Interview: Gruff Rhys

by Phil Scarisbrick

With an ethos that is wholly unconventional, one of Wales’ finest ever songwriters continues to seek out new inspirations, and push the artistic envelope on another introspective long player 

Mount Paektu is an active stratovolcano that sits atop of the Chinese-North Korean border. A large crater lake washes against its feet, while its full majesty can be seen for miles around. The local people who live in its wake assign significant mythological significance to its presence in their lives, and it is so important that it is namechecked in the North Korean national anthem, as well as being emblazoned in its national flag. Though it is part of a country where tourism makes little to no dent in the national GDP, it is nonetheless a bucket list location for many around the globe. It wasn’t the aesthetics of the location that drew Super Furry Animals’ frontman, Gruff Rhys, to write a biographical record about it for his new solo album though. ‘I just liked the name,’ he said, ‘I was reading something completely unrelated, but, once I’d seen that, it really drew me in.’

Though he set out to catalogue the existence of this natural monolith, as the writing process took place, he soon realised he needed to change direction. ‘It was going to be something more formal – a biography with facts, but then I cooled on that idea and wrote something more personal.’ The reason for this variation wasn’t just down to divine inspiration though; he was also very conscious of the significance it held for the local people and didn’t want to appropriate their sacred grounds. ‘I had to be really careful. I didn’t want to make a disrespectful Orientalist record. So I tried to make an electrified country and western album,’ he explained, ‘the mountain started out as the inspiration, but I ended up making something much more abstract in the end.’

Seeking New Gods’ opening track, Mausoleum Of My Former Self, displays this veering from the literal. While the lyrics use volcanic imagery, it is more of a vehicle for Rhys to look into himself. ‘As the custodian of my former self, I was my gardener of my future self,’ he sings, to display a healthy form of introspection rather than project it onto a geological feature. ‘We left a lot of the songs that were more tied to the mountain,’ he clarified, ‘with a song like Mausoleum, it was sort of trying to find a way to write about the mountain and myself.’ 

This duality is something that courses through the heart of the record. The juxtaposition of these almost permanent geological features that remain steadfast through millenia, against the fleeting nature of humanity and civilisations, is enough to give anyone pause for thought. ‘It really puts things into perspective,’ he says after a long pause. 

This consideration for the world that we inhabit also feeds into his concern about the Global Climate Crisis. Can’t Carry On seems pretty pointed on this subject, and Rhys’ self-analysis also looks at his own environmental footprint. ‘It’s something I want to do more about,’ he says, ‘there’s all the contradictions of being a part of a touring band.’ He sees the events of the past year as an opportunity to take stock of this, and look at how we can make changes for the better. ‘People have had to figure out quite quickly how to get by without travelling, so those ideas have been forced upon us, and that may well become a good thing. I’m sure people will continue to tour, but we won’t have to travel for every radio session and so on.’

The album itself was finished in 2019 – with the majority of it laid down in October 2018. The recording process also featured a particular concept of its own. ‘It came off the back of a tour, and the plan was to record ten songs in three days, but the studio broke down on the first day, so we ended up recording seven songs in a couple of days. Then we went off on a European tour and booked another day in Bristol when we got back to do three more,’ he recalled, ‘so the bulk of the record was made really quickly. We’d been touring together for a long time and had been listening to a lot of long, instrumental music. So with a song like Loan Your Loneliness, the song had finished, but we just carried on playing. It’s all a live take. I just added some synths and backing vocals, but the whole process was very simple. It took about two weeks to make the record, and then something daft like four months to master it.’

This song, which also acts as the album’s lead single, is packed with earworm melodies – with one of those achingly simple guitar hooks that might only be three or four notes, but is stuck in your head all day. The sense of fun that the band were having while making it comes across in abundance: the rhythm section in particular really rip through it, and the elongated outro rubber stamps this with the energy of the live take going to a whole new level.

Rhys’ consideration for the cultural and theological significance of Paektu to the North Korean people is clear when talking to him. Despite this, he manages to use religious imagery to convey some more abstract ideas too. Holiest of Holy Men is about ‘a particular incident and character related to the mountain,’ whereas the album’s title is more of a ‘dark joke, and not to be taken literally,’ he says. ‘I suppose I picked it as a title to engage with an era where we’re living with a plague and I’m playing around with that idea. We also kept seeming to drive past holy mountains on tour!’

As a resident of North Wales, I am surrounded by the same natural environment that Rhys grew up with. My first time listening to Seeking New Gods was while walking along the banks of the River Clwyd. Although I live amongst the grey and brown hues that dominate the nineteen fifties housing estate, within ten minutes of leaving my front door, I can be surrounded by opulent natural beauty. As the final track, Distant Snowy Peaks, played on my headphones, I was surrounded by mountains and the river. On each side of the banks, there were sheep and cows grazing in the early spring sun. In the distance, a dual carriageway flyover sits in front of the near eight hundred year-old Rhuddlan Castle – with a KFC and Aldi lodged in its shadow. It felt like the perfect setting for this record that juxtaposes the new with the old, the transient with the everlasting. ‘We ran the fields together to reach the distant snowy peaks / Looking for truth and wisdom in the snow,’ loops around like a mantra, etching itself into your brain. It feels like a deep exhale at the end of the record, with its lullabilic melodies rocking you into a dreamlike state. Rhys’ own introspection certainly gives you pause for thought on the way you live your own life, and Seeking New Gods is packed with nuanced ideas that provoke you to take a similar inventory yourself.

Another recent release also holds a pertinence to Rhys’ music. Creation Stories is the biopic of Alan McGee – founder of Creation Records – who signed Super Furry Animals in 1995. Although he hasn’t seen the film yet, he holds fond memories of the time. ‘I was a big fan of the label anyway, and although we got signed quite late, we still got to experience some of it.’ The film itself seems to make the most of the quote appropriated by Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend.’ When I mentioned this to Rhys, he told me his favourite quote from that film was in reference to A Certain Ratio being concerned about the lack of people at their gig, and Wilson replying, ‘There were twelve people at the Last Supper, half a dozen at Kitty Hawk, Archimedes was on his own in the bath.’ 

His joy at this kind of wit seems to be in keeping with someone whose whole ethos is unconventional, yet makes perfect sense. Whether in English, or his native Welsh, Rhys’ music is always endlessly interesting, and Seeking New Gods is yet another addition to this fine tradition.

Seeking New Gods is out on 21st May through Rough Trade Records.

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