Full Interview with Gruff Rhys

On October 16th, Gruff Rhys joined our broadcast of Eclectic Kettle. We abridged the interview for airtime, but here's the full version, along with a transcript. Remember, you can win tickets for Gruff's October 23rd show at The Chapel in San Francisco here. Enjoy! Thank you to Leslie Hampton at The Owl Magazine for co-ordinating this interview with us.

Ben Ward: Hi everyone, this is Ben Ward of BFF.fm's Eclectic Kettle. You're listening to a special extra release that we're putting out this week, which is my full interview with Gruff Rhys. Lead singer of Super Furry Animals and currently on tour promoting his new album “Babelsberg”.

He'll be playing here in San Francisco on October 23rd; this coming Tuesday. We played parts of this interview on Eclectic Kettle on October 16th. This is the fuller version where we discuss his tour, the recording of the album and the efforts that went into the product that really defines the sound. We reminisce about his previous appearance at The Chapel which he remembers well. We also discuss his recent more politically pointed songs about Brexit and the National Health Service in the UK, touching on his songwriting philosophy and motivations, and inevitably get a bit stuck in on Brexit as we despair.

I want to say a huge thank you to Leslie Hampton, who's guest -DJ'd on Eclectic Kettle before with me. She's over at The Owl Magazine and was instrumental in helping us put this interview together. Check out theowlmag.com for their show previews and other coverage.

Finally, BFF.fm has two pairs of tickets for Gruff's October 23rd show to give away. Check out BFF.fm for giveaway details. It's trivially easy for you to enter! I hope you enjoy the interview, I hope you enjoy his show. Remember, the album is Babelsberg it's out now.

And you can listen to listen to more great community radio here from the heart of San Francisco at BFF.fm.

[Sample of Oh Dear! by Gruff Rhys, from Babelsberg.]

[Phone ringing…]

Gruff Rhys: Hello?

Ben: Er hello, Gruff?

Gruff: Hello!

Ben: Hi! It's Ben Ward from BFF.fm here. Is now still a good time to talk?

Gruff: Yes! Sorry, I completely forgot but it's great!

Ben: Oh, good! [laughs]. I'm British, obviously, but I'm calling you from San Francisco. Because you're playing here on the 23rd, I think that's right.

Gruff: Yeah, yeah. Ah, great!

Ben: And you're in DC now?

Gruff: Yeah, we're on the way to DC. We've just driven past Baltimore, and I'm sat in the van and we're headed down the road to Washington. And we were just discussing the Washington antique grid system.

Ben: How long have you been on tour now? About a week over here?

Gruff: Yeah, we've been in North America, but we did a couple of Canadian shows and we're just heading down the east coast, and then we're going to start to go west after tonight.

It was particularly memorable at The Chapel. It was so much fun, people really got involved. I think there were quite a few people on stage by the end.

Ben: Wonderful. I was looking at the dates and you've got the San Francisco show and then LA and then that's the end of the tour. Are you even thinking about that much at this point? Or do you just take every date as it comes?

Gruff: No, it's very exciting to hit the west coast, and y'know the set will be… I can't wait to see how the set will have developed. We've been rehearsing some new material on the road and it's quite exciting and it's changing every night.

Ben: Ah, that's great.

Gruff: Yeah, we're looking forward to bringing it to The Chapel.

Ben: Yeah, and you played The Chapel last time you played solo. The Super Furries were in town a couple of years ago. Actually, Super Furries played on my birthday two years ago, which I appreciate very much…

Gruff: Oh wow! Amazing.

Ben: That was a nice present for me. But you toured American Interior two years before that, also at The Chapel. Do you have particular memories of the venue?

Gruff: Yeah, it was my favourite show of that tour. I started introducing historical re-enactments into my shows and I think that was the high point of that endeavour. It was particularly memorable at The Chapel. It was so much fun, people really got involved. I think there were quite a few people on stage by the end.

Ben: Yes, there were the two people performing with …the puppet, I remember.

Gruff: Yeah. They were taking the role of various historical characters from the 1790s.

Ben: [laughs] Is there anything… because I guess you're only going to be in town for a day is there anything you're looking forward to seeing in San Francisco when you make it here?

Gruff: Yeah, I usually, in the Mission, err, I'll be trying out probably lots of good galleries and stuff. [inaudible] is up there. And erm, I'll go see if they've got something on. And err, yeah, there's lots of interesting things in that area. I've never been to the LSD Museum, I might do that.

Ben: I wanted to chat to you a little about the new record, which obviously is why you're here. I've listened to it a lot, I really love it. One of the things that really struck me is that you've got a very recognisable voice and songwriting style. Something I really admire is that each of your solo records over the years has a pretty unique vibe. They really seem to stand out from one-another. This one's been really widely praised for the string arrangements and evocative sounds of the 60s like Serge Gainsbourg, Scott Walker and Lee Hazlewood, all wrapped up in that production. Do you approach each project with an intention to find something that's so new and different?

I'm worried about writing the same song over and over again. I want every album to have a distinct character. I try to find a way of keeping it new, for myself at least.

Gruff: Um, yeah inevitably. It's something I, I want every album to have a distinct character. I suppose my ambition with this record is to try and make a whole album out of the same structured palette and try to stick to that, and try not to go off on too many tangents in a way. That's my downside in the studio; I get overexcited! By the end it was very disciplined… I mean… I suppose songwriting's quite a slow-moving medium. I'm worried about writing the same song over and over again. I try to find a way of keeping it new, for myself at least. It's not a particularly experimental record but I hope lyrically it engages a bit with the present day so there is some relevancy to exist today [laughs].

Ben: Yeah. It has these darker, bleaker lyrical themes throughout it than have jumped out of your previous records. I was actually back home in the UK a few weeks ago and I caught a little of your interview on the BBC [BBC 6Music] with Mark Radcliffe.

Gruff: Ah yeah…

Ben: And he, um… You remarked there, talking a little bit about how he sort-of said it's a darker record. And you pointed out that actually with the arrangements — with the strings — it comes out sounding actually quite uplifting and optimistic.

When you started, did you have any idea you wanted it to end up like that? Was it working with Stephen McNeff that revealed that to you? Did you have to be persuaded to go in that direction?

Gruff: Yeah, I mean when I was recording it I didn't have… err… I just got a call from a producer called Ali Chant in Bristol, who I'd recorded with previously, he said “if I wanted to make any records, the studio's being knocked down in a few weeks”. So I'd played some of this material with Kliph and Steve who play on the record and the previous tour. Osian has played piano on my previous two albums now and I, we rehearsed a bunch of songs we'd been putting together and went into the studio for a few days and it was always my intention to add a certain amount of arrangement but, coincidentally I was working with a composer called Stephen McNeff. I was writing some lyrics for him for a different project and I sat in on one of the recording sessions which was incredible. So I immediately passed him on the files of the sounds I was working on.

But anyway, because there was no studio pressure I just kinda pursued the record until it was finished rather than rush it. It took a couple of years.

Ben: So it gave you space to explore that bigger sound?

Gruff: Yeah. The songs are intimate, but they're pretty much live takes for the most part. I spent time on vocal, but not to an extreme. And then Stephen arranged the orchestral element and they played live to the previous recordings.

Ben: Oh, interesting…

Gruff: So, although there's a lot going on it was fairly simply recorded in a way and not particularly polished. There's still some damage there!

Ben: That's really interesting because I was going to ask, erm, and this might not be much of a question now, but given that you're back on tour and you're not going to fit a 72 piece orchestra into The Chapel — although I would like to see that — whether there's been any change to the music or evolution of what you're doing scaling it back down to tour. Because you're touring with a band this time, right?

Gruff: Yeah, it's the same band who played on the record. It's Kliph Scurlock on drums, Osian Gwynedd on piano, Steve Black on bass, and that's the core of the album and they've allowed this thing to remix. And I suppose the challenge with mixing the album was fitting a symphony orchestra into what are very intimate songs, intimately recorded songs. So we had to kinda tone down the scale of it. So, it sounds remarkably full. Osian's piano parts kind of fill the space to the point where we don't need any kinda “canned” orchestral stuff. And it's continuing to evolve. We're stretching out different bits.

I've rarely been able to play my studio albums live immediately after recording them. But because of the live nature of the recording, [this one] really lends itself to playing live. There wasn't much studio trickery on this particular record, as opposed to my other records that have a lot of studio experiments.

Ben: That makes sense. So do you feel that the live sound goes back to more resemble some of those original sessions or is this something altogether new?

Gruff: No, they're very similar to the original sessions. I think we're going to try and release those early versions at some point in the future. They sound great and completely different.

And now and again we're able to do some orchestral shows. We have the scores and whenever and orchestra is interested we can do an orchestral version.

Ben: Right, because you played it in Manchester no long ago, right?

Gruff: Yeah, we're done a version in Cardiff with the full symphonic orchestra and then we've played with some smaller orchestras in London and Manchester. We have the manuscripts now, so if anyone's got an orchestra, call us up! [laughs]

Ben: [laughs] We'll put out the call.

I wanted to ask you about a couple of other pieces of music you've put out fairly recently. One of the things that over your career and history with the Super Furries as well you've grown into writing songs with clearer and clearer social commentaries. I've been thinking a lot about Presidential Suite [from Super Furry Animals album “Rings Around The World”] recently, with Brett Kavanaugh and Ken Starr in the news. But in the last couple of years you've written I Love EU and recently you put out No Profit in Pain which strike me as being a step into writing songs with a really overt political message. Was there something that drew you into that specifically, or artists that inspired you to be more direct? Did that just happen?

Gruff: Erm, with I Love EU, I just happened to write the song. I mean, it's a really bad play on words. But I felt there was a song there. Sometimes when you have a simple lyrical idea the song almost writes itself in a very short amount of time if you run with an idea. It's just one of those stupid songs that I was able to write in a few minutes and then… I kinda had no intention of writing it. Y'know, there's a lot of downsides to streaming services, obviously, but one of the more interesting aspects of it is that you're able to release music almost immediately. There was a referendum going on and very little engagement in the referendum from my peers, I think. Because it was a kind of referendum whose agenda was being set by conservative politicians and right wing politicians and understandably a lot of sane people didn't want to touch it! So I was also worried that there was very little engagement…

I felt there was nobody making a cultural argument [for the EU].

Ben: The thing I really appreciated about you recording that song… Because, I watched the referendum living over here in the US. I went and registered to vote, I voted in it, my constituency is back in Cambridge.

Gruff: Yeah

Ben: But, it was really brutal watching that happen from so far away and feeling even more disconnected from… y'know… trying to stand up for, y'know… standing up for the principal of being in Europe and for all of its… it has some flaws as an institution and so on and so on but…

Gruff: Absolutely, yeah

Ben: …Actually being closer to our continental neighbours is actually a good thing. Watching the campaign, the thing which really upset me was you had all these voices who were anti-Europe and angry and active and then you had a whole load of voices that were just, sort of passive. And there were very few people standing up to actually say: “Europe is good.” It was this idea of “we should leave” or “we should just shrug our shoulders”. There were very few people saying let's actually be proactive about this.

Gruff: Yeah. I felt there was nobody making a cultural argument and that the set tone by people leading the remain campaign was playing alone with the kind-of anti-European xenophobia to the point that the song seems almost confrontational to say something as daft as “I love EU!” [laughs] Pathetically confrontational. When I've sung it live I've been singing “I love EU …with caveats.”

Ben: [laughs]

Gruff: You know, everyone has different views on what the EU should be. It needs to be democratised. It could become a socialist EU, it depends on what scale your ambitions are. I've got a lot of time for the left-wing argument for leaving the EU but I don't think the tone or the terms of the referendum were set by the left. They were kind-of led by the hostile right-wing media, in a time of crisis in Europe. With a big crisis in movement of people from war-zones in the Middle East and northern Africa that were partly caused by European intervention in the first place.

Ben: Yeah…

Gruff: I kinda feel it's a really bad time to be leaving the EU.

I don't think I'm a protest song writer in particular. I'm motivated by melody and rhythm and word-play.

Ben: Yeah, I agree completely. With that song and with the NHS song, was it cathartic to put together those songs? Is it more motivated by trying to spread that message? Do you think of them as protest songs in that classical sense?

Gruff: I mean, I don't think I'm a protest song writer in particular. I'm motivated by melody and rhythm and word-play. And occasionally politics affects my daily life and they'll creep into song.

I was commissioned to write a song to celebrate the 75th [anniversary] of the NHS and, you know, it's had a profound impact on my life. It's a kind of commission request that would be impossible to turn down. Y'know, to not agree to help celebrate it would be… it wasn't an option for me. But having said that I only wanted to do it if a decent idea came of it. I played around with some ideas and something came quite naturally. So I was happy to do it and I thought the song was valid, in fact I think I would have written it anyway. It would have been slightly less explicit maybe but it felt justified… just some kind of justification of existing.

Ben: Yeah…

Gruff: But again I like these kind of flippant songs that I can release.

Ben: In “No Profit in Pain”, I love the little set of lyrics that calls out Richard Branson and Virgin Health. Because there's something in… the lyrics jump with recognisable words so you're like “wait, what?”. But it's the fact you're referring to this nuanced and not very well known, not well publicised threat to the NHS with the shadow privatisation, and the fact that you managed to highlight that there in a lyrically playful way, I admire that a lot.

Gruff: [laughs] Weirdly we've just passed an ambulance here in DC that's broken down. And it's been picked up by one of those — what do you call them pick-up trucks? — by a tow-truck. Kliph to my left is just commenting that I hope there's no-one in the ambulance. The sirens were still flashing…

Ben: Oh…

Gruff: I hope they're OK.

Ben: Yeah. That's calamitous.

I'm conscious that I don't want to take up too much more of your time but if I could just ask a couple more things just to sign off. Going back to Babelsberg, is there a particular favourite track on the album that you'd like us to play on the radio show on Tuesday night?

Gruff: Yeah, I dunno… I haven't heard “Oh Dear!” on the radio. I'd be intrigued to hear what the third track “Oh Dear!” sounds like.

Ben: All right. Would you be kind enough to introduce it?

Gruff: OK. My name is Gruff, and I'm going to introduce you to this song from the LP “Babelsberg”. It's called “Oh Dear!”.

Ben: That's great, thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure to talk to you.

Gruff: Thank you.

Ben: Thank you so much for taking the time.

Gruff: No! Thank you.

Ben: I wanted to… it means a lot to me. Super Furry Animals was the very first live show I ever went to in my life. I was sixteen. My Dad took me.

Gruff: Oh wow. Wow.

Ben: It would have been the Guerrilla tour at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. And, um, one it was a really good first show, but I feel like I owe a great deal of my love of music to you and your band.

Gruff: Wow.

Ben: So to get to talk to you is a real honour for me. So, thank you so much.

Gruff: Ah, thank you very much. Ah, that's mind blowing. Thank you very much. And yeah, I love the Corn Exchange in Cambridge.

Ben: Yeah. For a small city I saw so many good shows there growing up.

Gruff: Yeah.

Ben: It punched above its weight.

Gruff: Yeah, I think we played there three or four times.

Ben: Well, thank you again. I hope you have a great show in D.C.

Gruff: Thank you.

Ben: I will try to come and say hi when you're here in SF; try and catch you at the merch table.

Gruff: Ah, thanks so much. I'll check out the show if it's on the internet. Amazing.

Ben: Well, great to talk to you. Have a great day. Have a great show.

Gruff: And you, ta. Thanks so much. OK, take care.

Ben: Thank you, bye now.

Gruff: Bye!

Ben: That was Gruff Rhys in conversation with me, Ben Ward from BFF.fm's Eclectic Kettle. His record “Babelsberg” is out now, his show at The Chapel here in San Francisco is on October 23rd. You can check out BFF.fm to win one of two pairs of tickets that we're giving away for that show.

Thank you again to Leslie Hampton at The Owl Magazine for helping set this up. And you can tune in to more episodes of Eclectic Kettle by swinging by BFF.fm/shows/eclectic-kettle to listen to the archives, or we're broadcasting live at 8pm every Tuesday night.

Tune into BFF.fm, streaming online any time for great, local community music radio here from the heart of San Francisco. Thank you very much for listening, have a great day.