In June 2012, Gruff Rhys of popular combo Super Furry Animals announced his second investigative concert tour of the Americas. His previous tour was the subject of SEPARADO!, in which Gruff searched South America for his long-lost uncle Rene. AMERICAN INTERIOR climbs further up the family tree and out onto its flimsiest branches, in a fanciful but rewarding attempt to trace the steps of the legendary adventurer John Evans. The Super Furry Animals’ songs have often championed heroes from modern history, from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie, and AMERICAN INTERIOR is wreathed in the same celebration of wonder, pioneering spirit and ingenuity.
This road movie/”Who Do You Think You Are”/American history lesson/mythical adventure story begins in Wales in 1792, where the 22 year old weaver John Evans first heard an opium eater in a pub telling tales of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Accompanied by a Muppet reconstruction of his ancestor, Gruff traces his footsteps, acting as Evans’ personal bard as fact and fiction unfold in harmony. Dramatists, librarians, historians, a psychiatrist and a self-sufficient river dweller all contribute their personal experience, speculation and expertise to bring the odyssey to life.
Gruff brought his film to Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on 29 July, and the following is an abridged transcript of his Q&A hosted by Jack Toye.
Do you think someone will search for your digital relic one day?
Yeah, I pity them.
Now that the internet has shrunk the world, what frontiers would be left for John Evans if he were here today?
We went to a Mexican film festival and speculated that narco traffickers would kidnap John Evans, and Mexican wrestlers would save him and train him to be a Nacho Libre wrestler, and he would save Mexico.
On the AMERICAN INTERIOR album, book and app:
The John Evans story is a big one and there was scope to write a book beyond the film. If we’d tried to cover everything it would have been unwatchable. We could get the geography out of the way with an app. The songs don’t have much facts – the books have loads. Penguin published the app and we thought we’d have sound designers, but we didn’t so we had to guess what a pro app would sound like. We didn’t know how to do the special effects so we did it by mouth. And there’s three crickets. [He demonstrated the cricket noises on the app]
On the American cop who arrested and cuffed the muppet John Evans:
The cop was in Rio Grande in Ohio, and my friend persuaded me to go there. It’s a really conservative part of town with a Democrat mayor, with nose piercings and tattoos, who’s into Grateful Dead. He sent cops to meet us at 6am and they serenaded us into town with their sirens, and we had coffee with the mayor. We said, “can we get the cops to arrest John Evans?” and he said, “Yeah”.
On the plaster Gruff has on his nose in St Louis:
It was 40 degrees and I got sunburn so bad I started to bleed so I got a plaster in St Louis, which is by coincidence the hometown of Nelly, who wrote “It’s getting hot in here” – and he wears a plaster like that.
Was your music based on the maps [charted by Evans, which were later used by Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery expedition]?
I was recording during the trail and the studio was in Omaha, and Klyph the drummer is from Kansas and the pianist is from John Evans’ village, and learned piano in the chapel where John Evans’ family would have gone. I mixed it in Bristol, which has no John Evans connection whatsoever.
Did your avatar John Evans open up things you didn’t expect?
He was like a cuddly visual aid. People would soften up a bit and borrow us their speedboats. He opened a lot of doors until New Orleans, when people assumed he was a fetish.
On meeting Dr Edwin Benson, the last speaker of the Mandan language, in the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota:
When we met Edwin Benson, his grandkids were playing “World of Warcraft” on a giant screen in the next room – so there’s lots of worlds in the same place. There’s a huge fracking problem in the reservation. The [native language speaking] communities are severely underfunded. There is an oil boom so there are fancy coffee shops, but wages are really low. Not many people benefit from the boom. The assimilation policies pushed by the US government have died. The 180 mile long river was put there in the 1950s which decimated the community, so native speakers were separated. Children weren’t allowed to speak their mother tongue. They now have their own pop culture and pow-wows, and their own identity and neo-sovereignty. The only way is up. They have been treated so terribly but it was very inspirational.