Interview: Gruff Rhys

Super Furry Animals' frontman shows solidarity with the Manics

Taking time out from Super Furry Animals, Gruff Rhys takes a moment to talk to Metropolis from his home in Cardiff, Wales. Outside it is an overcast morning, with seagulls sweeping through the sk

"We've got the second largest seagull population in the UK after Aberdeen," he tells me, the sleepiness spacing out his words.

Gruff may be a few coffees short of his ideal running speed, but he still has plenty to say about his tour to Japan later this month to support the Manic Street Preachers and the Welsh left-wing tradition, of which he and the Manics are very much a part. But first what about that next SFA album? There hasn't been one since 2009's Dark Days/Light Years.

"Our next album is going to be our tenth so we're taking it easy," Gruff groggily replies. "We'll make it eventually, but in the meantime, we're all at the time of life when we're sticking out solo records and looking after our families."

At the gigs, Gruff will showcase material from three solo albums, including last year's Hotel Shampoo, a title inspired by his collection of complimentary shampoos picked up from hotels over years of touring.

In addition to his solo work, he has been involved in various collaborations and side projects, not least of which was Separado, a documentary in which he went to Patagonia to search for distant relatives whose ancestors had emigrated to South America. One reason he is so drowsy is because he was up late last night editing material for a sequel.

Latin America has been a constant motif in Rhys's career, usually with a radical twist. Back in 2006, his band made unusual headlines for rock stars — "Super Furry Animals Happy to Turn Down Coke Deal" — when they rejected a million pounds from Coca-Cola to use their song Hello Sunshine in advertising after hearing complaints about the company from Columbian trade unionists.

Latin America is also at the heart of his connection with the Manics. When they were planning their famous—some would say notorious—"Louder Than Bombs" concert in 2001 at the Karl Marx Theater in front of Fidel Castro, the band invited Gruff to join them to sing Let Robeson Sing, their paean to Paul Robeson, a black singer, actor, political activist, and supporter of the Soviet Union who was blacklisted during America's McCarthy period.

"Paul Robeson has a particular resonance in Wales," Gruff explains. "He came to Wales to make a film, Proud Valley, and he formed a deep bond with the coal mining trade unions and he was a kind of honorary Welshman."

Gruff wasn’t able to perform the song in front of Castro, although he did perform it with the Manics last December in London.

"I can only imagine someone told them I wasn't free or something, or that I had other gigs," he explains. "2001 was a very busy year for the Super Furry Animals, but I can’t imagine turning that kind of offer down."

Politicized lyrics may be a natural fit with the earnest style of Welsh rock epitomized by The Manics and The Alarm, another band that Gruff expresses admiration for. But with Gruff's music, the synergy is less obvious. His latest album has a bucolic charm that evokes the lounge music of Burt Bacharach. Soapbox politics it ain't. But on songs like Christopher Columbus a lilting melody shuffles along side-by-side with lyrics that hint at something more serious.

"I like to play with moods and have some basic psychological tension in the song," he explains. "The greatest enemy for me in songwriting is sentimentality. If the melody is becoming sentimental, because some of my songs are extremely melodic, I'll puncture it with a darker lyric and try to subvert a song that's becoming too predictable."

Colin Liddell
12th May, 2012
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