Not to over-egg the batter, but these days there is a distinct lack of creativity and imagination amongst those we expect great things from. Publicists, managers, gurus etc. all tend to work things to a specific agenda and in doing so have eliminated the need for their ‘subjects’ to think. Thankfully there is Gruff Rhys. A man who, since the first Super Furry Animals album at least, has innovated his way through everything. Albums, books, films, puppets… “Things just seem to come along, don’t they? Sometimes I start one thing and something else takes my interest.” When trying to understand the erstwhile SFA front-man, State is more than aware of how he traverses the topic of creativity. Something which Rhys has in spades and something which clearly drives him forward. “It’s just about going along with it, accidents happen and unexpected things come along and they can inspire me to do something else.” Case in point. Start one thing, find another thing, do that thing. This is Gruff Rhys.
This year, Gruff released his 4th solo album, American Interior. like the previous solo efforts he has given us, this is a concept album focusing on the endeavours of one person. During his stints as one half of Neon Neon he brought us tales of John Delorean and Giancomo Feltrinelli. During his time as SFA frontman he told us all about the man who doesn’t give a fuck. Right now he is telling us about John Evans. What is it about the lives of others that inspires him? “This thing [American Interior] has been going on for about three years now, and it’s pretty over the top but like the rest it just happened.” Just happened? “Well, I’d been working on a film called Seperado and the story of John Evans took my interest. It came about by accident, obviously. I had some ideas for a book but it ended up being an album. Like the Neon Neon albums, I was working on something and ended up falling into the jail of biographical albums. Again, by accident. Concept albums have somehow gotten a bad name and I’d rather look at them as something else; biographical albums. Actually Neon Neon have fallen into a trap of making nothing but biographical albums. Set in the future!”
Getting back to John Evans, the topic of Rhys’ most recent album, trying to pinpoint exactly what he achieved is a tricky prospect. “Basically he took a journey between 1792 and 1799, looking for a lost tribe of Welsh people in America. It was a glorious failure and he found nothing. But in saying that, he arguably changed the shape of America – the history of American people, like St. Brendan did… ha! But he landed in Omaha, Nebraska and when I got there I just recorded whatever songs I had, the majority of them were inspired by him. I think there were nine songs, something like that, and myself and a friend of mine recorded drums, guitars and vocals and eventually it became American Interior. I’d been on tour at this point and I’d spoken to lots of people, experts, Welshophiles, about him so I put everything into the book, some of the stories became songs. My friend Dylan [Goch] had been documenting everything and decided to shape it into a film.”
So what is it about being Welsh that Rhys finds so inspiring? Rather than looking at it as nationalism, he prefers to identify it as a form of cultural heritage. “Obviously I grew up speaking Welsh, completely immersed in Welsh heritage. But I was always interested in subversive ideas, the idea of DIY anarchists, and I’d be 100% behind the idea of a Welsh state – separate from everything else. The funny thing is, we only speak Welsh because of a clerical mistake. Somebody wasn’t doing their job. Some of the traditions we have came about bout because of an error.” Far from a haphazard interest, there is still logic behind Rhys’ motions. True to form, he looks at the failure of John Evans’ expedition as success. “His entire journey was a failure, there was no Welsh tribe. He found plenty of native American tribes, but after five years of looking he had to give up.” Speaking of giving up, is there any point in SFA fans holding their breath for a new album? “Who knows. Generally we write stuff alone which is probably the conventional way. Then see what can be done with it, but now we all have families and it’s hard to commit to a full time anything. We were a band for 15 years and it was incredible, if we can get it together again we will.”
Gruff Rhys plays Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church on December 16th and 17th. Tickets are available here.