Gruff Rhys: 'It's like krautrock played by a jazz band in 1950'

The Super Furries frontman discusses his new film soundtrack, his disgust over Brexit and his ‘20 a day’ caffeine habit

Good morning Gruff. What did you have for breakfast?

Is this a microphone check or a real question?

This is a very real question.

It’s a strange one because in most radio interviews people ask you what you had for breakfast to check the microphones. Then usually they keep the answer in because I suppose it’s more interesting than what’s to follow. I can reveal I had some porridge with my son.

How do you feel about caffeine?

I’m a strong believer in caffeine. I’m on about 20 a day.

Bloody hell!

I did an experiment with Bunf, the guitarist from Super Furry Animals, during a day of interviews and we decided to drink as much coffee as we could physically take. They were espressos, sometimes doubles, and we got to about 13 each and then found that we just couldn’t physically take any more. It’s strange.

Doesn’t coffee do some interesting things to your bowels? (1)

I’ve no idea. Everything was fine, no sorry tales. We just moved on to Guinness.

You seem like someone more sartorially suited to the cold – are you looking forward to winter?

Because I’m probably more suited to the winter and the cold, I fantasise about the tropics. I think there was a movement here in Cardiff a few years ago for a tropical Wales. Graffiti started to appear with a Tropical Wales Now slogan and demands that were quite ambitious. The weather in Wales is quite consistent all year round, like it is in the tropics, it’s just grey and wet and cold.

Your soundtrack for Set Fire to the Stars (2) is coming out two years after the film. Why the delay?

Lots of very uninteresting logistical circumstances. There’s no real explanation. I did a live concert a year ago when I thought it was going to come out. It doesn’t matter, I don’t feel much pressure. It’s a relief and a joy that’s it finally out. It’s a commissioned work so it’s not a regular solo album where I come up with everything based on internal instincts and my own thoughts. I’m more of a songwriter so I’d imagine someone who buys my records might expect some songs but there’s only three sung songs on this record. But it was very freeing for me. I was able to indulge in 20 instrumentals.

The press release mentions “agro-jazz” – what’s that?

At the time I wrote some sleeve notes and I can’t remember if it was agro as in an aggressive take on jazz or what. The word jazz comes with a lot of connotations for me, both good and bad, so I aggressively took jazz on. I only used instruments that were available in the 1950s but beyond that I didn’t try and make specifically 50s music. It’s mainly exercises in what krautrock would sound like played by a jazz band in 1950.

The album features the worst instrument on the planet – the saxophone. (3) What’s your least favourite instrument?

I’ve gone through periods of having problems with the saxophone. I think it was badly used in the 70s in particular. But I’ve worked myself through my phobia.

How? Can you give me some advice?

Well, just by listening to some records where it’s used properly. Especially deep glam rock where people don’t solo, they make guttural noises with it. Another way would be to go to extremes and embrace the synthetic saxophone. There’s a saxophone-shaped synthesiser that goes into the electronic world. In the right hands it’s potentially a good thing, but it can go either way.

I Love EU, your song encouraging people to vote remain, wasn’t enough to change the voting public’s minds. (4) Why do you think people voted to leave?

It was pretty tight. It was a close vote and there was an array of reasons as to why people voted to leave, some justified and a lot completely unjustified and based on xenophobia. I think what would have tipped it into a majority would be, for me, a constant barrage of misinformation by careerist politicians who thought very little of the consequences of the vote for the general public.

Do you think if there was another vote now, things would be different?

Opinion polls in Wales suggest so. I don’t think the negative impact of the vote will be clear for a while. In terms of the environment and unemployment, I think it’s going to deteriorate in the coming years, especially if we’re still governed by a bunch of climate change deniers and a government that’s willing to let the free market reign with no tax. In the short term, I’ve no idea if the vote would change with the same media around. It’s such an ill-defined vote because nobody knows what Brexit is. I don’t even like the word Brexit. I try not to use it because it’s such a shit word. Brexit means Brexit, but what is Brexit?

Right, no more politics. Let’s talk football! Super Furry Animals released a song called Bing Bong to celebrate Wales qualifying for the Euros. That all went rather well, didn’t it?

The song or the competition?

Both!

It was very joyful. Maybe the key to success is not putting any pressure on people. Nobody had any expectation and it was a joy for everyone to watch, and just one game with Wales in the European championships seemed like a fantastical event. That they got so far was incredible.

Super Furry Animals – Bing Bong video premiere

What do you make of Sam Allardyce’s recent travails?

I’ve no interest whatsoever in it.

Super Furry Animals have never had a Top 10 hit in the UK, peaking at No 11 with Northern Lites. Does that sort of thing excite you? Mixing it up with the big pop acts?

I think we had records peak at 11, 12 and 13. (5) At the time, when the CD was prevalent – which was a strange small silver disc that people used to put into machines – most record companies would make two CD singles of the same song with different B-sides and remixes. It was a scam to make people buy the record twice. The second disc would be full of meaningless remixes so the band wouldn’t actually have to do anything. We felt that was a complete rip-off, so we refused to play those kinds of games. When those records were going to 11 and 12, we felt validated because the people who were in the Top 10 had played those kind of games.

So if the charts had been based on principles, you guys would have had No 1 hits?

(Laughs) No, we would have been at No 6. On a good day. We were No 1 in the album charts for a few days but then Destiny’s Child came in and took our spot. (6) You can’t argue with that, though. We were like, “Yeah, of course.”

Will the Super Furry Animals shows at the end of the year lead to a new album do you think?

Not for the time being, no. We’ve been touring again for about three years and we’re going up to Christmas and then we probably won’t do anything for a while. I’m on my way to band practice later. We played a few weekends ago at Liverpool Psych Fest and I think voltage governs how a lot of records sound. Like a record mastered in America with American power will sound different to a record made in Europe, for example. Then you have maverick mastering studios that go off the grid, so they have their own generators powered to full capacity by an insanely powerful voltage. (7) Unfortunately at Liverpool Psych Fest we tried to power 400 volts through the bass amp and it blew up in the first song. So we plugged another one in and that blew up. It was quite a dramatic, situationist set with loads of technicians on stage doing live repairs while we played.

OK. How do you feel about Facebook?

I’ve never been on Facebook but I have a Facebook account that takes in all my other social media. I only had it put up there because there were a lot of people claiming to be me and having conversations with my friends as me. I felt like it showed a lack of ambition in a way – why pose as me when you could be Beyoncé, for example? It started to complicate my life. Buying stuff in the market and the guy I buy my dried goods from will say, “About that conversation we’ve been having on Facebook” and I’ll reply, “I’m not on Facebook, I’ve never been on it, what are you talking about?” I’m still talking about CDs.

Footnotes

  1. As in “one’s bowels”, not specifically Gruff’s.
  2. Directed by Andy Goddard, it tells the tale of aspiring poet John M Brinnin (Elijah Wood) trying to save his hero, Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones).
  3. This is non-negotiable, sorry.
  4. Glennys Wiggin commented on YouTube under the song’s video: “Awful song and another great reason for voting to leave.”
  5. Actually 11 (1999’s Northern Lites), 13 (2003’s Golden Retriever) and 14 (2001’s Juxtapozed With U), but close enough.
  6. Rings Around the World album from 2001 was indeed beaten to the No 1 spot by Destiny’s Child’s Survivor. Unfortunately, David Gray’s White Ladder also then pushed them down to No 3.
  7. Not sure how we got on to all this voltage chat but there we are.

Contributor

Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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