Many will know the multi-talented Welsh musician Gruff Rhys from his huge success with The Super Furry Animals, but in more recent years he’s trodden his own sonic path, whether forming fascinating and unexpected collaborations with other artists or releasing concept albums based on the lives of others. His forthcoming solo album Babelsberg seems like his most personal record to date.
His melodies and laments to the troubled times we live in are deftly lifted with help of the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the results are sublime. We spoke to him about the inspirations behind Babelsberg, his thoughts on Brexit and whether we’ll be seeing the SFA’s reform anytime soon.
The MALESTROM: Where did you get the album title Babelsberg from?
Gruff Rhys: The name came quite late. I was looking for a name that fitted in with the atmosphere that the record was created in, which was a studio that was going to get knocked down a few days after recording to make way for luxury flats, so I came up with something that would fit.
I was thinking of something along the lines of the Tower of Babel, this idea of luxury that’s all surface, people maybe trying to build towers to heaven and creating something more hellish. The Tower of Babel idea reminded me of this word I’d written down four years earlier when passing a sign for Babelsberg when I was on tour in Germany and wrote it down.
TM: So it just worked for this album?
GR: Yeah, it was a film studio, quite heavy films were made there like Metropolis, it’s got an orchestra there as well, so with the orchestral connotations it sort of tied it all together for me.
TM: You wrote the songs in 2016. Did you just shelve them for a while?
GR: It took quite a while to get the record made. I had a batch of sounds that I thought suited each other, they were finished by 2016, I’d played some of them live, then I was offered some studio time in Bristol. The bulk of it was recorded quickly and then by coincidence I was working with this composer called Stephen McNeff, I was writing lyrics for another project.
I thought his work was phenomenal and I got to sit in on some of his recording sessions, so I thought it could be great if he could arrange the record. But by the time he’d put in the parts and he’d found an orchestra for it, that was another year and a half. Once the orchestral parts were done we were able to mix then create it, it took as long as it had to take.
TM: How important were those orchestral arrangements for this album?
GR: You know it was something I wanted to try out. The songs were quite simple in their raw states. The initial recordings were quite intimate and sounded quite full in themselves, I didn’t want to lose that too much, so the orchestral element of it is mixed quite low in the mix so as to not overwhelm the sound completely. So I think the songs can work themselves in simpler states as well, but I wanted to push the sound as far as I could.
TM: You said it was an intimate recording, it does feel like a very personal record. Would that be fair to say?
GR: Yes it’s a personal record. I’ve done a lot of records that are impersonal in that they’re biographical records about other people like John Evans and John DeLorean. Some of yourself always creeps through as well.
TM: What was your writing process for the songs on this album? Was it different from others?
GR: The songs are quite simple. I’ve recorded much more experimental work in the past, so I had to leave some songs off that just didn’t fit in, cause they were too exciting (laughs). But they’ll be okay for another record.
TM: You wrote the album before the Brexit vote happened and Trump, yet the songs still feel more relevant than ever. Do you feel it still stands up in that way?
GR: I think in terms of rhetoric those things were there already, they were being talked about in the media, although they weren’t a political reality. It wasn’t far fetched to be writing about them. In the meantime things could have gone differently, elections could have been won by different people, referendums could have been… well they were all knife edge results, so they could have gone in different ways.
TM: Your song Architecture of Amnesia feels very current…
GR: Yeah… songs like that were the ones I was most worried about, it could be a different political world which would make me less paranoid maybe, they could have been widely different results and Architecture of Amnesia be redundant, or might not feel particularly relevant. I was worried songs like that were going to age so in a way its good that there was a bit of time to sit on them and listen to them now and again just to check they were still okay (laughs).
TM: Did you have any hand in the artwork?
GR: Yeah, I did a tour of Siberia. I did a residency there. I saw Uno Moralez’ work, he’s a Russian illustrator. I thought the mood of his work would really suit the record, at that point I thought it was a much darker record. I think the orchestral element lightened it up in a good way, made it more positive.
So I commissioned him to do a long piece of art that would fit over a beautiful sleeve. I sent him the album and some ideas about what it was vaguely about and he sent back an image that was completely different from anything I could have predicted, I thought it was great. It really helps me make sense of what the record is about.
TM: Is it in anyway a reflection of the world as you see it with the back cover showing Trump and Jesus and a reptilian counting cash?
GR: I didn’t request Trump on the cover for example, but I think it was a powerful piece of work, I can put a sticker over his face so as not to put people off buying it. After I’d seen the illustration I changed the album’s title cause the scene of all this on the top floor of a dystopian tower block helped me make sense of it all.
TM: How do you feel about the Brexit situation? Obviously you wrote the song I Love EU a couple of years back.
GR: The context for the song was a yes or no referendum, there was no room for political nuance. If you’re talking from a socialist perspective for example, there are a lot of things wrong with the EU, but for me the terms of Brexit were not being led from the left, but rather the far right and it looks like it might leave us in an even more precarious state and create more poverty, and a wider gap still between rich and poor.
That’s not to say that the EU isn’t incredibly problematic on all kinds of levels, especially the period since where the EU have turned a blind eye to what the Spanish government have been doing in Catalonia, which is a frightening precedent for any devolved nations in Europe.
So I think Europe is in crisis for sure, I think Brexit led by the right-wing lunatics that are in charge at the moment is a pretty bad idea and it’s going to leave us worse off than what it’s like today, which is pretty bad. The EU is the lesser of two evils, if something is less evil then it’s probably a bit better.
TM: One of the songs on the album, Selfies in the Sunset takes us a bit further into Armageddon territory, how did that come about? And who’s that dueting with you on the song?
GR: Lily Cole.
TM: The model?
GR: Yeah. She’s an actress as well, and I knew she’d been doing music stuff. I thought she’d be great in a song about someone who’s been photographed more than most people, I thought she’d have an insight into a song about that. I was trying to find something positive in a bad situation, it’s inspired by the time I saw people taking selfies in front of an amazing sunset and I turned around and there was a sunset behind me as well.
I realised that the first sunset was a chemical plant in the distance. I thought maybe this is what the apocalypse might be like, people taking selfies, it’s the end, but at least it looks great.
TM: There’s a distinct feel of 60s French pop with the record, especially with Limited Edition Heart. Was that a conscious decision with a lot of the songs, to create that sound?
GR: Yeah, I’m into a lot of orchestral pop, sort of quite gleeful and if the orchestration goes with the lyrics, I’m well into that. I sent Stuart McNeff a lot of songs that I was into so he just got a sense of my taste, I really like his own work so I wasn’t worried, I was looking forward to being surprised by him. I think there’s definitely some French pop sounds in there.
TM: Who’s been one of the biggest influences on your music would you say?
GR: As a teenager I liked orchestrated records, but I was coming from more of a punk background, I liked the Velvet Underground and suddenly when I started listening to other things like that it kind of changed the way I felt about music in a way, because the lyrics were challenging but the music was really lush. It made me realise there were different ways of rebelling and rebelling can be beautiful as well.
After that I was opened up to pop music, when I was in my 30s a friend of mine gave me a book of Serge Gainsbourg songs, I think there were about five hundred songs, it’s a big brick of a book and I don’t think he was signed till he was in his 30s, that inspired me in a different way. I thought maybe my life as a songwriter was over when I was in my 30s, but it opened up possibilities that I can be really playful with songwriting, maybe it’s not necessarily about youth.
TM: How important is having fun with your music, creating different things?
GR: It keeps it interesting for me, I keep learning from it, I’m still trying to write better songs and find my own voice. When you start out there’s an immediacy to what you do that you can’t replicate later on, I keep trying to change and progress what I do all the time, even if it sounds the same (laughs), I don’t know. But I don’t mind trying things out even if they seem ridiculous, it keeps it interesting for me and hopefully, I’m learning something new that will help another record at some point.
TM: You’ve been around the business for a little while, what’s the most surreal experience you’ve had in music, have you ever pinched yourself and thought this situation is mad?
GR: I try and put myself in those situations, that’s sort of what it’s all about for me. A lot of situations I’ve been in are ones I could never have predicted or planned. The thing with this record is, it took quite a while to figure out how to do it, but after a few years I had an orchestra for a couple of days and with that I definitely had to pinch myself.
TM: How different is your interaction with the fans these days playing your solo stuff compared to your days with The Super Furry Animals?
GR: I’ve never found it too intense. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a household name, that must be extremely hard to deal with. I’ve never worked on that kind of level so it’s not been particularly intense for me, even with a band its fine.
From my experience people who come to see gigs are music fans, I’ve never thought of people as my fans, they’re just really into music, they’re into a lot of different bands and musicians, as I am. I love going to see people playing, I’m just really happy when people come to my gig, beyond that I just think it’s a positive experience that people are into music, enjoying the music, everyone’s always been pretty polite to me.
TM: Have you ever got starstruck meeting anyone from the music business?
GR: Yes definitely. Brian Wilson and Neil Young, people like that. That was a bit mad really.
TM: What was Brian Wilson like?
GR: I couldn’t tell you properly, it was just this really weird situation. I was taken into a room with Bobby Gillespie and Kevin Shields and I remember maybe Jason from Spiritualized was there as well, all to meet Brian Wilson. So it was a bit like a weird dream anyway. And he was going, “are you guys into music?” And everyone was a bit starstruck and sort of nodding and then he said something like, “I hope you get to wherever you’re going.” And that was it. I think someone took a photograph, so it was real, not imagined.
TM: As a proud Welshman, what do you make of the Welsh music scene at the moment?
GR: I think it’s always been good. There’s loads of labels and good music coming out in the Welsh language and English. There’s a Welsh language digital service called PYST, it just started this year, it’s handy for anyone wanting to keep their eye on Welsh language music, it’s all in one place and you can see the new stuff coming out every week, which maybe doesn’t get as much exposure outside their community. Hopefully, that will help demystify it a bit internationally, in that it’s there if anyone wants to hear it.
I live in Cardiff and there’s a load of good things going on, always loads of bands, and there are loads of experimental gigs going on in Swansea with the promoters there called NAWR, their putting on loads of improvised music events. It seems pretty healthy.
TM: You’ve got a show coming up in Edinburgh, could you tell us a bit about that?
GR: When I was touring American Interior I was doing a slide show, just playing on my own. Most of the gigs I’ll be doing for Babelsberg, I’ll be doing with a band. I just want to play the songs, I’m really into the record, so I’m going to do some gigs over the summer on my own and put another slide show together.
I’m going to do a couple of warm-ups in Hebden Bridge at the Trades Club the week before I go to Edinburgh, then I think I’m going to play there for a week, that’ll be fun, I’ll just play a load of songs and show some pictures.
TM: It sounds like a good night. It’s the 20th anniversary of Guerrilla next year are there any plans to get together with the other Super Furry Animals boys and do some shows?
GR: Well, no I don’t think so. We did a recent tour for the 20th anniversary of Fuzzy Logic and we felt if we celebrate every 20th anniversary we’ll have to relive the past in real time. We are planning some more re-issues but there’s no talk of Guerrilla at the moment, I mean I love that record, but there’s a lot of electronic elements to it and it wouldn’t be the easiest to do live I suppose, but I think it’s definitely one of our best records.
TM: Going back to Babelsberg, where do you think that stands among your other solo records?
GR: I think it’s quite different, it’s not a processed pop record you know. I’ve made records that are much poppier, the vocals aren’t processed. I think because it was a melodic orchestral record I wanted to keep some edges on it in a way. If it had no edges it would be too much to take. I don’t know where it fits in, I mean it’s not low key because it’s got an orchestra on it, but it’s just a bit different.
I was figuring out how to sing live and how I could transpose the sounds a bit more to suit my voice so I didn’t have to sing so high. My records are really eclectic and all over the place, I go off on one, what I was trying to do with this record was make a cohesive album where every sound has the same palette so it sounds like one album, that was the main idea.
Gruff’s beautiful new album Babelsberg is due out on Rough Trade on 8th June. Pre-order your copy HERE.
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