“I’m honoured if anyone listens to my songs and I don’t really have any expectations of anyone. How would I describe my music to someone that’s never heard it? Outlaw paranormal pop”. Such is the brilliantly cool and slightly eccentric mind of one of Wales’ favourite sons, Gruff Rhys. Refreshingly original, he is as well-known as the frontman of indie-popsters Super Furry Animals as he is for his solo work, in which many of his releases are proudly delivered in his mother tongue. His accent is pretty amazing if he is speaking in English too. Watch a YouTube interview with him and hope that he says the word ‘orchestra’. You’ll see what I mean. Indeed, in recent years particularly, it seems that there is not much that he hasn’t touched creatively, notably delving into the world of film in 2014’s American Interior project (where he also created an app – that’s right, an app – to compliment the soundtrack and corresponding book), as well as performing with the Wales National Theatre alongside fellow Welshman, Sweet Baboo.
It’s no shock then that he has said that he doesn’t care if he fits into today’s music scene, having spent the last two decades usually following his own path one way or another. The release of his fifth album, Babelsberg, earlier this year, sees him return to a form of classic songwriting but with a witty commentary that more than protects his integrity. From his duet with model, Lily Cole, ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, to the stunningly arranged single, ‘Limited Edition Heart’, Rhys showcases a social awareness that many of his contemporaries no longer seem to share. This does the trick in making him pretty incomparable, something that is very important to him.
“That’s the tension for me really,” explains Rhys. “Instinctively, I have to be relaxed about the music I make, which can be inspired somewhere along the way by records that I love. I then take every opportunity to try and subvert that or experiment within the songs to try and keep it pushing towards an original place. I use the latest technology to capture the moment. It’s hit and miss. Some of my records are more nostalgic or experimental than others. If a record doesn’t end up sounding as original musically as I’d hoped, I’m pretty disappointed with myself, in which case I’m more dependent on getting the lyrics right. If the lyrics engage in some way with the future, or at least the present, then I can sleep at night”.
Still, with all the effort he makes to not pigeonhole himself, that obviously doesn’t mean that he isn’t aware of new music around him. Again, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the two bands he cites as earworms have connections with Wales (Dutch-Welsh artist, Accu, and Welsh act, Bitw). It’s just that when it comes to inspiration, he thinks music is within everything – his old friends, the wind and the rain, to name but two. Who would he collaborate with, alive or dead? “Probably, a dead Miles Davis?” With that image in mind, Rhys is clearly a diverse personality, which reflects in his creative pursuits. It is his willingness to not bend to tradition, as much as his willingness to embrace it, that has afforded him many opportunities, something that doesn’t appear to be lessening with age.
From his Britpop beginnings to collaborations with De La Soul and Simian Mobile Disco, it is interesting to see how even his growing awareness of his own maturity has had an impact on his creativity. “Of course I’ve changed,” says Rhys. “Chemical changes in the body, ageing, dependants, responsibilities, etc. Nothing too alarming. As a result, I write more concept albums”. One clear example is his 2016 single ‘I Love EU’, which was released in response to that Referendum (needless to say, Rhys was in the Remain camp). However, he is reluctant to elaborate any further about his political views, only going so far as to say that the state of the country currently makes him grumpy and that more funding into education is needed to improve the human race, nor will he comment on what he is doing next, merely answering “Folkestone” when asked what the future holds for him.
In fact, any attempt to glean any snippet of gossip are deftly rebuffed. “Who would I send off to a desert island never to be heard of again? Sounds great. Can I bring the whole family?”, he quips, instead preferring to impart some simple, down to earth advice in respect of anyone that might be worrying about the state of the world, “Don’t get stressed. Trust your instinct. Don’t forget your keys when leaving the house”.
It is sometimes hard to determine whether someone as established as Rhys finds the exercise of promoting his music a waste of time or whether his astute, dry humour is genuine. I ask where we would find him if he weren’t here doing what he does. “Second left, over the hump-backed bridge. Just in front of the Post Office”. Well, I asked for that one, didn’t I? Either way, his mannerisms are a fascination and a joy. As our interview draws to a close, there is actually a sense that he takes pleasure in the unusual. His career highlight, for example, conjures a beautiful image of when he played Welsh language songs with a bluegrass band in a prawn factory on the north coast of Iceland. While this does sound amazing, it therefore begs the question, as we are in Brighton – how can an experience like that possibly compare to his forthcoming sold out show at The Old Market? The city is obviously a place he loves. “When I think of Brighton, I think of record shops, the sea air, pebbles, Caroline Lucas, meeting Steve Mason (of The Beta Band) by accident in the street. I think of Eurovision ‘74, French speakers, mods, rockers, Welsh ex-pats, Londoners and Down Terrace (the British crime drama). Brighton is one of the best places. The shows can be real fun here. Expect stationary flow, cue cards, rhythm, melody and pyrotechnics of the mind!” Here’s hoping Folkestone appreciates it half as much.