Gruff Rhys // Interview

gruff rhys
gruff Rhys

Let’s begin in October 1792. For that’s the year John Evans, a distant ancestor of Gruff Rhys, arrived in Baltimore having set off from Caernarfon in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. But that’s not even the half of it. Over the next seven years, Evans embarked on a series of adventures, produced a map of the Missouri River and left a trail of political chaos.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Gruff Rhys, always a lover of a good story, had a plan. “We had the idea to follow the journey of John Evans and try to find his grave so we went ahead and did a tour and I recorded an album along the way,” he says in his gentle Welsh accent, as if it was the most normal thing to do in the world.

Along the way he played shows (complete with a PowerPoint presentation) and wrote songs inspired by the journey.“We were travelling for about five weeks in total.” You packed in a lot, I mention.

I hope that the songs on the album can stand alone – you could apply them to any human that’s in trouble.

“Yeah, but John Evans’ journey along the same route took seven years …but I suppose he was walking most of the way.”

At the beginning of the journey Gruff admits he didn’t know much of Evans’ story. “We were always finding out more things as we went along so by the end I had a full slide show but at the beginning it was pretty loose. I remember at the start I did a PowerPoint presentation to some professors at Yale University but I didn’t know that much.” And why did he choose PowerPoint? “There are some people in America who are ignorant of John Evans’ story, and don’t even really know where Wales is, so this was a way to give a general lowdown of what I was doing.”

Over the course of his travels Gruff composed enough songs to write an album and was joined by Kliph Scurlock from the Flaming Lips to play drums.“He hits the drums harder than anyone I’ve met – really full volume. So he had a profound effect on the sound.”

The record – entitled American Interior – is a triumph. It certainly embraces his surroundings in a way you’d expect from an album written on the road, with the panoramic beauty of Lost Tribes and other odd sonic twists and turns.

But this being Gruff Rhys, it’s not just an album: it’s also a (wonderful) film, a book and an app based on the song 100 Unread Messages. It’s this track – telling Evans’ story in a five-minute pop song – which plays a central part in the film. “But for the most part I hope that the songs on the album can stand alone – you could apply them to any human that’s in trouble.”

And at the conclusion of his journey, what did Gruff find out about John Evans? “He was a determined guy and a tough guy – he travelled all that way with no kind of modern day technology to help him. I mean, though he probably had a compass,” he laughs.

Now it’s time to bring this knowledge back to the UK. “I know the story better now I’ve had a couple of years with it.I’ll play on my own in theatres and then maybe get a big band for the festivals in the summer.”

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Buy: Gruff Rhys – American Interior

From our May issue