When the going gets tough, Gruff gets going - Super Furry Animals frontman on his past, present and future tour
With his latest solo LP, Babelsberg, getting plenty of acclaim, MALCOLM WYATT talked to Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys about his past, present and future, and upcoming live dates
It’s been four years since Cardiff-based Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys came up with the idea for
Babelsberg, revealing: “I made a note of the name after driving past a sign when I was on tour.
“A few years later the studio where I recorded the album was being knocked down, a week after I finished, to make way for a ‘luxury’ apartment development.
“I was looking for a name evoking the Tower of Babel – people building towers to reach an idea of heaven, but maybe creating a kind of hell.
“When I listened to the songs
together, it finally made sense.”
Babelsberg is Gruff’s fifth solo album, its 10 tracks initially recorded in a whirlwind three-day session
before producer Ali Chant’s studio was demolished with drummer
Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips) and multi-instrumentalists Stephen Black and Osian Gwynedd.
Then, 18 months later, Swansea-based Stephen McNeff added orchestrated scores, bringing in the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW). And the result is a triumph, Gruff’s melodies and lyrics shining through, perfectly reflecting these troubled times.
That was proved live in June with the BBC NOW at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre for the Festival of Voice, and this week’s Barbican show with the London Contemporary Orchestra, followed this weekend by a two-night stand at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music with the RNCM Orchestra.
Gruff Rhys was at home in Cardiff when we spoke. Did it seem odd talking publicly about Babelsberg now, two years after completing much of the LP?
“I’ve prepared myself to let it stick around a lot longer. I could have released it in a kind of raw form but decided to work on it a bit more. I’ll be playing these songs a few years. I’m really happy with it.”
How much input did he have in Stephen McNeff’s scores?
“I made suggestions, sending links to orchestral pop and music I’m into, playing melodies I wanted to convey that weren’t on the songs in their raw state. Beyond that it was all him, happy to hand it over.
“I suppose it’s just a pop album. I don’t know what kind of pop, but it’s pretty simple, not particularly experimental. If anything, I was encouraging, ‘if in doubt keep it dangerous’.”
Was it a special moment hearing those scores the first time?
“It felt I’d gate-crashed someone else’s recording session. Amazing, trying not to get carried away.”
The more I hear the songs, the more I love them, Gruff carrying on where he left off with 2014’s American Interior and 2016’s Set Fire to the Stars soundtrack.
“I learned a lot making those records, feeding that into this. And
although it’s got a full orchestra, it’s not a perfectionist album. I didn’t try and clean it up. The songs speed up and down, my voice goes out of tune now and again.”
Thematically, is this you making sense of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, a clear political message?
“It’s not a concept record, and there’s no one theme, but that was definitely affecting my mental state during the making! The lyrics reflect what seemed to me a very frustrating time to be alive.
“A lot of the songs are about the rise of popularism and delusional politicians and musicians. At the time I could only write bleak songs, lyrically, but I seem to be out of that patch now.”
He says ‘bleak’, but there’s something beguiling about the music pulling you through, not least his post-apocalyptic duet with actor/
supermodel Lily Cole on closer Selfies in the Sunset.
“I was asked to help out with some music she was creating, had this song on the go and felt it could be an interesting one for someone photographed a lot, feeling she’d have more insights into the song.”
He’s no stranger to commercial and critical success and crafted songs, Super Furry Animals managing 19 top-40 singles and 10 top-10 LPs between 1996 and 2009.
First hearing Babelsberg, I was thinking Scott Walker, but it later struck me more like a lost Kinks LP.
“I suppose the songs and how they’ve been played is quite old school,” Gruff says.
“I didn’t set out to make it Ray Davies sounding, but it’s not far-fetched – dealing with some kind of lyrical, social commentary.”
Having played with a 72-piece orchestra in Cardiff, he’s bringing a ‘mini-version for about 24
musicians’ to Manchester, guests including H. Hawkline and 9 Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown. Then there’s the
He says: “It’s exciting, doing that with the core of the band on the record. I’m rarely able to play a whole album live. In the studio I’m into production techniques and experimenting, so songs are hard to play live.”
I get the feeling, though, that with every solo LP he’s moving away from the band that made his name.
“Making solo records is more predictable in that they’re planned out and end up quite like you set out, whereas band records have some kind of alchemy of what a particular group can do together.”
But you wouldn’t rule out a 10th Super Furry Animals album?
“Yeah … but at the moment there’s no plan at all.”
‘Hiatus’ is the term used so far.
“Hibernation, I think!”
This Saturday and Sunday (September 15/16), Gruff Rhys appears with the RNCM Orchestra at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, with a following UK and European autumn tour, including a Liverpool Arts Club visit (November 17). For tickets/more information head to http://www.gruffrhys.com/