Archive interview - Gruff Rhys (2000)
Despite Super Furry Animals' and Gruff Rhys' (almost) ubiquitous presence in the modern Welsh musical landscape, I have only ever interviewed Gruff twice, and met him once (when honoured to present the inaugural Welsh Music Prize to him for Hotel Shampoo, last month.)
This is a transript of an interview I conducted with Gruff back in May 2000, just prior to the release of Mwng, one of my favourite albums of all time, and a contender (if we're to reduce art to something as base and tawdry as a competition) for Greatest Welsh Album of All Time.
Mwng is a beautiful, evocative and timeless album. It hasn't lost any of its immediacy - or sense of playful wonder - in the years since its release. In fact, I'd argue that the last decade has only underlined what a great listen the album is. And - as a Welsh learner, now - I'm getting to closer to understanding the poetry of Gruff's Welsh lyrics for the first time.
Does Mwng feel like a more precious record than its predecessors because it's on your own label?
I suppose so, yeah. I think that anything it does will be an achievement. I think it's an achievement to even get it out!
Did the dissolution of Creation Records have a profound effect on the band? Could you see it coming?
I think that it was bound to happen because Sony were always putting pressure on Creation to sell up at one point or another, so it was inevitable. In a way it was good timing for us because we were halfway through a deal, so maybe it was necessary for us, you know?
Well, it's almost like a Bosman-type scenario isn't it?
Yeah, that's right. I think it's going to work out really well for us.
What extra freedom has having your own label, Placid Casual, given you? It's not as though you were ever associated with anything other than artistic freedom, is it?
[Laughs] You're right, but having your own label gives you more peace of mind to do what you want. With Mwng we've been able to let the songs speak for themselves, it was recorded more or less live in a studio in a short space of time so it was done in a much more immediate way than the other albums where we've toiled in the studios for months getting it right. Overdubbing everything to kingdom come.
Records like Guerilla, Radiator and Fuzzy Logic benefit from the painstaking work, though, because it's the sound of a band searching for sonic inspiration to share with us. Mwng is much more naked and stand or falls on the strength of the song-writing alone; were you aware that that was a brave move?
Well we had to be aware because, originally, the album was going to come out on Creation and we got a limited budget for it, something like £6,000. Plus we spent something like three months on Guerrilla and we just wanted to make something immediate to remind ourselves that it's possible. We've been touring so much as a live band that we were in a situation where we could actually do an album like that, whereas before maybe we couldn't play well enough to make an album like this.
It's an honest and soulful record.
Yeah, and lots of it is out of tune completely! It's not that proficient at times, but that wasn't the point.
It's a more spacious and reflective record than your previous offerings. Why is that?
I don't know. It's just the songs that we had at the time. You're not always full-on enjoying yourself; it's impossible to keep that up all the time, you know?
Do you think that's what some people expect of SFA, almost to have that kind of cartoon enthusiasm all the time? Anyone who has listened to your albums will know that there's always been more subdued and melancholic moments too.
Totally, and I think we try and cover all of our moods and reflect every aspect of our lives. We couldn't be a goth band because we can't be miserable all the time, just as we can't be The Monkees all the time because we're not happy all the time, either!
Mwng seems to have less on it, but more going on... it gives the album a more cosmopolitan sound, because when the harmonium or the zither appear, they're not buried in oceans of sound so they transport you elsewhere, making Mwng the most international sounding album that you've made. Was that intentional?
Yeah it was very important so that people don't accuse us of being parochial. There's nothing particularly Welsh about it musically, or nothing I can specifically pinpoint apart from maybe parts of it are influenced by Datblygu, Gorky's or Meic Stevens. We maybe indirectly influenced by people like that, but we haven't gone out looking for a Welsh sound. The records we make just reflect the records that we've grown up listening to. We've never been particularly interested in rediscovering the harp, or anything like that.
I can't think of any one time when I've heard an album and thought it sounded particularly 'Welsh' and yet when these records find themselves over the border it's almost the only reference point that critics and journalists can use. That must be a little frustrating.
It's only frustrating if you let it be. You see, on the other hand, we'll be taking this record all around the world, doing a tour of America next month. That's the only big tour we'll be doing for Mwng, which is bonkers itself! We're also doing the Fuji festival in Japan, the album is released worldwide and, you know, there's so many languages worldwide in the same situation as Welsh, so people will understand what we're on about and the language of the music anyway.
If you go over to somewhere like New York, you come across that many different languages and cultures, and no-one really has to justify themselves.
No-one speaks English over there!
One of the reasons I love this album is the use of different, interesting instruments... the harmonium on Ymaelodi A'r Ymylon which sounds a bit Breton. I imagine that it's you lot in the studio constantly trying to inspire yourselves.
Yeah, but it's also the influence of people like the producer. We did this album with Gorwel Owen again, and I think you can hear his influence on it as well. It's his harmonium that he bought in a car boot sale on Mona, you know, he's always on the hunt for new instruments for the studio so anyone who goes to Gorwel's studio ends up with something similar in the sound because everyone ends up using the same synth or the same harmonium.
He goes to pretty incredible car boot sales; whenever I go I can only find Mousetrap with some of the parts missing.
I know! I was looking for a zither for months. I looked everywhere in Cardiff and couldn't find one and eventually spent about £300 on one in London! Gorwel found one in a Mona car boot sale for 10 pence!
Pan Ddaw'r Wawr has one of the most descriptive titles on the album, in that the music actually sounds like the title (which translates to 'when dawn breaks'). Do you aim for a symbiosis between the words and music in that way?
I think that that was the most immediate lyric that came, it was probably like that from the start. I had to work the lyrics out around the tune. A lot of the songs are dictated by a line that I get in my head. The line comes with the lyric and the melody at the same time. I think that that's the case with Pan Ddaw'r Wawr.
It's a very respectful nod of the head from SFA to cover datblygu's Y Teimlad on Mwng but why this particular song?
Y Teimlad was the most obvious pop song that they ever wrote. There's other songs, like Casserole, but I think that Y Teimlad is an absolute standard song, you know, and someone could do a Sinatra version. I wish we could have done a full-on orchestral version, but the song is there now for someone else to do that!
It sits very well among the other songs on Mwng because they are all simple and direct too. Was it important to preserve that simplicity?
Dave Datblygu once criticised "one track minds working in 48 track studios", so we thought that we would maybe be respectful of that. Also we've recently been touring with bands like Olivia Tremor Control who keep the recording really simple. Most of their stuff is recorded on four track. People like Palace record whole albums in five hours.
Was one of the other reasons for doing the Datblygu song maybe to draw people's attention to the fact that there were great Welsh bands before the Manics that are in danger of being forgotten because of the speed of the recent renaissance?
I don't think that we would exist as a band that's sort of well known if it hadn't been for bands like Datblygu and Anhrefn who sort of paved the way for us politically, for bands like us to exist.
What was the inspiration that you took from a band like Anhrefn?
They were post-hick and internationalist in outlook. They were highly organised, and also they wanted to play elsewhere in Wales and not be isolated in the Welsh speaking communities. They realised that most people in Wales speak English and they wanted to play in Newport, Merthyr and Wrexham.
I remember seeing them at the Eisteddfod in Mold in 1990 or '91 and being blown away because we never used to get bands in Mold!
They also took their music all over Europe, and would have gone to America if they'd ever had the chance! That's what we always wanted to do. We sing in English because we live in a bilingual country and we want to play to everyone in Wales. We were in bands for years singing in Welsh and we played in the same pubs for seven years. We got bored of it! [Laughs].
Do you think that you've learned much from the making of Mwng that you'll apply to the next album?
Hopefully. We've started recording the next album already, and it doesn't sound anything like Mwng!
Is this the legendary techno album?
No, that was lost for a while! We thought we'd lost it. It was all on disk and Cian lost the disks for about two months and it was really nerve wracking! Cian was gutted.
Where did you find them?
They were in a record sleeve. Probably something he never listened to! Cian's leading that record and he's very much a perfectionist, so that will come out when it's ready. We're not in a rush to get that out for anybody.
Certainly not now you've got your own label.
Yeah... but we've also been recording this new band album which will be the follow-up to Guerrilla and there's loads of electronic stuff on that as well.
Mwng is devoid of much the electronic stuff they'd expect from Cian. He's concentrating on the Fender Rhodes [electric piano] and, I imagine, things like the harmonium too. Did he get a kick of that change in scenery?
Well, he uses the Rhodes all the time. Live it's his basic instrument. He's getting better and better at it all the time. When we were starting out he was just making noises with synths, and now he's an amazing Rhodes player. We bought this Rhodes from Ronnie Scott's in London and it sounds really nice, so that's all over Mwng.
With all this talk of Cian we have to talk about Sarn Helen, which I believe was engineered in his living room. It's also another example of how cosmopolitan Mwng is, sounding like Ennio Morricone jamming the theme from The Godfather. Where did it come from?
I've had this tune for a while but it needed the lyrical equivalent of the music, something really bombastic and over the top so I wrote a tune about the Roman road, the Pan Wales highway Sarn Helen that used to connect north and south Wales. I live in Cardiff now and if I want to go and see my mum in Bethesda it's five hours driving, and I can't drive even! I have to go by train which takes you all over England, and that takes five hours too. It's a nostalgic song about wouldn't it be great if that road was still there because I could go straight up to Bethesda on my chariot.
What's the sound that kicks this song off, a weird guitar?
That's the zither I was talking about earlier, the one that I bought in London. We sampled that up because I can't really play it, but I knew it was the sound I was after. Cian sampled it up and we recorded it all on one mic and a computer, then we went to Gorwel's to play some drum and bass over it and sang those heroic vocals over the end.
Do you have any particular expectations for Mwng?
None whatsoever! There's no-one from a record company saying, "We want a Top Five album" or "We want a Top 10 hit", there's none of that! We're a small label and we can't afford to play chart games anyway, which is why the single [Ysbeidiau Heulog] was a limited vinyl release.
It's great, we don't expect anything because most of our fans, even, won't be able to understand a word of it, so it would be ridiculous of us to have any popular expectations of it. I think that it's an achievement just to get it out, worldwide, and we have no critical or commercial expectations for it.
Having this freedom must give you an optimism for the future, and an inspiration too because you've got to be good, you haven't got the cushion of a big label.
[Laughs] No, we're still under negotiation with Sony to work out what out future will be. We bought this album off Creation to make sure that we owned it and to make sure that no-one was going to come in and try and take it off us, so we might still have to record to finish our contract with Sony. But I think we are still on our own Bosman style ruling where we are allowed to released stuff on our own label as well.
I've got a couple of questions from listeners: Emma from Carmarthen wants to know if you have any input into your official website?
We leave that up to Pie who looks after it, but we're always in touch with him. We have a lot of input, but we mainly leave it up to him. I think that he's going to set up some pages that we can write directly. We're also going to be setting up a Welsh language website in the format of a magazine that you can print out because I hardly read any Welsh language publication, you know, and we want to do something that's worth reading. We could do a bi-lingual site, but people who speak Welsh speak English anyway! So we might as well do a good left-field magazine in Welsh.
I've got a question here from Nathaniel Rowson; he wants to know if you enjoyed the recent art exhibition in Ecocentrig in Cardiff and he wants to know if you've got any further plans for such mass audience participation?
Audience perspiration! I started to get everyone in the room involved, you know, I wrote a line... it was intended to be a circular song, and it was called Circular Saw with everyone stood in a circle and the words would go around the room, man! [Laughs] Everyone was so pissed, it almost happened. In fact they were so pissed they probably thought it had!
Finally, are there any plans to sign more bands to Placid Casual?
We're well into the idea of releasing more stuff because we formed the label to put out the Psycho VII single and the criteria is just good tunes, so is we hear a good tune by someone then we'll put it out. I doubt we'll sign anyone because, personally, I wouldn't want to be owned by me!
It's like the Apple Records scenario: great musicians don't necessarily have to be great businessmen at the same time do they?
Totally. Plus we started the band for the music and Bunf has been pointing out to everyone that we shouldn't get carried away by business or we'll forget about the music. We'll just release the odd one off thing I think.
Good luck with Mwng and the label. Thanks for talking to us.
Thanks for having me.