As her latest album Pompeii demonstrates, Welsh post-punk musician Cate Le Bon finds wit in even the darkest places. By Shaad D’Souza.

Musician Cate Le Bon

Cate Le Bon.
Cate Le Bon.
Credit: H. Hawkline

Cate Le Bon first learnt about the tragedy of Pompeii in school – the suffering and the horror, the plumes of ash and violent, flesh-melting winds. “It’s this place of tremendous horror and suffering that has been captured, and then next thing they’re organising a school trip to go and see it,” she says. “You go and see this scene of people’s final gestures, but you can also buy a key ring that has Pompeii written on it … it’s like a misery tour, and then you buy a T-shirt that’s got some really jaunty font on it.”

For Le Bon, the Welsh musician born Cate Timothy, how we consider Pompeii – as a museum piece and interactive showground, rather than a palimpsest of suffering – says too much about the way we live now. Speaking in early January via Zoom from lush Topanga, California – a strong contrast, aesthetically, from her usual home in the Mojave Desert – she describes it as the only place her sixth record, named after the doomed city, could exist.

“We’re willing to put so much pain into the place, but not really willing to take on any of the suffering, because we are just so good at buffering ourselves from reality,” she says. For Le Bon, Pompeii is not an aesthetic or historical signifier but a metaphorical one – a place where anxieties can be sequestered scot-free, with the promise of never needing to encounter them again. “Every fear that I have,” she sings on Pompeii’s title track, “I send it to Pompeii.”

Le Bon has been making dramatic, glamorous post-punk albums for more than a decade now, and Pompeii – released this month on Mexican Summer – is the latest in a series of increasingly accomplished visions. Funky, melancholic, abstract, always catchy and irrepressibly inquisitive, it is an impressive record, although Le Bon’s ardent fan base – a relatively small albeit growing and devoted crew – would likely quibble over whether it deserves the title of “her best”.

Le Bon’s three previous albums, including 2013’s Mug Museum, 2016’s Crab Day, and 2019’s Reward, were remarkably consistent in their quality, to the point that they feel more like islands in an archipelago than rungs on a ladder. In a field populated by generalists, Le Bon is an avowed specialist, slowly and methodically charting the space between placid, heartbroken and absurd with each release.

Le Bon was born in Carmarthenshire, Wales, in 1983. She learnt violin at a young age and at 13 switched to piano, taking up guitar later in her teens. At 18, rather than go to university, Le Bon decided to pursue music. She started to play shows as Cate Le Bon and was eventually asked to support Super Furry Animals, the bizarre and brilliant Welsh group led by Gruff Rhys. Le Bon struck up a friendship with the group, recording her debut album in the studio of Super Furry Animals percussionist Krissy Jenkins, and eventually staying in Rhys’s house while the band toured.

In the intervening years Le Bon has recorded and toured doggedly, sometimes as part of other musicians’ bands, sometimes in her duo DRINKS with the Californian psych musician Tim Presley, and often with her own band. In the time between tours and working on her own music, she often produces records for other musicians – which is where she found herself in 2020, as the pandemic hit.

“I went to Iceland to produce a record for an artist called John Grant, and Stella [Mozgawa, acclaimed Sydney-born session drummer] came out to play drums on it,” Le Bon recalls. The day after Mozgawa arrived, Le Bon was driving her back to Keflavík Airport, faced with an uncertain future. Unable to return to her usual home base of America because she didn’t have “the right paperwork”, Le Bon decided to stay in Iceland, completing her work on Grant’s record. Then she flew back to Wales where, a decade after she had first lived there, she found herself once again occupying Rhys’s home.

“It was really quite a strange, confronting experience,” says Le Bon. “We had all these strange contradictions of being somewhere so familiar but also not being able to be with the people I hadn’t really spent that much time with for years, because [although] you’re geographically finally in the same place ... you’re still communicating with FaceTime.”

Producer Samur Khouja joined her in Cardiff, and together they began work on Pompeii. Initially they had wanted to work somewhere exotic, “like Chile or Norway”, to permit Le Bon to “shut out as many kinds of points of comfort and familiarity as possible” – a condition she says is key to her best creative state and likens to “what Virginia Woolf calls The Enormous Eye”. But the collision of her old life with her new at a time in which she was still isolated from Cardiff’s hometown comforts provided its own kind of unfamiliarity. “The vacuum I was looking for was certainly created, just in a way I hadn’t really anticipated.”

“Dirt on the Bed”, Pompeii’s opener, was inspired by Le Bon’s unsettled re-settling in Rhys’s home. It begins slowly, moving forward with uncertainty; saxophones squeak like underused hinges finally being put to work, as Le Bon sings about that uncanny familiarity. “After 10, 15 years, I still remember, instinctively, where all the light switches [in Rhys’s house] are,” she says. “And I remember where all the mirrors are, and I remember the sounds, and I’d find myself calling names out of people who I lived in the house with 10, 15 years previously. You’re just thinking, ‘God, if my body’s storing all that information without me realising, what else is it storing that is like, taking up disk space?’ ” She describes the feeling as “like I was living in a Kurt Vonnegut book”: “[To] be kind of confronted with the memories of the future that I had as my previous self, going back to this space, it was like a strange time travel.”

That strangeness translates to Pompeii, which has the quality of extraterrestrial funk music – groovy but startlingly minimal, high-gloss but impenetrably murky, horns and guitars doing all the wrong things in all the wrong places. Written on bass guitar, as opposed to Reward’s piano, its best songs have a chic, carefree strut to them, despite the anxieties their lyrics tease out.

“I kind of had a love affair with the bass guitar. When I was in Iceland, everything was insane, and I was on an island in the middle of nowhere, which is probably a good thing in a pandemic but also makes it a little bit more surreal,” says Le Bon.

“By way of keeping my brain occupied and not totally freaking out, I was learning bass lines to Talking Heads songs, because it was the only thing that would keep me level-headed. [Tina Weymouth] is one of my favourite bass players, so it made sense to kind of try and get into her head a little bit.

“I think as well, it’s kind of a danger when you’re making a record in such bleak times to make something very sad sounding. I think if you start with the bass, you’ve already agreed to having a groove that is never going to kind of fall into something too maudlin. If you start with the bass and you start with a really strong motif, then it becomes a framework for something quite playful.”

There’s something so undeniably Welsh about Le Bon’s quest to find playfulness even on one of her darkest records. She was born at a time when the Welsh music landscape was particularly fertile – a few years after the Young Marble Giants’ seminal post-punk document Colossal Youth, with John Cale in full view as a hero of the avant-garde, and Super Furry Animals a few years away from their debut Fuzzy Logic – and, perhaps as a result, her music feels in tune with a current of Welsh absurdism.

Lonely and discontented as Reward and Pompeii are, Le Bon’s records are playful and witty, often eschewing easily definable lyric and melody in favour of unpredictable turns of phrase and production flourishes, such as skronking saxophones and wandering synth lines inspired by Japanese city pop. This instinct, Le Bon says, comes naturally to her.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Cabaret Voltaire and Dadaism and connecting with people through absurdity and ambiguity,” she says. “It’s an endless way of connecting with someone – when you’re being very declarative, I think there’s a wall or a ceiling that you’ll inevitably hit.” As a result, her lyrics often possess a kind of vivid ambiguity and clarity, despite their occasionally oblique turns of phrase. On “Running Away”, a strutting, cinematic highlight of Pompeii, Le Bon sings about societal decline and unease with her usual obscurantist flair: “This could bring me to my knees / The fountain that empties the world…”

“One of the themes that runs through the record is this idea that I couldn’t escape when everything went a bit weird, which is that you will forever be connected to everything,” says Le Bon. “[I had] this sense of we’re all culpable for the mess of everything.” She cites a 1958 essay by the Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi – Le Bon has a keen interest in architecture and design and has often compared her music practice to carpentry, which she took a year off to study prior to making Reward – titled “The Moon”, in which Bo Bardi condemns the reckless pursuit of technological advancement that will eventually lead to humanity’s downfall.

“It’s about man, and all these incremental decisions that we make that ultimately lead to – well, we’ll die because of it, not to be bleak,” she says. “Sixty years later and these things [are still] pertinent, and you can have a very comprehensive understanding of these things that are ultimately going to cause our demise and yet you can still want the things that are causing that demise.”

Pompeii finds its tension in this battle between desire and self-destruction. Initially, Le Bon says, the album was going to be “solely about time”, a plan foiled by how lockdowns warped and condensed any sense of linear time. Instead, Pompeii most often contrasts the smallness of human emotions with a sense of grand cataclysm.

“Everyone’s struggling with identity and this idea of legacy [and] sentimentality, and how those things play into one another,” Le Bon says of the song “Remembering Me”, which comically finds Le Bon imagining “the remake of my life”, even as the future remains unknown. “But also the desperation to kind of mythologise yourself when you think that everything’s falling down is kind of ridiculous to me but also understandable.”

Le Bon resisted that impulse. Instead, she wrote letters addressed to a friend – Bradford Cox of the band Deerhunter – as a way of making sense of everything, without ever actually mailing any. Fragments of those letters comprise “Wheel”, Pompeii’s wistful, limpid closing track: “I could resign to the opulence / Of abstract optimistic love,” she sings, “Raise a glass in a season of ash and / Pour it over me.”

As with much of Pompeii, “Wheel” finds beauty in the uncertainty of a crisis. Le Bon herself says that uncertainty is crucial. “You start thinking, ‘God, is this my final gesture? Is this the last thing I’ll make? Is anyone even gonna listen to this? Does music even have a future?’ ” she says. “So you’ve got to try and tap into them. That sense of ‘Well, fuck it’ is a great thing that came from all that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Playing in the dark".

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