Interview: Gruff Rhys

gruff rhys

I originally conducted and wrote this interview piece for the September 2014 edition of NARC magazine.

In 1792, John Evans set out from his home in Wales and journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to America in search of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Two hundred years later, a Welsh songwriter followed the same journey, accompanied by Evans, lovingly rendered in felt. Gruff Rhys, almost as much of a mythical outsider as Evans thanks to his diverse work with the Super Furry Animals, Neon Neon and as a solo artist, was perhaps the only person truly suited to embarking on such a seemingly farfetched yet highly intriguing quest. A visionary in his own right, Rhys’ travels with his felt familiar resulted in American Interior, an expansive project that includes the album alongside an accompanying book, app and film.

Now engaging in a much smaller quest across the UK on his latest tour, I talked to Rhys as he was travelling to Liverpool. In his comforting, thick Welsh accent he informs me that “we’ve encountered the trees”, causing us to temporarily break up. When I manage to re-establish contact, it gradually dawned on me that much of our conversation revolved around the concept of communication, linguistically and musically.

While in America, Rhys traveled to Mandan country in North Dakota. There, he had the most profound meeting of his journey with the last speaker of the Mandan’s native language. “He’s a physical manifestation of the end of the line for the language,” he muses wistfully. I asked him if he saw any connections between the Mandan and Welsh language. “The Welsh language is at a crisis point. Communities where Welsh is still spoken as a first language are being broken up by the extreme end of neo-liberalism, and communities are getting broken apart for largely economic reasons .” He seems uncharacteristically angry at this but soon relaxes into his usual contemplative state. “John Evans spent time with the Mandan people near the heights of their civilization . It’s so profoundly sad that within 200 years cultures can be destroyed.”

It’s obvious that this  profound meeting with the Mandans and other Native Americans informed the making of the American Interior opus. “I didn’t want to make a kind of exploitation record and rip off peoples’ music,” he comments, “but things kind of rubbed off in a way. I sampled some records and some American musicians played on the record.” It’s true that Rhys went to Mike Mogis’ studio in Omaha and also had help from Flaming Lips drummer and friend Kliph Scurlock when making the record but I had a feeling there was more to the story. “I got paranoid that I was making something too American,” Rhys admits, somewhat bashfully. “I came home and finished it in Bristol. And then I put loads of synths and stuff on it in a desperate attempt to try and make it sound more European.”

Rhys needn’t have worried about this. Like all of his music, the album presents a very individual vision of the world that is warm, mystical and completely distinctive. Filled with a timeless quality and obviously possessing the love of its creator, the album stands both as a record of social history and a musical masterpiece in its own right.

The LP has earned him a nomination for Album of the Year at the AIM Independent Music Awards, for which he is grateful. “I’ve spent so long on the record so I’m really happy about it and it’s nice. I’m just happy to be nominated.” The accompanying book has also been nominated for both the Gordon Burns Prize and the Guardian First Book Award.

American  Interior is the latest in an increasingly long line of conceptual albums for Rhys. Significantly, his work with Boom Bip  in Neon Neon produced two biographical albums about automobile engineer John DeLorean and communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. However, Rhys is reluctant to call himself a  social historian. “I didn’t really set out to do a biographical album but I’ve written lots of songs about myself in the past and I suppose I got bored,” he laughs. “I wanted something challenging and so I did the Neon Neon albums and it almost didn’t occur to me that I was making another one!”

Perhaps another conceptual album is not in the pipeline for Rhys. “I’m a bit paranoid that I’m repeating myself and I’m gonna have to rethink before the next. I need to come up with  a new idea. Something not based on the strange stories of middle-aged men…” He drifts off once again, voice fading as he seems to collapse into his own creative universe. “Maybe a woman instead,” he eventually pipes up, as if a flash of inspiration has suddenly hit him. In general though, Rhys is clear about what he wants to do next. “My ambition is to make more records,” he says, with more conviction than at any other point. It’s obvious that, above all, Rhys is a lover of his art.

The short time I spent talking to Rhys was not nearly enough to do justice to his epic quest, his musical voyage and its impact on him as a songwriter. But I couldn’t finish our conversation without asking the obvious question: are there really any Welsh-speaking Native Americans? “No, no…I think, categorically, the Welsh didn’t discover America,” Rhys laughs. “But we’re all one human family anyway so…Everyone on earth is related in some way.”

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