THE BEST OF GRUFF RHYS

From glam be­gin­nings to sub­ver­sive sing-alongs via 14-minute epics, we ex­plore one of pop’s most kalei­do­scopic back cat­a­logues.

Q (UK) - - Q Maverick -

1 SEGA SEGUR Ffa Coffi Pawb (HEI VI­DAL!, 1992)

Thump­ing glam-rock from Rhys’s Welsh­language in­die crew. Ever wondered what a Gwynedd-born Marc Bolan would sound like? An­swer: like this.

2 THE MAN DON’T GIVE A FUCK Su­per Furry An­i­mals (SIN­GLE, 1996)

A Steely Dan-sam­pling swear-fest, this be­came the Su­per Fur­ries’ nightly set-clos­ing, anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian, anti-cap­i­tal­ist an­them.

3 DEMONS Su­per Furry An­i­mals (RA­DI­A­TOR, 1997)

Self-di­ag­nos­tic bal­ladry, Rhys-style. “Clar­ity just con­fuses me,” he sings, sound­ing dazed by ques­tions in his head. De­ter­mined, also, not to be crushed by them.

4 NORTH­ERN LITES Su­per Furry An­i­mals (GUERILLA, 1999)

Rhys at the beach. Hawaii Five-O horns meet Caribbean steel drums on this rumquaffing ca­lypso high­light of the Fur­ries’ sun­ni­est al­bum.

5 THE PICCOLO SNARE Su­per Furry An­i­mals (Phantom Power, 2003)

The other end of the Rhys spec­trum: a song about war, “tar­nished flags, ban­ners and body bags”. Iraq was burn­ing at the time.

6 PWDIN ŴY 2 Gruff Rhys (YR ATAL GENHEDLAETH, 2005)

In a stark pro­duc­tion like John Len­non’s Plas­tic Ono Band LP, Rhys sings a love song in Welsh to some­one he calls his “egg pud­ding”.

7 SKYLON! Gruff Rhys (CANDYLION, 2007)

A sur­real mid-air drama in­volv­ing a TV ac­tress, a hi­jack at­tempt, a bomb dis­posal ex­pert and a High Lla­mas string ar­range­ment. For 14 min­utes.

8 BELFAST Neon Neon (STAIN­LESS STYLE, 2008)

A poignant synth-pop love let­ter to the DeLorean car pro­duc­tion plant in 1981, on Rhys’s first LP-length col­lab­o­ra­tion with Boom Bip.

9 SO­PHIE SOFTLY Gruff Rhys (HO­TEL SHAM­POO, 2011)

Some Rhys songs could have been com­posed in Brian Wil­son’s sand­pit in 1967. This light-as-air del­i­cacy would have been per­fect for Smi­ley Smile.

10 100 UNREAD MES­SAGES Gruff Rhys (AMER­I­CAN IN­TE­RIOR, 2014)

A rip-roar­ing C&W pas­tiche, com­plete with yo­dels, about an ex­plorer miss­ing his girl. The mul­ti­ple key changes are hi­lar­i­ous.

their daily bowl of earth­worms and mice. His man­ner is gen­tle. He finds com­pli­ments dis­arm­ing. He ap­pears to have ab­so­lutely no ego. The word “lin­ear” in his vo­cab­u­lary means “tan­gen­tial” in ev­ery­body else’s. Walking around Cardiff with him, you feel like you’re in the com­pany of a kid do­ing his first fanzine in­ter­view, rather than an award-win­ning, mul­ti­fac­eted artist who’ll be per­form­ing Ba­bels­berg at the Bar­bican in Septem­ber with an orches­tra. The Welsh me­dia are fond of calling Rhys a na­tional trea­sure. It some­how doesn’t seem af­fec­tion­ate enough. But let’s go back to that fu­ture film­maker. He or she will start in Bethesda in Gwynedd, in a house full of books and mu­sic. Gruff ’s father col­lected and pub­lished po­etry an­tholo­gies. His mother wrote a po­etry book of her own. Gruff spoke Welsh at home, was ed­u­cated in Welsh, con­versed and joked in Welsh with his friends, and wrote and sang songs in Welsh with the band he formed in the mid-’ 80s, Ffa Coffi Pawb. “I’m of the gen­er­a­tion that was post-post-punk,” he says. “I bought sec­ond-hand psy­che­delic al­bums from Cob Records in Ban­gor. It was mu­sic that might have been dis­missed by the post-punk gen­er­a­tion, but it struck a melodic chord with me. The Byrds. Syd Bar­rett. What­ever records I could get cheaply.” Fas­ci­nat­ing footage of Ffa Coffi Pawb (rough pro­nun­ci­a­tion: Fuck Off, E. Powb) can be seen on YouTube. In 1988, they filmed a video at the Eisteddfod in New­port, look­ing gauche and in­con­gru­ous in that traditional world of pageantry, folk danc­ing and Druids. Rhys, just 18, re­sem­bled a young Jonathan Rich­man. Two days later, he was cat­a­pulted into a very dif­fer­ent kind of cul­tural world, in­tro­duc­ing him­self to a leather-trousered Alan McGee at Cre­ation Records’ all-day fes­ti­val in London, Do­ing It For The Kids. Rhys handed McGee a Ffa Coffi Pawb cas­sette. “He said, ‘Don’t give it to me here! It’s not cool to give me demos in front of peo­ple.’” Seven years later Cre­ation would sign Rhys’s next band, Su­per Furry An­i­mals, and no­body would ever call Rhys un­cool again. We talk about Ffa Coffi Pawb’s other videos. In one of them, they’re bla­tantly in­flu­enced by grunge, with Rhys pout­ing in an in­tense, ex­is­ten­tial, feel-my-pain way. “Prob­a­bly drunk,” he says. There’s one that’s epic and windswept, with the band mem­bers on horse­back. He re­mem­bers that one. “The bassist wanted to have a go on a horse. He was great on it, but a cou­ple of us look ter­ri­fied. They told us, ‘Don’t wear hel­mets, you’ll look shit.’” And there’s one in 1992 where Ffa Coffi Pawb, now sound­ing bril­liant, pay homage to T. Rex’s Get It On two years be­fore Oa­sis record Cig­a­rettes And Al­co­hol. If McGee had seen that video in ’ 92, would Cre­ation have taken a chance on a Welsh-speak­ing, Welsh-singing glam-rock rave-up? Rhys doubts it. “La­bels like Ankst were start­ing in Aberys­t­wyth], but Peel was the only one cham­pi­oning them. Ffa Coffi Pawb put out three al­bums… four if you’re loose in how you clas­sify al­bums. We did 50 copies of one of them on a tape-to-tape ma­chine and sold them for £ 1. We toured round Wales for seven years and then felt we’d hit a wall.” Rhys and the band’s drum­mer, Dafydd Ieuan, formed Su­per Furry An­i­mals a year or so later with Huw “Bunf ” Bun­ford (gui­tar) and Guto Pryce (bass), whom they knew from a Cardiff punk band called U Thant. Cian Ciarán (key­boards), Ieuan’s younger brother, com­pleted the line-up. A new band brought new am­bi­tions, new hori­zons and new ex­pec­ta­tions. Ex­cited by the pos­si­bil­ity of per­form­ing to thou­sands of peo­ple, rather than dozens of them, Rhys be­gan writ­ing songs in English. It was a mas­sive de­ci­sion in con­text. “I didn’t see it as a diss on the Welsh lan­guage,” he in­sists, though he would later re­ceive crit­i­cism for it. “I just wanted to try it. But at the same time, af­ter years of singing in the Welsh lan­guage, to sud­denly have record com­pa­nies queu­ing to sign us, we thought it was hi­lar­i­ous.”

“I’m of the gen­er­a­tion that was post-post-punk. I bought sec­ond­hand psy­che­delic al­bums. The Byrds. Syd Bar­rett. What­ever records I could get cheaply.”

At a ta­ble be­hind us, a man in a loud voice says, “Manic Street Preach­ers.” His com­pan­ions laugh up­roar­i­ously. We move in­side.

The ruddy jowls of Dy­lan Thomas are ubiq­ui­tous in Cardiff Cas­tle’s gift shop, as you might ex­pect of such a prime tourist lo­ca­tion. Rhys, work­ing to a com­mis­sion, wrote the score to a 2014 movie, Set Fire To The Stars, a drama­ti­sa­tion of the poet’s leg­endary Amer­i­can tours of the 1950s. Yet an­other ob­ses­sive soul. Yet an­other mad adventure in the States. Rhys, who has a wry sense of hu­mour, is amused to see Dy­lan Thomas whisky be­ing sold in the kiosk. Thomas drank him­self to death at 39. We get some cof­fee. Rhys’s elon­gated pauses are now stretch­ing towards the two-minute mark. The moods of his face are like length­en­ing shad­ows, from sad­ness to sagac­ity to a slow frown of in­ex­pli­ca­ble con­cern. Mad thoughts oc­cur; lit­tle games to play while you wait. Things That Gruff Rhys Would Be Bad At. 1. Speed-dat­ing. 2. Mo­ti­vat­ing a de­moralised foot­ball team. 3. Work­ing for BT as a cold-calling sales op­er­a­tive. But then there are things that he’s prob­a­bly fan­tas­tic at. 4. Telling bed­time sto­ries to his kids. 5. En­ter­tain­ing an au­di­ence of an­i­mals in Patag­o­nia. 6. In­vent­ing safe uni­verses for fright­ened peo­ple in 2018 to live in. There’s some­thing hu­mane about those clos­ing scenes in Ba­bels­berg. The cou­ple may be burn­ing to death, but look how they have their arms around each other as they pose for their lu­di­crous selfie. Su­per Furry An­i­mals, mean­while, still ex­ist. Rhys won’t be drawn on any fu­ture plans. He can only make Su­per Fur­ries mu­sic when the five Su­per Fur­ries are to­gether at the same time. But he can­not pur­sue a solo ven­ture when the other four Su­per Fur­ries are dis­tract­ing him. “It’s all to do with chem­istry,” he rea­sons. “As band chemistries go, ours is a good one. I’m proud of the fact that very few bands have made nine al­bums with­out mem­ber­ship changes.” Could they make a 10th? Rhys merely points out that nine is not a round num­ber, and that he likes round num­bers. They’re sym­met­ri­cal. And he screws up his eyes and tilts back his head and pauses again. “A mon­key looks up and sees a ba­nana,” the adage tells us, “while a vi­sion­ary looks up and sees the moon.” Well, what’s wrong with see­ing both? Gruff Rhys clinks my cof­fee mug in a “cheers” ges­ture, says, “So, yeah…” and apol­o­gises for his kids wak­ing him at an ear­lier hour than usual this morn­ing.

Have gui­tar, will travel (widely): pop’s Re­nais­sance man voy­ages forth once more.

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