Interview: Cwfen

You could hear a pin drop in the quiet bits of the songs, everyone was so focused. That really was an amazing moment where we realised that sometimes you get to have dream gigs. I don’t think I’d ever had an experience before where it felt like everyone in the room was paying attention, and that seems to be happening more often than not at our shows.

With only two songs released to date, Glasgow’s Cwfen spent much of 2023 making a name for themselves the old-fashioned way – constant gigging, word of mouth and by being such an indomitable live force that everyone has been forced to sit up and take note. They take the occult doom template and amplify it, not just through volume and distortion but also via a sense of righteous ire, exhibiting an emotional depth that has singled them out as one of Scotland’s most promising heavy acts. David Bowes spoke to co-founders Siobhan and Douglas to explore where the band came from and where they’re aiming to go next.

E&D: How did Cwfen start out? How do you all know each other and when did you decide this band was the way to go?

Siobhan: Cwfen started as a slightly different project. I’d written a bunch of darkwave songs. We’re all musical and have been in bands for an embarrassingly long period of time, well over 20 years?

Doublas: That’s a bit telling!

Siobhan: You’re right, maybe we shouldn’t give that away and pretend we’re younger than we actually are. I hadn’t made any music for ages, during the pandemic especially, due to a lack of opportunity. Like a lot of people, I really struggled for a creative output while all the awfulness was going on but then out the back of that, Douglas had gone away on tour. I was by myself for a little while and decided to write some music.

Douglas: Pick up a guitar rather than a synthesiser as you were making quite a lot of electronic-type music.

Siobhan: Yeah, I made that stuff first and let you hear it. I was pursuing that as a project but when you went on tour, I decided to write some metal instead as that’s what I was feeling at that particular time. It’s always been those two genres that I really loved. I’d written a bunch of stuff, gone into the studio by myself and demoed some things – you’d come back.

Douglas: Yep, we’d been into the studio prior to this with our drummer Ross who is a long-standing friend of mine and who I used to be in a band with called First Temple of the Atom, which was our last project before Cwfen. It was more black metal. We’d been rehearsing as a 3-piece with synthesisers, a little bit of guitar and electronic drum stuff, then I came back from tour and you said, “Hey, we’re actually a metal band now.”

Siobhan: I did say that <laughs>

Douglas: You kind of sprung that on me. We’d just bought some synthesisers and electronic drums, but okay! We swapped back to being a more traditional heavy metal band rather than a synth band and we recruited the bass player Ian, who was also the bass player in First Temple Of The Atom, so we just borrowed the old band, got them in a room to make some noise and played the songs that you had written, and then we had Cwfen. That came together around January of last year.

Siobhan: Yeah, it was around then. There was that immediate shorthand for being really good friends for a long time as well as being married, as we are. That meant that when we got together in the studio that first time, there was none of that awkwardness that there sometimes is with new bands. We all know what we’re doing, we all know how to talk to each other and be honest with one another as well. That’s how it all started but that was a very long-winded answer. Started as a darkwave project, you went away, I decided it was going to be a metal band…

Douglas: I called up the old band and said, “Right guys, you’re in this band now”.

Siobhan: …and then after one practice, we thought “This is great”. We were all really feeling the music. I think we could see something in it.

Douglas: Something really clicked. Something was provided by the dynamic of the four of us in the room that was missing from the electronic stuff and was also missing from the old band as well. We always felt like there maybe should have been a fourth person in that group and we always felt like some of our material maybe wasn’t as complete as it should be, like another person could have brought ideas to the table that would have it sound like we wanted it to in our heads but we never quite got there. As soon as we started rehearsing with Cwfen, the penny dropped, like, “Ah, we’ve found that person!” The material was absolutely great, we just can’t wait to get our teeth into it and then it started from there.

E&D: How has the reception to the music been so far, especially live? You did a fair amount last year and I see that you already have loads lined up.

Siobhan: We’ve got quite a few that we’re about to announce, actually. We’ve been blown away by it. We wanted to make the music that we wanted to make rather than to make a particular genre or style, or to fit into a specific box or niche. What’s been really interesting is that, for all of us, it’s the first time that we’ve been able to just make music that we really wanted to make and put it in front of people and see what happens. Literally from the first gig we’ve been blown away by the things that people have said.

Douglas: The invitations that we’ve had, the press that we’ve had, it’s all been wonderfully good in a way that we’d never have expected it to. You take the rough with the smooth and you can’t please everyone all the time, of course, but every opportunity we’ve had has been of real benefit. People have been very supportive and encouraging. It’s a little bit spooky!

Siobhan: It’s never been something that we sought out. We’ll just play some shows and see what happens. If a few of our friends turn up that’ll be great but what’s been really amazing is that with each show we keep seeing the same faces in the crowd, and then more and more people coming. It seems to have a real ‘word of mouth’ thing happening, which is lovely. I’ve never been a frontwoman before, ever. That was never a thing that I explored in my previous bands. I’d always been a guitarist or on keys in the background; I’d never done any screaming or anything like that, so really it was a little bit experimental. There was a little bit of imposter syndrome, in that “Can I actually do this?” And then as soon as we did that first show I felt very much at home, and we felt so together as a unit. Audiences have been really responding to that and as we’ve grown in confidence, I’ve really grown in confidence. There’s still a ways to go there. There’s almost a feeding off the audience and then responding, and it’s just been amazing. I can’t wait to get back on stage as it’s the best feeling. Just seeing what people have been saying, how they are at the moment – I think there was a moment at Audio when we were playing with Devastator and looking out, and the place was absolutely packed and everyone was engaged. It was incredible. It wasn’t just a few people at the front.

Douglas: It was one of those moments where you look at the room and everyone is watching the stage, and you think, “Aw shit, people are really locked into this” and “I wish I’d maybe had a bit less to drink before we played”.

Siobhan: I was a bit poorly as well!

Douglas: You weren’t well, I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, and then we got on stage and that moment did happen. You could hear a pin drop in the quiet bits of the songs, everyone was so focused. That really was an amazing moment where we realised that sometimes you get to have dream gigs. I don’t think I’d ever had an experience before where it felt like everyone in the room was paying attention, and that seems to be happening more often than not at our shows. We’re a bit blown away by that.

Siobhan: It’s been really surprising, especially for that one. We were really looking forward to it and I think about 2 hours before we turned up to load in, I managed to get a sore throat and was feeling sniffly so I was sitting drinking Lemsips before, hoping that my voice would hold, and then it turned out to be one of our best gigs so far.

Douglas: We had to kick Devastator out of their dresing room. They’re doing their corpsepaint and we’re like, “Sorry, but we need to use the kettle”. They understood, though! Gotta keep the throat good.

Siobhan: It’s not very rock and roll but before I go on stage all I do is drink a load of tea. That’s all that’s ever on my rider!

E&D: What is your main source of inspiration in terms of lyrics? There seems to be a sense of history and given the name Cwfen, would that be things like the Scottish witch trials?

Siobhan: I’ve always been someone who has written and I’ll be the first to say that I read a lot of books. I’ve read fifteen this year already so it’s always been something that I spend a lot of time doing, whether that’s fiction or history. That is the biggest font of creativity for me. I think there are a lot of untold stories, especially around women in history. Also, where my family are from, which is Fife, there is a really strong connection to the Scottish witch trials as well. That’s something that I’ve always grown up around and it’s always been something that has spoken to me. I find a lot of inspiration in either literature or history, and that comes through in the lyrics. There’s a lot of storytelling. I often have an idea of the person that I’m trying to sing about or try to get into their state of mind whilst I am singing. I find that’s a good way to get over the nerves of being on stage – feeling like I’m there to tell someone else’s story. I’ve always enjoyed writing and poetry. Rather than the lyrics being particularly ‘straight’ I find there are a lot of literary devices that I try and employ. I don’t know if anyone actually listens to the lyrics but for me, that adds to what we’re doing and is as important as that sonic palette and the music itself. I often decouple them and have a couple of books that I’m writing lyrics in and then I’ll have entire folders on my phone full of riffs that I’ve written. Often the two will come together but what that’s made for is a really nice songwriting partnership between the two of us. We are the main songwriting force in the band.

Douglas: I’ve written lyrics before for a couple of the songs, I guess. I think when you came up with the concept of the band and the sound of the band, it quite naturally set a template for certain topics as well that are close to your heart – literary, historically. Previously I’d written lyrics that were more based around history and political history, things like miscarriages of justice and certainly things like witchcraft. I had a song about Thomas Aikenhead who was the last man in Scotland to be hung for blasphemy, he was a student at Edinburgh University. I think we aligned pretty quickly on what topics and style it was going to be, lyrically. I think the concept you had of the band derived and then once we had the name Cwfen picked, it became a thing where “Oh, we have a really strong concept for a band, it has an aesthetic, it has a mood” and I think the lyrics reflect that as well.

Siobhan: I think the whole thing for me is that I want it to feel like a whole cohesive thing, not just something where the lyrics are an afterthought or have just been scribbled down. I want people feel things when they listen to it or read the lyrics, even if they were to take the separate parts that it would hope it feels like part of a cohesive whole. I think what that has made for is that there is a framework for writing there that can be mined endlessly. I’ll constantly be finding other stories or bits of history, or reading new books, and from that a story will emerge. We tend to go back and forth where you’ll write some music and I’ll do the lyrics, or I’ll write music and you’ll do the lyrics. We tend to just fill in the gaps that are created quite nicely and that was something we had never quite considered before.

Douglas: It was never contrived. There’s a good dynamic and though there’s always a bit of friction, as there is with any band, times where we disagree on things and have to resolve it in a way that ultimately benefits the music rather than an ego. There’s never any ego in arguments that we have over it, creatively. It’s not about who gets the final say, it’s about what makes the song the best it can be.

Siobhan: It’s a nice bit of positive friction. There are never arguments, more, “Oh, I don’t quite agree with that. Should we try this then? Yeah, sure, and if not we’ll try it your way”. That means there are no ‘yes men’ in the band. Similarly for our drummer and bass player as well, who can’t be with us here tonight, but they’re a part of this too. Because we’re all friends and know each other really well, and we’re making music in a pre-established trusted relationship, we can be really honest about what’s working and what’s not. It means the writing process is very productive and quick, which is what allowed us to have a real bumper year last year off the back of not doing anything together previously.

Douglas: Within the 12 months of 2023, we came out the gate pretty fast and managed to achieve an awful lot, which I had never previously experienced in a band. We got some cool material recorded, it got out there and people listened to it, we got offered a bunch of shows, the traction was really positive and it’s very encouraging. We hope to up that this year and do more.

E&D: What are your plans for this year in terms of recording? Do you already have enough written for an EP or album?

Douglas: There’s quite a bit.

Siobhan: There’s a lot, we’ve just been deciding what our next move is. We’ve been a wee bit blindsided by the fact that everyone is so interested.

Douglas: I have a hard time being careful. I tend to want to rush into things – in an enthusiastic way! I’m quite happy to move forward at a pace that’s maybe a bit more punk rock than considered post-metal. Thankfully, Ian and Ross are good at providing the checks and balances, saying, “Let’s make this as good as it can be and not rush things through”. They’re very good at refining things and arranging the music as well. There’s a lot of material and most of it’s finished up enough for at least an EP, certainly. We’ve been talking to our producer, thinking about a couple of studios; if we’re going to do it, it’s going to happen pretty quickly. It’ll be done springtime.

Siobhan: That’s the plan.

Douglas: We’re back in the studio as of next week rehearsing for our live stuff, we’ll be working on material throughout March and April and then hopefully be planning on releasing something before the summer.

Siobhan: From my perspective as well, we wanted to let our sound percolate a little bit. The songs that are out there already, Dougie recorded. Amazing sound engineer, recorded them in our practice room and that was a hell of a feat. It was incredible. Took a couple of days of you running around like a headless chicken trying to get all that stuff done. All of us are musical, but there are a few of us that are musical technically as well. Our bass player is a doctor of music, you’re a sound engineer, Ross studied music production as well. There’s real skill in the band but what I all really wanted was to see what our sound translated to on stage and give ourselves a few shows as well. What we’ve really heard from people versus what they had heard our music in the context of live was “Oh my god, you guys are so much heavier in person” which has been lovely. We always knew we were going to be a heavy band, we all love really heavy music.

Douglas: That was something quite interesting because the recordings happened pretty quickly for ‘Embers’ and ‘Bodies Keep Score’. They were recorded pretty early in the stages of songwriting so that they captured us pretty accurately at that point in time but before we had played any shows. Once that had happened, we knew that the next time we recorded we need to find an outside person with a bit more perspective and experience to try and capture what we get out of playing live. Those recordings are good but they’re quite clean and I think that we’re a bit more gnarly and in your face live. It would be nice to try and get that on the next recording, so that’s why we’re thinking of using a producer rather than doing it ourselves.

Siobhan: We wanted to see how people actually responded to the music. We did more but thought that we would just release the two and see how it goes. We played some shows and what’s been amazing is that people are asking when we’re going to release more music.

Douglas: So the answer is releasing more music soon, playing a few more shows; we are in talks with promoters outside of Scotland, which is very exciting – hopefully some shows down south in England and Wales moving into summer; maybe trying to see if we can get onto a couple of festival bills. We know it’s early days and something I know that maybe other bands are a little more experienced with is the yearly cycle of release, tour, festivals; the pace to it that we maybe didn’t quite catch onto at the end of last year. There have been some setbacks with having to look after ourselves and recover so it means the first half of 2024 has been a little bit slower initially than we would have hoped but we’re certainly going to try and make up for that in the back half of the year. Then leading into 2025 we really want to get ourselves out there, get on festivals, be moving around and trying to get overseas to the continent. We think it’s achievable. From the encouragement that we’ve had thus far it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination that we should be able to try and achieve some of those things. The big headlines are release and recording soon, some nice shows in Scotland hopefully the north of England and then further south going into the summer. And then the world!

Siobhan: I knew I was going to have a big surgery in January and needed to take a big chunk of time off, and then moving studio as well. We knew that we were going to have to take the first three months of the year off which is annoying when you’re doing something that you all really love but it’s allowed us to focus the mind and discuss what we really want to do plan-wise in terms of recording, more writing. Now we’re in this really amazing space that’s all ours.

Douglas: We’re really lucky in that we’ve gotten this amazing studio space that we’ve been able to build from the ground up. It’s taken a bit of time. It was an empty room in a place that had never been used as a studio before, so it was completely from scratch. I’d say we’ve now got a space that we’re going to get an awful lot of use out of and hit the ground running on this one.

Siobhan: I really struggle to write if I’m not in an environment where I’m really comfortable, where it feels like it’s going to be productive. What you’ve done is amazing is that it’s set up and ready to go at any point. With a clean bill of health we’re ready to get back into the studio and really move at pace to get a record done. Play more shows, hopefully make a few more fans along the way.

 

E&D: With the two songs that had already been put out, ‘Embers’ and ‘Bodies Keep Score’, have they grown much over the spell you’ve spent playing them live?

Siobhan: Definitely. I think the songs are in our bones now.

Douglas: They have changed a little bit but I’ll be honest, it’s a tough one because going back to teenage me mindset, I hate when you go see bands live and they play stuff differently. Part of me is begrudging of the idea of changing anything too much but I do feel like since we’ve played that song live last year, were we to go and record it again – which we might for an album, as those were essentially demos though thankfully the quality wasn’t too bad, it turned out nicely. Potentially, if we ever get into the situation where we’re ready to go into the studio and record ten songs, a newer version of both those songs might sound a wee bit different. But at the core, there’s a thread running through both of them that would be unchanged. There’s stuff about it that we’ d never want to muck about with but production-wise, should we ever do it again, we’d change or at least make it sound a little bit more raw.

Siobhan: I think the songs, as we play them now, are faithful to how they were written but they’ve really matured into the energy that we have on stage as well. Even from my perspective, I’m much more confident in my screaming abilities now, which is something I taught myself how to do in the shower and the car and no-one in the band had heard me do before. I just turned up one day, like, “I’m going to try this thing!” and everyone was like, “You’re actually really good at that”. I spent a lot of time properly protecting my throat and it’s something I’ve learned to do on stage as well. I’ve never considered myself as having a nice voice, I’ve always considered myself as having a powerful voice. What’s been nice about playing metal music is it doesn’t have to be nice, it can be different; a woman’s voice that can be really heavy and that is something I take a lot of pride in. I find a lot of joy in doing that on stage. There’s more of that when we play live and I see people responding to that as well. When I listen back to the demos, I did do screaming on those as well but we pulled it really far back in the mix. If you’ve seen us live, that’s very much part of my persona when I’m on stage embodying that spirit of Cwfen.

Douglas: I think that’s true, going back to what I said earlier, I think we maybe in recording the songs before we had played them live, pulled things back a bit to make the recording sound more cohesive. If we did it again now, we’d really lean into the angrier, nastier, heavier bits and try to get a more aggressive sound out of it. ‘Embers’ does have a really strong melody. We changed the arrangement of that a number of times before we ever recorded it. That was one of the ones that started out as a synthier song – in essence, the riff came from there. It was played on keyboard so figuring out the best way to transpose that to guitar was an interesting process that changed a few times along the way.

Siobhan: That’s what was nice about having a couple of months off as well. We did a lot, and now we’ve had some time to reflect and think, “Okay, this is where we are now”. We’ve all got a much better sense of what that is. It feels quite second nature to be on stage and in that persona and in that sound now as well. If we were then to go back into the studio, and to go to a third party as well as other people hear stuff in music all the time. It surprises and delights me. What’s been really nice is that it seems to sit in this nexus of a bunch of different genres. We’ve got black metal fans, we’ve got goth fans, we’ve got doom fans; we’ve got a bunch of people who came to see us instead of going to see Blink-182 because that got cancelled! They had never listened to music like this before but they loved it. I think the benefit of having an outside producer now that we have a better idea of our sound would allow them to bring out what other people hear in it, which I think is important if we’re going to do a record.

E&D: Perhaps a really obvious question but you use the Welsh spelling for your band name, Cwfen. Is there a connection to the Welsh language for you or was it just trying to avoid confusion with the dozen other bands called Coven out there?

Douglas: Yes, partly. In this day and age, the process of trying to find an interesting and original band name is very hard, especially if you want to try and keep things simple. We did think pretty early on that having one word would be the way to go.

Siobhan: Okay, I’m going to show you something. We had about 500 names.

Douglas: We spent weeks –

Siobhan: Months, I think.

Douglas: When we lived in our old flat, we had a pub at the bottom of the street and on a Monday night we would go down to the pub and have a couple of drinks after work.

Siobhan: You see this?

<At this point, Siobhan shows her phone and scrolls through seemingly endless pages of text>

Siobhan: These are all potential names that we considered for the band.

Douglas: And there were some good names in there as well, but there was always the issue of someone else has already thought of it or if you Google it, what comes up is a bit weird. You’ve got to be aware of the search engine optimisation as well, so that when people search the name it doesn’t come up with something that you don’t want to be associated with. So yes, in part the choice to use Cwfen with the Welsh spelling was to avoid confusion with other bands with similar names. However, the idea of taking a word that we liked and changing it into a non-English language was also prevalent. We thought it would be cool if we could find a Scottish word or a Celtic word.

Siobhan: I think it’s more that, from my perspective. From doing a lot of reading, being interested in history and mythology; the Celtic periphery in the UK is something that’s really strong, whether that’s Cornish or Welsh or Irish or Scottish. As someone with Irish heritage as well, I’ve always been interested in the stories outside of the Anglosphere. When I saw it written down, I thought, “That’s our name!” I had a very, very strong connection to seeing it written down. Serendipitously, at the same time we’d gone out to see the Govan stones, The Viking burial ground.

Douglas: Old Govan Church, which is an ancient site of religious history. It has pre-Christian history, Viking history and it turned out that the guy who was giving us a tour told us that at one point in time the lingua franca of the central belt of Scotland was Old Welsh. There was a Gaelic connection.

Siobhan: Yeah, in the middle ages they basically spoke Welsh. It was Cumbric, which is where Cumbria comes from. So from there up to old Strathclyde. Gaelic was spoken in several parts of Scotland but here, it was Cumbric. When we saw that, with the Glasgow connection, the interest in Celtic mythology and the peripheral stories of the United Kingdom and beyond, it was like little breadcrumbs from the universe telling us that this was our name. Having something that catches the eye, like when you read it you think “What does that say?”, you’re going to take a moment to engage with what the name is whereas if we’d just spelled it another way or a simple word it wouldn’t be as memorable.

Douglas: I don’t think it was one of the names we worked on in the pub but when you sent me it I thought it looked good, I liked what it meant, there’s a bit of intrigue there, it ties into things thematically and historically that we were already talking about with it being Celtic history, and it literally meaning coven as well, it was great. We got a lot out of that one.

Siobhan: Music almost feels like a ritual to me. It’s always been something that’s like a form of magic – sorry if that sounds a bit cheesy – or some kind of practice. When you’re practicing ritual with a group of friends, that’s a coven and that’s what we’re doing here.

E&D: Thanks a lot for your time here this evening, it’s been great. Is there anything you would like to add?

Siobhan: For anyone reading this, and to you, thank you for being interested. It’s the most humbling thing.

Douglas: It feels like there’s a really good thing going on in Scotland right now and I think we’re very fortunate to have, by happenstance, fallen into the good graces of a bunch of other really cool people, bands, promoters and venues who are doing extremely great stuff right now. One of the real highlights was that we were featured in Kerrang! Magazine’s ‘20 Bands to Watch for 2024’. What I find most intriguing is that of those 20 bands, three were from Scotland. That’s amazing as I don’t remember Scotland having had that much of a presence on the national stage. We’ve always been not quite in the focus of the press even though heavy music has always had a strong heavy music scene up here. When I moved here, the big thing was hardcore metal. There were a lot of really good slam bands playing at The 13th vNote and The Barfly and it feels like we’re in an upswing right now. It’s good to be a part of that.

Siobhan: We’re at gigs all the time and we’re always seeing the same friendly faces. It really feels like something is happening in Glasgow right now in heavy music. I only moved here 4 or five years ago and I’d never played as part of the music scene here before and It’s blown me away with how collegiate, inclusive and respectful it is. I was at a gig the other night and there are girls in the moshpit, there are trans people doing sound – it’s amazing to see a heavy scene that isn’t what you typically expect. I’ve been playing music for a very long time and there’s always been a ‘girl in the band’ thing where you’re wondering if things will be a bit edgy or what the venue will be like. There’s never been that playing here at all and that’s really refreshing.

Douglas: We got this far without being described as ‘female-fronted’ and that’s pretty good.

Siobhan: So yeah, a real shout out to the Glasgow scene for including us, supporting us, inviting us in and turning up at our shows. It makes me want to keep playing music.

Douglas: And we will keep doing it. You’ve encouraged us now so we’re going to have to!

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