‘I could have made a country-rock album – especially with it being in Welsh’
Gruff Rhys: Brexit seems to be like some sort of strange right-wing death cult
There are many words that you could use to describe Gruff Rhys, but “conventional” is not one of them. Over the course of his decades-long career, the Welsh musician revolutionised British indie music while simultaneously thumbing his nose at Britpop with Super Furry Animals. He has incorporated his native language into contemporary music like no one else has managed to (or, in fairness, attempted to). His solo work includes an album inspired by his collection of miniature toiletries (2011’s Hotel Shampoo) and a multimedia project incorporating an album, book, film and app about the life of Welsh explorer (and distant relative) John Evans. He has successfully strayed into electropop with side project Neon Neon and his last solo record, 2018’s Babelsberg, was a lush 1970s MOR-style affair that featured the National Orchestra of Wales.
“My songwriting’s fairly conventional,” he nonetheless insists down a crackly phone line from Cardiff. “So this was a chance to make something completely experimental. There was no pressure on me.”
That “something completely experimental” is Pang!, his sixth solo album and the first since his 2005 solo debut Yr Atal Genhedlaeth to feature an exclusively Welsh-language tracklist. It initially began life as a simplistic guitar-and-voice album, he says, before a chance meeting with South African house music producer Muzi steered him down a different path.
“I had this batch of songs, and I could have made a more traditionalist country-rock album, or something – especially with it being in the Welsh language,” he explains. “I wanted it to have a futurist setting, but I wanted to retain the intimacy of the song just being the voice and the guitar. [Muzi] managed to retain that, but in every other aspect it was experimental. I just wanted to constantly not have it sounding like anything else, if possible.”
Their paths first crossed in Johannesburg, after Rhys had travelled to South Africa to record an album with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project last January. “I did a track with him called Vessels, that ended up on one of the Africa Express EPs,” he says. “On that track, he sampled a South African guitarist called Puzekhemisi, and I liked how he sort of combined quite traditional guitar parts with digital drum loops. I felt there was something there. So after coming home, I sent him a track to remix called Bae Bae Bae, which was mainly me on the guitar, with a few bits of brass and vocals.
“Then a guy called N’famady [Kouyaté], who is actually from West Africa but lives in Cardiff, and plays an instrument called the balafon, came on board. Muzi remixed it, and he put a rocket under it; even though essentially it’s just voice and guitar, it’s the centrepiece of the album in a lot of ways. So on the basis of that track, I asked him ‘Do you want to make an album?’ and luckily, he was up for it.”
If it seems that Rhys has a habit of gathering up stray musicians or saying “why not?” to any potential collaboration, that’s probably because it’s true. Other musicians on the album include former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock and session musician Gavin Fitzjohn on brass (Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, Paolo Nutini), while the initial sessions took place “during [his] kids’ school hours” at producer Kris Jenkins’ home studio.
“We recorded a really simple record, then Muzi came over to Cardiff in March,” he says. “He reconstructed it; took every song apart and built loops from what was there. So that was how that happened, really – it just took a few days of carving up folk-rock songs and putting them in a futurist setting.”
Muzi was also behind his decision to return to singing in Welsh and he says that he felt no trepidation about putting out a whole album in a language spoken only by about half a million people.
“Well, I had a batch of Welsh songs. The first track I did was in Welsh, and I enjoyed working on that – so he was encouraging that aspect of it,” he says. “He makes electronic music and he uses English, but most of his tracks are actually in Zulu. But when he came to Cardiff, we’d a lot of friends around, so there could be a conversation in Welsh and then someone will join the conversation who doesn’t speak Welsh, so it’d turn to English, and then back to Welsh again. And I think he felt at home in that environment, because I think he speaks something like six languages. So he found that aspect of it exciting and definitely encouraged that. Although we didn’t have heavy ideological conversations for the most part; we were communicating through the joy of music, mostly.”
The lyrics, meanwhile, have no overarching concept, in case you were wondering – although the yin and yang of the title track’s “negative pangs amongst the joy of daily life” set the tone, and there is room for the surreal (“What is hair but covers for my ears? / What is an ear but the brain’s chimney?”.)
“There’s no narrative – so all the songs stand apart, I think. I was trying to capture despair and joy,” he laughs. “I think it’s an optimistic record... or at least looking for optimism in this sort of fog of misinformation. There’s a track Niwl O Anwiredd that translates as The Fog of Lies, which is just about driving through fog and trying to decipher the truth in the fog of [mass media-led] lies. That kind of sums up the record, a little bit. But it’s uplifting, too – and there are moments of self-pity. The last track is Annedd Im Danedd, which means A House Full of Teeth, and it sort of melts away towards the end. So there’s bits of everything in there.”
Rhys has never been overtly political in his music – at least, not until he wrote I Love EU to support the Remain campaign in 2016. I ask him what he makes of Brexit three years on, as the deadline looms ever closer.
“Well, I think it’s deeply distressing. As Noam Chomsky puts it, the EU was the better of two evils, and we might as well have the one that’s slightly less evil,” he says, grimacing. “That song was made in the context of the insane xenophobia in the British media. Brexit seems to be like some sort of strange, right-wing death cult, who welcome the plague as a blessing. It’s built on the architecture of Facebook, I suppose. From a socialist perspective, the EU is deeply problematic – but I think [Brexit] is a frightening prospect for me, as a Welsh-speaking person.”
2016 also marked the last time that the world was privy to new material from Super Furry Animals, when Bing Bong was released in support of the Welsh football team in the Euro 2016 tournament. The band remain a going concern, but there are no plans to record any new material despite 2019 marking ten years since their last album Dark Days/Light Years.
“But we’re working on re-issuing [1999’s] Guerilla, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on that, recently,” he reveals. “Picking out unreleased stuff and demos. So that’ll be the next thing. I think we’ve missed the exact anniversary, but if you miss the 20th anniversary it’s okay because you can celebrate the 21st. So nothing beyond that at the moment.”
An animated version of his album Candylion, which has already been adapted as a stage musical by the National Theatre of Wales, is also still on the cards as a “long-term goal”. “I think they say an animated film takes a decade, or something,” he chuckles. “So I’m not too worried.”
For a man who has ticked so many boxes over the years, you might expect Gruff Rhys to be quietly bristling with ambition and champing at the bit for his next project; wondering where to go or what to turn his hand to next.
“I don’t have a list, really,” he says, laughing at the very notion. “I’m still just looking for ways of making unique music. Maybe that’s an impossible task, but it keeps me going. I feel I’ve got to keep trying.”
Pang! is released on September 13th. Gruff Rhys plays Dublin, Cork and Belfast from December 9th – 11th.