The Welsh language can be a disorientating thing: the tongue-twisting town names, the rolled letters, the jarring collisions of nasal sounds. But having been plagued by decades of low-level stereotypes – such as references to phlegm and the inevitable sheep jokes – for its speakers, including Melin Melyn (translating to Yellow Mill), it’s a practise of national patriotism that is intrinsically tied to identity, often as an act of defiance.
“It’s a minority language, and we feel protective over it,” says lead singer Gruff Glyn, speaking to NME in east London for their first ever interview. “But Welsh is not an exclusive club. I love it when people take it upon themselves to learn how to speak it. Just because our songs are in this language, it doesn’t take away the quality of the music.”
The six-piece – completed by Garmon Rhys (bass), Will Barratt (guitar), Rhodri Brooks (pedal steel), Cai Dyfan (drums) and Dylan Morgan (keys) – are among a handful of native-speaking bands including Adwaith and Pys Melyn that are proving that Welsh-language music is gradually becoming unencumbered by ignorance, history and novelty quirks. “We didn’t ever set out to be in the position where we would be promoting the language in such a progressive way,” says Barratt. “But we’re happy to spearhead this movement; if non-Welsh listeners want to join us on this journey, then hop right on board.”
It’s a forward-thinking statement that underscores the band’s lively debut EP ‘Blomonj’, released today (August 17). Their willingness to sing in pronounced accents (in both Welsh and English) is turned into jaunty, homespun surf-pop that is exuberant and refreshing, with lyrics that are gleefully fascinated with Celtic folklore; ‘Dewin Dwl’ illustrates the colourful adventures of “the mischievous wizards who debate on a hill” over slippery rhythm sections, bolstered by a cheeky shot of saxophone. Much like the rest of the EP’s six tracks, it plays like a welcome message to the vivid whimsy of Melin Melyn’s imagination; you can experience it firsthand at this weekend’s Green Man Festival (Aug 19 – 22) in the Brecon Beacons.
For their obvious brilliance and eccentricities, you do get the sense that Melin Melyn have not always been taken as seriously as their Anglocentric peers. Beyond the bilingual lyrics, the band revel in eroding genre barriers with experimental percussive elements, similar to the techniques deployed by the likes of Squid and Goat Girl. But after meeting through mutual friends, the band played their first run of London shows in early 2019, and they were hit by a barrage of condescending questions from gig-goers. “We’ve been sworn at and told to change the band name,” recalls Glyn, while Rhys and Barratt nod in agreement. “But people can come in with that attitude, and we will happily try and win them over with the music.”
He continues, with a growing smirk: “I have had people ask me, “Why the hell are you singing in Welsh outside of Wales?’. And my honest reply would be, ‘Well, why not?’. They should be fascinated by it, rather than intimidated.”
They say that landing a deal with Sheffield indie label Bingo Records in April this year was one of the first real signs that their DIY-minded take on pop and psychedelic stylings had started to cross language barriers. And for a growing number of curious listeners over the border, ‘Blomonj’ can provide a fun entry-point into Welsh history through its bouncy, gelatinous choruses. ‘Rebecca’, for example, is about the mid-19th Century riots that took place in rural west Wales, where farmers dressed in skirts for disguise and stormed a number of toll-gates. “If we can take elements from these important stories and pass them on in our own bonkers way, then we hope that other Welsh bands will do the same,” says Rhys.
Although Cardiff, the band’s stomping ground, went into hibernation like many other cities during the pandemic, the slow death of its once-burgeoning and vibrant music scene was forecast years before this nightmare began. Despite being home to Spillers, the oldest record store in the world (it was established in 1894), and officially being declared the UK’s first ‘music city’ in 2017 by the Sound Diplomacy, the Welsh capital has undergone a series of high-rise building developments in recent years, which has left multiple independent venues dead and buried. Even a 20,000-strong petition and a well-attended march couldn’t save the beloved Gwdihŵ; before it was forced to shut its doors in January 2019, it helped to launch the careers of local bands Pretty Vicious and Boy Azooga.
These problems have only been exacerbated by coronavirus, says the band of the lack of funding and protection for venues across the city. “Cardiff Council need to take a good look at themselves,” Glyn says. “It is really difficult to accept because we apparently pride ourselves on being a land of culture and song – yet we’ve lost at least a dozen venues in less than a decade due to greedy landlords.” Barratt adds: “But there is a feeling of community and uprising against all this, and that will hopefully save what’s left of Cardiff.”
With that in mind, Melin Melyn want to put a much-needed spotlight on the scene that developed them before it’s too late, and ‘Blomonj’ is a celebration of their country’s culture in all of its joyful and inclusive glory. As Rhys concludes: “If you’re not open-minded enough to enjoy what we’re doing, then maybe we’re not the band for you.”
Melin Melyn’s debut EP ‘Blomonj’ is out now via Bingo Records