Super Furry Animals singer Gruff Rhys is surely one of the most chilled out front men in pop music. Walking into an East London bar with his guitar and a harmonica, he paints the picture of a man at ease with his lot, little in his demeanour suggesting he is actually an intense and thoughtful songwriter. We are meeting over coffee, ready to discuss his new album Hotel Shampoo, tracks from which he has just been setting down for radio.
Over the course of our interview he confirms himself as a man who thinks very carefully before he speaks. At the point of meeting he admits to needing caffeine to keep himself awake, but shows an awareness of his surroundings as we chat. An intriguing song appears in the background, so our preamble pauses as we try and work out who and what it is. With title and artist beyond us, we discuss the new record, billed as a concept album around mini shampoos found in hotels.
“The songs came together separately,” he notes, “and I ended up stealing the title of Hotel Shampoo. It is an autobiographical piece I suppose, and these songs are as well. They cover the same time period as I was collecting the shampoo bottles – the boom years, you know?” He laughs softly. “The title helped me to finish some songs lyrically, ones like Honey All Over and Vitamin K, and I was able to steal and invent fictitious shower gel to help me complete the record. There’s no narrative to the album, so you could say it’s a full on concept record.”
The loose theme is given further credence by some characteristically imaginative artwork, but for Gruff the focus stays on the music. “I like the idea that a hotel should have a band playing piano ballads in the bar. I think this works as a hotel soundtrack, too – there’s a bit of saxophone and a bit of piano there.”
“I thought I should make a piano album for my 40th, not a dubstep record – it felt like it was the right thing to do at the time.”– Gruff Rhys confronts the harsh realities of ageing
Some of Hotel Shampoo is electronic, mind, with Andy Votel guest producer on two tracks. “I recorded most of the record with Gorwel Owen in Anglesey,” explains Rhys, “whereas Andy produced Christopher Columbus and Shark In The Waters. I went with him because I wanted to sample some records, and whilst I was there we put together Shark In The Waters, which came together fast and unannounced. It’s always exciting when something comes out of nowhere, which this one did – it doesn’t happen very often. I think by that point I had done most of the album, whereas if it had been those songs first the record would have turned out very differently.”
His coffee poured, Gruff reflects on the album as a whole. “I enjoy it. It’s fairly melancholy and slow, but if you have the patience with that it’s rewarding, I think. I was trying to make a straightforward record. For the most part it was just to document songs, quite simply.”
Perhaps surprisingly, age played its part too. “It’s more reflective than most of my records,” Rhys states in a measured tone. “I was getting near my 40th birthday; I recorded it when I was 39, so I was aware of middle age advancing. I wanted to confront ageing as well. I thought I should make a piano album for my 40th, not a dubstep record – it felt like it was the right thing to do at the time.”
Ultimately his instinct got the better of him, which he acknowledges with a wide grin. And how was turning 40? “Very non-eventful. When it actually came to it, it wasn’t that bad.”
“I still haven’t mastered narrative in song; I’d love to be able to pin that down”– Gruff Rhys on how he feels his best songwriting years are still ahead of him.
Despite reaching the landmark age, the feeling is that Rhys has his best music still to write. “I think so,” he agrees. “I’m looking to do something with the lyrics. It’s a fine line making melodic songwriting, because a lot of sounds can sound quite derivative, so my ambition is to make something that sounds original. For example, I still haven’t mastered narrative in song; I’d love to be able to pin that down. I tried to do that a little bit with songs like Space Dust #2, and Rubble Rubble, but rather than have a 15 minute ballad, I want to squeeze the information into three minutes. On this album there are a few songs that tell the story in three minutes, but I need to work on it.”
Is that something for the Super Furries? “Yeah, I don’t mind,” he says with a light shrug. “I don’t make a distinction when I’m writing a song, but when we’re recording with the Super Furry Animals it’s very collaborative. The song can go in any direction. What I love most about that is you can take it in a direction you never expected it to go, which is amazing, you know? At the moment it’s easier to do stuff on my own, I’m just taking some time out to live my life a bit and do things at my own pace, which is taking a few months off, and making a few simpler records.”
For Hotel Shampoo he is signed to Turnstile, home of good friend Euros Childs and his own side project, Jonny. “I know him well,” says Gruff, “and am a huge fan of his music. I have probably listened to his music over the years as much as I have Lou Reed and Neil Young. It’s up to that kind of standard for me. He writes amazing songs, and I especially like Bread on the new album. It’s so sincere, probably my favourite song on that album – it excites me on all levels!”
Shortly Rhys will embark on a UK tour, which he describes with typical mischievousness as “a summer tour, but in February. It’s with Y Niwl, the surf band, who will be opening up and helping me play my songs. We’re going to have a backdrop design, a kind of giant postcard, which has just been finished. We’re encouraging people to bring surfboards to the gigs for the experience, for something to hold on to.”
Hotel Shampoo, containing the singles Shark In The Water and Sensations In The Dark, is out now on Turnstile. His UK tour begins in Oran Mor in Glasgow on February 15th, running through to February 28th in Bristol. Further details can be found at his website.