Music

Gruff Rhys follows ancestor's path on 'American Interior'

by Shaun Curran

Special To The Japan Times

For his fourth solo album, “American Interior,” Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys went the extra mile. Or more accurately, the extra 1,800 miles.

Following in the footsteps of his distant relative, 18th-century Welsh explorer John Evans, Rhys precisely retraced the long journey taken by the 22-year-old Evans in 1792 when, spurred on by a British establishment myth, he travelled to America to unearth a Welsh-speaking Native American tribe called the Madogwys.

“I’d read books before the tour but nothing could have prepared me for the incredible distances and the realization that this journey was truly insane,” Rhys says. “Just the scale of it was terrifying. I do admire his perseverance and his refusal to accept possibilities.”

Evans’ adventure ended with regret, but Rhys has mined multimedia gold. His Investigative Concert Tour, from Baltimore through to New Orleans, was filmed for a 90-minute documentary, which along with an album, book (a “psychedelic historical travelogue”) and mobile app gives a comprehensive multiplatform re-imagining of the Evans folklore.

The story appealed to Rhys’ mischievous sense of imagination. Parts are remarkable: Variously, Evans became a Spanish citizen, annexed North Dakota from the British and mapped out the Missouri River.

But Rhys thinks the most fascinating aspect of Evans’ journey was that “he had the honor of seeing some of the great nations of North America at the height of their civilizations. He lived with the Mandan tribe for nine months, one of the most celebrated cultures in the Americas. He also experienced North America as pristine wilderness. He knew what it’s like to see herds of 4,000 buffalo across the plains.”

“American Interior” is packed with enduring tunes and affectionate wit that queries nationhood, identity and (in)glorious failure as much as it does Evans himself.

“I wasn’t too fussed with making a detailed narrative; we could do that with the film and the book,” Rhys says. “I wanted to convey basic feelings — his excitement and joy at the beginning, his feelings of despair, hope — and chose around 10 key moments of his life. I wanted the songs to be listenable and to exist outside the project, so you don’t need to know they are about John Evans’ life, my life or anyone else’s life.”

Rhys concludes that Evans’ wider legacy “would be as a cartographer,” but that his own critique is more personal.

“I think of him, touring America at that time in his 20s, as having a similar mindset to a rock musician — on tour trying to achieve some misguided glory.”

Gruff Rhys plays Club Quattro in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on March 2 (7 p.m. start; ¥5,000 in advance; 03-3444-6751). For more information, visit www.gruffrhys.com.