Saturday, Sep. 7, 10:30 p.m.
Fletcher Opera Theater, Raleigh
Gruff Rhys is a relentless optimist. Despite what he describes as “omnipresent political gloom,” a current of positivity runs through his music; from songs that mystify the mundanity of domestic life to tracks imbibed with childlike strangeness, as when he describes mouths as homes for teeth.
Rhys, a Welsh solo artist also known as the frontman of psychedelic indie rock band Super Furry Animals, drops his new album, Pang!, on September 13. Catch him at Hopscotch this Saturday at 10:30 p.m. at the A.J Fletcher Opera Theater.
INDY: Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind Pang!
GRUFF RHYS: Well, Pang! Started when we met the producer, Muzi, who is from Johannesburg. I worked on a track with him for an EP by Africa Express and there’s a track on it called “Vessels,” produced by Muzi. I had a great experience working with him and then I sent him one of my own songs to remix and that became the first track we did from Pang! I was blown away with what he did to my original track. That was how it started.
I was writing a lot of introspective music on my acoustic guitar and discovered a way of making optimistic music on my acoustic guitar through this chance encounter. It was an album that kind of happened unexpectedly but had a real momentum musically. It was really exciting to work on because we were trying an interesting, completely unique combination of music that was kind of unimaginable on paper. It was a fun record to make, and it’s always great when something happens with no warning.
You say that creating Pang! was a “positivity that jolted me personally out of an omnipresent political gloom and personally out of my musical coma.” Let’s get into that—how did you find yourself in a musical coma?
We’re living through a heavy time politically. Obviously in the U.S., and in the UK as well in Wales, we have a very government that’s extremely hostile and seemingly governing without a democratic mandate. The rise of Facebook analytics as a political tool has kind of upended the geopolitical world as we knew it and so it’s a kind of new world order, from Brazil to Washington to Europe, and it’s pretty scary. But you have to be able to face the horror show with some optimism.
Politics has long been a theme in your music. In 2014 you released American Interior and in 2016 you wrote “I love EU.” How has your thinking about American and European politics changed since then in light of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Brexit?
It’s a really scary time. We’re facing existential as a species and were led by politicians who want to wish away reality and it’s this class war being waged by the super-rich and seeing big tech used as a weapon. It’s a pretty dark time and I mean, some of my songs cover it and some of my songs are inspired by day to day life. Sometimes politics comes into it and sometimes I just sing about my domestic world. I’m not good at processing it but sometimes the reality does creep into my music.
Despite the gloom, I find your music extremely positive.
Yeah. It’s hard for me to be affected. I think I’m a pretty positive person and optimistic and I think as a musician I’ve got a real sweet tooth for the melodic, so I’m you know, I’m going to enjoy using melody as an escape.
Many people know you from Super Furry Animals. How do you feel your work as a solo artist evolved over the years and how has your songwriting process changed over the years?
Making solo records has meant that I’ve been able to experiment with some doing some soundtracks and working with classical composers and electronic pieces and a lot of people I have not imagined working with. I try to experiment with what I do and pick up new ideas and songwriting. It’s quite an arcane medium so anything I can find to make something original, I jump at the chance.
Do you think the collaboration on this album was a big part of that? To me, this album sounds different from some of your previous work.
Yeah, it’s an anomaly for sure. This started out as a remix and then Muzi came to Europe to do some shows and to Cardiff in Wales for a few days and kind of took on the role of producer. That was really great, being able to pass on fully recorded songs to someone else to completely reimagine. He completely deconstructed them and kept the acoustic guitar and my voice as the core of the song, which is great because I don’t feel it’s too detached from what I usually do. But he placed it in a really futuristic setting and it was an exciting record to make.
I think my favorite lyric is about diving through a fog of lies, which is about the kind of information age and the media and fake news. It’s gotten very difficult to navigate what is news so it’s like diving through fog and then I’ve got tracks about how my mouth is a house for my teeth, the last track.
Why did you choose to record the album in Welsh?
Welsh is my first language and a century ago Welsh was spoken by the great majority of Welsh people, but it was a repressed language. It’s a much more visible language today even though there’s less because it’s got some official status. I speak Welsh and English on a daily basis so I write in both, but Welsh is my first language.
And you’re playing Hopscotch on Saturday.
I’ve played at the Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina in Carrboro, so I’ve been to North Carolina but I haven’t been to downtown Raleigh. I’m so excited to play and I’m playing the same night as my very good musical colleague, Cate Le Bon. It’s a lot of friends from Wales appearing as well. It’s going to be really magical.
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