The Irish tour by the affable Super Furry Animals’ singer takes in Other Voices in Dingle on Friday, writes Ed Power
Britpop was a cultural blizzard that cut a cheeky swathe through mid-1990s rock music. Yet few swept up by its tornado of retro riffs, vintage track-suits and mockney accents were altogether happy about it. This was a bandwagon most artists of the era were keen to avoid, lest they be mistaken for bumptious flag-wavers.
That’s especially understandable in the case of Gruff Rhys. The Welsh singer, performing at the Other Voices festival in Dingle this weekend, became an unlikely chart star in February 1996 when his band Super Furry Animals clocked up their first hit, ‘Hometown Unicorn’.
The song was lilting, Kinks-esque pastoral pop. And it was released by Creation Records, the label that was at that very moment shifting Oasis albums by the tonne. So it wasn’t all that surprising the Super Furries — to their genuine and enduring horror — were immediately crowned Britpop’s latest all-conquering heroes.
The difference — and it was rather a crucial one — is that the Rhys and his bandmates were from North Wales and fluent speakers of their native language. Up to Hometown Unicorn the majority of their songs had been in Welsh rather than English. There had, fact, been a minor backlash in Wales over their decision to sign to London-based Creation and write in English.
“We were singing in the colonial language,” says Rhys today. “I’m obsessed with the Anglo-American pop culture. But I love the Welsh language.”
All of which explains why Rhys, who has embarked on a successful and delightfully idiosyncratic solo career since the Super Furries took an open-ended break, is looking forward to coming to Kerry (and, indeed, to playing Cork, Galway and Dublin in the following days).
It’s his second time in Dingle, the Super Furries having performed at Other Voices in 2008. On that occasion, an excursion to the south west of Ireland felt, in a way, like coming home.
“We met quite a lot of Irish speakers on that trip,” says Rhys. “It was extremely interesting — the Gaeltacht is similar to where I come from.”
I suggest that Welsh and Irish differ in that, in the case of the former, bands such as Super Furries have imbued the language with a degree of “cool”. Irish, by contrast, suffers through cheesy cover versions of Avicii — a toe-curling attempt to get “down with the kids”.
“It’s still a huge struggle here,” he says.
Rhys has a reputation for irreverence and playfulness. Back in the 1990s, the Super Furries informed their record label they’d rather buy a tank and spray paint it with the band’s logo than use the money to pay for a two-page ad in the NME. They duly turned up at that year’s Glastonbury in their armoured vehicle.
His latest release, Babelsberg, is quite different. A fascinating study in contrasts, it is musically uplifting yet lyrically often stark. Part of that is owed to the circumstances in which it was recorded.
“The studio where we did it in Cardiff was about to be knocked down to make luxury flats. It was the last album made there. I thought Babelsberg would be a good name for a slightly sinister block of luxury flats — ones that would give off this air of opulence amid a lot of poverty.”
Super Furry Animals reunited in 2016 to tour their first two albums. Rhys enjoyed getting back with the gang. Yet he’s also conscious that, having released nine records in a little over a decade, the group had explored perhaps very possible musical direction open to them.
As a solo artist he has, meanwhile, been free to pursue even more eclectic avenues. Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the beguiling Candylion, which he later adapted into a kids’s theatrical production. Meanwhile, 2011’s Hotel Shampoo was accompanied by a Cardiff art exhibition of a miniature hotel constructed from — as per the title — tiny shampoo bottles Rhys had collected travelling the world.
“I’ve made more records outside the band than in the band,” he says.
Living in Cardiff and horrified at Brexit, Rhys is understandably in a pessimistic frame of mind. But he hopes that, amid the despair, he has located glimmerings of positivity in Babelsberg. “It’s a bleak time,” he says. “I’m trying to find hope. The album was recorded a few months before the Brexit vote, before Trump. But the news cycle was leading there.
“It wasn’t as if you had to take a great leap of the imagination [to imagine the UK voting for Brexit]. There are a large percentage of people who are delusional — who maybe don’t worry about the consequences. But if it goes through, it’s going to be a profound shift. A lot of political outlooks will change accordingly.”
Gruff Rhys’s latest album is Babelsberg. He plays on Friday in Dingle, as part of Other Voices. He also performs at St Luke’s Cork, Saturday; Roisin Dubh Galway, Sunday; Button Factory Dublin, Monday.
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Other Voices is Dingle from Fri to Sun