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
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The Independent Culture

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