Gruff Rhys - Eccentric rock'n'roll with no reservation

Hotel toiletries inspired Super Furry Animals' frontman Gruff Rhys's latest album, the Welshman tells Andy Gill

When Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys was a small child, he used to listen to Welsh-language nursery-rhymes sung by a duo called Tony ac Aloma, whom he describes as "sort of the Welsh Sonny and Cher". Tony ac Aloma built up a sizeable following, selling more than 75,000 singles in their native tongue before retiring to Blackpool, where they bought a hotel, The Gresham.

This soon became a magnet for Welsh-speaking folk in search of entertainment a little lighter than the National Eisteddfod, as Tony ac Aloma put on their own shows at The Gresham, featuring themselves or other Welsh MOR acts, offering package deals of dinner, board and evening knees-up in the ballroom for busloads of fans up from the valleys for the weekend – a "mini-Las Vegas scenario", as Rhys describes it. So when Gruff wanted to launch his new album, aptly titled Hotel Shampoo, where better to start the tour than at The Gresham?

"I've had a perverse ambition to play there for some time," he admits. "It gave me a chance to do some Welsh-language songs from the Seventies." Of current pop performers, none has done more to sustain the Welsh language than Gruff Rhys, both through Super Furries albums such as Mwng and his own solo debut, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, on which his affinity for punning wordplay was on good form: the title-track, for instance, literally translates as "The Stuttering Generation", but with the slightest of changes in phrasing, sounds like the Welsh for contraceptive ("atalgenhedlu").

"Sometimes there are gaps that fall between languages," he explains. "The same words will mean completely different things: like on the old phone boxes, the LED screen would flash up 'dial', the Welsh for 'revenge', which puts you in this weird frame of mind when you're making the call." What are the relative advantages of working in Welsh and English?

"Well, it's easier to avoid or bypass rock'n'roll cliches in Welsh," he says. "You can't sing about train tracks in Memphis – it would sound ludicrous in the context of the Welsh language. On the other hand, writing in Anglo-American does enable you to play with those cliches – I can imagine the lyrics to 'Shark Ridden Waters' in an Alan Parsons song, or something: 'eye in the sky' and all that. On this album I seem to have channelled some washed-up West Coast hippy. I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or not." Several of the songs were originally tried out in Super Furry Animals arrangements, before finding their natural home on Hotel Shampoo.

"I like making Super Furries records because as a band, we're about excess: that's how we bond," he says. "There's five producers in the band, which is amazing, but working solo is an opportunity for me to have a breather."

The album also offered a retrospective context to another of Gruff's projects, the model hotel built out of miniature shampoo bottles that he has collected from hotels around the world, and which provided the album with its title.

"When I started touring, it was such a dramatic change in my life," he explains. "I couldn't believe they were giving this stuff away. I decided to keep them as souvenirs, because I didn't know how long it would go on. Then I decided to build a hotel out of them. It's in the generic shape of a Monopoly hotel piece, about the size of a dog kennel. I think the idea was better than the execution. Because I had been writing these melancholy songs over the same period, I ended up stealing the name of the hotel for the album, because they were connected in my mind. There's no specific connection, it was just handy for me to have the title when I was finishing the songs. So something like 'Honey All Over' could be an imaginary shower gel, and 'Vitamin K' a sort of biological shampoo." It speaks volumes about Rhys's whimsical attitude and approach to life and music that this all sounds perfectly sensible, quite understandable in the context of his musical career.

He's like a Welsh equivalent of The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, another musician whose psychedelicised world-view involves a similarly all-channels-open approach to cultural influences, and a similarly high-ambition, lo-tech attitude to pursuing artistic ideas, wherever they may lead – such as Rhys's 2008 collaboration with producer Boom Bip on Stainless Style, a concept album about car manufacturer John DeLorean, which they released as the duo Neon Neon.

"I'd never done a concept album from scratch before," he recalls. "We borrowed someone's house in Camden for a couple of weeks, came up with the concept on the first day, and wrote and recorded most of it in an extremely tense two weeks. Very exciting! We narrowed DeLorean's life down to 12 key moments – conception, birth, drug bust and so on." Another collaboration which took Rhys off in new directions was with Brazilian musician Tony Da Gatorra, a one-off talent even by Gruff's standards.

"He's a TV and VCR repair-man by trade, who invented the gatorra, an instrument shaped like a communist sickle," he explains. "It's like a manual drum-machine that you hold like a guitar, with certain levers that produce dissonant tones along with the manual rhythm. It's his own vehicle to back his objections to corruption in Brazil, ranting over dissonant sound and rhythm. We rehearsed for five days for a concert in Sao Paulo, communicating solely through hand-gestures and music, and on the last day we recorded together." The album which resulted, The Terror Of Cosmic Loneliness, is an exercise in transcontinental techno-primitivism, a blend of synthetic beats, noise and waspish garage-rock guitar, over which the two men offer their individual protests at life's iniquities. While in South America, Rhys was able to fulfil another of his life's aims, by undertaking what he calls an "investigative concept tour", which was filmed as Separado.

"I toured South America looking for a distant relative called Rene Griffiths, whose family emigrated to the Welsh-speaking part of Patagonia in 1880. There'd been no contact between them and the family in Wales for close on a century until the late 1970s, when this hippie guitarist came from Argentina wearing a poncho, playing Argentinian guitar and singing in the Welsh language, and became a huge media sensation in Wales. His thing was to arrive onstage on horseback with his guitar slung over his back, jump off the horse and start playing. Incredible charisma! We had a good go at looking for him – I got distant relatives to arrange gigs in teahouses, village halls and things. That's the basic premise of the film."

On another occasion, Rhys found himself in a remote fishing village in northern Iceland playing the Welsh-language songs from his first solo album, backed by an Icelandic bluegrass band who had re-arranged them in country style. It says much about his protean artistic skills that he was able to take this in his stride; and indeed, he has enthusiastically taken up this pan-stylistic approach to live performance for the Hotel Shampoo tour.

"I've been playing with a band called Y Niwl, an instrumental surf band, who're going to help me play my songs in a surf-music style," he enthuses. "We're going to invite the audience to bring surfboards along, because it's deepest winter, to give them a sense of escape. It's going to be quite uplifting. Wales has the longest-lasting wave on the planet, the Severn Bore, and apparently Dennis Wilson once came to surf it. I don't think it's true, but people in pubs in Newport talk about it. The drummer in Y Niwl surfs, but they all live in the mountains."

Which is perhaps exactly as it should be for the backing band of one of Britain's most diversely entertaining and musically inspired talents. At a time when so many of our bands struggle to make the same rotten album over and over again, it's a relief that there are people like Gruff Rhys around, who never seem short of an idea, and who take in their stride whatever opportunity comes along without skipping a beat, whether it's collaborations with Gorillaz, Simian Mobile Disco, and Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, or doing surf and bluegrass versions of his own songs.

"I don't question it, and I don't take it for granted," says Rhys of his abundant flow of ideas. "I enjoy writing songs , but considering I don't have to do anything else apart from music, I don't feel particularly pushed. An album takes three weeks to record, so I don't know what I'm expected to do for the rest of the year! Some bands become victims of their success in that they have to tour for maybe three years after the album, which is not particularly conducive to writing. I think the key to writing is to have the time to do it, and in that sense I'm blessed by my lack of success."

'Hotel Shampoo' is out now

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game