More about: Gruff Rhys
Gruff Rhys decided to abandon his usual formula of biographical albums in his newest project Seeking New Gods, which has the mountain Mount Paektu as its subject. “I was reading a book that had nothing to do with the mountain but had passing reference to it,” he said, “For some reason, at the time, I thought it would be a great idea to write about the mountain because it had some amazing mythology around it that is continually changing. It spanned such a long time I figured I could weave in a lot of stories.”
When asked what stories surrounding the mountain particularly inspired Gruff, he's able to name them as easily as if they were previous album titles. “There’s the physical history and geological history of a gigantic mecca explosion that was felt thousands of miles away in present day Beijing and further afield,” he explained, “And then there’s the origin and mythology of the Korean people based around the mountain, which has been woven into the origin of the communist oppression in North Korea. I found it really interesting.”
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He goes on to explain why writing about the origins of such cultures can be tough when it comes to making a record. “Generally, I thought the more abstract I went, the least offensive it would be. I got inspired by it and excited by it but I thought: I’m just going to turn this into something else now, something more personal.”
The idea of using a mountain as the subject for an album is incredibly interesting. Music is arguably an art form that evolves at a quicker rate than anything else, and so to hone in on something that has remained consistent throughout such a long period of time and produce music surrounding it must have being an interesting challenge. Not only that, but things like mountains - the number of cultures and empires that start and stop, rise and fall whilst they remain unaltered - is quite a harrowing reminder of the pointlessness of all human endeavour. So, to try and draw personal attachment from that is an existential crisis waiting to happen, right?
“It was just an enjoyable process,” Gruff disagrees, “I like writing songs as a medium because you can articulate yourself in a much slower way and take your time. I’m not great at doing off the cuff things so I enjoyed writing about something slow moving but with the added tension that it could kind of explode at any point as well.”
The more you listen to Gruff talk about the inspiration behind the music in this LP, the more the music starts to make sense. When you take the song ‘The Keep’ for example, the point he previously made is shown beautifully. It’s a song with an incredibly sweet melody throughout; however, during the chorus, underneath the structure of a stable chord progression, you have the chaos of free jazz. It’s not so distant that you can’t hear it but is distant enough that it doesn’t overpower the sweetness of the track. It’s a perfect example of how something that appears so peaceful carries with it that lingering threat of destruction. “It’s like being woken up by a nightmare with that song,” Gruff confirms, “that kind of threat lying below the veneer of sunshine pop.”
The amount of time covered by the existence of the mountain is also reflected in the record because of the range of musicians Gruff took inspiration from when putting it together, whilst also keeping the sound consistent throughout. “A lot of the influences on the record are just the records I’ve been listening to for 20 to 30 years," he notes. “I get really excited in studios and a lot of my records are really eclectic, they’ll be really different styles with every track. Whereas with this album, I was just trying to capture one sound in a way: I really limited the amount of instrumentation I used.”
That consistency is certainly present on the record but don’t go into this thinking that you’re going to be listening to an ambient 40 minutes of continual music, it’s a lot more than that. With Seeking New Gods, you have an album in which each track doesn’t stray too far from the last; however, the altering of individual elements keeps every song different and exciting.
You have the face-melting solos in ‘The Holiest of Holymen’, improvisational and drawn-out jazz influences on ‘Loan Your Loneliness’ and subtle changes in tempo and style that all come together to make an album peaceful enough, with simultaneously enough conflict, that it would make the perfect soundtrack for a stop motion animation about someone in a hot air balloon. “I like that idea,” says Gruff, “I’ve got like a phaser, synth drone running through the whole album with a big phaser rolling over it, which is a bit like being blown around in the wind.”
And that’s exactly what Seeking New Gods is like… the wind. A complete constant, but a constant that remains entirely unpredictable.
Seeking New Gods arrives 21 May via Rough Trade Records.
More about: Gruff Rhys