Following two multi-disciplinary travelogues tracing long-lost descendants in Brazil, Patagonia, and America’s Midwest, a theatre adaptation of 2007’s LP Candylion, various soundtrack work, and a projection-packed tour with Super Furry Animals in celebration of 20 years of Radiator, Gruff Rhys is finally keeping it simple with his fifth solo album, Babelsberg. Aside from the inclusion of a 72-piece orchestra, that is.
“It’s not a particularly experimental record,” Rhys insists, speaking in languorous tones over the line from his record label’s offices in Paris. “And it was recorded extremely simply, with a four-piece band doing live takes for three days. But then, by coincidence, I met [composer] Stephen McNeff, while working on a different project, and I got to sit in on him recording an orchestra, and it was mind blowing…” With Rhys, you sense there’s always a “but”.
Initial recordings were set down by Rhys with former-Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock, Stephen Black of Sweet Baboo and pianist Osian Gwynedd – in Ali Chant’s, then soon-to-be-demolished, Bristol studio – and then material was handed over to McNeff for arrangements, accompanied by a playlist of reference points. Think Serge Gainsbourg, The Free Design, Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Gentry and Steve Reich, rather than, say, Muse. “A lot of symphonic rock can be horrific,” Rhys laughs, without naming names. Eighteen months later, McNeff and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales had finished fleshing-out the sunny-sounding songs on Babelsberg.
And yet, beneath those beatific melodies lie some pretty bleak subject matter. “[The music] sounds quite joyful now,” Rhys agrees, “But definitely, working on it, I thought, ‘This is my really dark album.’ I’ve been mostly preoccupied with the paranoia of the political age, but I also think the songs deal with life as a songwriter, and ageing, and trying to juggle through life in precarious times.”
“…now I wake up at three in the morning worrying about Mel Gibson and his mental state…”
‘Drones in the City’ provides one of the best examples of this juxtaposition, pairing mellifluous woodwind and tremolo strings with ruminations on the proliferation of drones. “I’m all for romantic music, but it has to be subverted in some way or it doesn’t work for me. And every international convention is being broken now by drone warfare. I don’t know when it’s going to start happening here, you know?”
‘Architecture of Amnesia’ deals with state and media-incited hysteria and “not learning from history and the mistakes of the past.” Meanwhile, ‘Oh Dear!’ finds Rhys reciting a laundry list of worries, from technology to tooth decay, over – what could be – an alternative western movie theme, powered by an increasingly manic succession of ascending key changes. “I suppose it’s a list of the various ailments of the time we live in, but the initial idea was about the gig economy and how the practices of the music industry – which is basically zero regulation – have been adopted by everybody, with horrific consequences.”
Don’t let the breezy, Glenn Campbell-charm of lead single ‘Frontier Man’ fool you, either. As well as being an attack on toxic masculinity and Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall with Mexico (“He’s this out-of-touch cowboy who’s still out in the desert talking about frontiers when the world’s moved on”), there are parallels with “anyone working in music or politics.” Rhys adds with a laugh, “I suppose music is a haven for the deluded, but at least musicians don’t have a nuclear button.”
But for all its dark themes, there’s plenty of hope to be found on Babelsberg too, albeit infused with the sort of surreal humour found in SFA classics ‘Hermann Loves Pauline’ or ‘Fuzzy Birds’. “There has to be hope in a way, or all it’s over,” Rhys agrees, adding with a chuckle, “So [the album] finishes with ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, which is about taking beautiful pictures in front of the apocalypse. Which is a silver lining on a cloud, I suppose.” That song also features the winning couplet, “Mel Gibson howls with rage / The worst Hamlet of his age.” Rhys laughs at the reminder: “I feel quite bad for Mel. It’s just some words that came out, and I felt were funny at the time, and now I wake up at three in the morning worrying about Mel Gibson and his mental state…”
Rhys plans to perform the album live for the remainder of the year, first at a small run of special shows featuring an orchestra, and then during a longer European tour, backed by a band. And beyond that there’s the concluding instalment in his genealogical film trilogy to finish, plus a raft of other projects that are currently at various stages of completion. As Rhys puts it, with trademark understatement, “There’s plenty going on.”