Waxing Lyrical: Gruff Rhys, Super Furry Animals

The Furries frontman on singing in two languages, perfecting the cover version and how he was inspired by a Harold Pinter play

On singing in two languages: "The space between two languages is an interesting place, and one of the exciting things about writing in two languages or more – especially with the Welsh language, because most people who can speak Welsh can also speak English – is that you can make puns. I once did a song with Mogwai [Dial: Revenge, on 2001's Rock Action] and I think they were into me writing in Welsh, because they're an instrumental band and they wanted a singer who would be just sounds for most people. Back then, people were still using payphones. When you take a payphone off the hook, on the LCD screen it flashes 'DIAL'. But in Welsh, dial – pronounced 'dee-al' – means revenge. It puts you in a weird place when you're making a phone call. So the song was about that."

On writing lyrics for a band: "If we're making a Super Furry Animals record, it's a collaborative process and everyone has a veto on any aspect of the record, including lyrics. In a way, you can self-censor a little bit. If you think there's something that someone else in the band won't appreciate, you'll strive to write it in a certain way. If I'm making a solo record, I'll think: this is my chance to do daft things, for better or for worse, and at least I'm not affecting anyone else."

On writing narrative songs: "On my last solo record [2007's Candylion] I tried to write a ballad, called Skylon, but I didn't think about the time it would take to sing; it was supposed to be four minutes, but when I went into the studio it took 15. For the new record, I set out to write a more concise narrative, which became Space Dust #2. It's a love song set at a seminar or industrial conference taking place in a modernist conference centre in a pine forest – somewhere like Canada or Scandinavia, maybe. It's about three minutes from meeting to breakup. I asked the singer El Perro Del Mar to sing it with me, because I'm a huge fan of her lyrics – they're full of idioms and life lessons, some of them very bleak. She's sort of a Scandinavian Brian Wilson."

A cover that feels like my own: "The song I've covered the most is Religious Experience (Singing a Song in the Morning) by Kevin Ayers. It's like a mantra, and I've partly covered it because it's so simple to remember. The lyric is: 'Singing a song in the morning/ Singing it again at night/ I don't even know what I'm singing about but it makes me feel alright.' It's just about the power of music. I play it to finish concerts, because it's a very easy song to harmonise to."

On the influence of playwrights: "For some reason, plays are quite conducive to songwriting – there are a lot of one-liners in plays, and they're a lot like lyrics. I picked up Harold Pinter's Mountain Language, quite randomly, when we were recording Radiator. It's about a group of people living in isolation, persecuted, on a kind of hillside. I grew up in a mountain village, so it really resonated with me. That had a direct influence on the song Mountain People – I almost credited him on the sleeve."

On the perfect song: "The Pavement reunion was worth it for Shady Lane to be sung again – 'You've been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life' is a pretty good one-liner. Maybe in terms of writing a simple motivational song that everyone with a rudimentary grasp of English can understand, the song No Limit by 2 Unlimited is perfection. It's extremely motivational and can be understood almost universally. But then, I wouldn't necessarily want to listen to it every day."

Hotel Shampoo is out now


Louis Pattison

The GuardianTramp

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