Q&A: Gruff Rhys
By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 12 October 2011
Three years after taking up with the Super Furry Animals, Gruff Rhys and the band released their much-lauded debut, ‘Fuzzy Logic’ in 1996. This marked the prolific quintet’s first of nine successful LPs to date, with their latest (and longest yet) album ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ emerging in 2009.
Exhibiting rough yet ready solo promise with 2005’s Welsh-spoken ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’, a lone Gruff further plundered the mysterious realms of psych-experimentation with its successor ‘Candylion’, released in 2007. Playing under the moniker Neon Neon, he and US producer Boom Bip also released conceptual LP ‘Stainless Style’ that same year. Gruff has since worked with acts including Simian Mobile Disco and Gorillaz, also collaborating with Brazilian composer Tony Da Gatorra on last year’s ‘The Terror Of Cosmic Loneliness’.
Now nearing the end of a tour in support of his third solo LP ‘Hotel Shampoo’, Gruff’s biggest ever solo show will take place this evening at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire. His latest single ‘Whale Trail’, which is taken from the soundtrack to an app-based iPhone game of the same name, is due out on 20 Oct. Ahead of all that, CMU Editor Andy Malt caught up with him for some chat.
AM: How has 2011 been for you? Are you pleased with how things have gone with the release of ‘Hotel Shampoo’?
GR: Yes, it’s a record I really love, and I was very happy that it was released internationally.
AM: Do you approach the writing of a solo album as a specific project, or it is more a collection of standalone songs written over time?
GR: The latter. My three solo records are all collections of songs written over time. Though there are lyrical aspects that tie them together as collections. It’s like putting together a coherent compilation album or something.
AM: What was it like working with Tony Da Gatorra. Did working with him have any particular influence on ‘Hotel Shampoo’?
GR: Tony is one of the most resourceful and inspiring people I’ve ever met. He’s a lot of fun to be around and he remains true to his convictions. I can’t hear any specific influence on ‘Hotel Shampoo’, but I think he’s influenced the way I think of music and politics and the correlation between the two. He manages to write political thought clearly whilst keeping his own very individual personality intact.
AM: You’ve written so many songs through your various projects now and your lyrics always evoke such vivid imagery. How do you keep that creative spark alive?
GR: I don’t often question it, but I don’t take it for granted either. Once I hit 30 years of age I started to take more notice of prolific songwriters like Serge Gainsbourg. He wrote over 600 songs and didn’t really get going till he was in his 30s. I’m on my seventeenth album as a songwriter but in that sense I still feel that I’m just starting out.
AM: Do you find it more difficult to write solo songs without a collaborator to bounce off?
GR: There’s no rule really. Logistically it’s much easier to write alone. But sometimes you can create something unpredictable and unique when working with other people.
AM: Speaking of collaborations, how did the ‘Whale Trail’ project – combining song with game – come about?
GR: I’m an old friend of Neil McFarland who illustrated the game. We were introduced by Pete Fowler, someone he collaborated with for a long time. You can clearly see that they are from the same universe.
AM: How closely did you work with the game’s developers?
GR: Very closely, they sent me ‘white label apps’ of the game as they developed it. So I saw the game develop gradually as they refined it. The music was written in reaction to playing it (to the point of addiction!). The song has three different tempos – the BPM’s calculated according to the optimum speed you need to tap the screen to play successfully. They also visited the studio (Toybox, Bristol) during the recording so that we could make visual and sonic decisions simultaneously, as I was recording the sound bed and voice over for the game at the same time.
AM: You’re due to play your biggest solo London show to date on Wednesday, do you have anything special planned for it?
GR: The whole tour has been pretty special. The incredible surf band Y Niwl are helping me play the songs. Michael Brennan, who mixes SFA gigs and who mixed the incredible My Bloody Valentine comeback shows, is on the sound board, and Spencer Bewley is projecting film loops with two 16mm cinema projectors. Plus Richard James from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci is opening up.
AM: Which other artists are you listening to at the moment? Do you try to stay up to date with new music?
GR: My comfort listening hours mostly goes on re-issues from the Finder’s Keepers and Light In The Attic labels. 80s Hindi and Tamil soundtracks are really sorting my head out right now! New music I tend to listen to randomly from blogs and websites. If something hits me I’ll end up buying it. Most of the sites seem to be US-based so I’ll end up buying US music like John Maus, Emeralds, Sufjan Stevens. Songwriters and instrumental bands who are grounded in playing but who aren’t too shy of technology basically.
My daughter loves Rihanna so I listen loads to her. And a lot of my neighbours in Cardiff are musicians so I’ll end up listening to records by H Hawkline, Sweet Baboo and Cate Le Bon. And Turnstile releases like Los Campesinos! and Islet. Plus new Welsh language releases are really strong at the moment, the new Jen Jeniro EP and lots of dark country rock by Cowbois Rhos Botwnog and Gwyneth Glyn.
AM: You’ve released music through major and indie labels, now you’re putting stuff out through your own label too. Do you have a preference? You don’t seem to be someone who’s ever had to worry about creative freedom (perhaps I’m wrong about that) but are there other freedoms any one method of releasing allows that sets it apart from the others?
GR: At the moment it’s really great to be able to release things thick and fast on my own label, with Turnstile and Wichita there to facilitate things. By the end of the year I will have released six singles in twelve months, which would be tricky to do on a bigger label.
But I’ve been extremely lucky and had mostly great if very different experiences on different labels. I’ve been on a tiny Welsh language independent run by a control freak and had someone really tamper with my work. But when SFA signed to Sony we were on our fifth album so, contrary to type, they pretty much left us to our own devices and, for example, bankrolled the recording of really risky (for them) DVD surround-sound albums which was amazing to get to do.
Creation, Rough Trade, Lex and XL were really nurturing and full of ideas and advice, and run by music obsessives that you can put your trust in. So when they have advice you end up taking note of it.
AM: And finally, are there plans for Super Furry Animals to work together again?
GR: Were letting people catch up with our back catalogue for a bit really. Cian and Bunf are at varying stages of finishing truly amazing solo albums. Daf has just co-written an album for his friend Wibidi in Cardiff. Guto has been touring the world with his childhood hero Sonic Boom, playing bass for Spectrum. In the mean time check out Daf and Cian’s label Strangetown Records and Cian’s digital techno label Som Bom.