Interview: Gruff Rhys
Gruff Rhys is nothing if not unpredictable, and his latest project is a solo album inspired by his collection of 555 hostel shampoo bottles. PAUL COOK chats with the Super Furry Animals frontman ahead of his Norwich Arts Centre show.
555 bottles of shampoo or shower gel, 28 sewing kits, 22 razors, 26 packets of shoe polish, 36 toothbrushes or paste, 121 shower caps and eight sanitary bags, 27 combs or brushes, five pairs of slippers, 13 nail files, one badge, one bottle of olive oil and two keys.
That's the collection of hotel clutter, gathered during 15 years of touring, that have provided the inspiration for the third solo album by the ever-eccentric Gruff Rhys.
A return to his lush psychedelic pop roots, its the most ambitious album yet from the Super Furry Animals main-man. That's quite something from a man who's expansive range of creative work includes Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, his Welsh-sung solo album, and his collaboration with electronic artist Boom Bip, which resulted in the Mercury prize-nominated Stainless Style, a concept album based on the life of DeLorean Motor Company founder John DeLorean.
Then there was The Terror of Cosmic Loneliness, a record he made last year with a Brazilian TV repairman called Tony Da Gatorra and his filmmaking debut with Separado!, a documentary about a trip he made to Patagonia in search of members of his family, whose ancestors had emigrated from Wales in the late 19th century.
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Your new album Hotel Shampoo is inspired by your career travelling the world as a musician. What sorts of jour-neys and experiences in particular have inspired you?
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I think the album is very impressionistic, there's nothing too literal based on any one event. A lot of the songs are inspired by art and observation. My dad told me never to take anything too literally so the album is pretty abstract I suppose. I've been working on it for a few years now and it's just really simple, not much production. The album was recorded really quickly and I think it's quite an immediate collection of songs. It all came together during the time I was building the exhibit when it was all fresh in my mind. I think making the exhibit helped shape the songs in my head.
Why did you start to collect items from hotels?
Having never kept a journal these items have become like diary entries, triggering memories of all those buildings and random people I've met and inspiring songs on the album.
You recently created a physical manifestation of Hotel Shampoo at Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre. How did that go? Have you always been into art?
It went well, it was just a three day event and I got all the bits and bobs I had collected over the past 15 years and put them
all together in one space and built a miniature hotel out of them. I had been wanting to build it for years and I finally realised
there was enough stuff in my house to put it all together. When I'm not touring I lead an extremely normal life, I've got kids and live in a terraced street in Cardiff but when I go touring it's exciting and I pick up lots of things, especially if it's free.
The album is quite a diverse collection of pop songs. What was the thinking behind it?
I thought that as I'm getting on a bit, the time had come to buy a suit and record an album of piano ballads. How-ever, I got bored, the record diversified and evolved — things turned out a bit differently.
It comes out on Valentine's Day. Is there any significance in that release date, are the songs romantic songs at all?
That's a coincidence, actually. I hope the songs are quite universal, although they're personal songs they're based on universal themes. I think that was just a quiet week to release it really!
Last time you played in Norwich was in 2007 at the Arts Centre, do you enjoy playing in Norwich and do you have a strong following in the city?
I like playing at the Arts Centre because there are some good record shops along that street and I picked up some good records last time. I also bought some gooseneck microphones from one of the music stores there, which make every show look like a press conference! I'm bringing a band with me in February called 'Ynwil' who are friends of mine from Cardiff so I'm sure they'll be doing a bit of shopping along that street with me. Also, it's always a really warm crowd in Norwich so I would definitely consider it one of the nice places to go. We actually made a futuristic film on the university campus there. We used it as an intro to our shows for a few years.
Do you find touring as a solo artist different from touring as part of a band — and are your band projects still on-going?
Well, playing with the Super Furry Animals is different because it's such a huge sound and we've been together for 15 years now. The solo work is a completely different thing really, it's a nice change to tour solo and play a completely different set. It's good to prevent fatigue setting in too and I usually get sick of my own songs. When we started out as the Super Furry Animals we made a pact when we were making the first album never to split up so not going back to the band is out of the question really.
n Gruff Rhys plays Norwich Arts Centre on February 20.
n Hotel Shampoo is out on Monday.
n Further listening: www.gruffrhys.com