Welsh singer and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys has had a busy year. “It’s been nuts, but in a good way.” Tonight he is performing solo in Chicago as part of a North American tour supporting his solo album, Candylion. By some miracle, Kliph Scurlock of the Flaming Lips just happened to be in town and is sitting in as a last-minute replacement drummer. “We met him at a show just before he started playing for the Flaming Lips. We became instant friends.”
Such an unpredictable evening seems consistent with Rhys’ manic pace in the past year; he released the solo album Candylion, he completed the latest Super Furry Animals record, Hey Venus!, he took a solo tour of the U.S. and the U.K., and played a number of festival dates with Super Furry Animals.
Tonight in Chicago, with the tour nearing its end, Rhys is satisfied. “It’s been great! It’s fun doing these shows because they’re very different from Super Furry Animals shows.” On the Candylion tour, Rhys played with limited accompaniment to small, packed houses, starkly contrasting the arena-rock-like Super Furry Animal tours. “They’re very quiet shows. It’s a chance to play quiet music and interact with the audience. They have to be smaller shows because it doesn’t really translate to a larger venue. Whereas in the Super Furry Animals, we like to make a racket.
“The initial plan was to go off and record an acoustic record. I had a lot of songs written around the acoustic guitar, so initially my idea was to record them as they were: just me and a guitar. We recorded some of that and it didn’t sound very good! I started to play some drums. And then, because there were drums, I invited a double bass player to the studio, and that filled it out a bit.” Lisa Jen, Rhys’ current touring mate, also lent a unique voice to the record.
“I’ve known Lisa a long time from my home town,” Rhys said. “She’s a folksinger, and I’d done a few shows with her in the months leading up to the record, where we sang some folk songs. So it seemed like a good idea to bring her in as well.”
Though slightly reminiscent of the quieter side of Super Furry Animals’ classic work, Candylion is singular in Rhys’ catalogue. Rhys’ previous solo album, 2005’s Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, though similarly low-key, lacked Candylion’s deliberate cohesion. “With Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, I just started making demos and having fun in the studio. With Candylion, I knew I was going to be doing a record. Some of the songs I had written in the same batch I kept off the record because I thought they’d be good Super Furry Animals songs.”
The next twist in 2007 was the appearance of a new Super Furry Animals record, Hey Venus!. “When we started Hey Venus!, we wanted to make a really abrasive, loud record, so I figured I could keep fifteen-minute ballads like ‘Skylon!’ and songs about lions made out of candy for the indulgent solo project.”
Of course the real twist was not the album itself (Super Furry Animals have always maintained a rigorous recording and touring schedule), but the return to the fuzzed-out power pop of albums like 1996’s Fuzzy Logic and 1997’s Radiator. “We actually thought it was going to be a heavier record. When people were asking us initially what the record is like, we’d say ‘Oh, it sounds huge. It’s crazy. It’s going to blow your speakers up!’ But I think we’ve got a real musical sweet tooth. We started adding harpsichords and stuff. By the time it was done, we had a record more in keeping with our back catalog.” With a running time of 36:27, it is the band’s most concise record to date.
The concision of Hey Venus! was an intentional break from the epic-length pop extravaganzas that preceded it. “We consciously left a lot of songs off the record, because the last three albums have been almost an hour long. Which is not good, really. With [2001’s] Rings Around The World, we were trying to make a huge album, a kind of multimedia thing. But with the last two [Love Kraft and 2003’s Phantom Power], they were just long and not by design. It’s always difficult to leave things off records when you’ve put so much time into them. But on the other hand, when I listen to an album, I like it short. Otherwise I just don’t get to know the songs.”
Rhys elaborates that there’s something to be said of a band in 2007 not abusing the maximum length of a CD. “For example the last two Outkast albums, which have been really interesting records. They obviously have great songs, but I wish they were shorter because then I could have gotten into them more.”
The musical and thematic consistency of Hey Venus! was galvanized, strangely, by the album’s artwork. For the first time since the band’s debut, it chose not to employ the services of artist Pete Fowler, opting to work with Keiichi Tanaami, a Japanese artist who had not even heard their music. “We had to communicate through e-mail, via translator. We sent him the music, but it was before we had even thought of a title. He sent an e-mail back saying, ‘I like the music, and I’ll do the cover but a) I need a title and b) I need you to tell me what the album is about.’”
Understandably pressured, the band scrambled to tie together the album’s conceptual loose threads in order to find a title. Hey Venus!, it turns out, was a complete afterthought. “The album was about running away from relationships, breaking up in a small town, moving to the big city, losing yourself, having your innocence completely corrupted, and living to tell the tale as a wiser person. So we said all the songs were postcards from the life of this character Venus, who we fished out from a song called ‘Into The Night.’ So we applied the whole record to her, and it meant Mr. Tanaami could have a reference point to make an illustration from.”
With a flurry of Super Furry Animals activity planned, Rhys intends to lessen his workload. “I’m going to retire my solo career for the time being because there’s just too much going on. We’ve got loads of records planned with the band, so it’s a good time for it. I’m gradually stockpiling Welsh songs at the moment, kind of like a squirrel. There aren’t enough for an album at the moment, but when there are, I might make an album, or maybe a Super Furry Animals record.”
So his intrepid year comes to a close. Tonight, a Chicago crowd watches what will be the last Gruff Rhys solo show for quite a while. Odd stage props have long been a Super Furry Animals tradition, and tonight Rhys displays a pentagonal banner that says “The Very Best Of Neil Diamond,” which Rhys is proud to have given some kind of purpose. “We tend to pick them up as we go along. We haven’t been together in one place a lot this year. So once we’re together, that’s when the ideas usually come. You know, if you’re sitting in a bar with friends, you probably come up with loads of daft ideas.”