“I love the Super Furry Animals obviously. I could never mimic the sonic chemistry or the wild highs we have had as a band.”
Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals is someone who can always be counted on for genre-agnostic music tinged with whatever musical flavors he feels like exploring on any given song or album. This year’s Babelsberg, his fifth solo album, chooses a different path. Rhys counteracts his fears and anxieties about the “political horror show” (in his words) we’ve been living in with a lush, ‘70s-throwback pop album backed by the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales. In advance of his fall tour in support of the album, I touched base with Rhys about the ease of working with an orchestra, the shift in tone of Babelsberg since he began working on it and how the band helped him bring the album to life on the road. The tour continues through the fall.
What did the songwriting process for Babelsberg look like? How has the record changed since you first began writing songs for the album?
It started with the song “Negative Vibes,” which is a really simple strummed acoustic guitar song. I gathered up similar songs around it. For some reason, it felt like the right to be making an album of very structured melodic songs—I’m not on the forefront of the avant-garde with this record, but I’ve accepted these songs that I seemed to arrive at easily and hopefully. Inevitably, the lyrics engage with the present day in some way that makes it valid and not an exercise in nostalgia—it had many guises but eventually it did become a very lush, old-school orchestral record.
This album is a lot more overtly political than your previous work. Was this a conscious effort, or did you set out wanting to write more political songs?
In a way, it’s a record about songwriting and the burden on the vessel that has to sing them. Songs like “Same Old Song” deal with that. I suppose the backdrop for these songwriterly songs is the political horror show of the last couple of years. It just seeps in. But it’s only pronounced on songs like “Architecture of Amnesia,” though a song like “The Club” could be about Brexit, or it could apply to anyone who feels left out or is wading in a puddle of self-pity.
Babelsberg is a more aesthetically cohesive album than anything else you’ve made. Was this an intentional choice or one that came together naturally?
Sonically, my ambition was to make an album that wasn’t eclectic and had an unified sound over the whole record. That’s not usually my strong point. I tend to collage a number of directions onto one record for better or for worse. This record, though, is as disciplined as I’ve ever been! In terms of the cover aesthetic, the illustrator Uno Moralez took the songs and some suggestions and made something that added to the intrigue of it all—a tower of frightening opulence with a bleak underbelly.
What was the process of working with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales like? How did that collaboration come about?
They’re one of the orchestras here in Cardiff. It was wild to get to work with them—I learned so much about arrangement. It was organized in collaboration with the Festival of Voice in Cardiff. It took about three days and was an education in itself. Stephen McNeff conducted, so I didn’t have too much responsibility. I was mostly in the control room listening in with very experienced orchestral engineers, so everything was very organized with scheduled tea breaks.
How big of a role did McNeff play in the sonic direction of the album?
It was quite a bleak, downer country-rock record until Stephen came on the scene. He really lifted it. I sent him some links to my favorite orchestral pop records—whistled him the odd melody—but I largely trusted his instincts as I’m a fan of his own records and compositions.
Who were your biggest influences, both musical and non-musical, when you were creating this album?
Lyrically, though there’s some satire, the backdrop is the rise of populist political forces and the resultant horror and paranoia. Musically, it’s some weird amalgamation of some of the more subversive orchestral pop records I’ve been listening to for many years, such as the Berlin album by Lou Reed. I had a cassette copy in my possession for decades when it was still a popular car format (and then an unpopular one). I mostly used to lose cassettes or leave them in peoples cars or discarded carrier bags, but for some reason I managed to never lose it. By default, it became one of the albums I’ve listened to the most. Not that I’m trying to compare Babelsberg to it, but sonically, my ears have been tuned in to that kind of symphonic pop since my teens.
How did the band you’re touring with come together?
Kliph Scurlock, Steve Black and Osian Gwynedd are truly amazing musicians and people, and I’ve played with them many times previously and known them for years. We all happened to live within about half a mile of each other at the time when I decided to make some recordings.
Lisa Jên and Mirain Haf Roberts sing with the folk band 9bach. I’ve sang and recorded with Lisa many times—she’s from my hometown. They have incredible harmonic instinct, they really lifted the songs and bought some joy into the record. They’ve played some shows too.
How does the experience of playing with the musicians that you’re touring with differ from your work with the other members of Super Furry Animals?
I love the Super Furry Animals obviously. I could never mimic the sonic chemistry or the wild highs we have had as a band. So it’s impossible to compare really. We just make a completely different sound that reflects the different personalities. I think it’s inevitably more intimate. I mostly play a Spanish guitar, so it’s slightly quieter and we’re able to make more spontaneous music live as we play smaller venues without a big production.
How easy has it been to switch from performing with a 72-piece orchestra to playing with just the three other people you’re touring with?
Surprisingly easy. Although it’s been a magical experience with the orchestra, the core of the album was live takes with these same musicians. They are the loudest things in the mix, so it sounds surprisingly full live with just the four of us. Osian’s piano playing alone seems to fill all those orchestral frequencies.
Will the tour for Babelsberg be a more straightforward experience, or will you work in some of the multimedia tricks used for the American Interior tour?
The Babelsberg tour, for me, is just a joyous musical experience. It’s all about the songs, the playing and the spontaneity. So there’s no multimedia narrative this time. We play the whole Babelsberg record. Kliph and Osian also played on the American Interior record, so those songs are making a lot of sense, too. We play songs from my five solo records, older stuff, new tunes, covers, etc.