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IN CONVERSATION: AhGeeBe: Chin Up, Chief!

Rhodri Gwyn Brooks may claim to be more at home playing with other artists – Gruff Rhys, Georgia Ruth, Teddy Hunter of late – and collaborating, rather than writing and releasing his own work ‘with all the stress and headspace it takes up’, but under the moniker AhGeeBe he’s gone and triumphed in spite himself.

With debut solo album Chin Up, Chief! released via Bubblewrap Records and sold out on pre-orders, Brooks prioritized himself to great effect in this record of maturity and depth. His pedal steel might at first glance be his unique selling point but in truth, we have wonderful songwriting here, and an elegant presentations to go with. Welsh Americana isn’t as odd a marriage one might initially think, as Rhodri explains in this feature; gorgeous melodies and traditions of Wales and America essentially linked.

Chin Up, Chief! is beautifully curated; in the first half AhGeeBe gets real. ‘Welcome Home’ intimate vocal so close we feel breath, acoustic guitar then oh yes there she is – dunno about you, but pedal steel feels like a she – plucking at the heart; ‘did we fall asleep last night afraid of waking up dead’ is both funny but terribly sad, and introspective.   
‘Tynnu Gwaed’ with its bluesy, sobering but low key drama introduces tensions; ‘Water Between‘ slyly slips in an eerie psychedelia, ‘Own Two Feet’‘ has us swaying and dreaming a little, heading towards better times.

The second half of the record is glossed with hope. ‘Cocoona‘ a giddy celebration of new found freedoms with sweet slide guitar and a slice of cheeky sax bouncing proceedings along, and we get a reassurance and comfort that the melancholic homesickness of ‘On The Run’ is temporary. The elegant waltz of ‘The Garden’s A Mess‘ during which Rhodri requests we ‘give weeds and sadness a rest, sweep up the leaves, make way and bring out your dead’, the clarinet and strings morph the long song into a psych-lavender calm. Chin Up, Chief is appropriately topped and tailed with ‘Start’ and ‘End”, and why not indeed, piano gently nudging us in and quirky instrumental sending us safely home.

Taking ten years to present a debut album to the world is a risky business,  but here AhGeeBe proves how beautifully, tenderly it can work out.

Rhodri took time out to explain himself and the record, further.

Chin Up, Chief – is this a suggestion to yourself or someone else?

I guess it’s a suggestion to myself, but also to others. A sort of recurring theme through a lot of the songs I write, tend to be about reassuring someone, or coming from a place of worry. Trying to make things alright, or from a place of empathy maybe. Not that I necessarily go about writing a song like that from the start, but sometimes they just end up like that when I read them back. I don’t tend to have a certain thing I want to write about when I start a song, it’s just whatever comes from mumbling along to a melody.. but I guess it must come from somewhere in the back of my mind! The name of the record comes from a line in the TV show Fargo, where Police Officer Molly tries to cheer up the Police Chief. It stuck with me and seemed all too fitting a title for the songs as a whole.

The album feels like a good pal you haven’t seen for a while.

That’s such a lovely description. It feels like that to me as well, since these songs have been going around in various sketches for so many years, they really are like old friend. Maybe as some of the songs are a bit like those late night chats you have with close friends, sometimes silly, sometimes heavy, then they can give you room to put your own context into them, and maybe leave the listener to work out some knots of their own, or think of someone close to them.

Welsh Americana feels logical, with its harmonies and melodies.  What do you think?

Oh, I totally agree! I think there’s definitely something interesting in the link between Wales and country music. There’s a lot of country/Americana-inspired Welsh music from the 60’s and 70s and a through line from bands like Meic Stevens, Heather Jones, Brân, to Gorky’s Zycotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals to now Cowboys Rhos Botwnog, Melin Melyn etc, even TOM JONES (Green Green Grass etc) to name but a few. I’ve often had chats with people about this.

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot over the last few years, and am hatching a plan to make some sort of project looking into the historical links between Welsh music and Americana / country music. As one of the few pedal steel guitarists in Wales, it’s obviously of great interest to me!

I grew up singing in choirs in school, and that hymn-like singing with those sort of harmonies really ingrained themselves into my head, and it gives me joy like no other. You really feel like you’re inside the notes somehow when you’re singing in harmony with someone. My Dad played the organ in Chapel as a teenager, and he used to play old hymns on the piano a lot when we were younger. Those harmonies really found a home in my head! I think there must be a link with Welsh music and country music, through religious singing. A lot of those harmonies you hear in country/Americana are rooted in old hymns sung in churches and chapels. There’s even history of a rich Yodeling tradition in Wales! Could there be something in the themes of country music that tend to lean towards songs of hardship and sorrow? Welsh folk songs historically often live in a similar thematic world, and maybe the Welsh have historically suffered hardship, so have always found empathy with the country music scene from America. Maybe with similar hard lifestyles of farming and mining? Plenty to look into!

Quieter music with space in it, understated music, leaves a big emotional impact. Was that a motivation or aim for you with Chin Up, Chief?

It certainly wasn’t so much a plan of action, but just ended up having moments like that on the album as that’s the type of music I’m really drawn to. I’m not the strongest of singers, so I tend to sing quite quietly, and so like to keep verses pretty sparse. I think I wrote a lot of these songs pretty late at night as well, where I’m not so much in the mood to make a massive racket! I think they work quite well as late night songs, to give your mind room to wander. I’ve also been told I don’t play my instruments loud enough over the years! I think I’m just more into playing very subtly and quietly, where I think you can get more emotion out of an instrument, and then when you decide to really dig into something loudly, it has more of a pay off and impact.

It’s something I’ve been thinking more about lately though, and I’m finding myself drawn more and more to quiet music with plenty of room for the listener to fill in the gaps, and let the music breath. I’m slowly working on some pedal steel led instrumental music, and have enjoyed performing a few improvised set making noises and chipping away at some ideas.

Lyrics don’t come as naturally to me as melody, so I really like the idea of working on some instrumental music next, and exploring the possibilities of the pedal steel.

The arrangements on Garden’s A Mess are gorgeously melancholic, but there’s a psychedelic feel as well.

The beautiful string arrangements on that are by my good friend and extremely talented musician David Grubb. The references I gave him, were some Scott Walker (‘It’s Raining Today’), Radiohead (‘How to Disappear Completely’ which is in itself a reference to that Scott Walker song!) and some Laura Marling…a lot of drones, and clashing notes for the ending, and then some sweeter traditional quartet arrangements for the verses. I really really like the feeling of some musical clash that’s quite uncomfortable, that then somehow resolves, and gives you a sort of sense of relief. The take used on the album was initially just a demo, recorded on my keyboard and shoddy mic at home (you can hear me turn the page of my notebook in a verse to read the lyrics), but I just loved the feel, and the improvised piano on the ending was never bettered. I added some synths over the piano and then asked Stephen Black (aka Sweet Baboo) to improvise some clarinet over it. He did a few takes, and I cut them up into various bits I liked, and layered a few to make these weird clashing chords. The last few minutes was me having some fun on a few synths I’d recently discovered, and sort of floats off into a different world with Steve playing beautifully on the clarinet. I’m so happy with how it turned out, and think it’s great to fall asleep to!

Releasing a single once a year or thereabouts for 4 years is a tortoise wins the race approach. It feels like it’s worked?

It’s worked out for the best for me I think. I probably could have put some sort of album out around four years ago with some of these songs on it, half finished or not fully realised. But Covid kind of put it all to a halt and really made me think about what I want out of making music. And ultimately what I want has changed over the last few years. My aspirations have definitely changed. I’m in much more of a comfortable place now with releasing my own music. I’m so happy with how the album turned out, that’s the main thing. The fact that I sold out of the records in pre-sales really was such a happy surprise! It blew me away! People have had such nice things to say about the album and how it’s made them feel and what they get from some of the songs. That’s really more than I could have ever hoped for. Obviously recognition from your peers and people you admire feels great as well, so I think it’s ok to say I’m quite proud of it 🙂

It also gave me so much time to really tweak the songs, and mix over a long time, with no rush. I say me, I mean the genius that is Sam Barnes. We spent a long time mixing the tracks over Zoom, in fits and starts over the last few years. I’d forget about the album for a few months, and then pick back up again, and repeat. It was quite nice to just chip away at it for so long, I kind of miss that process now it’s finished and out in the world.

Welcome Home is a sad little number, then we get ‘Did we feel asleep last night afraid of waking up dead…’  That’s bleak. There humour in there, but bleak.

This is one of the oldest songs on the album, I think I wrote it about ten years ago when I lived above a vape shop, hilariously named ‘Totally Wicked’. The flat was absolutely freezing as our boiler had broken. So cold you could see your breath in bed, wearing two coats. This song was written while waiting for a plumber to come and fix the boiler. He was very late, and I was at the end of my tether, as maybe you can tell from the lyrics haha.

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Tell me about the album cover. The idea came from when ‘Tynnu Gwaed’ came out as a single, a few years ago? 

I genuinely don’t think the album would have had so many people check it out so quickly, if it wasn’t for the amazing artwork by the all-round wonder that is Molly! When we think of albums we love, we think of the artwork on the cover. It’s such an important part of the project as a whole. It catches your eye before you’ve even heard a note, and can pull you into the world that you’re about to live in for an hour or so.

I first asked Mol to draw something to go with the single Tynnu Gwaed, a few years ago. And she drew these characters in her style. I loved it. Then I thought, if I end up making an album, it would be cool if all the singles had these simple black and white drawings of characters and then the album cover itself would be a full colour world with all the little characters in it.

So the rest of the singles were just this, simple black and white drawings with mysterious characters that came together in a world full of colour on the album cover. I liked the idea of there being a sort of home in the middle that maybe all the characters come from, or go back to, with a big head/brain/consciousness thing there, as I recorded so much of the album at home, it seemed fitting.

I love the painting so much, and I’m very lucky to have it hang above the fireplace in our house, and very lucky to be married to such an amazing artist!

A who’s who of Welsh musicians worked on the album – a supergroup; but surely all musicians who make great albums are super. Discuss.

I love playing music with other people so much, and so I’ve ended playing for many musicians over the years. I enjoy playing for other people more than playing my own music I think, and through this I’ve met the most amazing people and musicians. So it was a no brainer to get some of my very talented friends involved in the album. It was a real treat for me to get to work with them all! I must admit I really enjoy geeking out, reading album notes and seeing who played on what tracks. Especially in Wales. I love seeing the thread of who played on what, and where they end up playing next. I get really excited about the fact that the musicians that played on this record also played on some of my favourite albums by other artists!

Own Two Feet is a ‘lighters in the air’ song.

Please wave your lighters carefully and responsibly. I nearly didn’t put this song on the record as I thought it was almost too earnest and miserable. Cheer up mate! I really like the second half when the band kicks in. But it needs the sort of macabre first half to have the pay off. I do still cringe a bit listening to the half haha, but it is what it is I guess. It works perfectly as the end of the first side of the record. I think you need a little break after that!

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The pedal steel is unfairly widely viewed as limited, do you think?

The pedal steel can be slightly pigeon holed into ‘country’ sounding music. I really love playing old 60s country music on the pedal steel, but I’m also really into making weird noises on it, and trying to do something completely different on it. There’s some amazing players and musicians really pushing the boundaries of what the pedal steel can do, and changes your expectations of the instrument. But I agree that the pedal steel can be slightly pigeon holed into ‘country’ sounding music. I really love playing old 60s country music on the pedal steel, but I’m also really into making weird noises on it, and trying to do something completely different on it. I’ve really enjoyed playing pedal steel for a variety of different musicians recently, trying to play it differently for different contexts. For example, playing with Teddy Hunter, who is predominantly an electronic musician, but the pedal steel works beautifully with a lot of the amazing electronic synth sounds she makes alongside Eugene Capper making all sorts of weird and wonderful noises through guitar and synth. I tend to play around with more droning, and extremely high pitched register, almost sounding like a theremin, or a saw. This really excites me!

A great album to check out the pedal steel in a different musical context is ‘Chrome Universal’ – a compilation album compiled by the amazing player Luke Schneider.

Check it out here.

””’Waiting / Looking – your take on The Supremes? Explain!Waiting / Looking’ – your take on The Supremes? Explain!

Haha, well this is basically just with regards to the singing in the chorus. I really wanted to do some sort of ‘call and answer’ thing and overlap the lines in a cool 60s sort of way. I don’ think I succeeded. I had a load of different versions, trying more complicated things but it always sounded like a mess. Pixy from El Goodo is amazing at this though. I should have just got him to do it!

Black and white photo credit: Gareth Bull

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.