Gruff Rhys takes one of his customary pauses for contemplation, considering Armageddon. “It would probably be quite beautiful,” he suggests, envisioning a technicolour apocalypse. “The special effects, some nice savage glows…”
Gruff has form in glorifying the end of days. “Kiss me with apocalypse” he punned on Super Furry Animals’ ‘Zoom!’ in 2005. ‘It’s Not The End Of The World?’ he asked, swarmed by sweeping strings, on 2001’s SFA album ‘Rings Around The World’. Back then he was gazing wistfully into some far-off mushroom cloud; today he’s considering the catastrophe at our shoulder.
“It’s inspired by a time I saw a bunch of people taking selfies in front of an amazing sunset,” he says of ‘Selfies In The Sunset’, the final song on his latest solo album ‘Babelsberg’. “Then I turned round and there was another sunset behind me and I realised the first sunset was being cast by the emissions from a chemical plant. So I wrote this poetic song about people documenting the apocalypse. It’s trying to leave the record on a positive note, seeing beauty, or at least hope, in disaster.”
Is it a bit of an obsession, writing gorgeous pop songs about the end of humanity as we know it? Gruff thinks for ten seconds or so, as he does before, and during, virtually every pronouncement. “Well, the kind of pop music that I enjoy listening to is when it’s approached in some clever way. The music we make is fairly predictable, it’s often very melodic music. The songs on this record are very simple musically, in many ways, the construction of the songs. So unless they’re subverted in some way I find it hard to justify them.”
The songs of ‘Babelsberg’, Rhys’s sixth album in a solo career that overlapped the latter era of his former band Super Furry Animals and bridged the gap to their short-lived 2015 reunion, are even cleverer than they seem. Recorded in a three-day session back in 2015, it sat on the back burner awaiting plush string arrangements for the duration of the SFA reunion, by which time its lyrics about right wing despots and overcoming the negativity of the world had begun to sound remarkably prescient. Like those selfies in front of the chemical plant, it seems to cheerily document the poisoning of modern society.
“In 2015 we were playing songs like ‘Negative Vibes’ and writing new songs to try to make it make any sense,” Gruff explains. “I was very keen to record that song in particular and a batch of similar songs. The skeleton of it got put up quite fast, we rehearsed for a couple of days and recorded quite rapidly. But because they were sort of live takes they didn’t need that much time, whereas organising an orchestra and pinning down dates... I’m hoping songs like ‘Negative Vibes’ are quite versatile. Two years ago there was the influence of lots of things getting worse and things looking crap all the time.”
Certainly a track like album opener ‘Frontier Man’, a faithful reconstruction of the 60s orchestral country music of Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell, could have been written from the perspective of a budding Brexiteer or a potential Trump voter, living “on the frontier of delusion”.
"When I was recording it, it was the time of Trump’s primary run,” Gruff says, “so all that rhetoric was around at that time. Now the rhetoric has become the political reality but the rhetoric was already there. It’s about derisible politicians and the frightening power they wield.”
Likewise, the title came from the name of a town that Gruff wrote down while on tour in the US, and which seemed to chime with the mood of the times. “The studio was getting knocked down and turned into luxury flats,” Gruff says, “and I wanted the title to have some kind of reference to that in some way. For me, that was the sort of mood running through the record. Looking along the lines of the Tower Of Babel, but I don’t want to mimic anything theological. Just the idea of people trying to build towers towards heaven and creating hell for everyone else.”
Was it frustrating to be sitting on ‘Babelsberg’ throughout the SFA reunion? “It just had to take as long as it took,” Gruff says, philosophically. “It couldn’t have happened any faster, in a way.”
So while ‘Babelsberg’ crept towards completion, Gruff rejoined SFA for tours celebrating their ‘Fuzzy Logic’, ‘Radiator’ and ‘Mwng’ albums. “It was amazing,” he says. “The gigs were incredible and the rehearsals were amazing as well, we were rehearsing a lot of songs we hadn’t played before so we didn’t particularly feel like we were doing the same old stuff, for us it felt quite fresh and exciting. We were certainly nervous on account of the nostalgia element of it, it’s that kind of situation, but the reality of it was just really nice, much less stressful than playing new material.” What did you get out of it? “Verification that the past actually happened! [SFA’s career] was so tense and fast moving at the time it’s hard to take it in. So when you play album tracks off ‘Mwng’ and you get hundreds of people singing every word, it’s extremely weird and very satisfying and humbling feeling.”
With no sign of a new SFA album (“everyone’s working on different stuff”), Gruff returned to ‘Babelsberg’ to find his bare-boned folk, country and surf pop tunes transformed by composer Stephen McNeff and the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra Of Wales into the ultimate Walker Brothers fantasy record, all fluttering flutes, keening bassoons and enough soft-focus strings to give The Last Shadow Puppets the horn for a month. It was a widescreen evolution of the classical pop feel of 2014’s ‘American Interior’ but without the concept angle of travelling around America with a puppet of his explorer ancestor John Evans, tracing Evans’s search for the lost Welsh-speaking tribe of the Mandan.
“I didn’t want to write a concept,” Gruff says, a man who named his 2011 album ‘Hotel Shampoo’ after the complimentary products he steals from hotels, “it was just a batch of songs that were pretty simple and some of them are even about writing songs. I felt it was quite a dark album, from the lyrics to me it was quite a dark album. After finishing it and some work was done on it, it sounds quite optimistic and not completely dark.”
It also contains a few rare glimpses behind Rhys’s protective masks. On stage he’s often to be found hiding inside a yeti costume or a Power Rangers style helmet he can sing through the eye of, and communicating with the crowd via the medium of placard. On record he disguises his thoughts and feelings behind walls of humour, irony, satire and surrealism. So it’s refreshing to hear him sing about the self-pity of being left out “like when my kids don’t get invited to someone’s party” on ‘The Club’ or, on ‘Same Old Song’, the time he started coughing up blood on tour.
“That’s biographical,” he confirms, “but quite a long time ago. It was nothing particularly serious. I went to a doctor and it was unexplained. It was explained by my daily life, it was what touring continuously entailed. My doctor sorta laughed me out of the room. It was okay, I think. The human body is pretty amazing.”
Living what he calls “an incredibly normal life” offstage, does he enjoy creating an enigma around himself? “I’ve found ways to communicate ideas. Robert Plant, if someone’s playing a solo, then Robert Plant can play air guitar or headbang or something, but I’m not a particularly extrovert person. So it’s better for me and everyone watching if I just put a helmet on and switch off for a few minutes.”
Is it difficult to be openly sincere in your music?
“It depends on the record,” Gruff says. “Sometimes I’m completely removed. I’ve written biographical records about other people’s lives, and bits about something based on my experience. Whereas a record like this is probably a bit more direct, although it varies to different degrees on different songs. Otherwise it would be down to the sensibility of where I grew up. Where I’m from in North Wales the sort of humour that runs through general life is quite absurd and dark. I mean I take my music seriously but maybe I shouldn’t necessarily take myself too seriously.”
For all of its dark edges, ‘Babelsberg’ doesn’t take itself seriously - it’s an effortlessly playful listen. Big screen romances called things like ‘Limited Edition Heart’ conjure visions of pony trains across panoramic prairies. Psychedelic guitars joust with jaunty horn sections on ‘Take That Call’. ‘Drones In City’ tackles dystopian urban surveillance while sounding like the sort of thing Dorothy or Cinderella might hear while succumbing to a sleeping spell. All the record needs is a song about being a lounge piano player on the moon.
Talking of which, are you annoyed you didn’t think of ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ before Arctic Monkeys? It sounds very much like a Gruff Rhys sort of idea.
I haven’t heard it yet actually, so it’s not fair me to comment,” Gruff says, and pauses. Contemplates. “It sounds a bit far-fetched…”