Babelsberg calling – the Gruff Rhys interview

Three months after the release of a record he originally considered putting out two years earlier, musician, composer, producer, filmmaker and author Gruff Rhys is set to re-tread the boards around the UK, amid plenty of deserved acclaim for Babelsberg.

In fact, it’s been four years since the Haverfordwest-born, Bethesda-raised, Cardiff-based Super Furry Animals front-man came up with the LP’s name, revealing, “I’d made a note of the name after driving past a sign when I was on tour. Cut to a few years later and the (Bristol) studio where I recorded the album was being knocked down, just a week after I finished, to make way for a ‘luxury’ apartment development.

“I was looking for a name that evoked the Tower of Babel – people building towers to reach an idea of heaven … but maybe creating a kind of hell – I’m an atheist, by the way. In any case I had written ‘Babelsberg’ down and when I listened to the songs together, it finally made sense why.”

Babelsberg is Gruff’s fifth solo album, and his first for Rough Trade since 2007’s Candylion, its 10 tracks initially recorded in a whirlwind three-day session before producer Ali Chant’s studio was demolished, working with drummer Kliph Scurlock (ex-Flaming Lips) and multi-instrumentalists Stephen Black and Osian Gwynedd, 18 months passing before Swansea composer Stephen McNeff added orchestrated scores and brought in the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW).

The result is something of a triumph, Gruff’s songcraft – melodies and lyrics – shining through, perfectly reflecting the troubled times we live in. There was proof of the album’s staying power in his initial hometown outing for the record in June, joining the BBC NOW at the Millennium Centre as part of Cardiff’s annual Festival of Voice.

And this week’s Barbican Centre show with the London Contemporary Orchestra is being followed this weekend by a two-night stand at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, this time with the RNCM Orchestra.

You may have heard a few of the tracks already, the already-aired ‘Frontier Man’ and ‘Limited Edition Heart’ (I’m not sure if we can call these tracks singles these days – I see no evidence of 7″ vinyl), just two of many highlights. And while the landscape in the songs is often bleak, the soundscape is somewhat gorgeous.

But what else would you expect from a fella who’s no stranger to commercial and critical success, Super Furry Animals – recording in Welsh and English, like Gruff, who prior to that fronted the band Ffa Coffi Pawb, among the leading lights of the Welsh music scene at the time – having managed 19 top-40 singles and 10 top-10 LPs between 1996 and 2009.

Gruff, also part of electro-pop collaborative project Neon Neon in recent years, was at home in Cardiff when we spoke, a few days ahead of last-minute rehearsals for his London and Manchester orchestral shows, telling me, “It’s still quite a new set, and the songs aren’t second nature yet.”

Does it seem odd talking publicly about Babelsberg now, two years after completing much of the LP?

“Yeah, I think 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. And I’ll be playing these songs for a few years. But I’m really happy with the record, and to talk about it.”

How much input did you have in Stephen McNeff’s orchestral scores? Or did you take a step back?

“One one hand I insisted completely that his scores would be pretty spectacular, just from working with him previously and knowing his work. I made some suggestions and sent him YouTube links to orchestral pop music I’m into and similar music, playing the odd melody I wanted to convey that weren’t on the songs in their raw state. But beyond that it was all him and I was happy to hand it over.”

I’m guessing there were no hang-ups on your part, considering the difference between your world and that of Stephen’s classical music background.

“Yeah, I suppose it’s just a pop album. I don’t know what kind of pop, but the sound’s pretty simple, and not particularly experimental. I suppose if anything I was encouraging, ‘If in doubt keep it dangerous’. I thought it was quite a heavy record in its raw form, and it’s quite a breezy listen now.”

Was it a special moment hearing those scores the first time?

“Oh yeah. It felt like I’d gate-crashed someone else’s recording session. It was amazing, and I was trying not to get carried away.”

Alongside his musical journey, Gruff was the subject of Dylan Goch’s 2010 documentary film, Separado! about his trip to Patagonia  to try to locate members of his family, whose ancestors had emigrated in Victorian times.

In 2014, the pair then co-directed a film about Welsh explorer, John Evans,  American Interior. And you can see a lot of that ‘soundscape’ treatment in Gruff’s work before and since.

The new LP’s definitely a grower. The more I hear the songs, the more I love them. And I suppose in that sense you’ve carried on where you were with the Set Fire to the Stars soundtrack (2014) and before that your American Interior album (2016).

“I think so. I’ve learned a lot making those records and fed that into this record. And although it’s got a full orchestra on it, it’s not a perfectionist album, and I didn’t try and clean it up. The songs speed up and down, and my voice goes out of tune now and again. I wanted to keep some of that immediacy.”

If there’s a theme, what is it? Thematically, is this you trying to make sense of Brexit Britain, Trump’s America, and all that? There’s clearly a political message to be had about this Tower of Babel (as you might expect from an artist who in 2016 composed and sang ‘I Love EU’ to support the Remain campaign in the UK European Membership Referendum).

“Yeah, it’s not a concept record, and there’s no one theme, but that was definitely affecting my mental state during the making of it! And the lyrics reflect what seemed to me at the time to be a very frustrating time to be alive.

I was reading about your father’s world outlook (Ioan Bowen Rees, 1929/99, ‘poet, essayist, polemicist, mountaineer, internationalist … and a White Robe Druid of the Gorsedd of Bards’), seemingly a proud Welshman but not a great one for nationalism. That appears to be your standpoint too. I see you with a true sense of national identity but can’t see you holding out to the idea of hard borders and all that.

“Yeah … I definitely think it’s healthy to have cultural exchanges, and I suppose a lot of the songs are about the rise of popularism and delusional politicians … and musicians!”

At the same time, you seem to have come some way from your early days with Super Furry Animals and more in-your-face singles like The Man Don’t Give a Fuck. And in a sense the subtlety in your current material gives your message just as much of an impact.

“Yes, it’s hard for me to be objective but it’s difficult not to make the same record over and over again … no matter how hard I try. I’m trying to work on my songs and I still feel I’ve got some way to go with songwriting and getting words to fit properly in the songs.”

I won’t dwell too much on the earlier years here (although it’s about time this website carried a feature on that whole wondrous scene), but was there a genuine feeling of being part of some kind of movement of Welsh bands in the ‘90s, along with the likes of Catatonia and Manic Street Preachers, inspired by ‘80s trailblazers like Anhrefn?

“Erm, we were definitely inspired and helped by those bands and actively helped by the Manics as well, taking us on tour. We were very close to Catatonia, sharing a lot, including a kind of ambition. And bands like Anhrefn in a way pioneered everything and were our kind of political education as youngsters.”

And I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised at the direction you’ve taken over the years. That song-craft was always there with Super Furry Animals. 2001’s sublime ‘Juxtaposed With U’ for example having something of an Elvis Costello feel, vocally and melodically.

Incidentally, when I first heard this LP I was thinking of the likes of Scott Walker, in the same way that someone like Jarvis Cocker might interpret him. But then I thought again and felt that perhaps it was more like a lost Kinks album, with a real Ray Davies vibe.

“Well, I’ve listened to thousands of records and suppose the songs on this record and how they’ve been played is quite old school. I didn’t set out to make it Ray Davies sounding, but it’s not far-fetched in that I’m dealing with orchestral pop music and some kind of lyrical, social commentary.”

Meanwhile, there remains a lot of love out there for your work, and it seems that concert ticket sales are going really well, including a few sell-outs on your forthcoming UK and European tour.

“Yes, it’s quite exciting, and I’m going to be doing the tour with the core of the band I played with on the record, so it’s going to be true to those takes. And I’ve rarely been able to play a whole album live.

“Usually in the studio I’m really into production techniques and experimenting and sometimes that means songs are hard to play live, and sometimes were never played live in the studio. So to be able to perform live this album, playing it in order all the way through and playing every song on guitar …”

I was wondering about that. You recorded the LP with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW), but your Barbican Centre show is with the London Contemporary Orchestra and the Manchester show with the RNCM Orchestra. Are the core of the autumn dates with the NOW?

“They played on the album and I played with them – a full 72-piece orchestra – in June in Cardiff, but we’ve also done a mini-version for about 24 musicians so we’re going to do that in London, and Stephen McNeff is going to conduct. Then we’re doing two nights in Manchester.”

Gruff also revealed how the Royal Northern College of Music shows involved special guests, being joined on Saturday, September 15th by H. Hawkline, who’s played guitar for Cate Le Bon and records for Heavenly Records in his own right, while the Sunday, September 16th show will involve 9 Bach’s Lisa Jen Brown. Has Gruff played that Manchester concert hall before?

“I played there before on my own, so this will be a little different, with about 30 of us on stage!”

If the main bones of this album were recorded by you a couple of years ago, does that mean you’re already working on a follow-up?

“Yeah, I’ve been writing lots. At the time of Babelsberg I could only write bleak songs, lyrically, and it seems everything’s going worse by the minute in political life, but I seem to be out of that patch, into something quite a bit different.”

Well, you say bleak, but there’s something quite beguiling about the music that brings the listener through, not least on his post-apocalyptic duet with actor and supermodel Lily Cole on closer ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, If we’re all going to go out under a mushroom cloud, surely that’s not a bad way to go.

“I was asked to help out with some music she was creating. I had this song on the go and felt it could be an interesting one for someone who’s been photographed a lot, feeling she’d have more insights into the song, and she helped adapt the words.”

I guess it would have been more likely that you’d have shared that vocal with someone you’ve worked with before, like Lisa Jen Brown, and that also made me think of the duet she recently did with J. Willgoose Esq. from Public Service Broadcasting on Every Valley’s lovely ‘You + Me’ last year. In fact, that’s almost a parallel song, I’d suggest – another sweet love song removed from the mainstream.

And how about the splendid penultimate track, ‘Architecture of Amnesia’, which to me has that kind of ethereal, later David Bowie, ‘Black Star’ feel.

“Ah, it’s strange, with ‘Black Star’ I felt so sad he had died that I couldn’t listen to the record. I just couldn’t face it.”

I know the feeling. It took me a long while before I could properly play that whole album. But it was worth the wait. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and a fitting finale.

“Sometimes I’m not ready for some records, but I’m sure there’ll be a time in life when I’ll be ready for it.”

Listening to this album has certainly made me go back to your earlier solo records, not so much seeing that body of work in a new light as just wanting to hear more of your post-Super Furry Animals material. Something else has struck me though. I get the feeling that with every solo release you’re moving further away from being in a position where that next album might come together with the band that made your name.

“Erm … in a sense, a record is as mysterious to anyone in the band as it is to me. It’s made a band go to places where you can’t think what a finished record’s going to be like when you’ve got five particular personalities making it and you can’t decide exactly what makes the records what they are. They could only be the product of the five members in a way.

“Making solo records is more predictable in the sense that they’re planned out and they end up quite like you set out to do, whereas band records have some kind of alchemy of what a particular group of people can do together. It’s quite a different process.”

But you wouldn’t rule out a 10th Super Furry Animals album at some point?

“Yeah … but at the moment there’s no plan at all.”

Maybe one day though?

“I’ve no idea. It’s definitely ….”

I think hiatus is the term that’s been used so far.

“Hibernation, I think!”

A few days after this feature went live, a promo video emerged featuring  Gruff and Lily Cole for ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, too good not to share, directed and animated by Ewan Jones Morris, its stars creating animojis ahead of the apocalypse.

Gruff wrote, “A couple of years ago I noticed some smiling, healthy looking young people taking selfies in front of a particularly spectacular sunset, I turned around to walk away only to see another sunset in front of me.

“I realised the first sunset was just the glow looming above a chemical plant. Still, the selfies would have looked like they were taken in California (we weren’t in California). 

“It got me thinking about Armageddon. Maybe people will be taking selfies till the very end. They’ll be pretty spectacular and will feature the golden colours of the Sunset. With the acceleration of climate change maybe it is the end. A slow painful process not an event.

“My friend Graham from South Shields was working with Lily Cole on some music a while back – there was some talk of me helping out in some way as a musician. “Nothing came of it – but I invited her to help me finish this song in any case, as she has a greater insight into the world of imagery. It turns out that her Mother is from Rhydaman and has been taking selfies since the 1960’s. 

“This isn’t a judgmental song about Selfies – Selfies aren’t the problem. They bring joy into this precarious life. It’s just a really sad song.” 

Gruff then signs off ‘with sincerest apologies to Mel Gibson’. Video link here.

Reflective Energy: Gruff Rhys at work, channeling Babelsberg (Photo: Kirsten McTernan)

This Saturday and Sunday (September 15th/16th), Gruff Rhys appears with the RNCM Orchestra at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, followed by a show at Hull’s Jubilee Church on Saturday, September 29th  and 15 Canadian and US dates in October. And then comes his UK and European autumn tour, involving visits to:

Nov 8th – Portsmouth, Wedgewood Rooms; Nov 9th – Brighton, The Old Market; Nov 10th – Folkestone, The Quarterhouse; Nov 11th – Oxford, O2 Academy; Nov 12th – Bristol, SWX; Nov 13th – Birmingham, Glee Club; Nov 15th – Glasgow, SWG3; Nov 16th – Leeds, Church Leeds; Nov 17th – Liverpool, Arts Club (sold out); Nov 19th – Paris, France, Le Badaboum; Nov 20th – Schaffhausen, Switzerland, Tap Tab; Nov 21st  – Munich, Germany, Ampere; Nov 22nd  – Berlin, Germany, Privatclub; Nov 23rd – Hamburg, Germany,  Turmzimmer; Nov 24th – Copenhagen, Denmark, Alice; Nov 26th – Brussels, Belgium, Botanique/Rotonde; Nov 27th – Cologne, Germany, Studio 672; Nov 28th – Amsterdam, NL,  Paradiso Noord; Dec 1st – Cork, Ireland, Live At St.Luke’s; Dec 2nd – Galway, Ireland, Roisin Dublin; Dec 3rd – Dublin, Ireland, Button Factory.

For tickets and further information head to http://www.gruffrhys.com/. You can also keep in touch via the Gruffington Post Facebook, Instagram and Twitter artist pages.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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2 Responses to Babelsberg calling – the Gruff Rhys interview

  1. Very engaging interview, Malcolm. Enjoyed the intro too.
    Will have a listen to Gruff’s latest, not least on the basis of huge respect for the SFA catalogue. What a great band!
    I do find orchestral pop a strange beast. Don’t dislike it, but suspect I don’t quite get it. I always want the arrangements to be edgier, odder; I want to be elbowed rather than embalmed. But perhaps, not having really listened to an album in this domain in recent years, I might find I’ve softened. Certainly I’m intrigued to discover how ‘orchestra’ and ‘bleak’ go together and cannot think of a better chap to explore that with than Mr G Rhys.

  2. writewyattuk says:

    Thanks Bruce! Definitely worth catching up on the solo material. And yes, I’m in that camp re the Super Furries’ output. Cheers as ever for your support.

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