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.
NME 20th May 2000
Lock up your daughters, ‘cos here comes the Super Furry Animals revolution.
The Super Furry Animals are a band who like to practise what they preach. That’s why when you put a copy of their new album in your CD player, what you’ll hear pouring out is the sound of “non-violent, direct action”. The album is called ‘Mwng’ (meaning ‘mane’), and besides being their fourth magical mystery tour through a rocky landscape of crackling psychedelia and stretched thought, it’s a record with a difference. The songs are about bees and teachers with four eyes, the battle between good and evil and a very long Roman road called Sarn Helen. They’re also all in Welsh. Now, there are many reasons why this is the case, but right now Gruff Rhys -mercurial songwriter, irregular thinker and ‘face’ of the Super Furry Animals - is explaining that the main reason why is because when his and made it they were on “pop strike”.
“That’s right,” he beams proudly, “pop strike.”
Why was that, then?
“Well, we were making popular records that weren’t becoming popular. Relatively anyway. When you’re playing chart games, the winner is the tune with the million-dollar marketing campaign behind it. If you don’t have the money, the media won’t go full on behind it.”
“I’m talking about people like Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey. We don’t have the boobs, but we do have large melodies, so it’s funny for us to sit and think what it would be like if we had the same marketing budget.”
Do you think marketing is the only reason why the Super Furries aren’t as successful as Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey?
“Oh no, it’s because they’re extremely good dancers and very vibrant people.”
But you decided to go on pop strike anyway?
“Yes. We just thought if our English language pop songs aren’t getting played on the radio, which was the whole point of ‘Guerrilla’, we might as well make Welsh language pop songs that didn’t get played on the radio. That’s why ‘Mwng’ is us going on pop strike. I suppose it’s our attempt at direct action. Heheheh.”
Of course, this isn’t the only thing that ‘Mwng’ represents. As an album sung entirely in Welsh - the band’s first language - it also brings with it a political dimension. And for a band who only a year ago were still being dismissed by the populace at large as five stoned Wombles singing songs about funny hair, it signals their further development as a band with Something To Say. Now you might think that swapping languages is hardly the stuff of Molotov cocktail-fuelled revolution, but then the Super Furries know just how thorny the whole issue can be.
You join NME in the secluded surroundings of Monnow Valley recording studios in South Wales. In one part of this residential retreat, guitarist Bunf is starting a guitar-solo that will last for the whole of this 90-minute interview. In the sitting room, meanwhile, Gruff is perched on the edge of a sofa staring intently at a cup of tea, he’s also attempting, very slowly, to gather his thoughts.
‘Mwng’ isn’t the first time the Super Furries have sung exclusively in Welsh. Prior to signing to Creation in 1995, they released two Welsh-language EPs on the Ankst label, while Gruff, as a member of Ffa Coffi Pawb (rough translation: ‘Fuck Off Everybody’) had also released three Welsh-language albums. When they finally got a record deal, however, they switched to English. The reason was simple. They didn’t, as some of their compatriots suggested, have “dollar bills in their eyes”, they just wanted to try something different.
“A band like Gorky’s developed quite organically,” explains Gruff equably, “they were always bilingual. Whereas we did two Welsh EPs and then went straight into English. We were as subtle as a sledgehammer. And I think we got on a lot of people’s nerves at the time - especially the Welsh-language media.
“When we went on our first tour, there was a documentary crew following us around England, but not actually speaking to us. There were instances when they’d have a stopwatch in the gig in order to work out the percentage of the set which was in Welsh. People were genuinely worried that we were airheads who didn’t give a shit about our culture. And I think that’s fair enough.
“Our take was that we were still singing some Welsh-language songs and were taking them around the world and introducing them to people who wouldn’t know about it otherwise. I think people understand that now, but they didn’t at the time. I had to argue it out with members of my family. I don’t think we sold our culture out, it was just we didn’t have any phobias towards other cultures, specifically the English culture, which is next door and is there to be celebrated as much as anything else.”
The band’s decision to switch back now is mainly the result of Gruff “getting bored with writing songs in English”. It’s also a product of the band’s desire to record a more lo-fi album (‘Mwng’ cost £6,000 to make and was recorded in a matter of weeks) after the excessive expense of 1999’s commercially ill-fated ‘Guerrilla’ LP. It wasn’t designed as a preconceived political statement, but the band are aware that it carries with it certain implications. For a start, Welsh is a language that is increasingly being marginalised by major corporations. “That’s right,” agrees Gruff. “You can’t get (Microsoft’s) Windows in Welsh, while you can in Catalan. Welsh is not on the Webster’s list of world languages, because it’s spoken by less than a million people. As the world is commercialised, and we move into a time of advanced capitalism, it’s not on the priority lists of banks and McDonald’s to cater for every culture. They just want to make money.
“It was easier when everything was nationalised. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, people were campaigning to get their gas or electricity cut-off letters in Welsh or to be taken to court in Welsh or to have bilingual signs. People have gone to jail for every bit of visible Welsh you see. But it’s very difficult to target multinational corporations, because they really don’t give a shit. They don’t have to care about anybody. They’re not sovereign states that have to care for people, they’re just there to exploit you.
“‘Mwng’ is saying that people like us aren’t embarrassed expressing ourselves like this. We don’t have any commerical expectations for this album, that’s not why we did it. Maybe that’s self-indulgent, I don’t know…”
Now as you’re reading this in English, and (who knows?) probably in England, maybe you’re thinking it doesn’t matter what happens to the Welsh language and that by making an album in their native tongue the Super Furry Animals have just served to marginalise themselves. But you’d be wrong on both counts.
‘Mwng’ is the Super Furries’ best album to date. It’s as emotionally direct and as melodically accessible and anything they’ve done (the tunes are every bit the equal of those on their debut LP ‘Fuzzy Logic’). Hard to believe because it’s in Welsh? Well, as Gruff points out most English lyrics you listen to “make no grammatical success, have no meaning and are just a collection of rhymes”. ‘Mwng’, on the other hand, has a warped coherency all of its own, and - according to Gruff, we’ll have to take his word for it I’m afraid - contains some of the best lyrics he’s ever written.
Besides which, anyone fighting the increasing homogenisation of global society has surely got to be applauded. In the aftermath of the May Day demonstrations - covered extensively in this paper last week - the government’s attempts to ensure that such visible and well-organised protest “never happen again” mean that the dissension at whatever level is as valuable as ever. Gruff made some comments about direct action in last week’s NME, but he’s understandably wary of appearing tokenistic.
“I’m aware that this is like a police interview,” he smiles, clasping his tea to his chest. “In the sense that anything I say can be taken in evidence against me. I also feel a responsibility to speak sense and not bullshit into this tape recorder. Anything I say I want to think through, especially with subjects that are really important and heavy. Things are often trivialised in pop magazines. Things in the past have been trivialised to such an extent that they’ve made me cringe.”
You don’t want to do a Bobby Gillespie and start going on about the picture of the Black Panthers you had on your sitting room wall…
“No, but then we did have cutout photos of Colonel Gaddafi and Ian Woosnam, the golfer. That was inside a cupboard door, though.”
Why was that?
“I thought Gaddafi had been victimised by the West. When I was a kid they were bombing Libya from Anglesey, a runway 40 minutes from my house. All because of the bombing of a disco in Berlin frequented by US marines. Er, although I’m not sure this is the interview to start talking about that. Shall we move on?”
He shuffles uncomfortably in his seat, and stares out of the window.
The day after this interview takes place, Gruff phones NME to explain that he felt like he “fluffed quite a few questions”. He goes on to say that all of the band have been directly involved in political activism in the past (guitarist Bunf was a member of the Anti-Nazi League, for instance) and that it’s “important people are active and aware because politics affects your everyday life”. He reiterates that he’s wary about “scoring political points” in interviews and adds that as far as SFA are concerned, their ambition is just “to create maximum cultural chaos”.
For that reason one of the songs on ‘Mwng’ is ‘Y Teimlad’, a cover of a song by proto-revolutionary Welsh punks Datblygu. More than anyone else they’re responsible for shaping Gruff’s current political outlook. Last year, they released a compilation LP, which he did the sleevenotes for, largely because he regards them as precursors of what the Furries are trying to do now.
“I started listening to them when I was about 13 or 14,” he enthuses. “They were a very experimental band who were really anti-rock’n’roll in stance, but were probably more rock’n’roll than any other band in terms of debauchery. They were full of contradictions.
“A lot of my political education has come from that scene of Welsh-language punk bands. Datblygu were the first Welsh-language band to be played on John Peel and to play outside the traditional Welsh-language heartland. Until then, a lot of Welsh music had a sort of kick attitude. Bands before Datblygu really dwelt on their anti-English stance, basing their whole career on their hatred of England. It was lowest-common-demoninator politics, and Datblygu changed that. I think they created a climate for bands like us.”
When Gruff left school at the age of 16 (shortly after both his parents and school had tried to make him see a psychiatrist because of his “difficult behaviour”), he began dividing his time between his own band, the previously mentioned Ffa Coffi Pawb, and Datblygu. When they toured Europe, he would go along to carry their amps - and it was on these extended trips away that he began to develop his political outlook more clearly.
“They had no stereo in their van,” he recalls, “so they used to have political discussions for 12 hours at a time on long drives. That’s where a lot of my political education came from. Datblygu were important musically, but lyrically as well, because David R Edwards or DRE was, or is, a genius lyricist.
“The song that we covered is one of the only poppy songs he wrote or bothered writing, because a lot of what they did was improvisional. On top of which, his lyrics were really funny, usually anti-Welsh sentiments sung in Welsh. Like Bill Hicks or, um, Jesus, he captured the mood of the time perfectly, and was completely tolerant of other people. You should try to get hold of that compilation album and have a listen…”
Is that something you’ve tried to capture on your new record?
Gruff, momentarily perturbed by one of the studio’s cats leaping on his lap, pauses for thought. “I don’t know really. All we try to do is tap into the human existence and the impossibility of dealing with it. That’s why we don’t have one set mood for the band. Sometimes people think we’re being silly, but really we’re just being honest. Oh God, that sounds awful…”
According to Gruff, that honesty is sometimes their downfall. It’s lucky, he says, that they’re not politicians because, like Datblygu before them, they’re “full of contradictions”. Although in the past few years, they’ve become an increasingly radical band both musically and ideologically, they don’t want to be typecast as “professional revolutionaries”. To that end, they’ve just started work on an “absurdly ambitious” pop record that they think will be their answer to ‘Thriller’. It’s going to be in English, and some current working song titles (which are plastered all over the walls) include ‘Receptacle For The Respectable’, ‘Aluminium Illuminati’ and ‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’. At least one song namechecks ex-East 17 pill-monkey Brian Harvey - and the album may or may not be called ‘Text Messaging Is Destroying The Pub Quiz As We Know It’. It marks the end of their “pop strike” - a shrewd move given that the demise of Creation has left them looking for a new record deal (‘Mwng’ is being released on their own Placid Casual label).
“We’re on a Bosman (Footballers whose contracts are up - Ed),” concluded Gruff breezily. “We’ve been sort of sold to Sony, but it’s all under negotiation. We want some kind of non-exclusive contract. All I know is we want to replace Celine Dion. She’s the enemy. She’s been sold to my big sister, who used to be a punk rocker. I want to get into the brains, or ears, of every big sister in the world. I just think it’s a funny thought, don’t you?”
In the meantime, they hope that ‘Mwng’ will “help the music scene, such as it is,” because Gruff believes that the more uncompromising music that people listen to, the more tolerant it makes them. And that’s all the Super Furries are trying to achieve. They might now be a band with Something To Say. It’s just no-one, not even them, is ever sure quite what that’s going to be. Politically motivated for sure, but five years after their debut album, they’re still firmly guided by their own unique sense of fuzzy logic.
(via Dots and Dashes)
by Josh Holliday
Chances are that if you’ve even a transitory interest* in the more independent end of the contemporary music spectrum, then you’ll be well aware of Gruff Rhys. And, in light of the fact that the sometime Super Furry Animal – itself an endangered species, lest we forget – commands enduring adulation among those that know and, by and large, love him, you’ll likely be cognisant of one John Evans also.
An ostensibly distant relative of Gruff himself, and an envelope-pushing, Celtic visionary in his own right, Rhys believes him to have been “a really serious guy”, his voice this afternoon surfing a choppy telecommunicational static. Indeed, he’s the first to admit that Evans may not have taken too kindly to his self-assessed “tragicomedy” – an unlikely multimedia biopic of sorts, documenting the intrepid Welsh explorer’s American adventuring. Yet whereas his kinsman remains his hero – a role that Rhys himself holds in the hearts and minds of many, of course – both the album indebted to this heroic Welshman, American Interior, and the live show in turn derived from it have been met with effusive praise on an international stage.
Upon conversing, Rhys is midway through a six-night, sold out residency at London’s Soho Theatre, although not only the notion of the otic biopic – in this case, a kind of travelogue – but so too so precarious, if enterprising a live rendering is a rather familiar one. For that of this particular endeavour is not altogether dissimilar to that of Neon Neon’s Praxis Makes Perfectundertaking of yesteryear: then, eccentric Milanese revolutionary Giangiacomo Feltrinelli served as he and Bryan Hollon’s muse; now, Evans takes pride of place. Although does Rhys ever worry that, with such elaborate backstories paid due attention by the media, his chosen subject matter threatens to overshadow the music itself? “There is an inevitability [to its distraction] – it’s an odd thing to get into” admits Rhys, readily. And he fears for these sorts of singular occasions becoming “vacuous experiences”, yet ultimately, is happy for people’s perceptions to be open-ended as he so valiantly strives to enlighten. “You go home with some new knowledge, even if it’s completely useless to your daily life.”
Essentially, that of an 18th-century nomad is rather irrelevant, even to his. And while this particular topic is one that has proven “hard to be objective about”, Rhys to this day remains a distractible character; an advocate of caprice. “Sometimes I try to make really focussed records” he begins, soon veering off on one of numerous distant tangents, “but inevitably, I get pulled in all kinds of different directions! Which is partly why I’ve enjoyed having a moderator [directory of the documentary to accompany American Interior, Dylan Goch] – he’s been pretty good at pinpointing one particular sound.” He goes on to grumble of how, when it came to previous endeavours, “all Hell [would] break loose” but subjectively, both he and Goch have done a decent job of ensuring the flow to American Interior is steady as that of the transatlantic rivers that Evans once set about mapping out.
Cohesion, however, has never been of paramount importance, and it remains a peripheral concern this time around, too: “With something like American Interior, there were rules [in place, to ensure that] it didn’t become a kind of instrumental soundtrack album” says Rhys. And while it does indeed soundtrack that aforementioned visual accompaniment, never does it veer off into such contrived territory. “Songs like Allweddellau Allweddol were created partly with the film in mind” he continues, “and they maybe sound slightly different to the rest, but they hopefully fit in with the context of the whole record.” That may be, and they more or less do for the most part, but as Rhys is only too aware, “cohesion is definitely not my middle name!”
Gruffydd Maredudd Bowen Rhys has two to it, although there are several more media forms to this multidisciplinary project – one to comprise a film, an album, book, an app and so on. “I didn’t necessarily make a plan to do everything” Rhys confesses. Nor did he do absolutely everything, given the involvement of Goch, who not only directed, but also edited an entire tour so that it should be condensed down into ninety-two glorious minutes. Made up of footage taken from “an investigative tour” of three years ago, Gruff recalls: “All I had to do was to go on tour, and tell the story.” Goch then pieced it together “miraculously – mad gaps” and all – and turned it into what is today, a [truly/relatively] cohesive piece.
Of the music itself, Rhys tells of how circa nine songs were recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, before he fully realised the album’s central themes on altogether more familiar turf. “I wrote a bunch more songs, and recorded them in Cardiff” with the results, by his own admission, “striking” for the most part. And even Rhys himself was, at times, taken aback by his own audacity, openly conceding to feeling as though he’d bitten off more than he could chew. “It feels a bit, ‘Oh my God!’ to be precocious when you’re forty-three. Maybe it’s acceptable – I don’t know – but Dylan was editing the film around the same time I started writing the book in the next room, and editing a film and writing a book is perhaps a similar process. So we were kind of racing each other up the Missouri River, [which was suitably] over the top. But everything got finished, [even though this was] the most ambitious thing I’ve ever tried to do.”
It is thus of intrigue that the live staging of American Interior is surely among the more modest performances we’ve seen of him in his thoroughgoing career thus far. For it is, to all intents and purposes, he, his gadgetry (recalcitrant iPads, placardiau Cymraeg, taxidermic props, etc.) and a two-foot John Evans avatar. “When I started to do that sort of show, going through America, I barely knew the story and didn’t have many slides” Rhys duly recollects. “I had some, but they were mostly of my life in Cardiff. So I took that John Evans avatar and retraced his whole journey, taking photos everywhere. So by the end of the tour, I had the whole slideshow, which makes it seem logical to carry on telling that story now that I’ve completed it.”
It is, itself, somewhat incomplete with Rhys shoehorning the likes of Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru, Honey All Over and Shark Ridden Waters into this bespoke narrative. But, as he continues to tell of an enduring fascination with Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth: A Story Of Music And Revolution In Brazil, and the way in which such writings can “outstay the memory”, it becomes apparent that his music has done, and continues to do just that. He’s reluctant to compare himself with the Brazilian virtuoso, although unlike, say, seminal 2006 compilation Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound, he relishes “the idea that [American Interior] is not just a random collection of songs.”
Yet whereas you may usually quiz an artist of Rhys’ ilk on where they may next move to in relation to inspiration, the more pertinent question is to whom he may now turn. However, having pilgrimaged to many ends of the planet – from Baltimore and Brazil, to Patagonia and River’s Edge, Cardigan – more often than not in homage to obscure historical figures, Rhys now hopes to move away from “that stuff”, while still applying his findings to future musics. “I write original songs, and so long as they’re at the heart of everything I do, I’m happy to elaborate and do different projects. But hopefully, whatever I do, I’ll just write songs in the most natural way I’m able to.” It’s an unpredictable pastime – “You’re always walking on thin ice!” he then confides – but is one that he has every intention to perpetuate during the fast approaching future. And thank God, and with that John Evans, for that.
American Interior is out now on Turnstile, while Rhys returns to London to play the Queen Elizabeth Hall September 20th.
*For those with more than a mere transitory interest, Rhys is still in continual contact with his fellow Super Furry Animals, and reassures: “It would be nice to do something” that has less to do with Fuzzy 5.7% ABV ‘psychedelic wild saison yeast beer’, and rather more to do with Furry Techno beats some time sooner, rather than later.