Gruff Rhys is no stranger to picking up a Mercury Prize nomination. First time round he landed one for the Super Furry Animals‘ Rings Around The World, the first album to be released with an accompanying DVD.
Seven years on, another kind of technological innovation has propelled him into the final 12, this time a much-maligned one as captured by Rhys and his fellow Neon Neon project members.
Their album Stainless Style tells the story of ultimately doomed car producer John DeLorean. Before heading to Japan, Rhys took a brief aside…
It’s only a couple of days since finding out about the Mercury nomination, and he’s still recovering from the frantic press conference accompanying the announcement. “I was exhausted by the end of it, it was a very strange experience – like being in an airport!” Had he known long before? “Well it wasn’t confirmed until that day, the Tuesday, though it was suggested a week earlier that we might have got it. They still had the right to change their mind.”
And was it a surprise? Gruff pauses, something he does a lot in the course of this interview, though it is immediately an endearing aspect of his personality, slowing things down to his own relaxed speed. “A little bit, a little bit. Yeah, although I got nominated with the Super Furry Animals in 2001, I really didn’t expect it this year at all.”
Does it mean the band might prolong their time together? He considers. “We’ve always seen it as an album project. I worked with Bryan Hollon previously on some remixes and vocals for Boom Bip in the past, so we thought we’d make an album. This time he introduced me to extremely different stuff, which turned out to be something totally new from Boom Bip, Super Furry Animals or my solo stuff. When we started the album we sat down, made some demos and started to think of a reason to make a record before we began. We just wanted to make this one off album.”
A languid pause again ensues, before Rhys moves blissfully on to talk of the inspiration behind the album. “Bryan was playing me these beats, but he wanted me to get involved to write lyrics and catchy hooks. The songs he played me were quite different to a usual Boom Bip record. I was trying to think of a way of carrying off the tunes lyrically, and there was nothing I could think of that fitted in with those kinds of big songs.
“Coincidentally we’d got up to Lex records for two weeks and we set up some equipment. Bryan has lots of glossy reference books on 1980s paraphernalia, including the concept cars of the ’80s, so we were looking at these books and reacting to them. It was a recreational thing to make the music, but I realised I could fit his life into song, and within a week I had a book of lyrics.”
Top Gear presenters have tended to be scathing about DeLorean’s achievement, and I ask if tracks such as Sweat Shop were in fact a reverent piss take of the car itself. “That track is very sleazy”, he notes. “My initial idea was to write a song about working conditions in 1970s Detroit, because that was when the car was made, and the initial idea was to comment on the industrial life where he lived. We pushed that song to Yo Majesty and they completely sexualised that song in a way I would never have thought of. I know very little about cars but throughout I was trying to write a linear biographical record. The music is evocative of that era, and the beats are driving.” He tails off, as if remembering something from afar.
So does he have good memories of the 1980s? “No, they’re mostly bad. I think generally it was a very difficult time. John DeLorean, he was more of a ’50s, ’60s and ’70s man, you know. We used the 1980s for the convenience of this record. He invented a lot of the worst aspects of today’s culture in a sense – product placements, obsession with plastic surgery, celebrity culture. His life is like a precursor of the worst aspects of life today, and a lot of those ideas were formed in the 1980s, with a lot of early bad ideas. The cars themselves disintegrated after a while.”
He has, however, learned to love them. “They’re beautiful objects. DeLorean was a great engineer and ideas man. The record turns out to be half a celebration of technology, and half despair, you know – and it’s made like that.”
Rhys’ musical career path has dovetailed with technological developments. “There’s often a lot of exciting things going on, and I think you’re aware that technology isn’t permanent, and often the most exciting things don’t become long lasting, which is OK you know. A lot of it is very disposable, and people move on. As a band we’re always interested in technology and what’s happening but the most important thing is writing songs, making interesting rhythms and things that you could play in a power cut, acappella. As long as you’re not too reliant on technology it’s OK.”
More recently the band have moved back towards a more acoustic approach, exemplified in last year’s Hey Venus album, which begins with the tiny, 40-second miniature, Gateway Song. “It was twice as long initially,” Rhys explains, “with a guitar solo, and we felt it was too self-indulgent. The whole point of the song was almost a jingle for the album. That was partly why I was interested in making the Neon Neon record, and it helped that Boom Bip invited me to make it but he got others in as well, so that I could write catchy hooks for people with American accents.”
Gruff’s work with Neon Neon doesn’t mean SFA life has taken a back seat however. “We started an orchestral record last year,” he says, “though it could have been the year before actually, and we’ve been working on it a while. We’re working on twenty-four hours of recorded music for that one, so we’re editing it down and fitting it into a palatable piece of music. We’re not rushing with it. Then we have got lots left from the songs of Hey Venus, and we can’t decide on whether to re-record them or release them as they are.”
They remain a prolific writing band. “Yeah, though we don’t wanna make a half-arsed record, and do things for the sake of it. The release of the song-driven album is exactly down to how many favourites we can pull out from what we have.”
With this he sadly has to leave, a shame as there is a lot more that could be asked. Yet in the brief time I chat to him Gruff Rhys confirms his reputation as one of the most approachable frontmen in pop – and one of the most stimulating minds.