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Gruff Rhys interview: “Political activists are my heroes. We live in very, very sobering times”

The Super Furry Animals singer on music as an anchor, bringing people together in euphoria, and new solo work Sadness Sets Me Free 

The Super Furry Animals singer on music as an anchor, bringing people together in euphoria, and new solo work Sadness Sets Me Free 

Gruff Rhys (Photo: Mark James)

January can be a time of gloom, of introspection – staying in and not going out. In those times it helps a great deal to have new music to shout about, which we’re doing here with Gruff Rhys. Not that the one-time Super Furry Animals front man is a particularly shouty person, you understand – at least not off record. He is a softly spoken presence on a video call from home town Cardiff, as we start to talk about new album Sadness Sets Me Free.

His eighth solo album, its title reflects a bittersweet reaction to life in its current state – but the more we talk about it, the more positive its impact looks set to be. Rhys is an artist with a broad reach these days, and our chat uncovers just a few of the musical irons he has in the fire. In the early afternoon indoor cosiness he is characteristically relaxed, searching for his words with unhurried candour. There are long, comfortable silences as we talk, usually broken by a sudden, broad smile and a twinkle of mischievous eyes.

Asked about his achievement with the new album, Gruff’s response is typically modest. “I’m still learning, you know? Learning on the job!” His assessment glosses over the observation that he and his band are making their music more instinctively than ever. “I work instinctively, at least I try and stay in the moment,” he says. “I’ve been looking at quite a lot of soundtrack and production things recently, so that’s been a way of keeping things quite new and doing quite a lot of commissioned work, which is quite different to being left alone to do my own music.”

Gruff Rhys – Sadness Sets Me Free

Sadness Sets Me Free is the title of both the album and its first single. “Titles come easily sometimes, and I like the alliteration of it. It was one of those songs where the title comes and then the song writes itself. I felt the whole album could hang around some songs of complaint and frustration. I don’t like wallowing in misery, it’s too comfortable a place to go, but I love the power that music has to bring people together in euphoria. That’s my preferred position, but we’re living in quite sobering times. When I was putting the record together it felt like I should be travelling in a sobering direction.”

One example of that direction is the song Cover Up The Cover Up, whose subject matter is easily discernible and wholly relevant to the current UK political climate. “It could be 10 minutes long,” he smiles. “I was only scratching the surface. I wish there was a verse in there about the military, the pillars of society that need bringing back into democratic hands, you know? It’s how you represent democratic society in a three-minute pop song. It was all I could fit in to a palatable song.”

The song They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper is borne of first-hand experience. “It’s based in Cardiff, and my immediate surroundings – where a lot of cultural spaces have been knocked down by property developers, in tandem with the city council funding department, to conceive big projects that take away a lot of the cultural life of the city. I’m all for innovative buildings, and modernist architecture – I have no problem with it, and I find a lot of beauty in it – but badly conceived plans affect cultural life, on a global scale. There’s a lot of venues in Cardiff and recording studios where we have played and recorded that have now been affected. The studio where Super Furry Animals recorded Mwng has gone, and a lot of places where art, music and dancing happened have gone. I imagine it’s a global problem.”

He is speaking from recent experience, having toured America with This Is The Kit, whose album he produced last year. Has the touring worked its way into the songs on the new album? “I love buying records and travelling,” he smiles. “When eBay and Discogs started out, I wasn’t tech savvy enough to adapt to it, so I’ve never been big on mail order. I tend to buy a lot of vinyl records when I’m travelling and touring. There was a time when I could spot the kind of old mall where all the big chains had moved on, a type of run down mall where you know there’s going to be records! Before the pandemic at least I had a good hit rate, you could buy a box of records in some random shop. They had an influence on my music, no doubt about that – European disco pop from the 1970s, records by Lucio Battisti – and records that I bought completely blind, based on the price or the cover.”

This method of record buying resonates with your interviewer, who approached Super Furry Animals by way of the distinctive Pete Fowler artwork on the covers of singles like Hermann Loves Pauline, Play It Cool, Demons and Ice Hockey Hair. “Pete’s a genius,” says Gruff warmly, “his work is incredible. His work influenced our music, as well. We would start incorporating some of the cultural things he was picking up on and putting in his paintings – different mobile devices people were carrying around. We started to sing about some of the things he was observing.”

One such song was Wherever I Lay My Phone That’s My Home, a song from the 1999 album Guerrilla that still sounds many years ahead of its time. “That was almost a single, we were editing a short version together, but at that point when Creation came to an end and it didn’t end up being released. That was such a fun song to record. I think it was based on a loop of Huw Bunford tripping over a guitar lead!”

The music on Sadness Sets Me Free implies Gruff continues to work in an environment where the musicians have a free rein. “I bring in some exceptionally badly recorded demos of me playing a song on one instrument, or a crude drumbeat with an instrument. What I love about working with Kliph Scurlock on drums and Osian Gwynedd on piano is that they are so good. What I try to do is capture the live moments with them, so there’s no need to build up a recording from scratch. Both Kliph and Osian’s arrangements are impeccable, often right from the beginning, so the recording doesn’t take a long time. For this album we were joined by Huw V Williams on double bass, so it’s an all-acoustic album. We did two or three takes and that was it – and then we toured and refined some of the songs, like Celestial Candyfloss. We played that live a few times before taking it to the studio, and it became super-tight with its arrangements and time signature shifts. Everyone contributed to those arrangements.”

“The pop PR model has been adopted by the politicians”

Other songs grew naturally into their own space. “Some songs we kept and jammed in sound checks, but we wanted to keep songs like Cover Up The Cover Up and I Tendered My Resignation quite improvised. They were long jams that I edited down into tighter songs. I Tendered My Resignation had twice as many lyrics, but weirdly made more sense as a shorter song. We left space and encouragement for everyone to play and help shape the sound.”

He also has a very strong musical rapport with Kate Stables, the This Is The Kit singer – with the two having now appeared as guests on each other’s albums. “I think I learned more from working with her than vice versa,” he says generously. “It’s been really amazing to witness them putting that album (Careful Of Your Keepers) together late in 2022. They are an incredible live band and group of musicians, and all I looked to do was support them in their decisions to make the record that they wanted to create. The recording was in Paris, where Kate lives, and I asked if she would be interested in doing some singing for mine. Her voice is incredible, and her passion for music too. She’s seeking out music all the time and is part of a really wide musical community that she brings people into and feeds into herself. It’s really inspiring, and what music should be about.”

Almost as our interview takes place, the departure of Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, is announced. “I follow politics like pop music,” says Gruff, “because the pop PR model has been adopted by the politicians. I can’t keep up with the news cycle in terms of commenting on it – I’m a slow mover in that sense. I prefer songwriting as a response, and it’s a slower medium, but I’m able to apply myself better to that, and clearer – otherwise it becomes a kind of vocation. Political activists are my heroes, you know? I’m not very effective as a political activist, and I suppose I try and channel it into songs. We live in very, very sobering times, and I don’t want to sit on the fence, either.”

Are there songs that don’t get recorded, because of the sheer amount of news there is to respond to? “With a song like Cover Up The Cover Up, it’s kind of on the nose but not on the nose enough – I need to write part two. I feel restricted that I didn’t go further, but I hope it’s playful as well, like it could be mistaken for a ballad. I hope there is some subversion in it.”

“A lot of places where art, music and dancing happened have gone. I imagine it’s a global problem”

The message, subtly conveyed but clear at every turn, is that Sadness Sets Me Free is a record with a positive undercurrent, a record tackling difficult subjects that keeps smiling in spite of them. “I hope it’s optimistic,” says Gruff, “with a grounding in realism. I suppose optimism is one of the best traits of new music.” He agrees music is more important than ever in the current climate. “Language is going into more and more absurd places, and the contradictions in politics are so astounding that music seems like an anchor that we know we can cling on to and understand.”

Alongside Gruff’s new album is the first release from his Super Furry colleagues who, with the addition of Rhys Ifans, are now known as Das Koolies. The two records complement each other – Gruff’s wistful, tuneful pop music placed alongside their amplified, guitar-driven material. “I know their genius close up, and it’s very powerful music,” he observes. “The live shows are going to be magic.”

Both forces are extremely fluent in their use of different media and arts. “On this record I was working with Mark James, who started working with Super Furry Animals on Mwng, and the layout and graphics were done in conjunction with Pete Fowler, but Mark’s been doing the Das Koolies artwork as well. I love working with him, we can go really deep into an idea and develop it into a way that usually comes out totally unexpected to both of us. We go on a journey to figure out what the record is about, and how to portray it, and this time we came to the conclusion that singing Sadness Sets Me Free in a shipping container that was lost in space was the way to go. We never would have conceived that at the start. With the record being acoustic – string quartet, piano, double bass, drums etc, I had to make sure there was wooden element to the sleeve, so there’s wood panelling all over! I wanted it to look like a really bad 1980s country music album.”

With everything going on around him, what is the secret for keeping his head open for new songwriting ideas to arrive? “I let them arrive gradually,” he explains. “In the past I could work on things immediately, but I’ve got kids now, so I have to arrange time now and again to collect ideas together, and finish them. In terms of the beginning of an idea I just let them come very gradually, and not to force anything. I don’t have a particular working space, it’s more about the time than the location.”

He waves a cheery farewell, and all seems right with the world again. Sadness does indeed set us free.

• Gruff Rhys’ album Sadness Sets Me Free is out on 26 January 2024 through Rough Trade. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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