Profile : Patrobas
Drive the direct route from Caernarfon to Nefyn and you skirt along a flat ledge of land between the pressing mountains and the sea; you then climb a twisted braid of road between the peaks of Yr Eifl and Mynydd Carnguwch until there is a sudden, uninterrupted view down the rest of the Llŷn peninsula. Nefyn lies ahead and below, a thin town behind an arc of dunes, low cliffs and beach.
It's a windswept, elemental place, and it was an apt setting to meet Patrobas; they are a contemporary folk band with definite roots - and this stretch of land is very much part of their home ground.
I first saw Patrobas in 2016 - on an open air Sesiwn Fawr stage during a biblical summer downpour; rain so heavy that is was an unequivocal testament to them that people stood and watched the whole set. There was a life to their performance that made it worth the drenching.
Although still a young band now (one of them is in the sixth form, the others working or at university) they had already formed by 2013, and released a rattlingly good debut, Meddwl ar Goll, in 2015 as part of Y Selar Singles Club. They were then invited back to the same studio by SAIN to make an EP, Dwyn y Dail, released at the end of that same year.
There are five tracks on the debut EP: it opens with Mwncwns Abertawe, two traditional tunes fused and delivered with verve and energy, led by Iestyn Tyne's dancing fiddle; then Meddwl ar Goll, the first single, which with the next track, Deio i Dywyn (a traditional folk song), is a clear nod to the huge and positive influence Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog have had on the band. This trio is followed by Lle Wyt Ti ('Where are you'), a yearning then soaring piece of folk pop, and the closing song Lladron ('Thieves') - at once accomplished, mournful and mellow.
Listening to Dwyn y Dail it is clear that Patrobas have already successfully bridged the divide between the traditional and contemporary, at times with as vivid a spirit present as is found and cherished on classic crossover folk albums such as The Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues.
After a few changes they have had a settled line up for a year, but Wil Chidley (guitar, vocals, banjo &, mandolin), Carwyn Williams (drums, percussion & backing vocals) and Iestyn (fiddle, mandolin & backing vocals) go back a long way - they have all known each other since their secondary school (Ysgol Botwnnog) and they already knew latest recruit Gruffydd Davies (bass & backing vocals) well from local bands. They have a great deal of shared community and experience outside music.
In life they are self-effacing but committed to what they do; Wil laughed when asked what keeps them going, "We just play in the band to keep us out of trouble at weekends!". There's more to it than that - with all the constraints of school and university exams they still played fifty two gigs last year and worked up an album's worth of new music. It's a long term path too, for Wil initially sign-posted by the work of high profile local musicians, as he readily explained:
"I was only seven when I saw Gai Toms playing the guitar and the harmonica at the same time on a stage, and I was completely sold. It was at the Eisteddfod, I was meant to be seeing Bryn Fôn, but Gai was support. His was the first CD I ever bought. And about the same time, whilst I was still at primary school, I was already listening to Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog ."
Iestyn, who clearly has thought deeply about what he wants to achieve with music, built on the name check:
"They are the key to us - Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog have found a way to take the traditional and make it relevant and modern without losing its heart. We try to do the same."
Other, more contemporary influences are also evident - for Wil, Mumford & Sons:
"They are probably my favourite band - they also play a lot with open tunings, and I?d like us to experiment with that in our music too. I also have a lot of time for Plu."
"At the moment I am listening a lot to Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - again (as for Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog) the folk is there but it's mixed with blues, rock and pop - they start with this traditional base and themes but they build it up with sounds and influences from so many different genres."
And it rapidly becomes evident that working with different musical forms is a key driver for Patrobas; as Carwyn, who with Gruff had been listening to the other two intently throughout, underlined, with emphasis from his own perspective:
"I also play in orchestras - the tuba - and I do a bit of jazz piano, but nothing too serious! (laughing - which suggests it might be)"
When I met them this breadth of activity was about to be drawn together creatively in the studio - as they started the sessions to record their first album, again with SAIN, the next day. Talking about these sessions, and the rehearsing and writing behind them, it rapidly become clear that although Wil and Iestyn tend to lead on the songwriting, the end result is a detailed, shared collaboration, as Iestyn explained:
"This time out it's all our own material - so me and Wil have written most of the songs - but sometimes we are just bringing fragments, and whatever we write, it only really develops when the band together gets its hands on it."
Wil laughing, expanded on this :
"They never stay the same, they always completely change once the band as a whole add their ideas..."
And Iestyn emphasised the point:
"One person brings something - even if it is the tiniest idea - but it is only when we all play together and work on it that is takes the shape of a song."
The album is being produced by Aled Hughes (Cowbois' bassist and producer of Plu), and as with Dwyn y Dail, the new album will all be sung in Welsh (Wil: "It's our community - who we relate to through the songs"; Iestyn: "It's not political for us, it's natural - I do have a couple of English language songs written, but in essence it is not an issue, it's just an expression of who we are."). They are clearly excited about where they have got to as a band, summed up by Carwyn's palpable enthusiasm:
"You can see all the different things we do coming together in the new songs; we have our own sound now."
And Iestyn added:
"And we are all maturer, older - we know what we want to do."
Which brings us to why we made a trip to the Llŷn Peninsula on New Year's Day, and why Patrobas made our 2017 Watchlist so readily.
So far only one demo of a new song has been released, and a few of the songs played live - but already there is a clear developmental step up from Dwyn y Dail. The demo, Castell Aber, has a new depth to the lyric, but is also an infectious song - evident when someone I was out with, and who had only overheard it once playing in the background of a conversation, hummed the melody all around a shop.
If Castell Aber does not get under your skin the fault is with you; whatever the genre it is a great, relaxed and happy song. Iestyn smiled with recognition when I recalled the supermarket hummer:
"More complex and contemporary lyrics, as we have in the new songs, also help bring attention to more traditional music forms - but that's a song people always sing along to by the third verse when we play it live - it does exactly what we wanted it do!"
And that is it in a nutshell, relentless live shows - in sessions, in pubs and on festival stages - have honed their sound. They are now a band on the cusp of being what they want to be, of recording the sound as they imagine it in their heads; contemporary but rooted in heritage and place, and from the outside who knows what that means exactly yet, except it should be magnificent.
Patrobas are effortlessly grounded in where they are from and what they have listened to and seen - utterly unashamed of what influences them, gathering their inspirations together then creating something of their own - as Isaac Newton pithily said in 1676: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
On the road back, in the fading evening light (a much slower paced transition than on other over-illuminated parts of the North Wales coast), we played Castell Aber and Dwyn y Dail in the car. It is animated music that fits the place - definitely folk, but not just folk - and much more than just a worthy development of what has gone before.
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