Super Furries singer talks solo project
by Ric Rawlins
Gruff Rhys shot to fame as singer of Super Furry Animals, the Welsh psychedelic pop group acclaimed for bringing together melodic guitar pop and electronica. Also known for dressing up as yetis, blasting EDM out of army tanks and playing live in surround sound, SFA have released nine albums to date.
With the band currently focusing on solo projects, Rhys has spent the past few years working as one half of the electro-pop outfit Neon Neon, and releasing increasingly conceptual solo records. The latest of these is American Interior, which is released this May as an album, a book, an app and film.
The project is a biographical retelling of the story of John Evans, a historical Welsh explorer who set off on a quest in 1792 to find a lost tribe of Welsh language speakers who’d supposedly settled in America.
Two centuries later Gruff Rhys announced an ‘investigative concert tour’, whereby he would trace the Evans expedition while playing a series of concerts along the way, with Flaming Lips’ Kliph Scurlock on drums. Somehow the gigs turned into an album. And a book. And, well, you know the rest. We caught up with Rhys to discuss the extravaganza…
What was it about John Evans that got you fascinated with him?
"A combination of things. It’s a family story [Rhys’ father is said to be a descendant of Evans’]. And also as we were touring America and going through some of the places he’d been, I started getting curious about the other places he’d gone to. So I asked if I could book a tour along the roads that John Evans took all those years ago."
And he went out to find a Welsh tribe in America?
"Yeah it was believed that this Welsh Prince had discovered America, based on very little evidence. By the time of John Evans, people really believed it and wanted to go and find the tribe. And by finding them, that would be a way out for Welsh people living in poverty, and to find other people who speak their language.
"At the time nobody would give them any money for the expedition, but by that time, John Evans was so into the idea that he borrowed enough money to reach the States. And then once he was there he just kind of walked into the wilderness! He gave his whole life to trying to find the tribe."
Have your recent adventures with Neon Neon influenced your approach to playing with digital instruments?
"I think it’s inevitable, in a way. I was working on both records at similar times, and I had one of the synths from the Neon Neon shows lying around when I was recording some of American Interior. So it definitely influenced me.
"Also partly, I recorded in America with an American producer and some American musicians, and some of the songs kind of suggest Americana, but I was probably reacting to that. I really didn’t want to make an Americana record because of the title and all the American references. I don’t feel qualified to make a rootsy Americana record!
"And although I love country rock and bits of it go into country rock territory, I was really keen for it not to be a some kind of weird, purist roots record. So I was probably reacting to that by throwing loads of synthetic synths over the top!"
You’ve said before that your approach is to feel for good sounds, rather than having a technical knowledge of their workings.
"A good example might be how a lot of DJs become really good producers often, because they don’t have really good technical engineering knowledge. They kind of break rules and their techniques are based on just having listened to thousands of records.
"So it’s often that I work quite intuitively, and sometimes things don’t quite work out because of it! It’s sort of trial and error."
So if you had a synth, for example, would you improvise your way into it without looking at the instruction manual?
"Yeah, I mean… I’m not particularly diligent technically. I’m not a great musician really, either! And partly what I love about studios is that you can become any musician in the studio because it’s not a performance. Even I can play piano in the studio, although I’m not the world’s greatest piano player, but you can get a sound out of almost anything. Especially in the studio!"
How did the different strands of media for American Interior come together?
"It’s all come about from a film I made with Dylan Goch about five years ago called Seperado! I did an investigative concert tour, Dylan filmed it, and I recorded the soundtrack. It was pretty straightforward with the film appearing, but I didn’t get it together to release the soundtrack. I’ve still got it, and I need to sequence the songs and things!
"So when I did the tour for American Interior, which Dylan also documented and I recorded an album for, I was really keen to get it together and put the songs out at the same time [as the film].
"There was no contemporary book out about John Evans’ story, so I ended up writing an account of the tour that weaves John Evans’ story into it.
"Then the app combines everything, really. American Interior is in three acts, so the app has three maps, and you go from A to B along these maps which follow John Evans’ routes, and you pick up pieces of text and pieces of film, or fragments of song and photography.
"[The app is] based on the song 100 Unread Messages, which is one of the songs on the album, so you basically travel along three maps and you pick up 100 messages in different types of media."
Would you imagine people using it all together, with the app connecting to the book, which connects to the record and so on?
"I think the album hopefully works without having to know the story of John Evans. Although it is some kind of biographical album, it is pretty loose.
"And then if you see the film, which is like a cartoon depiction of John Evans’ life, you get a lot of information in it, in an hour and a half, that’ll give you a kind of basic knowledge of him.
"The book is more in-depth, and I’ve been able to go into a lot of detail. The app kind of ties a lot of loose ends together, although a lot of the stuff on the app is unique, in terms of the writing and the films.
"So I think they all compliment each other and they’re all pretty different, but you could plausibly read the book and listen to the record at the same time! Which maybe is what the app is like: like watching a film and reading a book and going for a road trip as well."
What do you think John Evans would have made of all this if he was alive today?
"I think for the most part he’d be pretty horrified by it, by these weird, modern day people who don’t go to chapel, and are building a weird muppet of him as a visual aid. You know, he might be really offended. I can only really speculate!"
American Interior is available for pre-order now.
For more information visit the official Gruff Rhys website or connect with Gruff on Twitter and Facebook.
(from Clash Magazine)
by Robin Murray
The vast expanse of the American West, the story of its discovery by Colonial Powers and the decline of Native American culture is one riddled with myth, speculation and tall tales. But even amidst this morass, the story of John Evans stands out.
A simple Welsh farmer, Evans attempted to trace a lost tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans. Tracing a route across the American frontier, his journey has been passed down in Welsh folklore for generations – until it reached Gruff Rhys.
“It’s just something that I’ve been told about all my life, really. It’s a story in the family and he’s well known in our village” he tells Clash. The Welsh songwriter gradually became entranced by the tale, and in 2012 launched an ‘Investigative Concert Tour’ across the American continent, tracing the journey of John Evans in the process.
“I’ve done a lot of tours and I thought it would be interesting to make use of the tours instead of just selling records, y’know? That was an ‘Investigative Concert Tour’, so I booked more gigs along the route that John Evans took through America between 1792 and 1799” he explains. “I did that tour three years ago, collected information and I wrote and recorded songs along the way. Then I filmed it all as well, before I came back and finished the record in Bristol.”
A lengthy journey in both time and distance, the process of recording new album ‘American Interior’ took Gruff Rhys into some unexpected places. “I did some cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Cinncinati, St. Louis and then I did the Omaha reservation and some other reservations. I played small towns, villages and towns that didn’t exist anymore” he says. “I encouraged people who came to the gigs to help me out and I met a load of random people. Some were academics, some were archaeologists, some were homeless boatmen. I met a voodoo priest. They all helped me out in different ways.”
Collating information as he travelled, Gruff Rhys was able to find time to sketch down his thoughts. Stopping past the Saddle Creek collective in Omaha to lay down initial parts, the songs themselves are deliberately intended to sit alongside but not within the overarching story. “The songs for the most part are pretty opaque, impressionistic. I think they can stand on their own – I hope they can stand on their own beyond the narrative of the story” he says. “It’s in some kind of order, but I think you can listen to it without that in mind. There’s a few songs which are really specific, like ‘100 Messages’, but others are more opaque or inspired by the weather conditions.”
Accompanied on the tour by film maker Dylan Goch, ‘American Interior’ is also set to become a feature length documentary. “Well, Dylan’s been editing for about a year” he explains, “and I know nothing about cameras so my role is, I suppose, putting the tour together and doing a slide show and singing songs every night. Its Dylan’s take on it although we were interviewing people together, choosing colour schemes together. It’s very collaborative but Dylan directed it and had an objective eye over the whole thing.”
A sprawling, cross-media effort, ‘American Interior’ will also be turned into an app featuring unseen clips from the journey and biographical information about John Evans. Returning to somewhat more traditional forms, Gruff Rhys has decided to pull together his experiences into a new book. “There’s no contemporary book about John Evans” he reveals, “so I ended up writing an account of the tour. I suppose it’s about half my tour and half John Evans’ history in a lot more detail than I could get into a film or an album. It’s got fragments of the song lyrics, so I suppose it’s connected to the album like that.”
At once fragmentary and also uniquely unified, the ‘American Interior’ project could not exist without the mythology surrounding John Evans’ journey. Searching for a lost tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans – often attributed to be the Madog people – it’s a tale of hopeless ambition in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
“ It’s all referring to the danger of myth” the songwriter explains. “The danger of mythology and the havoc it can cause in the world. In terms of stuff I’ve taken away from it, I’ve had some profound experiences meeting people I never imagined I would have ever met. Being in situations that are completely unimaginable and learning knowledge I had no idea I would ever be able to learn. Meeting the last speaker of the Mandan language was a really profound experience.”
Ultimately, it is America – it’s unimaginable size, the enormous diversity of culture – which shines through in this most Welsh of conceptual documents. “Every community on Earth is represented in America” Gruff Rhys reflects, “which is one of the fantastical things about the place.”
'American Interior' is set to be released on May 5th.
…That’s GRUFF RHYS, Super Furry Animal, quixotic adventurer, Welsh renaissance man. Deep in his Cardiff lair, Uncut hears about Rhys’ 25-year rock odyssey and his latest project; the 200-year-old quest for a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans that provoked a chaotic Stateside road trip, a book, a film and a brilliant new album. God! Show us magic! Story: Piers Martin
On a windswept Wednesday in late February down by the barrage in Cardiff Bay, Gruff Rhys perches on the rocks, posing for Uncut’s photographer. For reasons that will become clear, the Super Furry Animals frontman wears a wolf headdress over his crumpled black suit and he clutches what appears to be a large cuddly toy that vaguely resembles The Count from Sesame Street. As he stares out to sea he explains how the recent fierce storms battered the Welsh coastline, blasting away enough sand and silt from Cardigan Bay to reveal the tops of a prehistoric forest that folklore suggests is the site of the ancient sunken kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. “It’s the Welsh Atlantis,” smiles Rhys. “Or so they say.”
It is said that people from the country with the red dragon on its flag like tall tales, and few public figures in Wales these past two decades have been as devoted to constructing and promoting fantasy as Rhys, both in Super Furry Animals and in his solo career. Now a youthful 43, the prolific singer is set to unveil his most ambitious solo project to date, American Interior, an expansive multi-platform saga that’s devoured the last two years of his life and looks likely to consume the next 12 months, too. The story draws on Rhys’ attempt to trace the incredible journey of his distant relative, the 18th-Century explorer and fellow Celtic dreamer John Evans.
“John Evans is a one-off and doesn’t fit in any kind of history,” says Rhys, slowly and softly, of his grandmother’s great uncle. “Having toured in America quite a lot, I realised the scale of his journey, and American Interior is more about trying to verify and tell a family story. I wanted to bring it to life and celebrate the story but not overglorify Evans as a human. He had an extremely unusual life that was cut very short.”
A poor farmhand from Waunfawr in Snowdonia, Evans made his way to America on his own in 1792 aged just 22 to search for a mythical tribe of Welsh speaking Native Indians who were believed to inhabit the Great Plains. According to legend, the tribe were descended from the Welsh prince Madog who, it’s claimed, had discovered America at the end of the 12th Century. In August 2012, Rhys set out with a small film crew on an “investigative concert tour”, performing a mix of stand-up comedy, academic lecture and musical performance on a trip that headed inland from Baltimore and wound its way down to New Orleans via Pittsburgh, Omaha and Memphis, following in Evans’ footsteps. Presented as an album, documentary film, a 70,000-word book, DVD and app, each medium allows Rhys to tell his American Interior tale from a slightly different angle. Like most endeavours bearing his name, the documentary is warm, funny and poignant. And though the American Interior album stems from the same source– and features performances by members of The Flaming Lips and Bright Eyes whom Rhys met en route – the record is far more than a straight-up soundtrack. “It’s been a pretty over-the-top thing to be involved with,” says Rhys, whose just-woke-up demeanour belies a formidable work ethic. He’s already completed his next musical assignment, a 1950s-style jazz score for the upcoming Elijah Wood biopic of Dylan Thomas, Set Fire To The Stars. “I’m usually busy working on something new and excited about a record or idea. So in that sense, looking back on what I’ve done gets in the way. I don’t have time for it.”
Gruff Rhys has been writing songs for as long as he can remember. He wrote his first when he was five – “about a train driver who was getting old which I recorded on my brother’s tape recorder” – and by the time he was 14, the soft-rock group he’d formed at school, Machlud (‘Sunset’ in Welsh), had recorded a track at Hawkwind’s studio in Powys for a compilation of underground Welsh bands called Cam O’r Tywyllwch (or A Step From Darkness). He was raised in a Welsh speaking family who moved from Pembrokeshire to the small slate-quarry town of Bethesda in Gwynedd when he was three. “Bethesda had a rich tradition of hymn writers and choirs,” says Rhys, who learned his first English words from watching TV. “In the 1970s, hippies began moving to the town with their weird record collections that turned the ears of locals.”
Between Rhys’ father, a keen mountaineer who hated The Beatles but valued reggae and Welsh-language pop, and his older brother, who played in punk bands and would go on to found the local festival Pesda Roc, Rhys found himself immersed, precociously, in imaginative, ideological music that asked questions. In particular, he connected with the Welsh-language punk band Anhrefn and their label Recordiau Anhrefn. “I used to buy their cassettes through mail order when I was about 11,” he says. “There was a lot of interesting electronic music and punk rock being made in the Welsh language in the early ’80s. It was a tangible, radical scene and very exciting for me as a teenager, as I could relate to it and it was rebellious.”
Dafydd Ieuan, the Super Furry Animals’ drummer whose family lived outside Bethesda, has known Rhys since they were both 13. “We met at a sort of rock school for local musicians in a school on the side of a hill in Bethesda,” he says. “There was me, Gruff and one other guy having drumming lessons for the first time. We all had shitty school bands but the first band that was any good were Ffa Coffi Pawb. Gruff started that with his mate when he was 16 and I joined at 18.” As an early indication of Rhys’ mischievousness, Ffa Coffi Pawb means ‘Everybody’s Coffee Beans’ in Welsh but phonetically sounds like ‘Fuck Off, Everyone’. Rhys had left school at 16 and was signing on in Bethesda for a year before going to Bangor to do an art foundation course. In Bangor he befriended producer Gorwel Owen, who would later enrich the sound of SFA but first worked his magic on Ffa Coffi Pawb. “We did three albums as Ffa Coffi Pawb produced by this guy who was like the Brian Eno of Holyhead,” says Rhys. “It was a real education.”
In seven years, they achieved as much as any radical Welsh language post-punk act could in Wales and before long they drifted down to Cardiff in the early ’90s, where they began hanging out with the members of another former post-punk band called U-Thant (named after a UN Secretary General), whose ranks included Huw Bunford and Guto Pryce. “Daf and Gruff came to Cardiff and this coincided with the rave scene,” recalls Pryce, the Furries’ bassist. “Super Furry Animals came out of late nights listening to Surf’s Up and messing about with synths and songs. It came out of friendship. We were very optimistic and empowered by the party scene.” At the height of Britpop in 1995, the nascent Furries released two Welsh language EPs for Cardiff’s Ankst and after just four shows were signed by Mark Bowen to Creation on the Alan McGee-issued condition that they sing (mostly) in English. “Before signing us, Creation shoved us on a Heavy Stereo support tour of the West Country to get our shit together,” says Ieuan. “Rhys Ifans came with us, I think his official title was ‘tour morale’. We just fucking disintegrated.”
“We were reacting to Britpop in a way, but, musically, we weren’t a million miles away,” admits Rhys, who, as the Furries’ charismatic singer, became the de facto leader of the five-piece, whose youngest member, 19-year-old keyboard player Cian Ciarán, was Ieuan’s brother. “We just hated the idea of making parochial, nationalist music. We felt Britpop represented a conservative, backwards movement in music. But then when we started recording Fuzzy Logic we were in this old 1970s studio making this really flat ’70s rock album. When we started touring it in Europe we were being sold as the last dregs of Britpop. Nobody was interested at all. It was pretty funny.”
Amused at the way success soon came to them with relative ease, the Furries’ confidence grew and they looked to make the most of the Oasis lucre pouring into Creation. “We were very ambitious and we thought we could make a Never Mind The Bollocks and we could write our own Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle and have lots of jacuzzis and hang out with our version of Ronnie Biggs, Howard Marks,” says Rhys. “We were quite demanding and on some weird swindle trip. We had no respect for the industry. We could ask Creation for a tank and they’d say: ‘Yeah, no problem.’ Ah, and we really need two inflatable 40-foot bears. ‘Yeah, we can really see that.’ They gave 100 percent of their passion.”
Between their raucous Fuzzy Logic debut in 1996 and 2005’s funk odyssey Love Kraft, SFA released several extraordinary pop albums, including hits set Songbook and the Welsh-language affair Mwng, described by the Jewish Chronicle as “career suicide”. As they pushed themselves in almost every musical direction, their post-Creation labels Sony and Rough Trade struggled to market the band, whose die-hard fanbase at least guaranteed later albums Hey Venus! and Dark Days/Light Years a brief chart placing. As the recovery period for the Furries’ mammoth tours grew longer for the hedonistic troupe, so did the gaps between SFA albums. Rhys took to filling this spare time with his own material, first with the Welsh-language collection of odds and ends Yr Atal Genhedlaeth in 2005, then the soft pop of Candylion in 2007 and, four years later, Hotel Shampoo, a good deal more alluring than its title. His sharp wit, Welsh burr and poetic grasp of a simple tune characterise each record. In addition, Rhys formed synthpop conceptualists Neon Neon with LA producer Boom Bip (Bryan Hollon), whose two albums explore the lives of car magnate John DeLorean and Italian activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. “I think I’ve done about 20 albums of songs and most of them have been about myself, and that’s all right,” he says. “But I like to have a holiday from myself sometimes.”
“Gruff is impossible to categorise but his soul is a good one which always cuts through any distractions,” says Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers, whose musical career has run parallel to Rhys’. “There’s no-one who understands the inner and outer landscape of Wales better than him. The Super Furries’ track ‘Mountain People’ is one of the greatest investigations of Welshness ever written. I think Gruff works like a true artist. He’s someone who’s unafraid, confused, engaged and somehow always humane.” The Furries have been silent since 2009’s Dark Days/Light Years, reconvening once two years ago to perform at the memorial concert for Wales’s football manager Gary Speed. Each member has their own thing going on, but with the band, always a five-way collective, the whole tended to be greater than the sum of its parts. “I think we’ve done too much to not do more stuff,” says Rhys when asked about SFA. “We’ve all got kids and I’ve been at home for two years – I’ve hardly had to tour, happily. I hadn’t been off tour since I was 16. It’s healthy to not be part of an industrial touring life. But we’re all extremely close and it’s bizarre because we’ve never made a load of money, so it’s not as if we can retire. It’s hard keeping a living band together, and it reached the point where it was impossible to contemplate touring like that for a while.” Ieuan is equally pragmatic. These days his energy is taken up with his family and a new band, The Earth. He admits it’s taken a while for him to adjust to being outside the Furries bubble. “It seems to be an indefinite hibernation, God knows when we’ll start again,” he says. “Everybody needed a break, the chance to try their own things out.” Pryce, whose new psych-pop outfit Gulp release their debut in the summer, is also optimistic. “I certainly hope we’ll play again soon, I’m sure we will,” he says. “We’ll do something in a while, but I wouldn’t like to say when.”
Seagulls squawk and swoop over the imposing Victorian building in the mercantile district of Cardiff that houses Rhys’ top-floor office. It’s a small room stacked with books, LPs and dog-eared disco seven-inches, its shelves neatly filled with cassettes, postcards and mementos from his travels. The office adjoins the studios of the film production company where his partner Cat Ramasut, the mother of his two young children, and director and editor Dylan Goch work. Both are involved in American Interior; neither knew what they were getting themselves into, though they hoped it would be better organised than Rhys’ investigative concert tour of teahouses and community centres in Patagonia in 2006, which formed the basis for 2010’s successful surrealist road movie Separado!. “These films are Gruff’s visions and even though he’s not a filmmaker, he knows what he wants. It’s a joy to work with him, especially on a big project like this,” says Goch, the director, editing extra American Interior content for the app. “We went to Yale University to do the first gig and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing,” says Rhys. “The cable kept coming out of the computer and I had a bunch of slides that didn’t make any sense because I hadn’t been on the journey yet. But by the end of the journey I had a full slideshow of John Evans in the landscape he would have done things in.”
With no visual representation of Evans in existence, Rhys and regular Furries artist Pete Fowler pored over the documents the singer had sourced from archives to work out how best to bring the young adventurer to life onscreen. Fowler then designed the avatar of Evans which was made into the three-foot felt figure that accompanied Rhys in the States. “Gruff has always been telling stories in his songs, but for this American Interior project everything seems to have crystallised,” says Cardiff-born Fowler, whose partnership with Rhys began on 1997’s Radiator. “He’s a modern bard, as much a poet as he is a songwriter. He’s always doing something new.” Rhys, certainly, aims to never repeat himself. After the hazy romance of Hotel Shampoo, American Interior is a brashly tuneful album. “I was trying to convey the energy of the tour,” he says. “It’s thematically based in America and I was using American musicians but I was horrified by the idea of making a pure Americana record, which would have been disgusting and wrong.” Beyond the music, American Interior is rooted in anthropology and history and conceivably aligns Rhys with the likes of Damon Albarn and Jeremy Deller as a popular multi-disciplinary artist able to reconfigure stories from the past in such a way that they engage with a contemporary audience on a number of levels. “Well, I think it’s all an extension of songwriting,” he says. “There’s no doubt I’ll be affected by it in some way, even if it’s reacting to it and making something much simpler.”
Does he miss the democracy and quality control of the Furries? It seems so, a little. A band acts as a filter, he says. In a group, the things that people are into will bubble to the top and a record will be made that five people can live with. He pauses to consider the American Interior adventure and his eyes light up. “This,” he adds, “could only have been a solo record because I would never want to put anyone else through the process of putting it together.”
American Interior is released as an album on May 5, as a book on May 8, in cinemas on May 9, with an app to follow.
(special thanks to beach-coma for sharing this article!)
by Stuart Dredge
Super Furry Animal’s second film will be accompanied by an album, a book and an app
Musician Gruff Rhys’ latest project saw him following in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer John Evans, who spent 1792 hunting for a fabled Welsh-speaking Native American tribe.
The American Interior project has spawned an album, but also a book, a film and an app, produced by the company he set up with his partner Catryn Ramasut to make previous film Separado in 2010. Book publisher Penguin is also on board as a partner.
Rhys talked about the new project in an appearance at the SXSW conference today, explaining its structure around an “investigative concert tour” across the US, accompanied by a slideshow presentation and a felt avatar of Evans – a distant ancestor.
“It’s an extremely tall story played out on an epic scale,” said Rhys. “Welsh people thought that Prince Madoc had discovered America in 1170. It was believed that he’d sailed to Mussel Shoals in Alabama, and gone up the Mississippi Basin and the Missouri Basin, and that his descendants had become the Mandan tribe.”
In 1792, Evans set off to find out if this was true, getting into all manner of scrapes along the way: malaria, snakes, jail and more. 221 years later, Rhys followed in his footsteps.
“There’s one slight problem: we have no idea what he looked like, because it was before digital surveillance! And he was from an impoverished background, so nobody wanted to paint him. So we had to reconstruct him,” said Rhys.
Hence the avatar.
Rhys toured the US in Evans’ footsteps, playing songs and telling his story, while encouraging people to bring their own scraps of information about his ancestor. It’s a truly engaging tale, and Rhys clearly relishes its the tragicomic aspects.
“He discovers volcanoes, he maps mysterious volcanoes on the Missouri Basin, but of course he didn’t know what volcanoes looked like, coming from Wales, so that still baffles mapmakers today,” he said.
Evans died at 29 years of age, having failed in his mission to find the fabled tribe, and his body was thrown into an anonymous grave in St Louis cemetery: “Where they take the acid in Easy Rider” according to Rhys, as he showed a map
“I’ve been a touring musician for a long time, you usually go out and promote a record and go t cities which they all markets, where you hope a lot of people are going to take notice of you and come to your shows,” he said. “But this was an investigative concert tour: the tour came first and then I made the record, with all the new details I discovered on the tour.”
Filmmaker Dylan Goch directed the film of the journey, Rhys wrote the book about the tour himself when he returned home, and worked with Penguin and developer Storythings on the app, which will be released later this year alongside the film, which is premiering at SXSW.
“The first thing that jumped out to me as the digital person and the books editor was the strength of the story,” said Nathan Hull, digital development director at Penguin, who was speaking alongside Rhys at the conference.
Ramasut talked about having learned from the experience of Separado, which had generated more than 100 hours of footage and an album that was never released. This time round, she and Rhys wanted to make more use of all the material that they new would be created.
“It was a data management nightmare!” she said. “There’s no one system where you can store all the images, all the video, all the endless edits of the film, all the pictures Gruff had taken, all the artwork we were having created, all the animations.”
She said that the film’s narrative flow couldn’t possibly accommodate everything that had been shot for the tour, which is where the app will come in: “We got stories that were outside the John Evans narrative that were often powerful, political and emotional, that were perfect to use in the app,” said Rhys.
“Dylan cut a series of two-minute video essays outlining profound history anecdotes that don’t fit in the John Evans story, but which are extremely moving and emotionally powerful. So we’ve been able to create an app that goes beyond the film and the record and the book. It can exist on its own merits, and it has real emotional power.”
Hull said that the app will be structured around 100 “packets” of information: imagery, animation, film, video, spoken-word and song. “It allows the user to navigate via the map and reflow the story, but using these really sensitive parts of the story that maybe haven’t come across in the other formats,” he said.
The book was always part of the plan. “I’m a songwriter, so I didn’t have an ambition to write a book really, but there was a need for a book on John Evans so people could have more background history, so I decided to write one,” said Rhys. “The narrative is so strong, it writes itself.”
Rhys’ first language is Welsh, but he was writing in English – “hopefully there will be a Welsh translation soon” – but the app will be bilingual, which Rhys said is a really exciting aspect to the project. “It’s easier to make a bilingual app than a bilingual book.”
Rhys talked about how the album evolved as he toured. “The geographical journey was crucial for every aspect of it for me,” he said, noting that he picked up musicians along the way to record with. “Although if you heard the record you’d have no idea of these geographical aspects, it was very important for me to do it that way.”
It’s not a concept album though. “It’s a biographical album,” said Rhys.
There’ll be a “superhub” website to glue the different elements of the project together. “Although there is an individual platform for album, book, film and app, we needed it tall together,” said Ramasut. “What we’re trying to do with the website is to change consumer habits and get people to buy directly from us, creating our distribution channel.
She continued: “Everyone knows iTunes and Amazon dominate the market, but for independent filmmaker sand musicians, it’s imperative that people start buying from us directly, so they don’t lose that 30% off to iTunes and Amazon, and then their distributor, so you’re only left with 45% of what you could have made from the sale.”
Ramasut said that these kinds of multi-platform projects are “few and far between”, and said that it was important to have the creative talent holding it all together from the middle. “We’re learning why it’s that difficult as we go along!”
Rhys talked about the involvement of illustrator and artist Pete Fowler, who created the series of drawings that were used to create the avatar, as well as the graphics for the film, the font used for the album and book, and a series of animations for the app. “He’s been integral to creating the John Evans world,” he said.
Rhys had “fragments” of information and letters to go on when planning his journey. He explained the winding route by which he chased up more details.
“We have some fragments of letters, and the Spanish government in New Orleans occupied everything to the West of the Mississippi at this time, and when they sold Louisiana, they shipped all the documents to Cuba so that the US wouldn’t get their hands on secret documents,” he said.
“And when Cuba was under threat, they were shipped in the 19th century to Seville in Spain. So a lot of John Evans’ papers, I had to go to a library in Seville to look for them. Which was strange… My role model was Columbo, trying to piece together his story!”
The more he pieced together, the more he found out how much Evans had suffered. “It’s a tragicomedy in a way. He died at 29 in New Orleans, and he’d come from poverty, and it’s remarkable how he survived at all,” said Rhys.
“And I’m still finding things out. Obviously I’m not an academic or a historian, I’m a songwriter. My research has been quite haphazard and very personal, so… I’ve finished the book now, which represented what I knew up until a few months ago. But now I’m finding out more!”