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.
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.