(via The Arts Desk)
Super Furry Animal travels to the heart of America in pursuit of a long-lost multi-media tall tale
by Jasper Rees
It hardly sounds like the springboard for an album, a film, a book and an app. In the 1790s a young Welsh explorer called John Evans journeyed across the unmapped North American continent in search of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. His only source for the tribe’s existence – and linguistic preference – was a legend which claimed that a Welsh prince by the name of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd discovered the New World 300 years before Columbus. It’s no plot spoiler to reveal that Evans did not find the tribe.
Evans’ journey has spawned American Interior, the album, the film, the book (not forgetting the app). They are the work of Super Furry troubadour Gruff Rhys, and they all in their own way contain wonders. Rhys hasn’t been at the day job for a while now – the last SFA album was in in 2009 – and his solo projects have assumed the character of a restless quest. In the film Separado! he went in search of the Argentine crooner who looked like a cowboy but sang in Welsh and was some sort of long-lost uncle. In American Interior Rhys is once more claiming kin with an alleged forebear John Evans. As he embarks on the trail of another tall Welsh story, this time the project keeps on multiplying. The tour which is the basis for the film American Interior took place in 2012 and was filmed by Separado! director Dylan Goch. The book was published recently alongside the album and the app, and now there’s another tour of PowerPoint gigs to promote all three. More dates are promised for next year.
In the film Rhys comes across as a modest, rather introverted figure but wry and witty with it. So it proves in conversation as he tells theartsdesk about his semi-scholarly odyssey along the Missouri accompanied by a delightful felt avatar of John Evans and, on occasion, a super furry animal by way of headgear.
JASPER REES: What was the very origin of the myths of a Welsh tribe of Native Americans, and how did you come across John Evans?
GRUFF RHYS: I’m basing my knowledge for the most part on the books of Professor Gwyn A.Williams. He states that there were a few mentions of Madog by a few Welsh poets. And these pretty vague stories essentially say that Madog is supposed to have existed. His story kind of grew. And then he was used as a propaganda tool by the Elizabethan court. John Dee solidified these vague stories in order to give Elizabeth the first warrant to annex America in the name of the British Empire. After the Act of Union with Wales the British Empire had, as far as he saw it, the moral right to claim North America because Madog had been there first.
But then over the centuries people started to add very specific details to the story, like the dates and the amount of boats that Madog had taken out there. But some weren’t added on till the 19th century. So it’s a very vague story that grew and grew to the point where people had forgotten its origin and presumed it was a historical fact. Whereas the story as we know it is an invention to meet political ends. A lot of people in Wales still believe in it. I think it’s healthy if you don’t know about Madog - because he didn’t exist! John Evans is like an outsider in history. He’s a footnote in the Madog story and a tiny footnote in Spanish colonial history. It’s more of a good story, but through his life we can look at the history of a lot of different people.
Why did you want to tell the story in four different ways?
I suppose mediums are quite fluid. The first thing was the investigative concert tour following his journey. And it caused an album along the way and Dylan Goch filmed everything. The music is more emotional ground that detailed history. I kind of wrote a book to fill in the details. We interviewed so many people and there was only so much we could cover in the film and I didn’t want the record to a detailed historical artefact. It would have been very difficult to listen to. So I wrote a book as somewhere to contain all the detail anyone would want to know. We decided on an app quite late on. It could have been a website or an eBook. I suppose that’s more geographical. You follow the journey on a map and you pick up even more information that didn’t make it into the film or the book. The app isn’t quite as concerned with the John Evans narrative. There’s some mini documentaries and political aspects of Native American history.
Did your interest in the story of John Evans translate very easily into music?
Before going on the tour I wrote four or five songs – “The Whether” and “100 Unread Messages” - as things to play live. As the journey progressed I realised how hard his life had been and how sad the story. Songs like “Liberty” and more emotional downbeat songs came during and after the journey. The songs gradually got more and more morose, the more I knew.
The film tells a tragic story that ends with Evans’ ostracism and early death in New Orleans. And yet your presence is essentially a comic one: you can’t help being funny. Did you have trouble reconciling these two tonal strands?
It just makes things easier. If you’re given a microphone and you make people sit down, it’s a huge responsibility. I’m not academic so I come to it as a songwriter. Why would anyone want to know about an obscure Welsh explorer from the 18th century? His story is a kind of tragicomedy. He was absolutely misguided that he should have embarked on the expedition. But he did incredibly well to complete his journey! It’s near miraculous in a way. I think it’s important to have a grasp of the absurdity of it and the absurdity of colonialism. John Evans is a pawn in the middle of these imperial fantasies. I’m definitely getting interested in the gaps between songs.
Has it surprised you to watch yourself turning into a historian?
I’ve no interest in being a historian so that makes it easier. In a similar way that I’ve never been interested in being a guitarist. I don’t think John Evans ever wanted to be a map maker. I think life’s like that for most people. You end up doing something with no intention of getting into it but life leads you to it.
The most moving section of the film is about meeting the last surviving speaker of the Mandan language in North Dakota, who is trying to pass it on before he dies. You talk to him about the Welsh language. Is this film at least partly about the survival of Welsh?
Both Dylan and I speak Welsh is a first language. We’re in our forties and we’ve seen the language deteriorate right in front of our eyes from Welsh-speaking communities which are meant to be the heartlands of the Welsh language. That’s where the language is in decline. We know how fragile the language is in this globalised economy. So we’re instinctively going to focus on other people who are in similar situations and use that. It’s very harrowing meeting the physical manifestation of the end of a language but very inspiring in a different way. It’s ironic that we’ve portrayed this story for the most part in the English language.
Have you notice attitudes toward Welsh changing?
I think it’s far more positive than when I was a kid. I think there’s been a huge change in terms of the appreciation of it. But not so much legislation, especially in education, to make the most of very positive attitude.
Are you now making films because making music is not enough?
I think as long as they’re attached to music which is what I feel like I do for the most part, I don’t think I should feel constrained by the limits of a CD. It’s probably best not to worry about how these projects end up. I’m definitely getting interested in the gaps between songs.
Is there the possibility of a Super Furry Animals re-emergence?
I’m having a rest at the moment. I dunno. But there’s no concrete plan. Guto’s band had an album come out a couple of months ago; they’re going to be touring in October. Daf’s band had a LP and short tour in October as well. Cian has a number of projects. He’s working on a film as well. And Huw is finishing up some solo stuff that he started quite a while ago. We’ve all got loads coming out. Mostly on Strangetown Records if anyone wants to go to SoundCloud. There’s lots there.
From the evidence of American Interior, you clearly enjoy the liberation of playing intimate venues to audiences which, as the film proceeds, get smaller and smaller.
Something I like to take advantage of when I go solo. Being in a rock band can be a very industrial process. A lot of people are involved and it costs a lot of money to put on a show, whereas when I play solo I can just take a guitar and go anywhere. Not all the gigs made it into the film but there’s a version of American Interior without the talking with just the songs on the DVD which is called Footnotes. I can play to wild animals.
You also wear one on your head in some of the film.
Yeah. Inspired by William Price, the radical Welsh druid who used to wear various animals on his head. It seemed a good idea at the time. I was trying to prepare myself for the wilderness. Always be prepared for any eventuality.
And you were accompanied into the American interior by a John Evans puppet who, without uttering a word, is also extremely funny. How did he comes into being?
Like most things it’s often a process rather than hitting on one idea. It’s about following small ideas and they accidentally become a different idea. Originally I wanted the avatar to be about six inches long and I was going to hang it from the rearview mirror of the van. It gradually grew. I think maybe someone got the dimensions wrong at some point and it became a full-sized avatar. We were going to do a lot of CGI effects but he’s so alive with the wind in his hair. He needs very little manipulation.
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.