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American Interior: Gruff Rhys Looks To The Past For His Next Step

Tuesday, 29 April 2014 Written by Tom Seymour

The day I was due to meet Gruff Rhys, a group of music journalists publicly discussed the most unwanted of tasks on Twitter. “Ever transcribed a Gruff Rhys interview?” one tweeted. “Omg.”

So it proved. In a busy café in Shoreditch, Rhys stared intently at his coffee and gruffly (so, so gruffly) reflected on his career as the lead singer of the Super Furry Animals and the genesis of his recent project – an album, film, book and app collectively called ‘American Interior’.

“The first album I did was 50 copies on cassette. We put them in a carrier bag and sold them round pubs for 50p in Bangor, North Wales,” he said. “One of the people we sold them to owned a studio, so the next album we made was in a studio. But it was only slightly more fancy. The third album still came on cassette, but this time we did 1,000 copies. My fourth album was a CD and my fifth was a vinyl, and I didn’t make any money out of them. So it seemed like a joke when someone wanted to pay me to make a record.”

He said this with more ums and ahs and strained pauses than you might find in the waiting room of a bad dentist. Rhys was, and remains, a good-looking bloke with a lovely voice and an ear for a melody, but he isn’t exactly Tom Cruise when it comes to promoting a film. Yet, that never really was his style.

From selling those cassettes in Bangor pubs he became, before he knew it, a sort of off-key celebrity: a Cool Brittania alt-pop icon fêted by Glastonbury’s Other Stage, a patron saint of stoners everywhere, a man of the times giving it to the man, putting Captain Pugwash in his music videos and then hiding behind aviators and shrugging through another interview with the NME.

But then, maybe just as quickly, the grey hairs started poking through, and Rhys realised he was approaching 40. The band announced a hiatus to ominously focus on their solo projects, and he had to work out what to do without them.

The latest answer is a sort of musical and filmic ancestral journey that brings the “linguistic persecution” of the Welsh language into the spotlight. This all came into focus a couple of years back, when Rhys started out on “an investigative concert tour” along the East Coast of America.

With the help of a Powerpoint presentation, a guitar and a big box of psychedelic synth noises, he retraced the steps of his distant ancestor John Evans, an impoverished farmhand and “Welsh revolutionary” who arrived in Baltimore in 1792 “with only his golden tongue.” He travelled to New Orleans because he’d heard talk of “a tribe of Welsh-speaking native Americans roaming the great American plains, who were - he believed - the descendants of Prince Madog, the man he thought discovered America in 1170.”

Rhys had been aware of John Evans since he was a nipper – his old man is a proud campaigner for Welsh rights and keen communicator of his family’s deep roots. “When you’re young you are impressionable,” he said. “So I thought everyone knew about John Evans. I thought everyone was directly descendant from him. He felt like a fantastical historical figure.”

Given all those expectations, what did Rhys learn of his ancestor from going to America? “Covering the distances myself underlined the ambition of what he was trying to do and the immensity of his journey,” he said. “When you read about it, he goes up one river and then another. Then you realise the scale of America, and realise what a huge journey it was. It’s miraculous he managed to go so far with so little.”

The documentary part of the multi-platform, gig-pocked travelogue was shot in monochrome by director Dylan Goch and animated by Welsh illustrator and artist Pete Fowler. In it, the spirit of Evans is invited along as “a visual aid”, an avatar-puppet who could have been made from the tidings of Paperchase.

He wears the kind of serious expression, and pallid complexion, you might find in some of those alehouses in Bangor. Rhys, sporting a wolf on his head, spends a lot of time pointing things out to him, as if whispering sweet nothings in his ear.

It may or may not surprise you to hear that ‘American Interior’ can be quite a kooky experience. But, if you grew up listening to the Super Furry Animals, this is the least you’d expect. Rhys has spent the past few years working as one half of the electro-pop outfit Neon Neon, and has released increasingly conceptual records. His most recent, ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’, for example, was based on the life of the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

He’s got previous in the film world as well. ‘American Interior’ is in many respects a tooled-up sequel to his little-seen 2010 micro-budget effort Separado!, also directed by Goch, in which he travelled to Patagonia in search of René Griffiths, another distant relative and a Welsh-language troubadour with Latin style.

Rhys is now taking the tour around the UK as both the film and album are released, including a residency at the Soho Theatre. He’s also written a book about Evans and, in case you wanted more, there’s an app “for the extra stuff.” Why did he decide to work on so many platforms?

“Sounds like a train station,” he said, flat-faced. “The things came before they were called platforms. I made the film and the soundtrack for that became the album, and there was so much detail to the story that I felt I might as well write it all down, and that was the book. And I had so much left over that we made an app. It was more that one thing led to another.”

‘American Interior’ is the work of a creative and restless mind, a true one-off from the time of Britpop. But a sense remains, as with all of Rhys’s post-Furries work, of a man not quite at ease with himself. Gruff Rhys, it seems, is communicating his own ancestry as a proxy for the biggest question of all. We know where he came from. The question is, where should he go now?

Gruff Rhys Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri May 02 2014 - CARDIFF Acapela
Mon May 05 2014 - LONDON Soho Theatre
Tue May 06 2014 - LONDON Soho Theatre
Wed May 07 2014 - LONDON Soho Theatre
Thu May 08 2014 - LONDON Soho Theatre
Fri May 09 2014 - LONDON Soho Theatre
Sat May 10 2014 - LONDON Soho Theatre

Click here to compare & buy Gruff Rhys Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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