Gruff Rhys on Seeking New Gods – how the Super Furry Animal took the mountain to the ocean
Rhys tells all about solo album number seven
All photos: Mark James
It was, as they say, a different time. Back in October 2018, Gruff Rhys took his band on a three week tour of California. Their mission was to knock a series of songs penned by Rhys – sometime Super Furry Animals frontman, sometime solo artist – into shape before heading into the studio.
“We had three weeks before recording when we were doing gigs every night and trying out the sounds live and rehearsing them in soundchecks and things,” he recalls, looking back on this time from his front room back in Wales towards the end of lockdown number three. “It’s something that would be difficult to get into that kind of shape during lockdown.“
His reasoning? Well, after years of releasing numerous SFA, solo and Neon Neon albums (his electro pop project with Boom Bip), he knew the way touring could shape and remake songs. “A lot of records that have been constructed before,” he says, “you tour them for a year and they turn into something else. This way we were trying to get the definitive versions at the beginning.”
The bulk of the album – ‘Seeking New Gods, set to enter the charts at a suitably elevated height this week – was recorded in LA at the end of that string of dates in October 2018, with final touches made in August 2019 in Bristol. “I’ve been sat on it for almost two years,” he admits.
After years of non-stop work in the studio and on the road, he’s been grateful for the pause that lockdown has forced on him. About to embark on a humble caravan holiday with his family for a few days. he says: “It’s a sobering time – I’m just happy to be alive, you know.”
“I think it’s been good for me to be around at home more and not be darting around the place. I’ve had new experiences – like car sickness. Been used to bolting around the place but a few months ago had to drive three hours to film something and I’ve barely been in cars thus year and I was really car sick.”
The seventh solo album he’s undertaken to date, Seeking New Gods certainly hasn’t dated, firstly because the strength of the songwriting, some of Rhys’s most direct and emotionally resonant, and secondly because of the strange space in time it seems to occupy.
It certainly has the full span of generations in its mind eye. The original concept behind the album was a biography of a mountain, specifically the East Asian volcano Mount Paektu.
“I was inspired initially by the name – Mount Paektu,” he explains, “it seemed like a very beautiful name in print. I started to read about it.
“I’ve done a few biographic albums and I thought it’d be quite interesting to do a biography of a mountain, because it’s got much more than the span of our lifetime. It’s a Korean mountain, it’s on the border of North Korea and China. I think the origin story of the Korean people is mased around that mountain.”
But having the idea to write an album about a beautiful mountain and actually writing it are two very different processes. Ever the adaptable, Gruff had to change tack slightly once he actually started putting pen to paper and writing songs.
“I started to write quite a straight biography of it but the sounds didn’t scan, there were too many facts. It didn’t create any feeling at all. So I thought I’d just use it as an inspiration and then write about it in a much looser way. The album is about people and the civilizations, and the spaces people inhabit over periods of time. How people come and go but the geology sticks around and changes more slowly. I think it’s about memory and time. It’s still a biography of a mountain, but now it’s a Mount Paektu of the mind. You won’t learn much about the real mountain from listening to this record but you will feel something, hopefully.”
Musically, he says: “I was going for an electrified country and western vibe, I didn’t want to go for a fake ‘Oriental’ thing. That would have been unbearable, so I went as west as I could and made a Californian hippy record.” While that’s probably a rather drastic reading of the undeniably lush and lovely results on ‘Seeking New Gods’, it’s also true that a certain tinge of subtle west coast 60s vibes does infuse the unmistakable character of the distinctively Welsh tones of the Gruff Rhys voice. It’s one of those records that’s so knowing about its retro touches, and the way it cuts and pastes them together, it can only have been made right now.
We suggest the idea, hinted at strongly on the lead single from the album ‘Loan Your Loneliness’ and its accompanying video, which sees black and white footage tainted with the occasional surreal flourish of colour, of a kind of ;hyper nostalgia’, one that goes beyond the comforting confines of the normally, authentic nostalgic.
“I like the idea of hyper nostalgia,” he enthuses. “The band, we just played live, they’re all live takes, and yes it’s got that phaser on the synths that gives that hyper nostalgia, that’s so nostalgic it sort of stops being nostalgic. The video for ’Loan Your Loneliness’ too – it’s shot in black and white but it’s bursting out into color.
“I’ve just seen the next video, (also by Mark James), it carries on from where the first one ended. We’ve been working on some green screen videos too. Because it was an album of performances, you can play in the middle of mountains or ridiculous places.
“It’s weird. Especially with not touring I suppose videos are a chance to portray the music how you want it to be seen. Do people watch more than about 20 seconds of them these days?!!”
It is certainly strange that these videos should prove to be the main ambassadors for the LP, given that ‘Seeking New Gods’ is based so much around songs shaped and performance. Ever modest, Gruff even says of ‘Loan Your Loneliness’, “I don’t know it’s much of a song but the groove and the way it’s been played has turned it into a good song.”
That said, as we wrap up writing this interview, a quick peek on social media reveals some shots of the stage at London’s Islington Assembly Hall, expectantly awaiting what will be the first Gruff Rhys show – albeit socially distanced – for well over a year of more. We can’t wait to see him back in action, and with this set of songs under his belt we can’t imagine anything stopping him. Not even a touch of car sickness.