We live in exciting times, and there is no shortage of interesting people. However, the actual creative artists of our time can grab something that is taken for granted and craft it into something we hold close to our hearts.
You might not think an album about an active volcano in East Asia is pertinent to your life, but that’s about to change. SNACK caught up with Gruff Rhys to discuss his new Seeking New Gods album, mountains, pandemics, language barriers, technology and most importantly, The Velvet Underground.
When and why did you first realise you wanted to make an album about Mount Paektu (an East Asian active volcano)?
I liked the name! I was reading a book that was completely unrelated when I came across the name of the mountain. I started looking it up, and at that point, I had written a few biographical albums about people.
I was keeping an eye out for interesting characters but on the other hand, I thought I had done too many of them anyway. I thought it would be interesting to try something different. It felt kind of silly, and at the time, I felt it was a good idea!
How did it feel when you switched from a factual record to a more personal or emotional record?
I recorded some songs that I didn’t put on the album because they were too specific. I liked the tunes, but there was something unlistenable about it, there were so many lists and dates. It didn’t make much sense, and it didn’t connect very well. The songs that were loosely inspired by the original idea scanned much better.
It’s a record written and recorded before the pandemic hit, but it’s likely many people will find relevance to right now, won’t they?
I think so. It’s a record that doesn’t engage with the moment. I wasn’t worried about sitting on it for a while. I finished mixing it in the summer of 2019, so it’s almost two years old.
How do you feel about the gap between recording and releasing an album?
It’s a bit strange, but I don’t mind. What I find most frustrating is if I can’t record ideas. If an idea gets too old before I record it, I discard it. Also, it’s out of my hands.
With this new record, it’s not engaging in new technology, or a political moment. It’s not like I devised the world’s first NFT and I had to get it out tomorrow, it’s not that kind of record.
From what I’ve read, most of the album was recorded quickly. Did it just come together, and is that usual for you?
I was on a tour when I finished these songs, and I started rehearsing the songs in soundchecks. They came together very quickly when we played live, so I booked a studio at the end of the tour. It was the most practice I ever had when recording something.
Most of the work happened before the recording, and the band was amazing. It took about three days to record the album, and then there was a week of overdubs and things like that. It was fairly fast.
‘Hiking In Lightning’ is a song that makes me instantly think of The Velvet Underground. You’re a big fan aren’t you?
I love the band, and if I went on Mastermind, The Velvet Underground would be my topic.
It’s tricky to sound like them. When you have lyricists like that, it’s almost impossible to mimic them. ‘Hiking In Lightning’ has that John Cale piano which was on The Velvet’s first album, and The Stooges record. It has that drive and lift I grew up listening to, so it finally came out in a song!
The early reviews of the record are positive. Do you pay attention to reviews?
If they are informed, I’m happy. If they’re critical, they’re okay. I’ve had good ones and bad ones, but it’s only frustrating if someone hasn’t listened to the record. That’s all I can ask for. If someone listens to it, then it’s out of my hands whether they like it or not.
While there are many bad points to streaming, it gives people more chance to listen to albums, and make up their minds without reviews.
There’s maybe less places that review albums these days. The album is a format created for vinyl and that technology. With streaming, there is an element of payola with sponsored algorithms. You can’t win either way!
The priority for me is making the music, not the distribution. I didn’t mind piracy; it was born out of enthusiasm for sharing music whereas these giant streaming platforms are essentially piracy with a veneer of respectability. Which is misleading.
Throughout your career, you’ve been innovative with sound and technology. Can you tell me about the immersive listening experience you are looking to offer to fans with the new album release?
We’ve been testing out orchestrated technology that BBC Tech have developed. It’s a way of making portable surround sound experiences. In this time of distancing, you can do it alone, but the nice idea is if people are gathered in one place and have a device, you can do it together.
You’ll get a QR code for the album, and if everyone has their phone in a room, when they click on the QR code, they’ll get a different signal. This will hopefully create a quadraphonic sound in a room, or even in a park, although you’ll need Wi-Fi. One feed will have vocals, one will have drums, and so on.
Is it like a more technological version of The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka album?
Yes, it’s very like Zaireeka, but you don’t need to run about the house coordinating play buttons! That was great as well. It is similar. I’m still working on it, and will do more on it today, and we’re trying to work out if you can do something with 22 phones!
Most of it will be a quadraphonic sound. Most people have a couple of devices at home, or know people with phones; but we’ll look to the extremes too.
You’re scheduled to play socially-distanced shows later this month – How are you feeling about those gigs?
If they go ahead and they’re safe, great; but I don’t mind if they don’t happen. I don’t want anyone to get sick, so I don’t mind if I don’t play. If they go ahead, it’s hopefully for the right reasons.
Did you see the footage of the trial gigs in Liverpool? it seemed like a different time.
I found it weird. I know there was an equivalent in Germany and in Barcelona. I think attendees wore masks at the one in Barcelona. I hope its okay. If it turns out good, great, but after the last year, it looked weird!
Hopefully the tests come back clear, but if it goes wrong, it could be a disaster.
Evidently, Boris Johnston doesn’t give a shit, and in that context, it’s scary stuff.
There’s a full tour in October, including a Glasgow gig at Oran Mor. Is there anything you’ve missed about touring life in the past year?
I haven’t had time to think about it. I’ve been at home doing domestic things. My kids couldn’t go to school so I’ve been looking after them, all day every day. I haven’t had time to do anything but live; but I feel fortunate I didn’t get sick when so many people were having a terrible time.
I love touring, but I didn’t have nostalgia for it. I made the most of being at home, and with my kids. If anything, it made me realise how often I travelled for no reason. Gigs are justifiable, but it’s handy to do interviews like these from home, and it’s better for everyone.
You said earlier that many of the new songs were worked out at soundchecks during your 2018 tour. That’s a big creative force that artists have missed in the past year, isn’t it?
With my solo records, I’ve been getting more into capturing the moment. I’ve made records constructed in the studio with everything recorded separately. In the past few years, I’ve been getting into live recording and then adding a few overdubs.
I’ve moved away from musically using the click track, I’m trying to capture humans playing together in a room. It’s very different, it has a different energy, and it’s impossible to recreate.
There’s a magic to it, for sure. I love electronic music and there’s no rules, but for me, this album is about capturing moments.
The release of the Creation Stories film has got a lot of people talking about the label, and many people, including Norman Blake in an interview with SNACK, named you as one of the best acts on the label. What are your overriding memories of your time on Creation?
It was a rollercoaster for us, it was genuinely life-changing. We were signed at a time when they were a big label. It was wild. I don’t know where to start! I’ve only got positive memories, it was like a dream, a really weird but good dream.
Is the story about Alan McGee praising you but advising you to sing in English, when you had been, true?
Yeah. He came to see us play in a pub in London, we had only played a handful of gigs. We sang some songs in Welsh, but a lot were in English. He couldn’t distinguish them.
I hadn’t sung in English before, I had only sung in Welsh language bands, so I didn’t know how to sing in English at the time.
With Fuzzy Logic [Super Furry Animals’ debut album], when you listen to it, I’m trying out a few accents. It’s a funny story, but he booked us into a studio the next day. We stayed in London, and he put us in a studio in Fulham for a couple of days, so he could hear what we really sounded like!
We recorded a few songs and he signed us a couple of days later. He wasn’t sure what he heard in the gig so he had to verify it. We couldn’t believe it. He came to the studio and said; ‘I can’t make you millionaires, but I’m happy to sign you and put your records out.’
There was a Super Furry Animals tribute album released earlier this year – supporting Llamau, a Welsh based organisation who help the homeless. How does it feel when artists cover you, and what are your thoughts on the project?
For me, a cover version is like the ultimate accolade. I don’t think a band or songwriter can get a bigger accolade than a cover version. To get a double-album of them was mind-blowing. The people who put it together aren’t a big organisation, and they placed a lot of effort into it.
It was mostly recorded at home, and it’s a worthwhile endeavour which raised a lot of money for the homeless charity. That’s a really positive thing for us in the band.
It’s a good collection, and even having someone like Martin Carr on it makes it worthwhile.
He was texting me for translations!
Will there be anything to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Rings Around The World?
Yeah, we are working on the whole Super Furry side. The catalogue at Creation and Sony ended up at BMG. There was a merger between Sony and BMG, and then the Monopolies Commission split them up, and the Super Furries catalogue ended up at BMG. We didn’t know for two years, but we’ve been working with them in recent years, and with Kliph Scurlock, to remaster everything in high-resolution.
The tapes are in good condition, so we’re in that process. We’re doing Ice Hockey Hair for Record Store Day, and once everything is ready, we’ll release Rings Around The World. We’ll release them when they’re ready as opposed to pushing them for an anniversary. We are definitely working on it though.
As we talk, it’s quite strange that elections were held yesterday, but we won’t have results until later today or tomorrow. How are you feeling politically at the moment?
It’s an interesting time in Wales politically, but I have no idea how the Election has gone. There’s a lot of weird things in politics with the manipulation of Facebook campaigns. That hurt Wales badly in the Brexit vote, so I don’t know how that will pan out. There is fewer independent media in Wales, so we’re more influenced here by London media, than Scotland, I think.
The pandemic changed everything here. The people realised there was a clear manifestation of the power of the Senedd Cymru [the Welsh Parliament] that people hadn’t seen before. The border was closed for the first time in six centuries, or something like that!
These were huge symbolic acts and big psychological shifts. Support for independence has doubled and I’ve no idea if that will manifest itself in this election, but politics is going through a big shift here. It’s hard to tell where it will end up, things could get polarised here.
I think there’s still a social democratic majority in Wales even though Brexit and Unionism is having a big influence here. I can’t predict though; we’ll see in a few hours.
There’s a lot of new independent media setting up, on the web, and that’s a positive development. It covers a lot of ground politically, and the campaign for radical independence has their own media. It’s a really interesting time for sure.
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