RedHanded meets Gruff Rhys
RedHanded was lucky enough to catch up with Super Furry Animals front man Gruff Rhys before his next tour. Gruff told us about his latest solo project, American Interior, and his adventures across the modern day USA to discover more about John Evans, a famous Welsh explorer who went in pursuit of his own American dream in the 1790’s.
You’re back in Wales after another visit to the States. You’re there quite a lot these days. What’s the appeal of the US?
Gruff: I like travelling there; there’s an interesting energy and the people are really friendly. And I really like American music too. The place is so massive! And there are so many breathtaking landscapes there too.
What’s the story behind your latest project?
In 2006 I did a tour with the director Dyl Goch as we filmed a documentary about Rene Griffiths, the Welsh-Patagonian singer-songwriter, called Seperado, where we went through Brazil and Argentina. After this I wanted to make another film, but this time about John Evans.
We decided to make a film about Evans’s expedition between 1792 and 1799. I organised a tour following the same path that John Evans took. Evans had gone to America in search of Madog's disciples. (Note: Madoc, otherwise known as Madog ab Owen Gwinedd, was a legendary prince of Welsh and British folklore. The story of him discovering the New World in the 12th century was once used by the Elizabethans in an attempt to justify their claim over the Americas.) According to the history, Madog had sailed to America in 1170. So I went on the tour and Dyl came to document my journey.
You’ve gone to a lot of effort researching Evans. What was the attraction with him as a character?
That historical period and John Evans are both very interesting. Evans was an extremely determined man and his story and what he managed to achieve during his short life is unbelievable. Because this story took place in America, it was rather strange re-telling it to Americans. In a way, the film follows me trying to explain John Evans’s story to people that don’t know a lot about their own history - or that much about Wales. It was quite an adventure to say the least. It was an interesting process because I had the chance to discover more about American and Welsh history – it was a revolutionary period!
Were there any interesting characters on your journey?
It was great meeting Edwin Benson. Benson was the last existing speaker of the Mandan language. The Mandans were one of the native tribes that John Evans had spent time with - John Evans would have heard the Mandan language being spoken. It was very sad learning that there was only one speaker left. That interview was quite touching and left a real impression. Your working relationship with Dyl Goch seems to go quite well.
What kind of guy is Dyl to work with?
Dyl’s an amazing guy, he’s very good at speaking to people and he’s a very friendly guy. He’s got amazing ‘people skills’; he’s good at extracting information from people without them really noticing what they’ve said. He’s good at editing too, he’s just spent a year in front of his computer editing American Interior – that in itself is impressive!
How did you and Dyl meet?
Dyl was in college with Cian (Super Furry Animals). The Super Furries have always been keen to put on a spectacular stage show. Cian introduced Dyl to the group because he had experience of producing backdrop videos for raves. So Dyl travelled with the group and helped us with the ‘visual’ side of our performance. Dyl’s been documenting the Furries too. There's loads of footage that hasn’t been seen yet!
In American Interior we learn about a possible Welsh tribe living in North America. Do you think this Welsh tribe was anything like the Welsh people we know today?
We’ve got to remember, it’s quite possible that the Welsh tribe that’s mentioned in the film never existed. There are many tribes that are living now in America and facing the same difficulties as Welsh communities here. My brother, Dafydd Rhys, has been studying the Native American educational system in the US. There’s a lot we can learn from each other’s cultures. As an academic, Dafydd has written numerous papers about the subject, so – I wouldn’t know half of it without Dafydd’s studies.
You’re quite the historian Gruff?
I don’t see myself as a historian, I’m more of a musician. This story is more of an anchor and heartbeat behind the songs. There might be a little bit of a historian there somewhere.
If you had a time machine and could travel to any moment in time, to which period would you go to?
We know quite a lot about our past but we know nothing about the future so to the future for sure!
John Evans died a young man. It’s a shame – it seems like he could have accomplished much more.
Yes, I’m sure he would have had quite a fruitful life – but he had a very hard life. He left a lasting impression and was a huge influence on American history.
The American Interior story is being told in book, film and record form. You’ve got a lot going on there. Have you come up with any other ideas in terms of merchandising?
Yes, there’s an app. With the app you can follow John Evans’s adventure. The app’s bilingual and there’s lots of new film clips and music on it. There are short films from Dyl Goch too and wicked animations and artwork by Pete Fowler.
I’ve just done the music to a new film about Dylan Thomas called Set Fire to the Stars. I’m also going to be appearing in a few festivals before kicking off a nationwide tour so I’ve got a busy few months ahead.