Stuck In His Own Head: An Interview With Gruff Rhys

The Super Furry Animals man talks to Valerie Siebert about his new album Hotel Shampoo, writing songs for Britney Spears and why he wants Sylvester Stallone to play him in a film

Gruff Rhys quite often refers to being ‘in his head’ – and as such, he notoriously speaks very slowly, pausing for contemplation even in the middle of sentences. This might be a language barrier issue (he’s a native Welsh speaker), or perhaps simply a long-standing character trait. Either way, it makes for labored conversation.

However, when left to his point, Gruff will get there – albeit in, at times, a tangential manner. And he will articulate himself as well as any Cambridge-born post-graduate would, and all with an enticing Welsh lilt and what must be the most measured dry wit in pop. In many ways, he’s actually an interviewer’s dream.

The Quietus are talking to the Super Furry Animals’ frontman about his third solo album Hotel Shampoo and an art installation which he created in conjunction with the record. However, between Rhys’ solo projects, he’s been incredibly busy, not to mention diverse – from his Mercury Prize nominated electro-popera with Boom Bip as Neon Neon, to a noise-protest record with Brazilian artist Tony Da Gatorra, up to guesting on a hip hop track on Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach. With this all in mind, some fans may be disappointed with the pleasant and, in comparison, unadventurous nature of Rhys’ latest record.

Hotel Shampoo, following on from 2007’s exquisitely childlike Candylion, is another collection of delicate, saccharine-laced melodies, but with an idea tying it together – the idea being that his mild kleptomania over 15 years of touring has left him a dairy in the form of an extensive hotel toiletries collection, including upwards of 550 shampoo bottles. These bottles trigger memories in Rhys of his touring days, similar to the memories encapsulated by the songs on Hotel Shampoo. The installation Rhys created to go along with the album is a hotel which he built using his shampoos and actually spent a night sleeping in – all in all, it’s very Gruff Rhys.

You’ve said that these hotel shampoos have served as a sort of diary of your touring life and that the memories triggered by them were inspiration for the album. Would you say that this makes Hotel Shampoo a concept album?

Gruff Rhys: No… I mean, the songs work as a sort of soundtrack to the hotel that I built, but it’s not a concept record.

In what ways does it soundtrack the hotel that you built?

GR: Well I built the hotel from 16 years worth of souvenirs and baggage – I didn’t collect them for aesthetic reasons. I decided after a year or so of touring and being a kleptomaniac that I would collect them until I had enough to build a hotel. And by coincidence, this batch of songs I was finishing off in the last three years was looking back at the same period of time as I had been touring. They’re quite melancholy songs, full of fragments of memory. So I just think they complemented each other – and because I was building the hotel just as I was finishing the songs I kind of stole the title of the hotel for the album and we finished some of the songs after coming up with the title. Like ‘Honey All Over’ could be a women’s shower gel and ‘Vitamin K’ could be some kind of shampoo I imagine. And ‘Sensations In The Dark’ could be a weird, shit hair gel or something.

So with the installation and the album, you don’t think it’s a case of one inspiring the other, but rather a collaborative effort that came together simultaneously?

GR: Yeah, they came to be part of the same thing in the end. But I think the album works independently as well.

About the album: seeing as you’ve got a sort of ‘sweet tooth’ for pop, many of your tunes are melody driven – I imagine that this is what comes first in your writing process – yet you incorporate a lot of experimental noise as well. Could you ever see yourself dropping the sweetness and pleasantries entirely and making a solo noise album?

GR: The closest contender to that sort of thing was the record I did with Tony Da Gatorra, and that was pretty much a noise-protest album. That was very exciting for me, to get to make white noise for a while. Would I do it on a solo record? No… I mean, like you say, I’m drawn to melody, and melodies shape my songs. Sometimes a lyric will drive a melody like on ‘Christopher Columbus’ or on ‘Conservation Conversation’ – where the lyric came before the music and therefore before my musical sweet tooth.

Well, that leads into my next question. Songs like ‘Conservation Conversation’ and ‘Christopher Columbus’ touch on topics like the environment and inequality and both songs also feature music that stands out from the record as being less ‘pretty’, with more atonality. Do you feel you ever prioritize mood over melody? What’s most important to you in songwriting terms?

GR: I often find in my head I’ll come up with a melody first, but if they’re not memorable, I don’t remember them. I have to give the songs time to develop to apply them or put them to a lyric. There’s usually a few days before I’m near a recording machine and if the ideas weren’t memorable then I won’t remember them so I guess in that sense they have to ‘catchy’ in some ways. But occasionally a lyric will come first, and I don’t make a distinction whether it’s writing about politics or writing about relationships – it’s all just general observation about living. Something will inspire me, like a TV show or something I’ve eaten just as much as political thought. They’re all part of life. ‘Christopher Columbus’ is about how a relationship with somebody can be an act of colonization in a way – it’s comparing the relationship to the colonization of the West [laughs], if that makes sense.

Following up the strange video for ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ – which I found to be very Godard-like, most specifically evoking Pierrot Le Fou – is the new music video for the second single ‘Sensations in the Dark’. Can you tell me what on earth is going on here?

GR: Well it’s been shot by the same director, Peter Gray, and he was interested in trying to portray my life story in a video… But he insisted on shooting it in Nashville [laughs] …so he’s taken a lot of liberties. It’s my life story, but a very, very abstract version of it. He had me riding through Nashville on horseback having been led astray by some weird records. The records are represented by a woman who turns into a man… I end up in some weird band. It’s inconclusive and at the end I reach some kind of crossroads. It’s all been shot at night.

It doesn’t make much sense on paper but I think it’s quite funny. It was freezing, quite literally, and I had to ride a horse outside through Nashville on a Friday night and there were lots of drunken people around. So I was shitting myself because I can’t ride a horse and this cowboy sort of guy had to lead the horse while I was on the back of it. But it was good, it was very memorable [laughs]. I’ve been in some unusual situations, but this was definitely the most unusual I’d ever been in. It felt quite far from my daily life.

You said that you set out to record a piano album with Hotel Shampoo but it got away from you. At what point did you realize that the album was veering off course, so to speak?

GR: Well, I was happy it did – that it wasn’t a completely generic piano album. I recorded most of it with Gorwel Owen [SFA producer] and he has a big collection of old synths and moogs and we just had a blast really, overlaying lots of synthesizers and everything. The record took about two weeks to record – it all came together quite quickly. When they make soul records it’s about documenting the bones rather than going for the huge production. I think it still is a piano album for the most part – I think there is a consistent sound and there’s a piano on every song, but it’s not too overdone, hopefully, in that there is lots of other instrumentation as well, and orchestration.

The live shows where you’ve been playing material from the new album have been quite stripped down – often just you, your guitar, a series of loops and a metronome. Is this what fans can expect from your upcoming shows?

GR: No, this tour is going to be very different to the last couple of tours. The opening band are called Y Niwl, which means ‘the fog’, and they’re the highest altitude surf band in the world and they play instrumental sort of post-rock kind of music and they’re going to help me play my solo back catalogue as well. So it’s going to be a full band, so I’m hoping it will be an opportunity to recreate the record, more how it sounds on the record as opposed to my usual stripped-down live show.

How did this hook up with Y Niwl come about?

GR: They’re very old friends, and I was looking for someone to open up the tour. And then I thought they would be great to have on tour, and then I asked them if they’d be ready to play on a few songs of mine as well. They got so into it, you know, we arranged a rehearsal and I was hoping they could help me with five songs, but by the end of the rehearsal, they had learned 28 songs! Which is just amazing. All the songs are played in a surf style, so the shows will be my back catalogue played with a surf feel. What I like about surf music is that there is no language barrier – with instrumental surf – it’s completely universal. I think every culture understands it: just guitar and drums.

On to collaborations – we were blown away by your Field Day gig with Tony Da Gattora. Any chance you two may work together again?

GR: Well, there’s no plan, but it would be great to play with Tony again because he’s been such an inspirational person to me. All his music is about dissonance and protest and it’s very powerful – it would be great to play more shows with him. He actually emailed me today saying we should play Los Angeles together…


GR: Well apparently that’s his dream – for us to play Los Angeles together. So I suppose we’ve got to link that up.

Does the heavily political nature of Da Gattora’s work influence your thinking? Is your work political by nature rather than overtly?

GR: Well I suppose on a personal level, I’m very opinionated politically and that doesn’t always come through in my music. My music usually deals with melodic problems – it’s what drives my songs more often than not. I suppose occasionally my songs or politicised in some way, but with someone like Tony, his whole reason for singing is protest and all his songs are political. He built this unique instrument in order to accompany his political trance, so I guess we’re quite different in that way. But I appreciate his politics and we come from completely different backgrounds so he faces problems that I don’t necessarily have to face, living in Europe. So I won’t pretend to have the same fires that he has, although I certainly appreciate his.

I suppose the ideals behind the collaborations was that music does represent culture and political situations and can intersect borders as it were, you know, which is a very hippy sentiment but was completely here on both our behalf – completely sincere from both of us. It’s personal, brotherly love.

And what about Boom Bip? If you discovered another subject as strong as DeLorean’s biography, would there be a chance of a second Neon Neon album?

GR: Yeah, I mean, the style was so exciting to write and to craft that it would be a shame if we didn’t do something again. Although we are both pretty busy for the time being. But it was amazing to write that album – it was so different to anything I’ve written before or since.

If you did it again, would it need to have another over-arching theme or topic to tie it together?

GR: Oh, absolutely. Once we got the theme, the record came together so quickly and we could have built the record in the studio over about two weeks, and then we spent about two years putting on finishing touches and mixing and getting in guests, but the initial spark was incredibly fast and furious and affecting. So it wasn’t really a matter of finding the time and planning, but the idea, you know. It’s not something we would want to force.

Any new collaborations planned for the future?

GR: No. I mean, the most rewarding collaboration I’ve had is within Super Furry Animals. The Super Furry Animals records are very collaborative as a band. The things that have happened outside of the band, I’ve never planned really. They were just through chance meetings. But mostly it’s about collaborating with people I had never met previously and who sort of invited me to play. I never seek out collaborations purposefully, you know. An exception being getting El Perro Del Mar to sing on Hotel Shampoo because I’d never met her and I’m a big fan of her music. So that was an exception.

What about the Super Furry Animals – will there be another record in the offing?

GR: Oh yeah, we’d love to make more records. We’ve been touring pretty hard for about 15 years and three of us have young families at the moment and I think it needs to be in the headspace when we can all give it everything. When they do solo stuff, it can dictate all this time on tour – I’ve hardly toured in two years because of my kids. I think bands work best when you give it everything, you know. We were often touring for half the year, and it’s not that situation at the moment, but we have to get back to that situation again. We have to make our tenth album. I think anyone’s tenth record has to be completely over the top.

How do you compartmentalise the creative process between all your projects?

GR: I don’t, really. I suppose I’m not very organised. I have enough collaborative songs to make an album now from all different times. But I haven’t had the chance to do it because I haven’t got the permissions from everyone – some record companies are heavier than others. But I mean, some records are very self-contained like the Neon Neon record, which was meant to be a sleek, synthetic record, with nothing organic within it and that was great because Boom Bip was very militant about the direction. It really helped the record. So I suppose that is a heavily compartmentalised album.

But you would say that your other projects aren’t overseen so militantly. Are you more laid-back?

GR: Yeah. Which can be good sometimes, but occasionally it’s not. It suits some records, but sometimes it helps to make something really disciplined; something very clear. But I wouldn’t say that’s a strength of mine [laughs].

Most of the time when someone else is performing your songs, it’s still been done as a collaborative effort. Is there any artist out there who you wouldn’t mind just covering your songs?

GR: I haven’t had much experience of other people covering my songs. I think there’s a couple of middle-of-the-road songs off of Hotel Shampoo that could be… There’s a song called ‘If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)’ that I could see being covered by loads of shit people – I can’t really think of any good ones… Perhaps a good country singer. I might like to hear Shakira covering ‘Shark Ridden Waters’. I think she would be great. It would have to be someone with a real grasp of pop music. You know, it’s weird, because I got asked to write… well ‘Honey All Over’ I actually wrote with Britney Spears in mind. I was asked once to write for Britney Spears and it was a real insight into how pop records come together because I’d had no experience with that at all. I was approached by the publishers who said ‘could you come up with something…’

When was this?

GR: A couple of years ago. And I kind of easily wrote ‘Honey All Over’ as a complete song, and I was asked to come round to the producer’s house and I kind of thought it would be about just playing them the song. But that’s not how they did it. It was rather six to 10 people sending files to each other. It’s like that game where you fold a piece of paper and draw legs and then fold it and draw a body and they don’t always match up. You get different people to do different parts of the body. Somebody comes up with a beat, some producer, and he will email it to someone to write a hook… they were asking me things like ‘Do you have any top lines for this beat?’ and I didn’t understand what they were talking about. And so you just write a hook or a melody or some words, and then they email it on to another producer who adds more stuff to it.

They were saying that they never got to try out my song, but they said they didn’t have anything, so they said ‘OK, we’ll give you 40 minutes to come up with something’. I explained I had a song I’d already written, but this isn’t how pop records are made. I came up with some really crap work and then made up some lyrics and they were really bad and never got used.

So ‘Honey All Over’ was written for Britney?

GR: Yep, pretty much. But I never played it for anyone, I never got the chance to demo it for Britney or anything. I’d saved it prepared as a whole song, but that wasn’t how people work these days [laughs].

That’s incredible! Well, I think it fits better on your record.

GR: Yeah, it doesn’t really sound like a Britney song, I don’t think.

Alan McGee has said that he’d like Rhys Ifans to play him in a film about Creation Records. If that film were made, who would you like to play you?

GR: Ooh, somebody really far-fetched. You know like when you create your own avatar in video games and it’s completely detached from who you really are. Like… who played Bob Dylan in that film recently? Tilda Swinton or somebody… Cate Blanchett?! Yeah! [laughs].

You mean you’d like a woman to play you?

GR: I think so, yeah. Maybe Jennifer Jason Leigh or someone like that. She’s an incredible actress, I think she would do a great job. Or maybe an action hero like Sly Stallone. In fact, yeah, Sly Stallone because he doesn’t speak very fast – always pausing between sentences. And brooding in between the violence. It would have to be someone completely distant from myself. I don’t think I’d have that big of a part in it [laughs]. But my minor walk-on part would be done by Sly Stallone.

Speaking about Creation Records, what are your thoughts on your ex-labelmates’ fate – Oasis breaking up. What do you think of Beady Eye?

GR: I haven’t actually listened to it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. You know, Oasis funded the first three Super Furry Animals records, I owe them a great debt. I was always a huge fan of the label, so it was extremely exciting to get to release records on Creation and they were extremely smart and extremely supportive of the bands and of the musicians. The records were driven by the bands and musicians themselves and too often labels try and interfere with people’s work. Creation was always about giving bands the space to develop and to make ambitious records without any restrictions. So I think I’m extremely lucky to have had the chance to make those records. We were coming up with unconventional plans, we were writing a lot of music that was away from what the music industry demanded at the time, yet the label still let us do it. It was amazing.

Do you think you would have turned out a different songwriter today had it not been for Creation?

GR: I think without Creation, I probably wouldn’t still be putting out albums, in that they were willing to support the band for a long time and I think we would have been dropped by any other label [laughs].

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