Gruff Rhys on the trail of a Welsh explorer
A new multimedia project has the Super Furry Animal retracing the steps of a distant relative who walked the Missouri river for 1,200 miles, tracing it to its source
Gruff Rhys: ‘I’m quite amazed that American Interior all came together, as it could easily have collapsed’
In the “green room” at Dublin venue Whelan’s – which is found upstairs following a labyrinthine walking tour – Welsh musician Gruff Rhys describes himself as “some kind of mildly popular, low-selling pop musician”. While he isn’t incorrect, there’s a telling sense of self-deprecation about the man; it’s as if he has been in on a personal joke for more years than he cares to remember, and not even his full beard can hide the smirks.
Rhys, however, is more than just another eccentric musician operating on the fringes of mainstream success. Yes, his conversation is hesitant and reticent (he would make for a useless motivational speaker) and, yes, he may look like a rat catcher in a smart suit, but there’s something else going on here that bears closer investigation.
Rhys, the one-time frontman of tech- savvy Welsh mavericks Super Furry Animals, is eager to talk about his latest multi-pronged release, American Interior, an album, book, documentary and app. At the centre of each format is a history lesson, a road trip, a biography, mythology, and a vainglorious pursuit of exploration and creativity. There is one man to blame, says Rhys: his distant relative, John Evans.
Evans, Rhys explains in a wandering trail of stops and starts, ums and ahs, was a farm labourer from the Welsh village of Waunfawr. In 1794, following a lengthy and dangerous journey from England – and having followed the Ohio river from Pennsylvania – Evans reached St Louis, Missouri.
He then, for reasons that remain perplexing, says Rhys, pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown, was renamed Don Juan Evans, and embarked on an epic journey, walking against the current of the Missouri river for 1,200 arduous miles, in so doing discovering its source.
Man of maps
So far, so Super Furry Animals. What is even more amazing about Evans, however, is that his cartographic skills (he busied himself by making maps and fastidiously writing entries into numerous diaries) were passed to US explorers Lewis and Clark, who, well, followed directions.
Rhys says that, in his research for the project, he discovered what Evans was trying to escape “was, ultimately, the colonisation of Wales and the oppressiveness of the ruling classes. He believed in revolution, which makes great sense to me. It was most insightful, for instance, to find out that Welsh people back then wanted to believe that their country was the Portugal of the north, a great colonising force. I find it intriguing that some Welsh historical revisionists believe that the Welsh prince Madog actually discovered America in 1170; in fact, part of Evans’s journey was to find out if there was indeed a tribe of Welsh-speaking First Nation Americans still walking the Great Plains of America. Not even I believe that, however.”
Rhys isn’t joking here. This is what makes American Interior so fascinating. The cherry on top is that the road trip element sees the musician attempt to retrace, as best he can, the footsteps of Evans via what he describes, rather charmingly, as a new way of touring that “mixed Columbo-style detective work by day and singer-songwriter gigs by night”.
From town to town, state to state, Rhys either booked gigs himself or via his New York-based promoter. He titled it The Investigative Concert Tour (“don’t forget to put the TM trademark sign after the word ‘tour’,” he gently advises).
“On a previous tour of America, I kept randomly running across the trail of John Evans, and so I knew I’d have to come back and do it properly. I contacted a booking agent who had previously said to me that he liked a challenge; if you don’t want to do things differently, he once informed me, then I’m not interested. When I pitched my idea of structuring a coast-to-coast tour around a long-lost explorer relative, he loved it and set about booking me shows. My solo records and my work with Super Furry Animals helped with the bookings. I don’t think he made much money from the tour, but he did say he liked a challenge, didn’t he?”
During the tour, Rhys stopped off in Omaha, Nebraska, where he recorded, with Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis, some of the songs that ended up on the American Interior album. “When I came back home I realised I needed more songs to cover more aspects of the story, so I wrote them, and from there that’s when I started to work properly on the book. And after that came the app, and the documentary.”
‘A bit over the top’
A likeable oddball, Rhys doesn’t seem the most organised of people. Did it seem at any point of the American Interior experience that he had bitten off more than he could chew?
A brow is furrowed, a beard is scratched. “It was a bit over the top,” he says, “but I thought it was possible. I’m quite amazed that it all came together, as it could easily have collapsed. I remember I lost my laptop at one point. I think I started to sweat then, but in retrospect, of course, it was a fun adventure.”
And after American Interior, what comes next? Is Super Furry Animals still a going creative and musical concern?
“The biggest change has been that we all have kids now, so musically there isn’t much happening. We’re active in other ways. Our latest project is the recent launch of a beer called Fuzzy; it’s brewed in Caerphilly.”
He smiles widely. We sense mischief. “It’s 8 per cent proof, and has a hint of hemp in it. And it’s legal, just in case some people have a problem with that.”
Gruff Rhys performs his American Interior multimedia show at Castlepalooza Music & Arts Festival, August 1-3. The book American Interior is published by Hamish Hamilton