by Stuart Dredge
Super Furry Animal’s second film will be accompanied by an album, a book and an app
Musician Gruff Rhys’ latest project saw him following in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer John Evans, who spent 1792 hunting for a fabled Welsh-speaking Native American tribe.
The American Interior project has spawned an album, but also a book, a film and an app, produced by the company he set up with his partner Catryn Ramasut to make previous film Separado in 2010. Book publisher Penguin is also on board as a partner.
Rhys talked about the new project in an appearance at the SXSW conference today, explaining its structure around an “investigative concert tour” across the US, accompanied by a slideshow presentation and a felt avatar of Evans – a distant ancestor.
“It’s an extremely tall story played out on an epic scale,” said Rhys. “Welsh people thought that Prince Madoc had discovered America in 1170. It was believed that he’d sailed to Mussel Shoals in Alabama, and gone up the Mississippi Basin and the Missouri Basin, and that his descendants had become the Mandan tribe.”
In 1792, Evans set off to find out if this was true, getting into all manner of scrapes along the way: malaria, snakes, jail and more. 221 years later, Rhys followed in his footsteps.
“There’s one slight problem: we have no idea what he looked like, because it was before digital surveillance! And he was from an impoverished background, so nobody wanted to paint him. So we had to reconstruct him,” said Rhys.
Hence the avatar.
Rhys toured the US in Evans’ footsteps, playing songs and telling his story, while encouraging people to bring their own scraps of information about his ancestor. It’s a truly engaging tale, and Rhys clearly relishes its the tragicomic aspects.
“He discovers volcanoes, he maps mysterious volcanoes on the Missouri Basin, but of course he didn’t know what volcanoes looked like, coming from Wales, so that still baffles mapmakers today,” he said.
Evans died at 29 years of age, having failed in his mission to find the fabled tribe, and his body was thrown into an anonymous grave in St Louis cemetery: “Where they take the acid in Easy Rider” according to Rhys, as he showed a map
“I’ve been a touring musician for a long time, you usually go out and promote a record and go t cities which they all markets, where you hope a lot of people are going to take notice of you and come to your shows,” he said. “But this was an investigative concert tour: the tour came first and then I made the record, with all the new details I discovered on the tour.”
Filmmaker Dylan Goch directed the film of the journey, Rhys wrote the book about the tour himself when he returned home, and worked with Penguin and developer Storythings on the app, which will be released later this year alongside the film, which is premiering at SXSW.
“The first thing that jumped out to me as the digital person and the books editor was the strength of the story,” said Nathan Hull, digital development director at Penguin, who was speaking alongside Rhys at the conference.
Ramasut talked about having learned from the experience of Separado, which had generated more than 100 hours of footage and an album that was never released. This time round, she and Rhys wanted to make more use of all the material that they new would be created.
“It was a data management nightmare!” she said. “There’s no one system where you can store all the images, all the video, all the endless edits of the film, all the pictures Gruff had taken, all the artwork we were having created, all the animations.”
She said that the film’s narrative flow couldn’t possibly accommodate everything that had been shot for the tour, which is where the app will come in: “We got stories that were outside the John Evans narrative that were often powerful, political and emotional, that were perfect to use in the app,” said Rhys.
“Dylan cut a series of two-minute video essays outlining profound history anecdotes that don’t fit in the John Evans story, but which are extremely moving and emotionally powerful. So we’ve been able to create an app that goes beyond the film and the record and the book. It can exist on its own merits, and it has real emotional power.”
Hull said that the app will be structured around 100 “packets” of information: imagery, animation, film, video, spoken-word and song. “It allows the user to navigate via the map and reflow the story, but using these really sensitive parts of the story that maybe haven’t come across in the other formats,” he said.
The book was always part of the plan. “I’m a songwriter, so I didn’t have an ambition to write a book really, but there was a need for a book on John Evans so people could have more background history, so I decided to write one,” said Rhys. “The narrative is so strong, it writes itself.”
Rhys’ first language is Welsh, but he was writing in English – “hopefully there will be a Welsh translation soon” – but the app will be bilingual, which Rhys said is a really exciting aspect to the project. “It’s easier to make a bilingual app than a bilingual book.”
Rhys talked about how the album evolved as he toured. “The geographical journey was crucial for every aspect of it for me,” he said, noting that he picked up musicians along the way to record with. “Although if you heard the record you’d have no idea of these geographical aspects, it was very important for me to do it that way.”
It’s not a concept album though. “It’s a biographical album,” said Rhys.
There’ll be a “superhub” website to glue the different elements of the project together. “Although there is an individual platform for album, book, film and app, we needed it tall together,” said Ramasut. “What we’re trying to do with the website is to change consumer habits and get people to buy directly from us, creating our distribution channel.
She continued: “Everyone knows iTunes and Amazon dominate the market, but for independent filmmaker sand musicians, it’s imperative that people start buying from us directly, so they don’t lose that 30% off to iTunes and Amazon, and then their distributor, so you’re only left with 45% of what you could have made from the sale.”
Ramasut said that these kinds of multi-platform projects are “few and far between”, and said that it was important to have the creative talent holding it all together from the middle. “We’re learning why it’s that difficult as we go along!”
Rhys talked about the involvement of illustrator and artist Pete Fowler, who created the series of drawings that were used to create the avatar, as well as the graphics for the film, the font used for the album and book, and a series of animations for the app. “He’s been integral to creating the John Evans world,” he said.
Rhys had “fragments” of information and letters to go on when planning his journey. He explained the winding route by which he chased up more details.
“We have some fragments of letters, and the Spanish government in New Orleans occupied everything to the West of the Mississippi at this time, and when they sold Louisiana, they shipped all the documents to Cuba so that the US wouldn’t get their hands on secret documents,” he said.
“And when Cuba was under threat, they were shipped in the 19th century to Seville in Spain. So a lot of John Evans’ papers, I had to go to a library in Seville to look for them. Which was strange… My role model was Columbo, trying to piece together his story!”
The more he pieced together, the more he found out how much Evans had suffered. “It’s a tragicomedy in a way. He died at 29 in New Orleans, and he’d come from poverty, and it’s remarkable how he survived at all,” said Rhys.
“And I’m still finding things out. Obviously I’m not an academic or a historian, I’m a songwriter. My research has been quite haphazard and very personal, so… I’ve finished the book now, which represented what I knew up until a few months ago. But now I’m finding out more!”
Hello :) Noticed I’d been getting some replies on a couple of things I’ve posted here, so I just thought I’d post a quick note to say that I definitely see the replies, but there’s no convenient way for me to answer back. Hope no one thinks I’m ignoring them! If anyone ever wants to get in touch, there’s always the ask box, or you can send me a message on my main blog.
Gruff Rhys wears two watches. The one on his left wrist is Chinese, dayglo pink and has a small LCD screen at the top with a larger metallic speaker below. Press a button and it tells you the time, the day and the date, all in a tinny Chinese voice. The one on his right wrist is Japanese, silver and has a small LCD screen at the top with a larger metallic speaker below. It hasn’t worked properly since Gruff jumped, fully clothed, into a swimming pool backstage at Spain’s Benicasseim festival last year. And Gruff likes it broken.
“It died for about three days and then came back to life,” he says. “Sometimes it just starts talking and goes on for half an hour, just on memory. It’s like a friend. It exists in random time. It’s polite as well. It says, ‘Thank you’.