A sacred mountain on the Korean border, a pilgrimage to meet Linda Ronstadt, a 13th century Welsh prince and an obsession with the work of Klaus Dinger… welcome to the world of Gruff Rhys

“It’s a very important mountain, especially for the Korean people,” says Gruff Rhys, thoughtfully. Although, to be honest, everything he says is pretty damned thoughtful. “Their origin and culture are tied to it, so I’m overstating as much as I can that the album is about an imaginary Mount Paektu of the mind. It’s pretty abstract.”

Notebooks out, class, pay attention! Paektu is an active volcano on the border between China and North Korea. It’s sacred to both Korean states as the birthplace of Dangun, the semi-mythical founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom. Rhys has never actually been there, but was intrigued by the name in a book, which lit the spark of inspiration for his new long-player, ‘Seeking New Gods’. 

It’s complex stuff to be discussing at 10am on a Tuesday morning with this softly spoken Welsh polymath, but he’s characteristically patient and polite. 

“I really didn’t want to make an offensive Orientalist record,” he explains. “But Paektu is what inspired me. I then applied it to people – imagining them as mountains, I suppose – and it became more personal. I wrote some songs with Mount Paektu in them, dropping in references to historical characters and dates, but they just sounded awful, a bit ill-fitting. Once I realised that, I relaxed and stopped feeling any pressure to have a narrative. I don’t want anyone to notice there’s a theme to the album, really. The songs can exist without the concept.”

We’re talking on the phone. Rhys had sounded surprised and a little cautious when he answered, but reassured me he was expecting the call (“I always sound like that”) before embarking on a genial conversational meander gently reflecting the early hour. It’s an unhurried breakfast of an interview, courteous and contemplative, and he does seem endearingly concerned that ‘Seeking New Gods’ might be misinterpreted as an act of cultural appropriation. 

“I didn’t want to make a quasi-mystical record,” he insists. “I grew up in a mountainous area, so mountains are very real for me.”

Rhys’ love of the distinctly windswept seems slightly incongruous amid the giddy urban circus of the music world, but it’s wholly authentic. In February 2020, as part of a tour of intimate rural venues, he played the Parochial Hall in the picturesque North Yorkshire village of Great Ayton. The day before the gig, during an interview I did with him for the local radio station, he expressed an interest in scaling Roseberry Topping, the mini-Matterhorn of the North York Moors. 

This wasn’t just idle radio banter. The morning after the show, he actually did it. He genuinely spent his day off on a fairly strenuous climb of this iconic local landmark, alongside support act Elaine Palmer, her husband Jake, and Robert Nichols – lead singer of Teesside post-punk legends Shrug. Nichols later told me they’d passed much of the ascent discussing Great Ayton’s most famous resident, one Captain Cook, who reputedly found his taste for adventure exploring the same slopes as a boy. 

“When I’m on tour, I just want to see everything,” laughs Rhys. “You meet local people and get exposed to things you wouldn’t normally ever get to experience, like local TV or radio shows… and record shops, especially! Number one would be a good local record shop. Number two would be a mountain.”

He laughs again and tells me about the piles of seven-inch singles he accumulates on tour – “I always look out for Mediterranean disco or Malaysian pop” – but the mountains draw us back. A love of high places, it seems, is a family trait. His late father, Ioan Bowen Rees, was an enthusiastic climber whose profound connection to the local Welsh peaks is reflected in his own work as a poet and in the 1987 compendium he edited, entitled ‘The Mountains Of Wales: An Anthology In Verse & Prose’. 

“Yeah, he was obsessed by it,” agrees Rhys. 

His mother, Margaret Wynn Meredith, was also an accomplished poet. It’s a touching connection. Did they spend a lot of time walking in the hills together? 

“Every weekend, more or less. And I’d mess around with my friends on the mountains or in the old quarries in the foothills. I’m from Bethesda in North Wales, and the mountain range is the Carneddau. In the 13th century it was the equivalent of the Tora Bora in Afghanistan. After the Norman invasion, that’s where the Welsh princes went into hiding. Prince Dafydd was found there – a bit like Saddam in Iraq – holed up in a little cave just above Bethesda. 

“There’s industrial history as well. The mountains were mined for slate. The local slate quarry used to be the biggest in the world, so it’s not overly idyllic, either. It was a well-balanced place to grow up.”

And is Prince Dafydd’s cave still there? 

“Yeah,” he laughs. “But it’s behind a farmhouse, not on public land. There should be a massive Brutalist sculpture or something there. Fifty foot tall and made of concrete.”

Most of ‘Seeking New Gods’ was recorded in the Mojave Desert – “like something out of the ‘The Flintstones’” – at the climax of a 2019 American tour that, by all accounts, became a profound bonding experience for all involved. Yet, tellingly, Rhys kept the mountainous origins of the album a secret from his fellow musicians.

“I didn’t want to over-romanticise it for them,” he says. “We’d been touring for a few weeks, listening to mad long jams on the stereo – a lot of mid-1970s Miles Davis. We were doing 12-hour drives between gigs and your sense of time changes, so you can listen to 15-minute songs and they’re over in a flash.

“We’d been listening to the same music as each other for weeks, and we’d rehearsed the new songs in soundchecks. We were primed. The new tracks became more ‘jammy’. 

“When we’d finished them, we’d just carry on playing. So I didn’t want to overcomplicate a good thing. We were in a spiritual enough place without messing it up with mysticism and romanticism. I hadn’t booked a studio, but then a place called Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree came up. We did a gig in Los Angeles, then drove out there.”

By now I’m picturing a ‘Fear And Loathing’-style road trip into the desert.

“It was intense,” he concedes. “Osian, our piano player, was in trouble. He was seriously ill and should have been in hospital, but nobody realised. Then Kliph, the drummer, who’s a lifelong Linda Ronstadt fan, found out she was giving a talk in Reno, Nevada on the day we arrived in Joshua Tree. So he went off in the van with all the gear, and got to meet her.” 

Which was lucky, in that it turned out to be Ronstadt’s last ever public appearance, but slightly less good news for the rest of the band, who were now holed up in the studio without their gear.

“On the first day, it wasn’t working. Nobody could understand what was wrong with the desk. And it sounds daft, but there’s a lot of bleed on the record. The drum sound comes through the piano mic, stuff like that, which makes it feel a bit ‘live’. But there’s no humidity out there, so it’s not a damp-sounding album. The sound travels faster to the mics. Although when we overdubbed it all in Bristol, that introduced some dampness.”

If the interview is a breakfast, by this point we’ve finished the toast and knocked back a bucket of black coffee. The conversation becomes supercharged, particularly when discussing the vintage synth that provides ‘Seeking New Gods’ with a unifying background drone. It doesn’t sound damp. It sounds great.

“The Solina!” he exclaims. “It’s a 1970s synth I put through a big old phaser. I’m into that whole period of mid-1970s experimentation. I love Harmonia, and anything Michael Rother or Klaus Dinger were involved with after Neu!. I read a book called ‘Electri_City’ by Rudi Esch, about the electronic music of Düsseldorf, all anecdotes from the people who were there, and it’s hilarious. I was obsessed with mid-70s ambient music – Brian Eno, Haruomi Hosono and Laurie Spiegel – that really evocative sound, still played by actual people.” 

Despite this talk of Düsseldorf experimentalism, ‘Seeking New Gods’ remains a breezy, West Coast-influenced pop album at heart. Lead single ‘Loan Your Loneliness’ even concludes with a two-minute guitar solo worthy of Steely Dan. This effortless combination of disparate influences has come to define Rhys’ solo oeuvre, just as it forged the career of the band that made his name. 

“The Super Furry records…” he ponders. “We were always experimenting with electronics, largely through Cian Ciarán, our main keyboard player. He’d have a second studio room set up with samplers, so we could take things from a live setting for him to deconstruct in there. He did amazing stuff. It was a really interesting mix of production styles.” 

While Rhys is keen to stress his respect for his fellow Super Furry Animals, he’s been a solo artist for longer than he’s been with the band. To those of us whose adult music tastes were forged in the maelstrom of the 1990s, that feels slightly mind-boggling. When I bring this up, he pauses for a long time. 

“I suppose what was amazing about the Super Furries was the intensity,” he muses. “We released nine albums in 13 years. It was an insane roller-coaster ride, totally non-stop, with nothing else in our lives. A really different way of working, and harder to keep up.” 

Does he sometimes miss the intensity? 

“It’s just a different part of my life,” he explains. “I’ve got kids now. When you spend six months in a studio, uninterrupted… It wasn’t a sacrifice at the time, by any means. It was amazing. But it would be harder for me to do now.”

Rhys is, nevertheless, still clearly compelled to explore, both geographically and artistically. ‘Seeking New Gods’ is his third solo album in as many years, and 2020 saw the publication of a “selective memoir”, ‘Resist Phony Encores!’. 

As one Beatles obsessive speaking to another, I was intrigued by an onstage encounter it mentions – a 2012 Africa Express showcase in London, where he joined organiser Damon Albarn to provide backing vocals for surprise guest Paul McCartney. 

During the set, the pair held up the whimsical placards that have become a staple of a Gruff Rhys live shows. “APPLAUSE”, “LOUDER” and “APESHIT” elicited the intended responses, but the accidentally displayed “TAX THE RICH” prompted a bemused glance from McCartney, which was immortalised on camera. Rhys still seems embarrassed by it all.

“I’ll have to send him a copy of the book,” he says. “I feel a bit bad. I sort of positioned myself in it as a McCartney troll, but I’m more respectful of him. The Super Furries met him at an awards ceremony in 1999 when we were hammered. Cian started hustling him, saying, ‘I want to remix your stuff! Send me some tapes!’. We were really on at him, but he reacted well and within a week he’d sent over some Beatles’ master tapes to be remixed – with a heavy reminder not to bootleg them! It was completely insane. So I’d come across him before and he seemed pretty grounded.”

The conversation drifts affably from on-the-record interview to off-the-record appreciation for McCartney’s musical genius and good-humoured largesse. This is the Beatle, remember, who recorded himself chomping carrots for the 2001 Super Furries album ‘Rings Around The World’. We swap podcast recommendations (Adam Buxton versus Andrew Loog Oldham), and Rhys reassures me that his keyboard player Osian is now fully recovered from his illness. 

“Fit as a fiddle,” he insists. 

So what’s next? Gruff Rhys is predictably modest. 

“I’ve got things on the go, but I’m not sure what I’ll finish first,” he says. “And sometimes things just don’t get finished…”

After an hour, our metaphorical breakfast has drawn to a conclusion, and the softly spoken polymath seems distinctly fired up to return to his ever-expanding to-do list. Because – to paraphrase generations of intrepid mountaineers – it’s there. 

‘Seeking New Gods’ is released by Rough Trade

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