Back in the C19th, Wales was a gobby country.
It was a place known for its activism; where radical groups were challenging the establishment. It was a place of debates and marches; of strikes and protests.
But that was then. Things are different now – we’ve been taught the right way to behave. To cast a vote once every few years. That it’s okay to whinge and moan – as long as we don’t cause too much fuss. To not try and be clever. To keep calm and carry on.
It’s our only hope.
So the last thing Wales needs is the likes of Rhys Mwyn. Because he has demonstrated the terrifying power of…confidence. Of not accepting the way things are in Wales. Of being gobby.
It began when he and his brother Sion started a punk band called Anhrefn. It grew into a record label which became the catalyst for a Welsh music scene which has arguably done more to attract people towards the nation’s language and culture than the Eisteddfod has ever managed in recent times.
Interview with Rhys Mwyn
We were brought up in a place called Llanfair Caereinion; not far from Welshpool. We were from a Welsh-speaking family but we weren’t really part of any kind of Welsh world – the Eisteddfod and all that. We were close to the border so had grown up being comfortable with a mix of Welsh and English influences.
We were inspired by punk; there’s no doubt about that. The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Generation X and all that stuff. It was like somebody had switched on a light. But it wasn’t so much about the music for me.
It was more the feeling and attitude that came along with it – not accepting the way things are and starting to do things for yourself. The general attitude we had at the time was that everything Welsh is shit – so let’s change it. Let’s do something for ourselves.
Time for change
There was nothing Welsh that meant anything to us. There was nothing that connected – that you could feel part of. There were people talking the same language but it felt like they were from a different planet.
When I look back now; I can see that there were good things going on at the time. But living in the Welshpool area back then; that was our outlook. And it seemed like the only option was to start doing something ourselves – which is how Anhrefn started.
The whole scene back then was about ignoring the mainstream. So you’d write your own fanzines, you’d distribute your own music and promote your own concerts.
It was through starting to do all this that we began to bump into other people around Wales who were doing the same kind of thing. People like David R Edwards and The Cyrff boys in Llanrwst and, a bit later on, Llwybr Llaethog.
They were kindred spirits. People who had that same kind of attitude; who wanted to create an alternative form of Welsh culture. It took a couple of years but it slowly started to build up into a decent scene; people began to pick up on it.
Anhrefn – the record label
That side of things just happened. We were putting out fanzines and promoting gigs and building up a kind of distribution network. So without really noticing – you find yourself running a record label.
What really kicked things off was when we decided to do a compilation of the different Welsh bands. It was the kind of thing you’d hear on John Peel a lot; he’d play tracks from a compilation tape put together by Edinburgh bands or whatever.
So this was a Welsh version. And it made sense financially because individually we couldn’t afford to put out loads of different singles. So we stuck everything onto one record – Cam o’r Tywllwch.
That was the first chunk of vinyl we had. The Welsh media wasn’t much interested at the time so I took a plastic bag full of them down to London and started knocking on doors. I managed to find John Peel in a wine bar.
He looked at me and said: ‘You’re not a mugger, I hope’. I told him about the record label and stuck a copy in his hand; then a couple of nights later he played one of our tracks – Rhywle In Moscow.
It was great – we were being heard throughout the UK. And we knew that we were onto something.
The fact that this music was going out on Radio 1 forced the Welsh media to start taking it seriously.
They weren’t keen to open up the doors; it was more a kind of grudging acceptance. It’s understandable really because we were attacking them and what they represented.
And the more they flapped about things, the more it encouraged us. The worst thing they could have done is to have been enthusiastic and just played our music. That would have killed it dead.
But it was good fun. It was kind of creating something new – there was that Year Zero thing.
It’s funny how the faces you’d see at some of those early concerts would start to reappear over the years – people like Gruff Rhys and Rhys Ifans.
I remember some of them because they’d get in touch by letter and ask us to play in places like Ruthin. Trying to put on their own little gigs.
We always sang in Welsh but it was never done to exclude anyone. And we didn’t think of ourselves as a Welsh language band – we were just a band who sang in Welsh.
It was something we would constantly get asked about in interviews but when it came to the music itself, I’m not sure how many knew, or cared, about the language.
Anhrefn was just loud, full-on music with guitars blasting; so nobody gave a shit about the language really. As long as they liked the noise.
Our record company, Workers Playtime, did once ask us to do a song in English and we told them politely to get stuffed – they gave up trying after that. I’m sure a lack of compromise did limit our success but we were never motivated by getting on Top of the Pops or any of that.
Life on the road
The European tours were what kept us going for so many years. They were a bit of a treat – decent pay and well organised. You were fed and watered and you’d be given a place to stay. So if you were touring for six weeks, you wouldn’t really be spending any money.
And by the end of the tour you might have a couple of grand in the kitty to keep you going until the next time. It meant we never faced the same pressures with money that some of the Welsh bands were facing.
It was around that time when some groups were starting to sing more stuff in English; which is when the likes of Super Furry Animals and Catatonia began to emerge and the whole Cool Cymru thing arrived.
They were looking to open up new frontiers and that’s what they did.
We knew our time in Europe was coming to an end. I remember one gig in Stuttgart; I looked out from the stage and all I could see were identical blue Mohican’s – hundreds of them.
It was like being in a comedy sketch. All the politics and individuality, which had been part of punk, had drained away over the years and it ended up like this. So it was time to move on.
We came back off the tour and none of us could be arsed to do another one. So we stayed in the studio for a year doing the Land of My Mothers album and then we just moved into other things.
I’d known Mark and Paul from Cyrff right from the start; I was with them for their first session in the studio but we lost touch a bit during the 80s.
Then I had a tape through the post; it was a demo by Cerys and Mark. It was obvious that they had something special. I phoned Mark’s mum up in Llanrwst and then about three weeks later he got back to me and we met up in Cardiff.
I managed them for their first two singles but they didn’t need much managing. It was obvious from day one that they had what it takes and knew how to make it happen.
It has to be a good thing. Anything which devolves power closer to the people it serves is a positive. And I think slowly, people are starting to see the benefit of having an Assembly.
But there’s also the argument that all you’re really doing is moving the bastards from London to Cardiff. I really don’t have much respect for politicians or the political process.
And I think we’re starting to reach a point in Wales as regards the Welsh language, where we can just say; whatever it is we’ve been doing for the past 50 years or so – it’s not working efficiently enough.
We need to start taking a radical look at every aspect of Welsh culture. It should all be up for debate and that’s not something I see happening in the Welsh Assembly.
At the moment, we’re just carrying on with the same old patterns. We need a total re-evaluation and I don’t see anyone, at this moment in time, who shows any interest in starting this conversation.
There’s a disconnect between people and politics. People just have contempt for them and it’s something I share. I do quite a few of these debate panels on Welsh media shows with various members of the Assembly or Westminster Government and a lot of the time I just think….I’m not convinced.
There are exceptions, especially some of the women in Plaid Cymru, but generally I just sit there watching them spout off whatever their party wants them to say. There’s no genuine interest in alternative views; there’s endless talking but no real debate.
I think there’s a danger that we can become too focused on being oppressed. So that our history isn’t so much a celebration of all things we’ve achieved but a list of dates when we’ve been oppressed. It’s not that we can’t talk about these things but we need to find new ways of doing it – a different approach.
It’s like when I give talks to people about Caernarfon. It’s a town with a Roman fort; we’ve got Edward I’s castle and it’s also one of the most Welsh-speaking towns in the country. So it’s a really interesting mix. And if you discuss this context with people, they naturally start to engage – they want to know more about it.
But what I don’t think works is just banging on about how the castle is a symbol of oppression and what bastards those Romans were. There’s a kind of industry in Wales based around being oppressed. It’s really a case of not letting those things define who we are.
We’ve got many things in our heritage to be proud of but that’s not where the focus is.
I suspect they’re going to fail to win the vote. I don’t want that to happen but that’s my gut feeling and it would certainly have an impact on Wales.
But I think the best approach may be to stop worrying about independence and just start focusing on changing things in the here and now; things which are achievable. You’d probably get closer to independence that way; if you stop dreaming of a future utopia and just take a practical look at what’s broken and what can be fixed.
One of the projects I’ve been looking at is a festival in 2015. I want it to be something which mixes Welsh history, heritage and culture. Something bilingual which brings people together; which is inclusive. It would be a way to get people to connect with the heritage we’ve got. So it would be a mix of music and talks and discussions. Just something to set off a few sparks.