“It has special effects, teleportation, genocide, folk music, electronic music, penguins, some pretty amazing graphics and an armadillo chase scene.” That’s how Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys describes Separado!, a documentary that sees the 40-year old musician traveling to Patagonia to connect with a long-lost uncle (who also happened to be a poncho-wearing Argentine pop star in the 1970s). It’s just the latest project derailing the endlessly creative Welshman from resuming his SFA psychedelics. The other is based on Rhys’ unexpected muse: bottles of hotel shampoo.
Over the course of fifteen years of life as touring musician, Rhys hoarded a massive collection of those miniature bottles of shampoo that are complimentary in your average hotel room. But instead of stowing them away in an attic somewhere, the off-kilter Rhys built a dollhouse-sized hotel instead. (It’s now on display as an installation in Cardiff, in his native Wales.) He also recorded his third solo album, and called it, what else, Hotel Shampoo, which he’s currently supporting on a North American tour. We spoke to the multi-hyphenate recently about his quirky artistic pursuits and the possibility of a Super Furry Animals reunion.
What inspired the hotel shampoo project? Before I started to tour extensively, I had been living off of welfare checks. So when I was being given free things like shampoo, while staying at hotels on the road, I was like wow. So after about 15 years of collecting these bottles of shampoos, I decided that I wanted to build a hotel from them. It’s about the size of a dog kennel.
Where are you staying tonight? In a hotel.
Which one? It’s like a Holiday Inn. In fact, it is a Holliday Inn Express.
Is there a particular brand of hotel shampoo that you like? I’m personally a fan of places like the Roosevelt in Los Angeles that give you free Khiel’s. I actually sort of disdain the products. It’s terrible for the environment.
Do you shampoo every day? I feel it sort of breaks down your hair too much. And you have some good hair. Yeah, sometimes. When it smells. But not daily.
And the Hotel Shampoo record. Do you feel this was, stylistically, a new direction for you? It’s still me. I usually make the solo records simply and quickly. On this record I used more piano than acoustic guitar. So that was the main style shift, which wasn’t huge.
What did you learn about yourself when you went to South America looking for your lost uncle? I get asked that a lot. The answer is I have no idea. Obviously it was a really intense experience and is going to take a couple years to process it. I learned, for example, that everybody in Argentina is a better guitarist than I am. I learned that people over there are kind and are willing to give me a listen—even though they know they can play guitar better than me.
Did you improve your guitar playing while touring there? When I figured out that everybody was a better guitar player I sort of gave up.
Did you always think you had a feature documentary in you? This is something that I tried to get together for years, but nobody would give me any money. Nobody would take it seriously. Then in 2004 a guy called Rob Stringer from Sony Records gave me $30,000 to make a film, which is not a huge amount for a feature, but is defiantly a large sum of money. But that was enough money to shoot the film.
So why did he give you the money? He said something like “I don’t want to stand in the way of a man’s quest.”
Without giving too much away, what is the arc of the movie? When I started to tour solo, I realized the [act of touring] was extremely portable. I could plot a tour anywhere I wanted. So I plotted a tour in South America that mirrored the journey of the Welsh between 1865 and 1880. The whole plot of the film is to find a family member called René Griffiths. His ancestors fled Wales in 1880.
Why did they flee? It 1865, a guy called Michael D Jones took a lot of people over to create a free Welsh state where people could have a Welsh education and speak Welsh freely, and immerse themselves in Welsh culture because the language was banned in Wales. People continued to immigrate there until the First World War. It was a colony.
What have you been doing today in New York City? I played a radio session in the Bronx. It was my first time in the Bronx. When my great-granddad immigrated to the States they took him to the Bronx Zoo. A gorilla growled at him, so he spit a piece of chewing tobacco in the gorilla’s eye. And the gorilla went nuts. So he was lead out of the zoo. This is day one of your American tour. What are you feeling? Excitement. Terror. Hyperventilation.
Do you get nervous before playing? No, but I get the feeling of “shit, did I bring everything?” I can’t run home to get something.
What’s the most unique piece of equipment you bring with you? I have these electric drumsticks that I made. My soldering isn’t very good so it sort of distorts. It’s a unique sound.
I’m a massive fan of the Neon Neon album. Is this a one-off project, or do you have another record in you? We have another record. We would have to get the right subject matter and hit the right music. Brian [Hollon] has another Boom Bip record coming out. We’ve both been pretty busy, and we both live on other continents, so it’s difficult. It was really enjoyable to make that record.
And you never played New York as Neon Neon. I think a lot of people were disappointed with that. Well, around that time I had a new baby and we were recording a Super Furry Animals album. We did Neon Neon as a studio album without thinking about playing it live. It was enjoyable because we didn’t have any expectations. And it was sort of unexpected that it sold records, especially in the UK. So it was a bit of shame that we didn’t get to tour it.
So a new album in the next two years? Well, the last one took so long and we haven’t really started anything yet.
And what’s up with the Super Furry Animals? We’re starting to slow down a bit. Three us of have families now, so it’s sort of impossible to keep up the pace. For many years it was the main thing in our lives—we were completely devoted to it. But it’s inevitable that we will make more records. We are too close. But I don’t know when that will be.
So do you still enjoy playing with the Super Furry Animals? It seems a lot of artists will strike out on a solo career when their band’s career is winding down. Of course. We have a really good time together. We are original drug buddies. When we make a record we are going to be ambitious and put a lot of time into it. We don’t want to rush it.
To that point it seems you do take a lot of time thinking about your albums. Stylistically you are all over the map. What direction are you going to take? What’s great about the Super Furry Animals is that when we make a record it’s such a collaborative process. Everybody is capable of pulling it in so many different directions. You never know how the song will turn out in the end. We definitely do a lot of refining at the end too.
Do you rehearse a lot? No, we are pretty slack. In terms of rehearsal, we take a lot of breaks. Drink a lot of coffee. We play video games. In the past, rehearsing used to get in the way of videogame tournaments.
What games do you play? Really simplistic things like Worms. It can be a five-way game, so everybody can play.