Interview Gruff Rhys
We speak to the Super Furry Animals frontman and solo artist in the build up to his solo gig at Harrogate Fringe Festival
Interview: Gruff Rhys
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Getting hold of Gruff Rhys this summer is not an inconsiderable task. The singer and songwriter is in the process of touring his third solo album – Hotel Shampoo – a task which has taken him across America. And within days of returning to his homeland of Wales he’s back out again and hitting the festivals.
As we speak he’s on his way to London to play a one-off date supporting American singer-songwriter Bright Eyes at the Royal Albert Hall, before heading off to Glastonbury. He sounds tired, describing the American dates he’s just played as "extreme" and the American fans as "very energetic".
Rhys’s musical exploits are varied and plentiful. His musical career spans numerous pre-Super Furry Animals bands; Super Furry Animals themselves, who have been playing together for some 18 years and released nine studio albums in that time; his three solo records; collaborations including the Mercury-award nominated Neon Neon, and guest spots with acts like Gorillaz.
While his solo work is of a similar ilk to the records of Super Furry Animals, his second record Candylion and Hotel Shampoo have been mellower and more laidback than much of his previous output.
"Recording with Super Furry Animals has given me all these opportunities to make solo records," he says, when asked about the difference between his own material and those he records with the band. "That’s how I learned to record and I love recording Super Furry Animals. One of the most rewarding things about Super Furry Animals records is that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. No individual can control it, it’s between five people and we push and pull the songs different ways and nobody going into the studio knows exactly what the finished recording is going to end up sounding like, that’s part of the adventure. Recording alone is the complete opposite in a way. I kind of know what it’s going to sound like and I go in and record it, it’s a very simple and fast process in comparison.
"But I suppose it’s just a change. It’s like going on holiday or something, you know. You just have to do it sometimes, but you wouldn’t want to be on holiday all the time."
So does he sit down to write "a Gruff Rhys song" or "a Super Furry Animals song", or is it more natural than that? "The songs just come independently, you know," he says. "I’ll write a song in isolation and I won’t be thinking of where a song’s ending up. It becomes apparent where the songs sit the best after writing them, I suppose."
His solo gigs are a mix of either just him sitting alone playing his songs and playing with a backing band in the shape of Welsh surf-rockers Y Niwl. "They’re amazing, it’s a huge honour to play with them," he says. Is it odd playing with different musicians who he hasn’t had 18 years’ experience playing with? "Well I’ve known them for a long time as well," he says. "But I suppose in the Super Furry Animals, I’ve been in bands with Dafydd [Ieuan] the drummer for 26 years, I think. So, you know, when we’re together as Super Furry Animals it’s pretty special, really."
One particularly noteworthy element of Rhys’s songwriting is his tendency to include Welsh-language tracks on his records alongside the English songs. Indeed, one of the Super Furry Animals’ albums, Mwng, was entirely Welsh. However, Hotel Shampoo is exclusively English – was this a deliberate decision?
"The last Welsh language songs I recorded were for a soundtrack for a film I’ve done called Seperado! Most of the songs for that soundtrack are in Welsh language, so that’s the last batch of Welsh language tunes I wrote. I haven’t had the chance to release that soundtrack yet, hopefully they’ll see the light of day soon, and after recording that I kind of wrote most of Hotel Shampoo which were a batch of English songs. I try to put them together if I write a load of Welsh language songs, and sometimes the languages get mixed, there’s no hard and fast rule, but this turned out to be all in English."
Does he have a preference for singing in Welsh or English? "It’s a contradiction anyway. My first language is Welsh, so I’ll always end up writing in the Welsh language because it’s an immediate way of expressing myself. Having said that I’ve grown up obsessed with Anglo-American pop music. So I think I’ll always be writing both."
It must be nice to bring his language – one that’s little known – to an audience who otherwise may never hear it. "Yeah, I suppose touring in America and half the set’s in Welsh, but you know I suppose it’s what comes naturally. I’m really happy that people are willing to give it a listen. I think maybe people in general are pretty open-minded to listening to other languages in the 21st century when maybe it wouldn’t have been the case 20 or 30 years ago. Everyone’s grown up surrounded by lots of different cultures. It seems pretty healthy and a pretty normal state of affairs."
A positive note on which to leave Rhys to his travels – you’ll be able to catch his psychedelic pop at Harrogate Fringe Festival this summer.
Gruff Rhys plays Harrogate Theatre on 18th July ay 7.30pm, tickets cost £17
Posted on Thursday 30th June 2011
Oxford Street, Harrogate, HG1 1QF
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