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IN CONVERSATION : Gruff Rhys ‘it didn’t feel right to make an escapist record’

Back in December, Gruff Rhys appeared at Liverpool’s historical Olympia venue as special guest of The Coral. Walking into the well-thumbed grandeur, we easily imagined the Victorian out-of-town hall projecting silent movies against the stage a century ago, escapologist Harry Houdini untangling himself from self-inflicted fixes, and decades later, The Beatles capturing the high emotion of Merseybeat like a polaroid. ‘They’re classic venues, it was a real treat,’ Gruff tells me over Zoom a couple of weeks later, of the Olympia show and Glasgow Barrowlands the previous day. 
He and the The Coral go way back. He enthuses over recent album Sea of Mirrors made with Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas), and recalls fondly doing press together some 20 years ago when Super Furry Animals were on the same label as the Wirral outfit, playing the same festivals, and lending the band gear when recording in Wales. There’s something very reassuring in these uncertain times to hear about old connections and camaraderie, firm and still very much in place.

But that night in Liverpool Olympia was not one of nostalgia, surroundings and shared memories aside. Welsh visionary Gruff cheered us with the familiar, and the delightful and funny ‘Bad Friend” from new record Sadness Sets Me Free, out this Friday. The album is the 25th Gruff has had a hand in over a career spanning 35 years, from Ffa Coffi Pawb, Super Furries, the Mercury Music Prize shortlisted Neon Neon, collaborations, to soundtracks, released on labels Ankst, Creation/Sony, Rough Trade and others. He won the inaugural Welsh Music Prize for 2011’s Hotel Shampoo. Sadness… is his eighth solo record, the follow-up to 2021’s Seeking New Gods, his first top ten chart position under his own name.

‘Time’s a weird thing. I found it very linear when I was younger, I could arrange the past in the order it happened.  As I get older it becomes less linear so some parts of the past are fresh in the memory and others are more distant and aren’t necessarily related to when they happened, or the order of things. So in that sense, every record feels new, exciting.’

I do my best to take a different approach to making records – within reason,’ he says. ‘I don’t know how much difference it makes. I’m going to sound something similar regardless. I keep trying to find a space where I’m making original music using tools that are quite conventional, in terms of my songwriting. That’s what I’m trying to do. It might all become apparent in time. Or not!’

This record was recorded at La Frette Studios in France, a 19th Century manor some 15 minutes from Paris. Looking at black and white photographs from over the three days he, Osian Gwynedd (piano), Huw V Williams (double bass) and former Flaming Lips drummer turned Super Furry Animals archivist Kliph Scurlock (drums) were there, the house feels a place you could dream big. Outside the city in peace and quiet, artwork on ornate walls, tall broad bookcases full of delicious volumes, lovely fireplaces, large windows with long, draped curtains. The surroundings fit.

They arrived fresh from a tour of France, playing a show a night or two before, but fully ready to start work. ‘We tried to play the songs live and in soundchecks before going, so we were prepared,’ he explains. The band were driven to the house by legendary tour manager and friend “Dr” Kiko Loiacono, who died later that year. ‘He came to the studio with us and he was a big advocate of romance not in relationship terms, just attitude to life,’ Gruff shares. ‘He used to always bang on about Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovski and his partner Lilya Brik, their relationship and their romantic attitude. He was bringing his vibe as well. He was our audience. Maybe we were tuned into that.’

The way Gruff left himself open to ‘chance encounters’ as he puts it when making this record, ties into that approach. Serendipity, geography, playing a part. There’s a sense of continuity here; all the music he’s ever created and worked on he stresses, is made with friends. As the world gets odder and more challenging, frustrating with each spin of the earth, Sadness Sets Me Free comes along at an appropriate time, I suggest. On it, he explores life’s downs, sadnesses, annoyances and things that need putting right. It was made two years ago but reflects the uncertainty and unfairness around us in here 2024. The worry of it. Life isn’t fair, we know that, but surely at the moment it’s taking the piss more than usual. You’ve taken a lot on subject and emotions-wise, I suggest. ‘It was an excuse to put all my songs about complaints and political frustration together in one place around that banner,’ Gruff smiles.

Social and personal challenges are examined and explored. ‘Bad Friend’ is a homage to unconditional friendship, and delivered with charm and wit. ‘I’m as reliable as asking a seal to deliver the post,’ he sings on it, the sweet strings and gentle acceptance of life’s limits bringing to mind a light French pop song from the 1960s. The song is concerned with a very much 21st century experience, personal time squeezed. An acknowledgement life has limits. Sometimes we must accept the way things are.

But other stuff wants sorting. ‘Cover Up The Cover Up’ confronts inequality, gently yet firmly – no room for ambiguity here – the monarchy, political system, media oligarchs, are all dealt with and dispatched. Solutions are issued, Paris-based Kate Stables from This Is The Kit – Rhys produced last year’s album Careful of Your Keepers – providing backing vocals.

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They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper’ is like a short story. A common tale of cultural and creative spaces, music venues and studios knocked down by property developers to build housing out of the budget of locals. Balancing grim realities with tunes and rhythms helps the medicine go down very well indeed. The bossa nova vibes a case in point. ‘I started using bossa nova chords during Candylion. I started going to Brazil to play gigs and record in the early 2000s and at that point there were news stands at every corner, and every news stand sold song books from the Brazilian greats. So you’d have the songs of Caetano Veloso or the songs of Marcos Valle, so I’d buy these books, they were really cheap and full of their chords. You’d get a little biography as well, some photos and I started learning these new chords.’
There’s that chance encounter element coming in again, taking full advantage of opportunities, soaking up surroundings and experiences. ‘Since the pandemic I haven’t travelled so much. I’ve never been big on mail order, sending away from records and things. I’m still in the physical realm. It was a terrible problem in Brazil because the records were 10p but by the time I was trying to take them home I was spending hundreds of pounds on excess baggage!’   Still, geography plays its part; additional strings and orchestration added and the record was mixed between Marseille and Cardiff. A land-spanning record.

Maybe he’s more of a romantic than he thinks, like Kiko Loiacono, seeing as how ‘They Sold My Home To Build A Skyscraper’ turned out, pulling in all those elements. ‘I think it’s the combination of Huw Williams playing double bass on this record, so suddenly there was an acoustic quartet – double bass, piano, drums, I was on acoustic guitar. I think it might have been the last song we recorded. In the room together it sounded like a racket, much more raw. Then we went to listen to it back in the control room in the basement and we were totally amazed it sounded so different. Much more jazzy.’

‘Silver Lining Lead Balloons’ is not lyrically glamorous or showy, but the arrangements are for sure.  They weren’t planned that way. ‘It was unexpected, because it’s all acoustic instruments, string quartet, a touch of electric guitar, synths and things, pedal steel. I didn’t expect it to sound as big from the parts we had, you know? Some tunes have turned out really fancy.’

On the album cover and videos he partnered with  long term co-creative visual mastermind Mark James. The visualizer for ‘Celestial Candyfloss‘ has ‘Gruff Rhys, Shipping emotional baggage since 1970‘ stamped neatly on the side of the shipping container he’s floating around the universe in, with spinning space junk food. That side of the project sounds good fun to work on.  ‘We really push ideas until we find something we can both agree on then it usually goes off in a direction neither of us expected. At some point the album turned into a shipping container lost in space,’ he laughs. ‘The album cover turned into a music video. During lockdown James familiarised himself with 3D software so all his work has become three dimensional. He’s gone from making sleeves to making whole worlds!’

In MOJO, Gruff described the album as ‘miserable’, but we must protest at this. It’s a beautiful record, you know.
‘Generally I don’t want to let myself wallow in misery, it’s too easy. But it’s such a sober time, it didn’t feel right to make an escapist record somehow. It’s a record grounded in reality. But with a sense of hope, as well.’
Gruff Rhys, shipping emotional baggage since 1970. But with melody, humour and workable solutions. That sounds plenty hopeful to us.

Sadness Sets Me Free is released via Rough Trade on 26 January.


January 26th – 1st February  – UK Instore Tour (Sold Out)

February 2nd  – Aberystwyth, Arts Centre

February 7th – London, Kings Place (Sold Out)

February 8th – London, Kings Place

February 10th – Manchester, New Century Hall (Sold Out)

February 14th – Belfast, Empire Music Hall

February 15th – Dublin, Sugar Club (Sold Out)

February 16th – Dublin, Sugar Club

February 17th – Liverpool, Arts Club (new show)

February 19th – Glasgow, St Lukes

February 22nd – Bristol, Strange Brew (Sold Out)

February 23rd – Bristol, Strange Brew (Sold Out)

February 24th – Narberth, Queens Hall.

February 28th – Berlin, Badehaus

February 29th – Hamburg, Nachtasyl

March 2nd – Koln,  Theater De Wogngemeinschaft

March 3rd – Amsterdam, Zonzij

March 5th– Paris, Solaris (new show)

Gruff Rhys in Liverpool, December 2023 photography credit: Kevin Barrett

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.