FRIDAY 10 JUNE 2011
Super Furry Animals frontman and solo artist extraordinaire Gruff Rhys released his latest album Hotel Shampoo to critical acclaim earlier in the year. Gruff took time out from his North American tour to answer some teasers for Music Magazine.
The first record I bought was? Father Abraham in Smurfland - the album
First single I bought was? “Wisgi A Soda” by Ail Symudiad.
The first gig I went to was? The first I remember is The Alan Stivell band at a Celtic Folk Festival in 1974. Alan Stivell didn’t show up, his band played without him and his electric harp and I fell asleep before the end.
My favourite album is? Not sure, maybe The Velvet Underground’s third album. Or the first Tribe called Quest album [People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm]. I will change my mind tomorrow no doubt. (I’m not endorsing the neo ska band fronted by Gwen Stefani).
But my parents always liked? Dafydd Iwan.
I couldn’t marry someone who liked? Edie Brickell and New Bohemians.
On stage I like to wear? Clothes and stuff.
I’d love to perform with? A sense of anger, clarity and panache.
One thing that must change in the music industry is? Industrial music workers should sport orange baseball caps at all times and wear clogs on Tuesdays. Will increase self esteem, communal identity and by default, productivity.
A great album cover is? Garra by Marcos Valle. My favourite album cover… I can just imagine his conversation with the art director: “OK man, I want you to superimpose my head onto the body of an eagle, right? Then add some, you know, psychedelic trails and shit?” (Note: this conversation would have happened in Portuguese)
On my iPod I listen most to? Psychedelic Horseshit.
If I could have written any song it would have been? “You’ve lost me there” by Cardinal.
The worst song I’ve heard is? “Candle In The Wind” by Elton John
Having immersed himself in the life of controversial Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Neon Neon’s Gruff Rhys opens up to Celina Murphy about travelling back in time with concept album Praxis Makes Perfect…
Shooting hoops with Castro, smuggling the only known copy of Dr. Zhivago out of the USSR, plotting the liberation of Sardinia while sipping cups of tea - you’ll find it all on the new Neon Neon LP, which you may have already guessed is not your average synth-strewn indie pop record.
A biographical account of the life and times of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher and activist who counted illegally distributing banned novels and meeting with communist revolutionaries among his many cultural and political exploits, the ambitious 10-tracker follows another concept record, 2008’s Stainless Style, which hailed John Delorean as its inspiration.
Clearly, something about telling a person’s life story through song appeals to the brains behind Neon Neon, that of California producer Book Bip and Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys. But, as they learned with Praxis Makes Perfect, it’s one thing to decide you’re going to create a floor-filling pop biography, and another to actually sit down and make it happen.
“We could never imagine what it was like to be a millionaire communist Italian publisher in the late ‘50s,” Rhys explains, “so we reimagined the story in ‘80s Sardinia, because his plan was to liberate Sardinia and kickstart a revolution from there. We imagined ourselves being a middle of the road band from ‘80s Sardinia, although it didn’t really end up sounding like that.”
The resulting album is remarkably bouncy, a glossy, fun-loving retelling of Feltrinelli’s most bizarre anecdotes, combining all the best elements of hammy ‘80s pop. Welsh songwriter Cate Le Bon and RHCP guitarist Josh Klinghoffer turn up on singing and shredding duties respectively, but possibly the most fitting collaboration comes in the form of ‘80s sexpot Sabrina ‘Boys Boys Boys’ Salerno.
“We were inspired by a lot of Italian music and synthetic Italian disco and Italian middle-of-the-road pop and I suppose Sabrina Salerno was a really obvious person to ask,” Rhys says. “The song just wouldn’t have seemed complete without her and incredibly, she was willing to do the vocal!”
As any red-blooded males who were alive and watching MTV in the late ‘80s will tell you, Salerno spent a significant amount of time as the hottest thing on the planet, and Rhys admits to being understandably starstruck when he met her in the flesh.
“We flew on Easyjet to Venice and she picked me up from the airport,” he recalls. “We did a duet in the studio and it was one of the most remarkable moments of my life, truly, and one that I could have never predicted would ever happen!”
The next step was to adapt this highly unique album for the stage, and in typical Neon Neon fashion, no effort was spared. Staged in a secret location in Cardiff with the help of National Theatre Wales, the Praxis Makes Perfect live show enlisted actors to help tell the Feltrinelli tale, with the crowd acting as unknowing extras.
“Someone described it as ‘a music video that you’re in’!” Rhys laughs. “It was extremely different to most live music concerts that any of us had ever been to so in that sense, I think it was really exciting. People didn’t know what was going on, they were being attacked by soviet agents!”
“It’s a shame we can’t take it everywhere,” he laments, “but we have lots of video as well, which is more portable, so we’re bringing the video show over to Dublin.”
Before Rhys makes the trip over for Forbidden Fruit, I feel the need to bother him with a metaphorical quandary; what would Feltrinelli make of the album?
“Awh, it would have been too weird for him, I imagine,” he says. “I’m sure it would have been beyond strange for him to have some Welsh guy and a Californian doing a biographical record about him, using really bad taste synthesizer. He was a very cultured guy so he’d have been going to the opera!”
I’m not convinced. After all, Feltrinelli was nothing if not a supporter of experimentation in the arts, even if it is difficult to imagine him giving it socks under a mirror ball.
“The music is totally contradictory to his personality and his life,” Rhys acknowledges, “but he was a contradictory guy, so I think, in a strange way, it makes complete sense.”
(via The Guardian)
He rubbed elbows with Hemingway and Che, and is the subject of a new show. Gruff Rhys, who wrote the music, tells Alfred Hickling how he grew fascinated by the publisher Feltrinelli
The Guardian, Wednesday 1 May 2013 14.30 EDT
In March 1972, the badly mutilated body of a 46-year-old man was found at the foot of a power mast outside Milan, having apparently died when the explosives he was carrying detonated prematurely. He was identified as Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, founder of a publishing empire that bears his name, and one of the richest men in Italy.
However bizarre it may be for a multimillionaire communist to perish attempting to blow up a pylon, it seems even less likely he should become the subject of fascination for Gruff Rhys, the founder and lead singer of the Welsh indie band Super Furry Animals. Rhys, in partnership with Cincinnati-based producer Boom Bip, has written a new album based on Feltrinelli’s life, Praxis Makes Perfect. But rather than touring the music, the album has been developed into a stage show by the National Theatre of Wales.
The format evades simple definition: part-gig, part-interactive theatre, part-political rally. It’s also not easy to find. The performance takes place in a secret location, which audience members are directed to via email. They are also instructed to bring a book they wish to exchange, and to wear something red.
The venue (about which I can say no more than that it’s a short walk from Cardiff station) would be indistinguishable from any other industrial unit, were it not for the thumpingly loud techno coming through the walls. Inside, there is a bare concrete floor and an assortment of office equipment, all of it scaled up to an enormous size. It’s as if you’ve been given an Alice in Wonderland potion in a stationery warehouse.
Rhys, wearing a shaggy beard and woolly hat, is an imposing figure – somewhat diminished by the 20ft-high filing cabinet next to him. “It is a bit strange,” he admits. “There are two things rock musicians are really supposed to avoid: making concept albums and dabbling with theatre. But here I am doing both.”
There’s a reasonable chance the project will not end up a celebrated fiasco such as Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on Ice. The associated artists have a reassuring pedigree: writer Tim Price was responsible for National Theatre Wales’s acclaimed touring show The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning; director Wils Wilson specialises in cross-genre, site-specific happenings; the choreography comes from Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham. After Cardiff, the show will appear at festivals throughout the summer.
How did the theatre element come about? “It all started with the DeLorean project,” Rhys says in his quiet, methodical manner (he is first and foremost Welsh-speaking). This was a 2008 album inspired by the American motoring mogul, again made with Boom Bip (the pair perform as the electronic duo Neon Neon). “We were touring that album, and the shows gradually became more theatrical,” Rhys says. “Har Mar Superstar [the musician and performance artist] came on board to play John DeLorean. A dance group told us they had worked out some moves, so they joined in as well. But it was all very ad hoc – at the end we said, ‘Next time it would be nice to do this properly.’”
All that remained was to find another suitably controversial figure. Rhys realised he had his man when a friend recommended a biography written by Feltrinelli’s son. It is quite a narrative: born into a privileged family, Feltrinelli became passionately interested in workers’ rights. He was the first person to publish Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, having smuggled the manuscript out of Russia. He went missing in Bolivia, endured interrogation by the CIA, and was photographed playing basketball with the Cuban revolutionary leader – an episode that inspired a track called Hoops With Fidel. Returning to Italy, he became involved in leftwing paramilitary activity. “It’s quite hard to think of any British equivalent,” Rhys says. “It would be like discovering Richard Branson was secretly running a terrorist organisation.”
The unexplained gaps in the publisher’s career became a blank canvas to be filled with Boom Bip’s oblique, synthpop soundscapes. “Feltrinelli idolised Castro,” Boom Bip says. “His great dream was to establish a communist republic on the island of Sardinia. So what we’ve tried to do is imagine the kind of music that might have come out of Feltrinelli’s Mediterranean Cuba, had it ever existed.”
The publisher’s death has never been adequately explained. Some suggest he was assassinated by the Italian authorities, rather than a victim of his own faulty timer. “Even in his own country, he name of Feltrinelli is mostly associated with bookstores, or leftwing extremism from a period in Italian history that people would rather forget,” says Rhys. “But we looked through the family archives in Milan and there he is with Che Guevara, with Warhol, with Hemingway. He had this uncanny ability to keep cropping up at critical moments in 20th-century history – like a communist Forrest Gump.”