Interviewer: I wanted to ask you how it’s been spending such a significant part of your career actually working in a second language.
Gruff: It’s quite unexpected, really. I started out recording in Welsh. I was playing drums in bands from when I was about thirteen that were singing in Welsh. And I started my own band with my best friend when I was about sixteen and started recording in the Welsh language just instinctively, really. I didn’t sing a word of English really until I was twenty-five. I think once I’d made a kind of political decision in my head where I was able to justify with myself that I could use the English language for the beauty of it and accept English as a beautiful language … I don’t know, it took me a few years to cut my tongue around singing in it, and I think the first album I sung in English was ‘Fuzzy Logic’ with Super Furry Animals. If you listen to that record, there’s a sort of selection of accents on that record where I’m trying out my English singing accent … because I’d moved from North Wales — I’d moved around a bit and ended up in Cardiff, so my English accent was all over the place anyway. So I still write in Welsh as well and it seems a little more instinctive. There’s maybe a little bit less rock and roll clichés in the Welsh language. But I’m quite surprised that I’ve made more English language albums now than I have Welsh language.
Interviewer: What’s the language of your mind? Do you think in Welsh and then translate?
Gruff: I think in color and maths. I think thought is beyond language and I think that’s the power of music as well — it has an emotional power beyond language and people can respond to music from any language, really.
(from Crack Magazine)
NEON NEON’S SECOND FULL-LENGTH BRINGS THE LIFE OF A MID-20TH CENTURY ITALIAN COMMUNIST INTO GLEAMING FOCUS.
“Art always serves beauty, and beauty is the joy of possessing form, and form is the key to organic life since no living thing can exist without it.”
So reads one of countless stunning passages from Max Hayward and Manya Harari’s translation of Boris Pasternak’s remarkable revolutionary love story Dr. Zhivago. One of the great novels of the 20th century, the name of Pasternak and the tale’s eponymous protagonist are frequently-acknowledged figureheads in modern literature. But one individual rarely given his dues for the role played in bringing this work to the wider world is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. The Italian publisher and left-wing activist helped smuggle the manuscript from Pasternak’s home country against the behest of a Russian government who had no intention of allowing such a critical document to reach a wider audience, publishing the work in 1957. Feltrinelli’s story is one of highs and lows, of incredible achievement, but also of some intriguingly shady behaviour, and is now being immortalised in the unlikely form of an 80s-indebted synth-pop concept album.
A project of such eccentricity and ambition would be doomed to fail, were it not placed in truly accomplished hands. But Neon Neon, the collaboration between Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys and acclaimed US electro hip-hop producer Boom Bip (aka Bryan Hollon) are probably the only band who stand a chance. Their 2008 debut Stainless Style brought the barely-believable life story of car-design playboy John DeLorean vividly to life through irresistible melody, synth flourishes and unexpected guest appearances, and the follow up, with the similarly puntastic title of Praxis Makes Perfect, is a further, even more lucid slice of oddball/discoball biopop. In the space of barely half an hour the tale of the incomparable Feltrinelli is addressed in bubbly yet deeply informative nature, from his publishing credits (which also include Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, previously banned under obscenity laws) to befriending Fidel Castro (surmised in the synthetic calypso Hoops with Fidel) and the highly dubious circumstances surrounding his death.
We speak to the duo via a conference call, one in Cardiff, the other LA. Yet while this disparate geography and cultural context may have manifested itself in their debut – with its abrupt divulgences into up- front hip-hop via guest appearances from Har Mar Superstar and Spank Rock – Praxis Makes Perfect presents a more cohesive whole. It’s the result of a conscious effort to overcome locational hurdles, as well as possessing a concrete reference text in the form of Senior Service, the biography written by Feltrinelli’s son, Carlo. “I think it feels very cohesive”, states Bryan. “On Stainless Style we had our subject and our concept which held it all together, but we also had these diversions. For this album the ideas were very focused and the development of the songs followed on from that. It feels very well-rounded.” He continues, “For this record we really made a point to be in the same room together. We spent time recording ideas at a house in the Welsh countryside and then brought them to California to bring some close friends and musicians into that room.” Gruff is quick to allocate credit to Bryan. “One of the things I enjoy about working with Bryan is that he pinpoints sound very well, he’ll suggest a certain keyboard to become a dominant sound and he’ll be very disciplined in that respect. My solo records tend to be very eclectic, and I really appreciate that discipline.”
Yet the album also accepts a separation between musical style and the narrative at its core. While Stainless Style had a clear common aesthetic, where the songs reflected the gloss of the concept, and the highly-stylised artwork fed directly into that, the duo are quick to acknowledge the detachment between this album’s melodramatic, synth-heavy tones and its rather more severe subject. “It’s always a surprise how things turn out” reflects Gruff. “In this instance we were going for a re-imagining of Feltrinelli’s life looking back from the golden age of the video jukebox, so there was a particular musical detachment from the subject. What we ended up with was this communist Europop.” There are plans afoot to address the disparity, as Bryan reveals. “The majority of this story was set in the 50s and 60s, but we’re reflecting on it from an 80s perspective. But we will be releasing an EP of material that steps outside our typical sound and format, documenting the heavier years of Feltrinelli’s life, which we’ll be calling the Years of Lead EP. It will be quite a departure.”
Whilst the duo may be looking ahead to the aftermath of the album, something monumental awaits in the nearer future. In a startlingly bold move, the album will be presented in the coming months via a unique meeting of live music and interactive theatre, at a secret location in Cardiff, Bristol’s Motion warehouse club, London’s Village Underground, and the Latitude and Festival No. 6 festivals. Working alongside National Theatre Wales and the playwright Tim Price, the closely-guarded production invites a plethora of questions. “I met up with National Theatre Wales a while back after doing music for a theatre piece by (Turner Prize nominated artist) Phil Collins” relays Gruff. “I mentioned that we had this idea about Feltrinelli and I met with Tim Price. It became apparent Tim would embrace the Feltrinelli subject matter like no one else. He’s a very energetic guy and brought a real enthusiasm to making it a kind of interactive concert. Initially one of my worries was making something that was too rock opera, y’know, but I think it’s going to be a very different experience, very engaging for the audience.” Gruff is also quick to acknowledge that these shows may push himself and Bryan to new levels as musicians and performers. “It’s going to be very different to anything we’ve been involved in, and hopefully people will leave with a lot of ideas planted in their heads politically. Sonically it’s going to be very extreme. We’ve got a friend, Michael, doing the sound design, and he did the first run of My Bloody Valentine comeback shows at the Roundhouse, which was probably the loudest PA ever put together!”
The idea of imparting political and contextual ideas is important to Neon Neon, and is certainly effective. Research into the figures on which they base their records can lead you down a seemingly endless wormhole of information and anecdotes. It’s fascinating to take part in such an interactive relationship between pop music and history. “I’d encourage it”, reflects Gruff, “particularly with Feltrinelli. Because he published so many incredible books, and the world you can find yourself in when it comes to his legacy is indefinite. Obviously as a man and a revolutionary he was very contradictory, and he came from an era of violence, which can be problematic. But as a publisher he was a character of real inspiration.”
A key part of the Praxis Makes Perfect process – in terms of gathering information, recording, and forming the basis of these spectacular release shows – was a fact finding mission to Italy, consisting of Gruff, Bryan and Tim Price. “There were many reasons” explains Gruff. “We wanted to record some people in Italy, so we recorded Asia Argento doing dialogue and Sabrina Salerno (Italian TV presenter, actress and singer) and we contacted the family, because they still run the Giangiacomo Foundation in Milan.” There the trip took an extraordinary turn. “We went to their library and got to handle the original manuscript of Dr. Zhivago, handwritten, and letters between Marx and Engels, and an original copy of The Communist Manifesto! It was a really inspirational time.”
Bryan was also strongly affected by the excursion, particularly in the way it has informed the Praxis Makes Perfect live shows. “Tim would just come up with all these brilliant, crazy ideas, and in a way I thought ‘this is fun to think about, but there’s no way this could really happen, right?’” He audibly grins. “But the craziest thing is that this stuff is actually happening! We’re hearing all these things the theatre’s developing and it’s just mind-blowing.”
As Neon Neon became increasingly immersed in the album’s intensely layered backstory, their ability to maintain the levity of 80s pop music throughout Praxis Makes Perfect becomes more impressive still. It’s easy to get lost in a web of contexts and forget the irresistible melodies and glittering keyboard trills that make Neon Neon such insanely good fun to listen to. “We didn’t want to make an earnest protest record” Gruff stresses. “Feltrinelli was a very contradictory man, and I think making a glossy, melodramatic record seemed more apt, in a way.” It’s fascinating to see a man like Gruff, a politicised Welshman, embrace the projected glitz of the 80s in this way, considering the version of that decade in which he grew up was a period of great social unrest. “I agree completely” he says. “In the 1980s as a teenager I was listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Big Black, the raw end of it. Maybe I’m now able to revisit those kind of melodramatic sounds without the pain!”
In terms of capturing the more mainstream sounds of that period, Boom Bip speaks with considerable authority. “We don’t want Neon Neon to sound like us, to sound like our solo work, so we made a very conscious decision to steer clear of thinking about modern music. We developed this obsession with old synthesisers and drum machines.” In that respect, he sees a clear distinction between this record and their first. “The last record had more contemporary elements whereas with this one the story, the ideas and the flow seemed like it should be more focused and stripped down.” When discussing these technical, stylistic elements, his voice becomes enthused. “One synth I really focused on using, which was a massive part of late 80s/early 90s music – you could basically hear it on every pop record of that time – was the Roland D-50, and that became the centrepiece for the tone of the album, along with the older Korg analogue synths. It’s important to limit yourself to certain instruments and techniques. I admire that minimal mid-80s sound that people like Shep Pettibone were using at the time. They kept it very simple and very … chunky.”
It’s far too reductive to look at this dynamic purely as Boom Bip providing the instrumental tones, and laying the more profound conceptual ideas and melodies at Gruff Rhys’s door. There’s a far more collaborative nature at play. Their respective catalogues show Boom Bip as a producer who utilises played instrumentation and a sense of song structure at a level far beyond many of his peers, while tracks such as Slowlife, No Sympathy or the last 10 minutes of most Super Furry Animals shows make it clear Gruff is more than at home with the experimental and technically savvy aspects of electronic creation. Hearing Boom Bip discuss the circumstances of Feltrinelli’s death, meanwhile, leaves us in no doubt as to his investment in the historical elements.
And it’s fascinating, during technical difficulties (when we can hear them, but they can’t hear us) to observe this seemingly contrary pairing, the odd couple of alternative pop, bouncing off each other as they discuss a passion for Yugoslavian post-punk, or as Bryan peers from his window and laughs while describing a postman dressed in full safari suit. Gruff, whose statements throughout our conversation have been punctuated by aching, pregnant pauses, seems breezy and comfortable. When you’re pitting an LA beatsmith alongside a Pembrokeshire-born psychedelic songwriter, and the intricate backstory of an Italian revolutionary publisher against a pop sound so audacious it would make Gloria Estefan blush, such juxtapositions become par for the course.