Both as a member of Welsh psych-pop hooligans Super Furry Animals and as a solo artist, Gruff Rhys has always combined innate songwriting smarts with a certain curiosity and exploratory nature as well as hereditary pride. In both instances, he’s sung in both his native tongue and English, creating a songbook inherently catchy even when you can’t understand a word he’s singing. No stranger to multimedia (the SFAs released several records simultaneously as CDs and DVDs), his most recent projects have taken multiple forms. In 2010, he collaborated with filmmaker Dylan Goch on Separado!, a documentary about one of his ancestors who was a South American Welsh-singing musician. For his latest work, Rhys once again teamed up with Goch. American Interior, in its filmic form, follows Gruff on a 2012 US tour, on which he traced the path of another distant relative, John Evans, who came to America in the 18th century in search of a Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans said to be the descendants of a Prince Madoc. The project has also produced an album of the same name inspired by both Evans’ story and the tour itself. Never one to not outdo himself, though, Rhys has also published a book about the experience. Additionally, there is also an American Interior app, available in both English and Welsh editions, with material to supplement the book, the film, and the record.
Rhys is currently in America again, presenting a mix of songs and PowerPoint materials to tell how all this came into being. First, though, I caught up with him before his departure from Wales via the phone to ask him some questions.
This project was quite the undertaking. The documentary makes it seem like it was the theater company contacting you that sparked the idea for all this. Is that pretty accurate?
Gruff Rhys: Yeah, I knew of the story, but I had never given it much thought. When I was called in by the theater group, that was the first time I tried to write something about John Evans. They asked me to write some songs about him for a play, though they ended up not using them. Sometimes, something takes years of gestation before it starts to make any sense, and that was the case with this story. I didn’t end up doing anything about it for almost 12 years, but I had started talking about it with friends.
So that was 12 years from when you tried to write the songs for the theater group?
GR: Yeah. I was told the story growing up, but it was about 1999 that I was approached by the theater group. After that, I was touring America quite a lot and I’d go through a town that John Evans once visited, but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do any investigation. Then I was in Brooklyn in about 2011 after I had just finished a US tour. I went to see Eric, my American booking agent, and I brought a map of the US with the routes that John Evans had taken between 1792 and 1799. I asked him if he could book a tour following that journey. Luckily, he was into the idea, so he booked a lot of shows along that route for 2012. I brought my friend Dylan Goch along to document the tour. It was quite an adventure.
Following that route must have taken you to some places you hadn’t played before, I would assume.
GR: Yeah, it was pretty different. I usually just play in large cities, so it was interesting playing in places more rural or cities that I don’t usually go to. I played some reservations and libraries.
What were some of the most unusual places that you played on the tour?
GR: I played at the Beinecke Library at Yale, which is where John Evans’ maps are kept. It was an unusual experience, playing a show next to the Gutenberg Bible. It was the first show of the tour, and I hadn’t done a PowerPoint presentation before, so it was pretty scary to be up in front of academic people. I also did a show at the Omaha Reservation with Kliph Scurlock, who used to play drums with the Flaming Lips, playing with me and with an Omaha band called the White Tail Singers. It was an afternoon show and it was great. And I did a show on the banks of the Missouri River in a vineyard. I was touring in the state of Missouri for a week. I had a great time!
You mentioned playing in front of academics at Yale, but in general were the audiences different than your normal Gruff Rhys fans?
GR: It was really varied. Sometimes I could expect a handful of people to know my records, but in more rural areas nobody had a clue who the hell I was. I quite enjoyed playing to new people. I also picked up some shows as we went along. I love playing shows in general, but it’s also nice to play shows at places outside of the normal concert venues to keep things in the moment and unpredictable.
One thing that struck me about the project was the many layers to it. I mean, you went on tour to follow the path of John Evans, who himself came to America to search for this Madoc guy. And now you’re going on tour to do the record that’s about doing the tour. How’s it going to be different than what was portrayed in the documentary?
GR: In the documentary, I toured with a three-foot tall avatar of John Evans, like a kind of muppet. During the tour, we were filming him and taking photos of him in the landscapes he once walked through and drinking iced coffees at coffee shops. It was like Jurassic Park, bringing him back to life for a new century. So doing the original shows following his journey as an explorer, I only knew the story up to the point of wherever we were on the tour. There was more emphasis on my life in Cardiff and who I was. I introduced myself every night because most people didn’t know who I was and what I was going on about. Then during the tour, I was investigating and the show was always changing as I learned more. At the moment, it’s a much more coherent show than it was three years ago, when it was fairly nonsensical and I had only written five songs because I was writing the songs during the tour as well. Now, I have a full arsenal of songs, I know the story and have photographic imagery of the whole journey.
Doing that last tour, it seemed like in the documentary you discovered more of a Welsh presence in America than you might have originally thought. Do you feel a closer connection to America now?
GR: I’ve always loved touring in America. It’s fascinating because all the nations of the earth are represented in America, including the Welsh, who tend to come to my shows along with the Welshophiles. There’s not so many of them, but I tend to meet them. It was cool to document one of the many layers to America, which is an endlessly fascinating country. It was a great place to make a film because, in general, people were very open to hearing the story.
And you recorded some of the record while you were here?
GR: Yeah, Kliph joined me for about five shows on that tour, and we recorded at a studio in Omaha. We did about nine songs in a day, and I took those recordings back to Wales and eventually completed the album in Bristol with an engineer. The more time I spent on the project, the heavier I realized John Evans’ life was, and the songs I wrote after coming back to Wales were much more downbeat and mournful.
The project seems very historical and academic, but the songs are very personal and emotional. Do you feel like you got to know John Evans on an emotional level?
GR: I can only speculate what we he really felt and there’s no way I can replicate how he lived in the 18th century—living open to the elements, foraging for food, suffering from malaria, and being placed in a dungeon. I feel aristocratic by comparison, traveling around in a nice van. I think he was going through some serious things and there’s many layers to his story. He was a mysterious character and there’s kind of just enough documented to have a general understanding of his life, while everything else we have to speculate on. I find it endlessly fascinating, and I’m still finding out things.
I think there’s a lot of parallels between this and your previous project, the Separado! project. Do you have an avid interest in your ancestry or history?
GR: I consider myself to be from quite a normal background, whatever that means. It’s not a particular outlandish background, but I suppose every family has some tall tales or characters who lived unusual lives. With Separado, I was interested in this character, René Griffiths, who was a guitarist from the Welsh-speaking communities in Patagonia and who is also a distant relative. That branch of my family immigrated to Patagonia to seek a new life in the 19th century. That’s a pretty crazy story as well. I’m not interested in DNA—I think everyone is part of one big human family—but I’m interested in tall stories that seem too absurd to be true.