheese and pesto pizza from Friday’s guest caterer (whose name, Flour’d Up, deserves a special mention), I head back inside for a sit down and a bit of post-prandial music in the shape of London’s Tugboat Captain, another band I’ve never seen live. Given their past releases, I am expecting a band with leanings toward Galaxie 500, however, it becomes immediately apparent that they have less in common with Damon, Naomi and Dean and more with the sounds you might hear blasting out of the 1960s American sedan car of the same name. I’m starting to feel that this is probably not music to sit and digest food to, evident from the enthusiastic dancing onstage and in the first few rows, so I move in closer. Tugboat Captain are certainly enjoying being in Wales for the first time and, now down to just three members in their new line-up, all the space onstage. They keep us amused with some cheeky visual humour and banter between songs, at one point introducing their “rock and roll bassoon” (which is exactly what you imagine that sounds like). Highlights include their last single, ‘Be Strong, Smoke Less’, which, played live, sounds more like it’s been lifted from a musical written by Jarvis Cocker with its endearingly wry interplay between the band members. ‘The Distance’ also comes across much more poppy and is all the better for it, with the crowd cheering along to its chorus “I don’t know If I can do it on my own”. The Captain, Alex (Sox) Sokolow says “If you’ve had the misfortune of looking for our music on the internet, you might know this one”, and cues the gently swaying intro of ‘I Don’t Want To Wake Up On My Own‘ to change the pace. There’s a different, slightly skewed dynamic to this song and some of the rest of the set with just the three of them playing, but their set leaves me feeling fuzzy and strangely upbeat, so I’m keen to see them again in a different context. (TE)
It’s Saturday and it’s unseasonably hot, but locals Rosehip Teahouse are making us swoon into their arms in the cafe. Upstairs they were selling Rosehip Teahouse tea cosies that their mums made them and there’s a homespun charm to their work too – all love-lorn melodies, clipped cymbals and shimmering guitars. Fay Rogers’ yearning vocal tones are like warm sunlight spreading across your face and fondly bring to mind the early work of The Sundays. They might look quite different but they offer a subtle coherence to their dreamy sound. The standout is recent single ‘Same Sky’, which is a treat for heartbroken romantics everywhere, underscored by twitchy drums and bountiful bass that give way to pretty, toe tipping riffs. Like tearing pages out of their diaries and reciting them to us with easy going smiles, there’s a youthful wonder and charm to the Rosehips that make them one of the most promising new Cardiff acts I’ve clapped ears on of late. Fall in love with the aroma, the taste and the sound of the Rosehips.(BC)
Local tykes Big Thing used to be called Winter Coat, and if their new moniker is a touch presumptuous, then their new set-up, with the addition of a guitarist and vocalist, has a pleasing, more fuller-bodied sound than the last time I saw them about eighteen months ago. Powered by Jen’s riffs and vocals, their work builds on the dream-pop of yore for a rollicking guitar pop that harks after Dinosaur Jr and Teenage Fanclub. The upbeat usefulness of ‘Long Beach’ shimmers in the afternoon sun, while ‘Freaking Out’ is typical – all glistening riffs, fuelled by a motoring rhythm section, interpreted with moments of reflective glory, quickly gets the sweltering patrons of the Gate Theatre’s heads moving. Big Thing are on the right track. (BC)
Day-glo punks Charmpit don’t take any prisoners, but if they did I’d bet it wouldn’t be long before any hostages came down with a hard case of Stockholm syndrome. They’re that infectious. It’s always great to see a band that are out to have the best time ever and aren’t going to let anyone or anything stand in their way. Not that anyone here would argue with them about that. From the first chords of ‘Free the Burbs,’ there’s a buzz in the air that this just might be the set of the weekend.
Anne Marie Sanguigni and Rhianydd YorkWilliams are quite a double act, trading licks and pulling silly faces, while recent addition Estella Adeyeri offsets the general air of larking about with an abrasive lead guitar line. They’re trying out a handful of new songs today and if they can capture the sound and attitude of today’s performance, then there’s a great album on its way. ‘Jimnastics’ and ‘Wild Wild Westfield’ are huge, spurting endorphin rushes of garage rock, while ‘Squirrel Vision’ is triple-distilled Eau de Bratmobile.
They close with ‘Buckfast my Heart’, a heartfelt paean to crushes, sleepovers and Lanarkshire’s favourite commotion lotion. Its joyous, frenzied chorus is still ringing in our ears as Sanguigni concludes the show by doing an impressive splits, an enormous smile on her face. Self-styled best femmes forever, Charmpit leave us loving our own best friends even more, feverishly planning road trips and trying on each other’s clothes. (CB)
The downstairs cafe stage proves to be a difficult gig for most of the bands playing there this weekend, a result of ropey acoustics, technical issues and background chit-chat from the bar. Yet local hero Rosie Smith from Oh Peas! doesn’t merely rise to the occasion, she smashes this one into the middle of Roath Park botanical gardens, surprising not a few of the terrapins who thought that the metaphor worked the other way round. She’s always been an intriguing songwriter but backed by her current band, old favourites like ‘You Say I’m not That Way’ and ‘Year of the Horse’ become epic tales of heartache and misunderstanding. It’s like watching someone take their rightful place at last.
Of the band, cult figure Graf Middleton (Threatmantics, Gindrinker) is a commanding presence, stooped over his lead guitar, disintegrating the songs under squalls of fuzz and distortion, then picking them up again where they left off. It’s an excellent counterpoint to Smith’s own unique stage presence, at once both a bit standoffish, and warmly inclusive. Like a lot of great songwriters, there’s that feeling that she’s been there and you have as well, right? You sense that her mixture of vulnerability and tenacious strength is something that a lot of people here would like to identify with and be part of. Certainly, with these musicians around her, she’s buoyed up like never before and clearly enjoying every minute of it.
Exploding in a shower of confetti, the last number, ‘I’m Getting Good’, feels like a bit of an understatement. I’m not even going to say that it helps that audience is packed out with friends of the band. More often than not that just makes people more prone to talk each other’s heads off. Oh Peas! are getting better than good. I might be known to exaggerate sometimes, but after it’s all gone and I finally pick my jaw up off the floor all I can hear is my own slightly dazed and puzzled voice asking, so when exactly did Oh Peas! become the best band in Wales? (CB)
So I’m in the bar at The Gate on a sultry Sunday evening, pondering what I’m going to pick out as today’s highlights and thinking maybe Tigercats kalimba-fest, that was pretty cool, or good old Simon Love, who put on a killer show. Then there’s always the songwriting genius of The School – after all, Liz Hunt is our host today, so it’s only polite, and anyway, I know I’m going to be humming ‘My Arms, They Feel Like Nothing‘ for the next couple of weeks, just like I do every year when I come to this festival. Then I finish my coke and head back upstairs to see International Teachers of Pop. There’s only two more bands to sit through, then we can all go home, right?
Maybe it was the sugar rush, or maybe International Teachers of Pop took my ass to the kind of educational establishment where they have particularly strict rules about losing yourself in wave after wave of banging euphoria. I don’t think it was just me either.
The recipe is pretty straightforward. Moonlandingz’ Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer provide the tunes, while Soundcarriers’ Leonore Wheatley and new addition Katie Nelson wig out on vocals and dancing. There are cheeky references to other records, for instance ‘Age of the Train’ which quotes the bass line from ‘Thriller’, and their German language cover version of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, a song that I never thought I’d ever see rock the WGP crew. Then there’s their rather sweet and nerdy obsession with Georgio Moroder – ‘Praxis Makes Prefect’ is ‘I Feel Love’ with a situationist twist. Mostly though, we’re under the spell of the utter conviction of Wheatley and Nelson. Dressed like they had a lot of fun raiding a charity shop, strips of tinsel whipping around their faces, they completely surrender to the tasks that these songs set them. ‘On Repeat’ sees them leading the shifty, motorik mayhem into a crazed, robotic chorus, as if the algorithms told them to do it.
Towards the end of the set, Wheatley gets ‘Love Girl’ and a chance to slow the pace a little. “She’s just an awkward girl,” she coos as she drifts in and out of the crowd ending the song standing on a monitor, one arm reaching out, and bathed in light. It’s such a beautiful moment that it almost makes up for all the work Flanagan needs to do on his between-song banter. ‘What do you call the Welsh Mafia?’ he asks, as though a Cardiff audience would have no idea at all that you’d call them the Taffia. Oh, the English and their famous sense of humour. So funny. Why did I ever leave? But despite Flanagan’s enigmatic, Svengali-like efforts to spoil everyone’s fun, ITOP bring the house down with a faultless and amazing set.
How do you follow that? Well, it helps that Tracyanne Campbell has one of the most beautiful and evocative voices in pop. Back in the days of Camera Obscura, there was something about her voice that reached back into the history of music, and into all the songs that their songs sounded like, and simply understood. Even tonight, when it’s not obvious that she’s having a great night, she sounds like no one else on earth. Recordings really don’t do her justice.
Wales Goes Pop! has always been a lot more diverse than some people give it credit for. It does, however, completely deserve its reputation for advocating a particular strain of indie music, and Traceyanne and Danny are about the most WGP headliner you can imagine. Campbell kicks the set off by apologising for being such a low-key act to close a festival, as though she isn’t addressing a room full of grown adults who are still dancing around their bedrooms miming ‘Lloyd, Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?’ into a hairbrush on at least a monthly basis. After the surreal, electronic shakedown of ITOP, this is where we are, looking for an epilogue or summation of some kind.
So we’re ready for the kind of band you might encounter in the Bang-Bang Bar as the credits roll over a bunch of familiar, but strangely and suddenly older faces, as Danny Coughlan’s tremolo peals beneath some eerie bit of Americana. ‘It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts’ dances with a lost, faraway look in its eyes, while Coughlan leads songs like the wistful ballad ‘Jacqueline’, which is about his aunt – the unluckiest woman in the world – and the sparkling melody of ‘Cellophane Girl’.
Fittingly, the real killers in their too-short set are a pair duets. ’O’Keeffe’ is perhaps the most deliciously sentimental art history reference we’ve heard all weekend with its rolling, yearning chorus, “If you love me let me go / to Santa Fe, New Mexico / hold me close / don’t let me go / Pedernal Mountain, New Mexico”. Then the recent b-side ‘Baby’s Got it Bad’, which could easily be mistaken for something Burt Bacharach and Hal David might have put their names to, where Campbell comes in and hits the refrain “the first love / is always the last love” with such longing and sadness that it feels awkward to have intruded. It’s beautiful.
They wrap their set, and the weekend, with Daniel Johnston’s ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’, and for a moment at least, it feels like it finally just might. It’s a perfectly chosen cover, perfect for them, and perfect for this audience: a gang of outsiders – bruised, but still optimistic. (CB)
Want more? We took pictures … IN CAMERA: Wales Goes Pop! 2019