How Rhys Ifans is redefining the actor/musician crossover

Many male movie stars have tried and failed to make it in music – but Rhys Ifans is bucking the trend. Chris Mugan finds out why
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The Independent Culture

Rhys Ifans may be in the headlines for the break-up of his relationship with Sienna Miller, but another ongoing dalliance could prove to have longer-lasting effects. For the Welsh thespian is in danger of giving a good name to actors that join rock bands.

While Scarlett Johansson and Minnie Driver are happy to put their own names on musical projects, their male counterparts need to be part of a gang. Yet no one who saw Keanu Reeves play Glastonbury in 1999 with Dogstar, or who has heard the grizzled voice of Russell Crowe in 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, can kid themselves that these are much more than hobbies. Ifans, though, is going against the grain.

For starters, he could do a lot worse than get together with old mate Dafydd Ieuan, normally drummer with the ever-credible Super Furry Animals. Together they have founded The Peth ("Thing", in their native Welsh tongue), a group now numbering 10 members, which mixes stoner rock and psychedelic pop, a lumpen take on the sound of Ieuan's regular cronies.

Rather than setting up at some trendy Los Angeles club, The Peth have displayed a commendably no-nonsense approach to their debut live dates. They began with low-key venues in the far reaches of Wales, including Bala Golf Club and Llanerfyl Village Hall, before deigning to hit London's hip Hoxton district, while their big festival appearance this summer is at Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons. As for their music, debut album The Golden Mile is far from a disgrace. Ifans is no Gruff Rhys, let alone Tom Jones, but who cares when you get the tempestuous backing and the sumptuous harmonies of some of the tracks.

And in current circumstances, break-up song "Stonefinger" comes with added poignancy. Yet while charming in parts, such reductive material is a retrograde step for Ieuan, known for making such vital music with his usual band. The Peth make even the Furries' debut album Fuzzy Logic sound rippingly futuristic. At the end of the day, these are a bunch of blokes having a laugh, summed up in track titles "Half A Brain" and "69 Fanny Street" (there is a street with this name in Cardiff, though not that house number).

In this way, The Peth are not so different from previous groups that have involved actors. Rather than push the envelope, much of the reasoning for forming a band is to appear down-to-earth while raking in millions. A prime example is Dogstar, where Reeves played took a back seat and played bass in the sub-grunge trio to show how seriously he took the band. In an interview, Reeves bashfully called his decision to play live "a huge mistake", a quote that has since been repeated everywhere. By contrast, Ifans has generally managed not to upstage his bandmates on live dates – despite being the frontman.

Crowe, meanwhile, has fronted an outfit that parlays a particularly Aussie take on pub rock. Crowe had form as a singer. He appeared in Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, even putting out self-penned single "I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando" as Russ Le Roq. He formed Grunts just as he was gaining fame with the Australian film Romper Stomper in 1992, though they did not record an album until he had established himself in Hollywood. In 2005, the band was rebranded as Russell Crowe & The Ordinary Fear of God with a more folky sound, but just as little inspiration.

Ifans has a long way to go to achieve the remarkable success of Jared Leto's hard rockers 30 Seconds to Mars. Leto found fame in Requiem For a Dream and Fight Club, but still his band's second album A Beautiful Lie has gone platinum in the States. Maybe Leto has not made a big enough profile to truly irritate by keeping up two personas: pretty-boy actor and angst-ridden metaller. Moreover, he has yet to match the heights that Bruce Willis reached with 1987's Return Of Bruno. He had just come to fame with Moonlighting and Sixties nostalgia was in full swing – think of Nick Kamen dropping his jeans to the sound of Marvin Gaye.

Willis had a perfectly serviceable voice, just right for a set of soul covers and kitsch originals. Add some genuine talent (The Temptations helped take "Under the Boardwalk" to No 2 in the charts) and you have a winner. With the emphasis on Willis rather than a band, plus the balance directed towards covers, the project was a throwback to a golden age of actor albums.

In the early days of screen stardom, vocal skills came naturally to any self-respecting treader of the boards. They would have started out in repertory theatre, if not vaudeville, so Yul Brynner could play an all-singing, all-dancing Asian monarch, then a taciturn cowboy, while Christopher Plummer could play the capricious Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire, then go on to softly coo "Edelweiss" in The Sound of Music.

As the Sixties progressed, an album of wide-ranging covers became a must-have. Edward Woodward declaimed the lyrics of "Eleanor Rigby", and who can forget Richard Harris's extraordinary "MacArthur Park"? Special mention should be made of David Hemmings, star of Blowup, who deserted London for LA to record a fitfully listenable album of Lee Hazlewood-style folk rock, called Happens!, with none other than The Byrds.

As the counterculture lost its way in the Seventies, tastes turned to more traditional, lounge-based fare, typified by the hapless Telly Savalas. As TV cop Kojak, he had taught Seventies school kids how to suck lollipops and look cool at the same time, but as a torch singer he was disastrous. Yes, "If" got to No 1 over here, but that was no feat back then – The Brotherhood of Man managed it too. A decade on, Willis instigated a brief revival – at least in the form of Don Johnson and the brittle, drivetime rock pop of his album Heartbeat.

Maybe this format can make a comeback, especially as the musical returns with the huge success of Mamma Mia!. Could Pierce Brosnan, after his plaintive version of "SOS", be encouraged to record his own album? With an idiosyncratic take on "Our Last Summer", perhaps Colin Firth – who plays guitar in the film as well as singing – can take inspiration from William Shatner's late-Sixties, overwrought version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds". With recession looming, we could all do with a laugh.

THE ONES WHO SHOULD HAVE STUCK TO ACTING...

Russell Crowe
30 Odd Foot of Grunts were the vocal effects he provided once for a fight scene in a film, and adequately sum up the contribution to pop music made with his Aussie muckers in this pub-rock band.

Keanu Reeves
Wearing a beanie Keanu Reeves tried to look like a regular slacker with his bandmates in Dogstar. Somehow they released two grunge albums, neither of which melted tills anywhere.

Leonard Nimoy
Star Trek's Mr Spock first cashed in with the droll parody "Highly Illogical". When the actor charted fresh courses, he came unstuck as his dry croon lacked emotion, his heartfelt "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" excepted.

Jimmy Nail
Write the series, sing the theme tune was the Geordie star's gambit with Nineties Brit-country series "Crocodile Shoes". Chart-topping hit "Ain't No Doubt" owes its success to him singing very little – though amazingly that one got an Ivor Novello nomination.

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