May 2, 2014. Acapela Chapel, Pentyrch.
I stand quietly at the door and listen to the sound check. Voices calling out, snippets of melody and song, a laugh, feedback rising to a distorted pitch and brought back down again.
Gruff Rhys is in Acapela, a small converted chapel in Pentyrch, getting ready for the first of a series of gigs across Wales this spring and summer to promote his new multimedia project, American Interior.
American Interior, a highly ambitious concept comprising a record, a film, a book, an app, and personal performances, chronicles the journey of John Evans from his hometown Waunfawr across the Atlantic ocean to Baltimore. And his long walk along the Missouri river in search of a lost tribe of Welsh speaking first nation Americans.
Gruff’s tour manager passes me at the door and as he rushes past he says ‘five minutes…he won’t be long now’.
‘That’s fine’, I answer, ‘there is no rush’.
I’m meeting Gruff before the concert tonight to talk about his new project.
Half an hour later we are sat upstairs in a small room. Bottles of water, iPad on the table and a deep sigh and smile from Gruff as he sits down. He apologises for keeping me waiting, I apologise for taking up his time when he’s obviously busy. He is charming, relaxed, intelligent, an attentive listener and an astute and deliberate speaker.
I ask him about the origins of the project.
Gruff Rhys: Well, it was based around an investigative concert tour in America, following the path taken by John Evans between 1782 and 1789. We toured along his journey. I had done a previous investigative concert tour with my friend Dylan Goch directing the film. A film called Separado! And then, about eight years ago, we found a film by Gwyneth Williams called Madog, that deals with the Madog myth. John Evans was following the mythical tribe of Madogus, descended from Madog the mythical Welsh prince. And the story of John Evans was featured a little bit in this wider documentary from the 1970s. So we’d seen this documentary and that was inspiring for me, and Dylan as well, and I went to see a booking agent in America three years ago. Asked him to plot a tour along the journey. So we were following the journey of someone following someone else’s journey.
Sarah King: Was the destination at the end of the journey different than what you thought you would find?
Absolutely, and we were willing for that to happen as well. For example, we created an avatar of John Williams, one metre tall, and for most of the journey he was just a visual aid. John Evans existed before visual surveillance, so we have no idea what he looked like. We created this approximation of what he may have looked like. Which was fine for most of the journey, but when we came to New Orleans they presumed it was a voodoo fetish. So that completely changed the nature of this doll. We were persisting that it was not a voodoo fetish, it was just a representation of a distant relative, and they said ‘yes, that’s what a voodoo fetish is. A representation of a relative. You must build him a shrine, give it cards and food and sing to it’. So that meant had to build a shrine for it. We took it back to North Wales and we had a voodoo ceremony in Waunfawr on top of a mountain. I’m sure he would be horrified. The real John Evans would have been very religious. He lived at the beginning of a huge protestant reformation in Europe. He came from a very religious, Methodist family, but he was very pragmatic. He was a baptist within three weeks of arriving in America, and then there is no mention of religion again in his correspondences. And he got to experience the ceremonies of some of the tribes of the Missouri. He would have experienced the Buffalo dance and the okipa, where people hang themselves by hooks from the ceiling.
Did you see the story as a metaphor for a larger Welsh issue?
Yes, there are contradictions as well, in that he was escaping colonisation. There was also a class struggle. It was the time of the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Iolo Morgannwg who was his mentor, and people like John Rhys, were radicals. They wanted to live in a land free of the monarchy and the ruling classes and they thought they could creative this new Wales based on the values of the American Revolution in the region where the lost tribe of Madogus existed. I mean they were completely deluded, and by attempting to colonise someone else’s land they were contradicting themselves. Would it not have been better to start a revolution in Wales? All that energy John Evans spent walking 4000 miles looking for a lost tribe and start a new Wales. I mean, he had a good look. Would that energy have been better spent starting a revolution in Wales? Except people at that time were putting all their energy into establishing religion. Organising themselves outside The Church of England. Which is political in a way, but now we are in a post-religious era, maybe we would rather they have put their energy into a political revolution.
This story seems to have started out as a story about looking for Welshness, but also became about other minority cultures and languages.
Yes, I think it’s very profound to see the physical manifestation of what the end of a language looks like. I met the last speaker of a language that was being spoken when John Evans travelled through. At that time they were still practising their ceremonies and were close to the height of their civilisation. Although they had already suffered from smallpox at this point, he met the Omaha tribe at the very height of their civilisation and lived with them. It’s obviously slightly disingenuous comparing the Welsh experience to people that have gone through near genocide. I’m not comparing it, but there are lots of similarities between what happened to the people in Wales, and what happened in America.
Does that make you worry for the Welsh language?
Well, yeah. The mood in the reservations was incredible. They have some sovereignty, and some control over education so they can learn about their own culture. The age of assimilation is over. They have their own sort of pop culture ad pow-wows, and it was very inspiring to see that. It was also interesting to see how lucky we are in Wales, and what an amazing opportunity we have to keep the language and grow the language. But it’s only going to be an opportunity for a short period of time.
It’s very interesting to be in this building in Pentyrch. If you walk around the cemetery it’s very obvious that not long ago everyone here was Welsh-speaking, and this whole village was Welsh-speaking until the 1960s when the city reached the village. It’s almost unimaginable now, this close to Cardiff, and such a short time ago. It shows how easily the language can just disappear from the remaining heartlands if it happened so quickly here.
Is that part of the reason you chose to make the album bilingual?
Well, it shows the contradictions in me as well. I use the English language, and I love American pop culture. At the time I was writing the songs, I was portraying the story to American audiences. I was doing a tour and was travelling through America, and telling the story to people who were completely ignorant about Wales, and often my music, and definitely John Evans. I had to explain everything, so I wrote a lot of the songs in English because I was in the moment, and in the journey. But now, taking everything in, I probably would have recorded an album about John Evans in the Welsh language. It seems strange to record it in English language, but that’s what I did.
Did going to art school inspire the idea of the concept album? The notion of a bigger vision rather than being intuitive?
I’m not sure how it has manifested itself, because I am a big fan of music, and making music, and I have been trying to write songs most of my life. As a musician I’m a figurative songwriter, but having gone through that process maybe I am not interested in authenticity, and through that I have come across ideas that the whole self image can be a construct. It doesn’t have to be genuine or touched by the hand of the artisan. I’m not the greatest musician, but I can create anything, use any sound. I mean, I’m just speculating here…why I take it to certain places. Maybe I’m comfortable in ideas…
Do you see yourself as a conceptual artist?
Well, the tour was conceptual, and people take conceptual arcs in art. The strategy of booking agents is to have you go to cities where lots of people live, so large groups of people can gather at your concerts and make lots of money for the promoters etc. I was just looking for ways to change the way I tour and maybe have a new sense of purpose for touring that was beyond commerce. Touring can be vacuous if it’s just fulfilling someone having sat in an office filling in the tour without any input from the artist. You are basically at the behest of someone elses whim. You don’t really get anything back from it. It’s usually a wonderful experience but I was trying to think of touring in a way that was solving something. But then my love of music is naive, rather than conceptual.
Tonight, it’s just you on the stage. Do you enjoy the live gigs? Are they important to you ?
I was thinking recently about the disconnect between songwriting and recording, and then having to create a spectacle, a live spectacle, without it being related in any way. Unless you are the artisan folk musician.
It’s a different part. They are maybe how I make some kind of living, so in that sense I am the artisan. Going back to the naive state. Singing melodic songs. Enjoy it? Maybe like being in a car driving fast…
Downstairs, in the bar, 180 people are milling around. A hum of voices. Excitement and anticipation. The concert was sold out in less than 2 hours.
We take our seats in the chapel, the lights are dim, and Gruff makes his way to the pulpit in a black suit, wearing the wolf hat, and carrying the John Evans doll, that along with the black, white and purple colour scheme that runs throughout all the multimedia platforms, have become the visual branding of the concept. John Evans is placed on top of the pulpit, and the hat is placed under as the guitar comes on.
He has his hands full, and the show is an impressive feat of multitasking. Playing, singing, controlling effects and loops, storytelling, managing a slide show and keeping the audience in the palm of his hand with warmth and wit.
He switches naturally between Welsh and English in song and in telling the story of John Evans. A story told with humour and a feeling of laissez-faire calm amid all the activity. The connection with the audience is easy. Gruff is on home turf and his audience laps up every joke and exchange. Technical hitches are dealt with wit, and become running jokes throughout the 90minute set, and the small room creates a familiarity and intimacy that would have been impossible in a larger venue.
He opens with ‘Honey All Over’, and the set is a mix of solo back catalogue like ‘Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru’, ‘Sensations in the Dark’, ‘Shark Ridden Waters’, ‘Gwn Mi Wn’ and songs from the new album including the title track, ‘Iolo’ and ‘100 unread messages’. Halfway through the set the hauntingly beautiful ‘Walk into the Wilderness’ cuts through the jest and humour to remind us that behind the tales of adventure lies a story of hope, oppression, belief, endurance and tragedy. A 22 year old man, inspired by the age of enlightenment, mythological tales of Prince Madog having discovered America and left behind Welsh-speaking descendants and a wish for freedom from English imperialism. Encouraged by intellectuals like Iolo Morgannwg, who himself wimped out of the expedition last minute, John Evans set out on a suicide mission that not only resulted in the inevitable realisation that there was no such tribe in America, but led to his eventual death aged just 29.
Gruff delivers a thought provoking and inspiring experience that sits in the borderlands between music and art, reality and myth, comedy and tragedy.
As the concert ends the audience make their way back into the still warm spring evening. Walking through the graveyard surrounding Acapela, smoking their post-sensory experience cigarettes, laughing, comparing notes. Hopefully with a reminder of the fragility and vulnerability of the Welsh language and culture, and maybe a lesson that the way ahead is to be brave and follow in John Evans’ footsteps by moving forward, exploring and not accepting a situation as inevitable.
Illustration by Dean Lewis