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.
For Drowned In Sound
Gruff Rhys has just woken up. Speaking down the line from Liverpool – where he performed yesterday as part of Sound City – his answers are delivered in that gentle, slightly spaced-out lilt, and generally come punctuated by the sort of pauses which leave you wondering if he’s gotten distracted and wandered off or, worse, nodded off. Perhaps there’s just too much going on in that kaleidoscopic brain? His impressive prolificacy would certainly suggest so.
This year alone we’ve had two Record Store Day exclusives – one as Neon Neon and the other in collaboration with Tomas Barfod – and he’s now promoting a multi-platform project, encompassing a film, book, app and album, all of which are helpfully named American Interior, “just so there’s no confusion.”
Though an unconnected tale, the film follows as a similar premise to 2010’s Separado!, the surreal travelogue Rhys made with director Dylan Goch. Where Separado! found Rhys searching Brazil and Patagonia for his long-lost uncle, Argentinian pop star René Griffiths, American Interior sees Rhys retrace the steps of distant ancestor John Evans.
The story goes that a 22-year-old Evans departed Snowdonia for Baltimore in 1792, in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans, purportedly descended from mythical, 12th century explorer Prince Madog. Over the course of seven years, Evans traversed the American Interior on foot, stopping to hunt bison with the Omaha tribe, annex North Dakota from the British and generally become embroiled in a host of other adventures en route.
“I’ve been aware of him most of my life, because I’m descended from his mother’s brother and it was a story my dad was pretty obsessed with,” Rhys explains. “He’s been written about a little bit, but usually as a footnote in someone else’s story. It’s almost one those tall tales; I wanted to verify whether it was true or not.”
So, as soon as he’d wrapped up his last Hotel Shampoo show in the US, Rhys flew to New York with a map, sat down with his booking agent, and together they plotted a five-week “investigative concert tour” across the Midwest. “I generally find the best way of finding things out is to go experience them, and to try to meet as many people as possible,” he reasons.
“I spoke to a psychiatric consultant about him, and there had been a lot of factors affecting his psychological make-up. For example, he was orphaned quite young, which could be why he was very prone to risk-taking. He would have been a man of faith too. To complete something ridiculous like 12,000 miles on foot, he must have been a pretty fearless character.
“But while John Evans was a real historical figure, Prince Madog – the guy he was deluded into following – was in all probability a myth. Though, as a historian in the film mentions, the Madog story actually became a historical reality, simply because it started to affect real history.”
Boundaries between truth and fiction are about as nebulous in Evans’ own tale, having claimed he “wrestled the largest river reptiles in the Mississippi” and “discovered imaginary volcanoes in Missouri.” Rhys is gleefully complicit in this distortion too, not least by commissioning Super Furry Animals designer Pete Fowler to create a three foot, felt effigy of Evans. The finished result doesn’t look too far removed from The Count from Sesame Street. “Well, we didn’t know what he looked like so we had to speculate,” chuckles Rhys, before adding with comic understatement, “It’s a bit of a distorted version of a human being.”
Like Separado!, American Interior the film is much more than a genealogical quest: it finds Rhys examining Welsh-speaking settlements, opening complex discussions about cultural identity and diaspora. “There are a lot of contradictions to [Evans’] story. He was escaping colonisation but, by exploring the west, he was also aping the colonisation of another land.” And, as Rhys explains, retracing Evans’ journey two centuries on only served to confirm his own anti-monarchist stance.
“It all happened at the time of the French and American revolutions, where people were pushing for progressive, democratic values; getting rid of their monarchy and ruling classes. In an era where we still have the monarchy as figureheads, and an elected Lord making key decisions on how we govern, I think that’s still a very powerful message. It’s an archaic system that just tries to reinforce archaic class structures to suggest we’re not all equal.”
By contrast, Rhys found himself heartened by the welcome he experienced during his 10-date tour of the Midwest, describing audiences as “enthusiastic and interested.” No mean feat when you consider that, bar Baltimore, he avoided the conventional touring circuit entirely, and that gig venues included libraries and “a spiritual exhibition in the Omaha Reservation.” The only relatively hairy moment came in New Orleans, when they had to throw a woman off stage, and even then Rhys concedes, “She wasn’t really being hostile; she was just a bit drunk.”
One of the more notable audience members was drummer Kliph Spurlock – then with the Flaming Lips – who bought tickets for three shows, and then took part in the performance for another four. Subsequently, the pair headed into the studio for a day and laid down the nine songs which formed the basis for the most important piece of the puzzle: American Interior, the album.
Partially recorded at Mike Mogis’ studio in Omaha, it’s probably his finest solo record so far. Deeply melodic and diverse in its scope, it offers up the cinematic, string-drenched gallop ‘Iolo’, 50s rock ‘n’ roll romp ‘100 Unread Messages’ and 60s pop-indebted ‘Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)’, plus idiosyncratic synth-driven oddities like ‘Allweddellau Allweddol’. As well as being rooted in Evans’ story and Rhys’ experiences, the album finds him absorbing Americana influences, almost by osmosis, most notably demonstrated in Maggie Björklund’s sublime pedal steel playing. Was it a deliberate decision to reflect the geography of the tale in his musical palette?
“A little bit. I was a tourist in America, so I was suddenly getting over-excited and over-Americana-ising (sic) the record,” he laughs. “And then when I got home I was like, ‘Wow, what the fuck am I doing?!’
“When I got home, Boom Bip had left me a load of synths from some Neon Neon gigs, so I took them to [producer] Ali Chant’s studio in St Pauls, Bristol, and overdubbed the record with loads more synths and strings. Basically, I tried to de-Americana-ise it a bit.”
Other key players included 9Bach singer –and Candylion-collaborator – Lisa Jen, and Alun Evans and Gruff Ab Arwel of Y Nwil, who provided guitar solos and string arrangements, respectively.
Add American Interior to Hotel Shampoo and his work with Neon Neon, and it’s noticeable that most of Rhys’ recent output is underpinned by quite rigid concepts. Has he reached a stage in his career where it’s not enough to simply release a collection of songs?
“Well, I’ve always enjoyed trying to think of different ways of writing songs, or writing in a way that is a bit less introspective. [Having a concept] helped me approach these songs with enthusiasm, but I’m not necessarily going to make all records on such a tight leash, you know? Generally, I have no strategy for writing music, really: I just let the songs come together and then compile them together in some way that works.”
Last time DiS spoke to Rhys, around the release of Separado!, he alluded to the film being part of a trilogy. Post-American Interior is that still the plan?
“Possibly. But there was a six year gap between the tours I did for Separado! and American Interior, and I’m in no hurry to start doing another film of this kind. I think if the idea is fully-formed then I might try something, but usually I react to whatever I’ve just done. I imagine [the next project] will be something very simple and minimal.”
Even if he’s put his burgeoning career as indie-pop’s answer to Michael Palin on hold, that doesn’t mean there’s time for a new Super Furry Animals record either. “You know, we’re all really busy,” he explains. “Cian [Ciaran] is just starting his third solo record, Guto [Pryce]’s band Gulp are about to release an album, and Daf [Ieuan] has a new album out with The Earth, his project with Mark Roberts from Catatonia. I’m sure we’ll do [Super Furry Animals] stuff at some point because it’d be weird if we didn’t. But we’re in no mad rush.”
There will be a Super Furry Animals-branded beer, however. Apparently, it’s 8% and features a unique secret ingredient. “It’s definitely one for the summer,” he chuckles.
Rhys’ immediate plans include a PowerPoint-assisted tour of American Interior and the release of his soundtrack to Andy Goddard’s film, Set Fire To The Stars. Telling the story of Dylan Thomas’ agent, and his attempts to control the poet on one of his American reading tours, it stars Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones in the key roles. Rhys is particularly happy with his work on this project, not least because “the fact it’s more orchestral takes my music somewhere I haven’t really been before.”
“Taking music somewhere new” is a recurring motif in the conversation; he cites it as his prime motivation during his 20-something years making musically professionally. Indeed, for Rhys, the novelty of being able to make music “professionally” still hasn’t worn off. “You know, I still find it quite unbelievable that I’m allowed to make records and book studios,” he muses, softly. “I’m still excited that I can.”
Where does this desire to challenge himself come from? Is it linked to his ancestry? Because, from John Evans and René Griffiths to Rhys’ own father – poet, essayist and mountaineer Ioan Bowen Rees – there seem to be a disproportionate number of explorers in his family. Could it be that his appetite for adventure – be that literal or sonic – is in some way hereditary?
“I don’t know… I think every family has characters, you know? Most of my family lead worthwhile lives and don’t see the need to go insane expeditions,” he laughs. “So it’s possible, but equally it could be a coincidence…”
(via The Quietus).
Adam Narkiewicz , May 7th, 2014 08:24
Adam Narkiewicz took his countryman Gruff Rhys up a mountain to discuss John Evans, the Welsh wanderer who forms the subject of Rhys’ great new album American Interior. Coneheads of the world unite!
Gruff Rhys picks me up outside the train station in Bangor, a place that once filled me with wanderlust and now drowns me in bittersweet hiraeth. It’s where I went to secondary school, rented my first bedsit at age sixteen and where, that very same week, I first met the local legend and Super Furry Animal frontman, outside the old Our Price record shop (now a computer games shop, obviously). He signed a packet of fags for me, and a decade later he sang on one of my Akira The Don records.
Since I last saw Gruff he’s travelled America in the footsteps of his his ancestor John Evans, who as a young man sailed West in search of Welsh People and changed history. I’ve been living out in Los Angeles, learning the ways of PeakWave. But today we’re back where we began, in Cymru, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, bouncing through the hills and valley’s of North Wales in Gruff’s great big van to Waunfawr, the home of the subject of his new album, book, and movie.
“This is where John Evans lived,” says Gruff, pointing at little stone house on the side of the little windy road on a 45% angle. “And up there’s where he’d have gone for walks.”
We drive a little further up the hill, and suddenly the brow gives way, and we’re on top of Wales.
The world stretches out as far as the eye can see. To the left below, a village, little stone houses chuffing out smoke, floating heavenward like thought bubbles, mingling with clouds that hang sleepily around the mountains like puffy tiraras. Behind us looms Mynydd Mawr (literally “big mountain”), also known as The Elephant, though from here it looks more like a dragon. And in front, the sea, rolling out into infinity.
"They ask, why did this guy from North Wales wanna go to America?" We look around, taking in the same insane cinematic panorama his ancestor did over two hundred years ago. "And it’s like, OH.”
He laughs, then tells me the story of brave John Evans, a boy from Here who went over There.
Gruff Rhys: He went in 1792. He went to London first, when he was 21. He was trying to raise money. He went to Llanrwst Eisteddfod in 1790 and heard a speech by Iolo Morganwg [famed Welsh poet, literary forger and opium fiend] saying the US government should give Wales a piece of America, ‘cos we basically own it and we need to find the Welsh-speaking tribe and prove that they exist.
Where did that come from?
GR: John Dee made it up. He was working for Queen Elizabeth. He basically fabricated it.
Is that the wizard guy who all the various visual ideas for Merlin and Gandalf and them came from?
GR: Er, not sure. He was basically more like a public relations guru.
So why was he making up shit about the Welsh having discovered America?
GR: Well, Wales had just been annexed by England, and he’d upgraded England to become the British Empire. And he was the first to give it the new name. All new, deluxe, kinda rebrand. He wanted to jump into America… So he put a claim on America by using a previous Welsh prince who never existed, probably.
Was that Mabon?
GR: Um. Madoc. Madoc had been mentioned in poetry but there’s no hard evidence he existed. His dad [King Owain Of Gwynedd] existed, and his mum. But there’s no record that his dad ever had any sons. John Dee went, ah, ‘I’ll have a bit of that’. And he said that Madoc had discovered America while it was empty and gave Elizabeth the allotment to claim half of America away from the Spanish, like. So John Evans went to London, and hung out with all these Welsh ex-pats who were into poetry and anti-royalty. They were revolutionary, they believed in the American revolution, and the French revolution. It was a class issue, ‘cos, you know, people didn’t even own their own land, you know, they were scraping a living off the common land, here. John believed in the American revolution and that people shouldn’t be ruled by police.
Iolo Morganwg was on an expedition to find the Madogwys, so John Evans decided to come to London to join him and look for funding, and no one would give him any money. Then Iolo Morganwg chickened out and went back to Wales.
John Evans was a farm hand and weaver from here. He made clothes for the quarrymen. And suddenly he’s left alone to start, um, well, to go on an expedition. So he was homeless in London, and some Welsh guy felt sorry for him and loaned him enough money to reach Baltimore in the worst class of boat.
So he got in a boat. In the shit bit.
GR: In the shit bit. To Baltimore. Twenty years old. And he got a job in a surveyors office for about six months. And they taught him surveying skills. And he saved $1 and 65 cents.
What, as in looking at houses?
GR: They were squaring out grids, to build the new towns. So he hung around there for six months. Then walked into the wilderness. And then within another six months he’s in the Mississippi and everything West of the Mississippi belonged to Spain. He crossed the Mississippi, changed his name to Don Juan Evans, pledged allegiance to the Spanish king, and then, um, caught malaria.
He was in a place called New Madrid, where he almost died, and then decided to carry on anyway, so he started to walk up the Mississippi, by which point he was out of money, no clothes left, his clothes had disintegrated, and he’s walking up the river, alligators, all this stuff he’d never seen before, snakes, and ‘cos he’s from here, he had no idea what was going on!
That’s pretty much exactly what happened to me when I first went to America.
GR: I know! Ha!
So he’s wandering up the Mississippi all naked and crazed, freaking out over alligators and fluorescent orange locusts…
GR: Yeah. And malaria’s… occurring. And he’s hallucinating.
GR: Then he gets blinded for a period of time. By his illness. And the sun. Baking his brain like a cake. Then he got to St Louis. And it was controlled by the French but still in Spanish Louisiana, New Spain, which was a third of North America. So, it was populated by French people, and they didn’t believe the story that he was looking for Welsh people, so they jailed him.
What did they think he was doing?
GR: They thought he was a US spy.
A naked, malaria-ridden, hallucinating…
GR: US spy, yeah! [laughs] And they put him in jail, and it was winter, minus 20, and they had him in a dungeon, in St Louis, and then they put him in the stocks, and then some guy came over the river to vouch for him.
GR: Well, it was, there was a judge called George Turner, who came from the US, to vouch for him. He had a good relationship with the governor of St Louis, which was a village of about 2000 people. And then a Scottish general called Gerald McKay had been asked by the Spanish to lead an expedition up the Missouri river from St Louis to look for the North West Passage… and he’d met another Welsh guy along the way, John Riorkins in Cincinnati, and this Welsh guy knew John Evans, and went, ah, there’s this guy John Evans, he’s west, he’s looking for the Welsh speakers and you should get him on your expedition ‘cos he’ll be able to talk to the tribes you meet. So General McKay got him out and made him second in command.
GR: And this Spanish expedition assembled in Missouri. And they started up the Missouri river and were leaving behind European style civilisation, and meeting the river tribes, going up the Missouri for 18,000 miles. They lived with the Omaha tribe. Chief Blackbird blockaded the expedition, you know, like, ‘there’s no way I’m gonna let you go up here with guns and arm the Mochotta tribe upriver. I’m not mad’. So, they were stuck with the Omaha tribe, who fed them and they were reasonable people, but they didn’t want them taking shit to their enemies. So they were with them for about six months. And then chief Blackbird let John Evans go onwards with some of the people, and McKay made Evans the leader of the expedition. On first attempt they were chased back 300 miles by the Lacotta tribe. On his second attempt they made a deal with them and, they carried on, and then he was stopped and blockaded by the Arikara Tribe, and spent six weeks with them, and then he thought that the Madogwys, the decedents of Madoc, were the Mandan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandan) tribe.
Because of the ‘Ma’?
GR. Yeah. It was very tenuous. So he got there, and he lived with them for nine months.
But they didn’t speak any Welsh
GR: They didn’t speak any Welsh. By which point he was on the 49th parallel. And he was blowing up British forts with cannons and stuff on the way upriver.
GR: But when he got to the 49th parallel he raised the Spanish flag, and then sort of accidentally, possibly, annexed that whole chunk of North America into what became the USA. Otherwise it would have been Canadian. He spent nine months in this weird situation. Britain and Spain were at war in Europe, and he was holding one of the longest borders of the Spanish empire.
And this was still just him and his few mates?
GR: Yeah. But they were completely dependent on the Mandan tribe who let them stay with them over the winter. By this point he was 26-years-old, and he walked thousands of miles and met lots of tribes; tribes that were from further west as well. And he came to the conclusion that there were no decedents of Madoc in America.
After spending nine months with the tribe, the Canadians came to try and kill him. And he was saved by the tribe. His Mandan interpreter jumped on top of the assassin. And then he decided to go back to St Louis. He couldn’t get to the Pacific because he’d run out of money. Spanish Louisiana was getting bankrupt - the backup that was supposed to come upriver for him never came. And he was just stranded in what’s now North Dakota, so its like, minus 40. He spent the winter there. And the Mandan were having like, buffalo dances, and Okipa ceremonies where people hang themselves with hooks through their chest, you know . They were one of the most developed tribes, in terms of culture. And John’s from this Methodist hotspot. Really dour, his parents were devout Methodists. So it’d have been quite a change of scenery. So he’s hanging out with them, then he went back to St Louis. And the governor of Spanish Louisiana was impressed with the way he captured the North Americas from the Canadians…
With two guys and some cannons.
GR: He talked his way 1800 miles up the Missouri River. He talked his way to America, you know, he never paid the guy back he got the loan from.
Just a charismatic motherfucker.
GR: Yeah. And then, um, he ended up in New Orleans. When he was 28. He got a job with the governor. By which point, you know, he was depressed, because he failed in his quest to find Madoc’s tribe. And well, we can speculate on the reasons, but he died at 29. And was thrown in an anonymous grave. And that was that.
What, you think he pissed someone off? Owed someone money?
GR: Nah, it was probably something boring you know, like cholera. And he’d mapped the whole Missouri basin, and mapped the Yellowstone river, and when the Spanish sold that particular land to the US - well, they sold it to the French and the French sold it to the US. And then the Americans got hold of John Evans’ maps, and they sent Lewis and Clark on the same expedition again.
GR: Lewis and Clark.
I thought you said Lois and Clark. The New Adventures of Superman.
GR: Yeah! I wonder, maybe that’s where they got the names. So they used his maps for the first year of their expedition to find the Pacific Ocean.
And they worked?
So he didn’t make the whole thing up.
GR: No, no, they were fairly exact maps, it was really spot on. And so he had a kind of weird, profound influence on the geography of the US, but by accident, because he was trying to do something completely different. He was trying annex it for the Welsh.
And all because Queen Elizabeth’s crazy wizard PR made up some shit.
GR: Yeah, but I suppose the Welsh loved that shit. Actually we did, like, ‘Yeah! Aye!’ But, its just very sad, you know, like, looking back.
And he was related to you?
GR: Yeah. Well, its pretty tenuous. Imagine that we’re all related here [Gruff gestures at the valley and mountains around us] I’m descended from his mother’s brother. So. And its a long time ago.
But its still the same shit, really. People languishing in relative poverty under the elite scum.
And people fucking off to London to find like-minded hipsters. And then fucking off to America to find the dream.
GR: Yeah! Exactly! But, because, we’re still governed by the fucking House Of Lords, and the fucking Queen, and elites, like the Tory cabinet. Which was exactly the same you know, 220 years ago when he left. Its exactly the same deal. Which is incredibly depressing. The French had their revolution and at the same time the Americans, and they don’t have archaic models of governance like the monarchy and the House Of Lords. I mean, we’re still stuck with it. And that’s what John Evans was trying to sort out.
David Cameron’s speech the other day, condemning the Welsh NHS. He personally slashed the Welsh budget by a third. Which is unprecedented in a modern country to have someone come in and slash a third of the budget. Like, how do you cope with that? And that’s in his name, and he’s got the fucking… um… you know, its like. Ha! [Gruff sighs, exasperatedly].
How old were you when you first went to America?
GR: 26. It was incredible. It was just for a gig, for a three days in New York. It was like an insane hallucination. And then went back to do another gig two years later and thought, ‘ah, I’ll stay for a bit longer’. I met some people in the bar and they went, ‘where you staying?’, and I was going, ‘oh, in a hotel’ and they were, ‘chuck out the hotel, you can stay in our house, we’ll give you a key’. So next thing was staying in people’s house with a key. Then they went, ‘oh, do you wanna come on holiday?’ So I was, ‘oh yeah! Great!’ And then went on holiday with these people, you know. It’s dead hospitable.
Then I toured lots with Super Furries, all over America, lots of times. So its a bit weird. I’m a bit suspicious of calling a record American Interior. I’m hoping I can get away with it. But I’m not trying to make an Americana roots record.
I was gonna ask you about that. Why that name?
GR: ‘Cos the film’s called American Interior. And its like, theme music for the film. The title track thing. The words ‘American Interior’ popped up a lot. I wrote a book about the tour, about that essential third of America. You know when you give something a name, and it’s sort of too complicated to change it in the end? Even though you think, oh, I could maybe call it something so it’s not attached too geographically.
Its a dope name though. And its a dope album. What’s that one about synthesisers in Welsh with the double A?
GR: ‘Allweddellau Allweddol’.
Double A. Coulda called it ‘Allweddellau Allweddol Addawol’ and gone for the triple. What’s John Evans got to do with synthesisers?
GR: Nah, it’s like, when he’s in the malarial hallucination going upriver, and he starts to meet all the tribes of the Missouri basin, it’s like a soundrack for that part of his life. Where he’s in, you know, a desert style situation, hallucinating, losing his mind, and it’s just maybe thinking an amazing synthesiser, using that as a kind of guide, like a floating synthesiser in the sky, like, the synthesiser’s speaking to him, up in the sky.
That’s the one that needs an animated Pete Fowler video then.
GR: Haha, yeah.
What was the source for that part of John Evans’ story? Specifically that Jesus In The Desert bit.
GR: When he got back to St Louis from the Mandan, he wrote a lot. He sat down and he wrote a letter to a guy in Philadelphia. When he passed through Philadelphia in 1798 he stayed with a Welsh family there.
He found some Welsh people, then.
GR: Oh, everywhere, yeah! And then four years later he sits down in St Louis, and writes a letter, saying, ‘oh, sorry I haven’t been in touch, you know, its like, this is what happened after I left your house.’ It’s this amazing sort of three page letter. Its just this insane story. And there’s chunks of him somewhere else. His journals exist. The odd letter. There’s very little proof, you know, but there’s just enough to try and piece his life together. Maybe there’s more out there.
I guess now you’re gonna find, with the record and film and book out, that loads of people are gonna send you shit about him.
GR: Yeah, yeah. People have started to get in touch. But, you know, there’s lot of conspiracy theories. Which I try to avoid. ‘Cos, maybe they’re true, but I just wanted to write what we really know, and then somehow just kind of elaborate on it. People don’t believe that he didn’t find the tribe. And they think that he made that up ‘cos he was under duress of the Spanish.
People wanna believe. Like that Fox Mulder poster. I wanna believe!
GR: Yeah, yeah.
The big story in deep conspiracy land right now, post that whole Zion 2012 Olympics thing, is giants. Giants that built America, and had coneheads, decedents of annunaki, that sort of thing. So it was giants, not Welsh people. Or maybe Welsh giants.
GR: That’s amazing. What was the one a couple of years ago, people were obsessed with, the frequency machine?
GR: Yeah. They said it caused earthquakes.
They shut that down now. They built a bunch of new ones though. Everyone’s got them now. The Chinese have one. Russia has one.
GR: Hahaha. Wow.
You know, we held a ritual up here [Gruff gestures at the sloping mountainside around us]. A voodoo ritual for John Evans. See, I took, like, a three foot effigy of him round America.
Did Pete [Fowler] make that?
GR: Yeah. Well, someone call Louise Evans made it. From Pete’s designs. It was just a visual aid, you know? ‘Cos he’d never been drawn, or painted. When we got to New Orleans people thought it was a voodoo doll. I was trying to explain, like, ‘nah, its just a visual representation of a distant relative!’
That’s kind what a voodoo doll is anyway, right?
GR: Yeah. So we bought it back, up here. And had a voodoo ceremony. Well, not a proper one. I mean, our own. In New Orleans voodoo, they give them nice things, like, nice fruit, sing songs to them. So we did that, up here. Had a fire… It was nice.
Gruff Rhys’ American Interior is out now via Turnstile