Music: Gruff around the edges

Ponderous, laconic and slightly stoned, Gruff Rhys talks to Anna Burzlaff about filming illegal videos and his shampoo bottle collection

Waiting for Gruff Rhys to finish a sentence can be a laborious task at times. However, when he eventually speaks, the 40-year-old Super Fury Animals frontman and acclaimed solo artist is certainly worth listening to.

Heralded as a Welsh experimental icon, Rhys’s third solo album, Hotel Shampoo, sees a return to a more pop-based sound. The style of the record is epitomised by ‘Shark Ridden Waters’, the album’s lead single. It’s a nautical-themed paragon of lazy summer day listening on an album that specialises in the lighter side of Rhys’s sensibilities.

While Rhys is never one to stick to convention, Hotel Shampoo was born of a more novel concept than most of his albums. With 567 hotel shampoo bottles, 121 shower caps, 28 sewing kits, as well as many more miscellaneous hotel compliments, Rhys found the inspiration for his next release.

“We started touring about 15 years ago and I decided that I was going to build a hotel out of all this stuff,” he recalls. “So I kept collecting until about three years ago, then I started organising them into boxes and it was about the same time as I was writing this record, so I stole the title from the hotel.”

As strange as Hotel Shampoo’s genesis may sound, it doesn’t end there; the hotel in question proved a source of ideas and motivation as the record was coming together. “It kind of helped me finish some of the songs. If I was in doubt, I’d try to think of an imaginary shampoo or shower gel or something. Like ‘Honey All Over’ would be an imaginary shower gel and ‘Vitamin K’ would be some weird biological shampoo.”

One of the few songs to escape the album’s mostly introspective tone was ‘Shark Ridden Waters’, which was spontaneously written with DJ/electronic musician Andy Votel. “We got into a crazy place in our heads. We got obsessed by the sea, and before we knew it we’d recorded ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ which was quite unplanned.”

For Rhys, one of the most exciting aspects of the single was its video, which he feels to be a Jean-Luc Godard-inspired comment on social networking. “I wanted to make a video about social networking and how people now are sort of living two lives simultaneously,” he says. “I wanted to be in the most ridiculous, lavish scene, you know, but completely ignoring it.”

Filmed in the South of France, the video’s creative process was an unusual one with a low budget, replica guns, counterfeit money and police: “It was just extremely dodgy. They [the police] asked to see the permit for filming and we didn’t have one so they threw us out of the village. It was mental.”

The whole process of making videos and producing music is extremely different for a solo artist than for a band. While Rhys acknowledges the security being in a band provides, he appreciates the freedom of solo work: “It’s very different, but I suppose the group has been going for so long that it’s given me everything in a way, and I love playing with the group, I suppose it’s amazing getting to do something different and recharge the batteries.”

Any worries of Rhys growing tired of Super Fury Animals can quickly be put to bed as he explains that they still have yet to reach their goal of creating a completely unique sound: “It’s a fine line sometimes between making something ridiculous and making something unique without making it completely unlistenable.”

It may sound cheesy, but Super Furry Animals have built their longstanding career upon a core of friendship, a fact which has not only ensured their survival, but also their humility. “We formed after having known each other for a long time. I think it’s that when you start a group as friends, it’s maybe a bit more of a solid grounding than other ways.”

However, for the time being, and with ever burgeoning outside commitments, solo work is the best option for Rhys: “I mean most of us have kids and stuff, and I find myself not able to be in the band and live normally. When I do stuff on my own I can do it at my own pace and take time off.  When we’ve all got our shit together, we’ll make the tenth album and tour for three years!”

While children, producing, filmmaking and tours may sound exhausting to some, Rhys is quick to emphasise his laid-back approach towards it all: “I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to have a real job. In that sense I feel quite lazy. I’ve hardly toured in the past two years and the album took three weeks to make, I don’t feel like I’m overstretched.”

For now, Rhys only has to worry about his tour later in the year. While little is definite for Rhys’s future schedule, you can be sure much more is to come from the Welshman. After over 23 years in music, Gruff appears to have changed very little and – verging upon of the release of his third solo album – is as calm, cool, and high as ever.

Hotel Shampoo is out now.