Gig preview: Gruff Rhys at Long Division festival, Wakefield

Gruff Rhys

Gruff Rhys

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A triumph of creativity over careerism, don’t be fooled by Gruff Rhys’s faltering conversation and likably goofy charm.

Along with Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker, the ex-Super Furry Animals frontman is currently about the only figure from the Britpop era to retain any relevance outside of sheer nostalgia.

A few days before our phone conversation he learned his book American Interior has been longlisted for The Guardian’s annual first book award.

But Gruff doesn’t seem to see this piece of good news as a game-changer in any way.

In fact, he isn’t sure what to say when I ask him how he feels about the accolade.

After a typically lengthy pause and few ‘emms’, he finally replies.

“Yeah. I’m pleased it’s on the list. I’m quite amazed it came out at all. It completely took over my life.

“It was so intense. It took two years to put everything together.”

That ‘everything’ isn’t merely a book but an album of the book – and not forgetting the film of the tour of the album.

All this feverish multi-media activity was inspired by just one man – John Evans, the little-known 18th century Welsh explorer who left his native Snowdonia for the USA in a search for a fabled tribe of Welsh-speaking native Americans.

Having mined various seams of musical styles in a series of well-received solo albums since the Super Furry Animals opted for a hiatus in 2010, it’s ironic Gruff has finally struck gold in the most unlikely of places.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to make comparisons between the obsessive nature of the book’s subject matter and the actual process of writing it.

There’s a lengthy pause, then Gruff laughs quietly.

“Maybe some of his attributes did rub off on me. The volume of stuff I got involved with was amazing. It’s the most extreme thing I’ve ever done. I like to try new things out.”

The last time I met Gruff in person was a couple of years ago when I was Fringe director for Harrogate International Festival in what passed for my spare time.

Being a huge fan I brought him to the old-fashioned Victorian splendour of Harrogate Theatre to play a concert.

Being Gruff when I walked on stage with a large cake to celebrate his 41st birthday he took this unscripted moment in his stride, halting my shaky rendition of happy birthday to borrow a tiny penknife from someone in the front row of the packed audience before handing out slices of crumbly goodness.

At that time, his live set focussed almost entirely on the catchy alt-pop of his then current album Hotel Shampoo.

For his latest tour, which will include a show as part of the Long Division Festival in Leeds on Sunday, September 14, he’s promising to spread his net wider.

“I’m on my own for this tour but I will be using a slide show at certain moments for the songs about John Evans.

“It should be fun. It’s a mix of tracks. I will playing bits of all my solo stuff.”

Never one to follow convention, it’s a minor miracle that someone this genuinely oddball ever made it so big.

At a time when Britpop was in thrall to 60s Mod looks and laddish football fashions, Super Furry Animals would appear on stage or Top of the Pops dressed as yetis, make 3D videos and sing occasionally in their native Welsh.

I suggest to Gruff that since he went solo much of those outward displays of eccentricity have been redirected inwardly into his actual art.

There’s another cough and a splutter. Some sort of mini-crisis is happening in the background.

I can hear what sounds like his girlfriend looking for something for his little girl; a box of biscuits it turns out.

Nothing was predictable about the success of American Interior. His previous album, Praxis Makes Perfect, which he recorded with hip hop artist Boom Bip in his occasional side project Neon Neon, was a concept album about Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

Brilliant but obscure, this flamboyant character died in suspicious circumstances during the Cold War having being blown up, apparently, by his own bomb.

“If you’re going to do concept albums, they should be over the top. Feltrinelli was pretty incredible, a very ambitious man. He was part playboy and part Marxist.

“He was the first person to publish Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, The story of how he did it is more epic than the book itself.”

This year has seen Gruff composed his first soundtrack for a ‘proper’ film - Set Fire To The Stars, a drama starring Elijah Wood based on an episode in life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

He’s also become good friends with renowned psychogeographic author Iain Sinclair and now finds himself invited to speak at literary events as well as playing gigs.

Before saying ‘cheerio’ I ask Gruff whether he’s got a novel up his sleeve or, perhaps, a musical based on the life of Arthur Scargill?

He pauses that pause then laughs that laugh.

“I haven’t really done a long-form book with American Interior. It’s full of song titles and song ideas and fragments of lyrics.

“To me everything I do is connected to the songs. I feel okay doing it that way. I can justify it to myself. But my main ambition is to carry on making records.”

Gruff Rhys plays at Long Division festival, Wakefield on Saturday September 13 and Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Sunday September 14. For details visit http://www.longdivisionfestival.co.uk/tickets or http://www.wegottickets.com/hebdenbridgetradesclub/event/277075

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