Recorded over two years ago in a studio that’s since been knocked down in the name of “progress” in the form of more luxury condos, Babelsberg is Super Furry Animals frontman, Gruff Rhys’ latest solo release. Mixing our almost universal frustration with the current state of things, an underlying sense of hope is found in wry wit and the infectious melodies scattered throughout the album’s ten tracks. Working with a number of musicians, including bandmates from Super Furry Animals and the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales, it may be his most fully realized solo album to date.
Ghettoblaster: Can you tell me about how you sequence an album? I really love the flow of Babelsberg.
Gruff Rhys: Well, it was the toughest part of the whole album process for me this time. I settled on this sequence which I’m mostly happy with before mastering for reasons of sonic flow between tracks. The mastering changed the vibe of some tracks quite a lot though and if the record wasn’t out already I would now open with “Same Old Song” followed by “ Frontier Man” and all the other songs in present order, but I would move “The Club” to come after “Negative Vibes,” with this sequence I could have 5 tracks on each side of vinyl. Not the current 6/4 split, which I had to do due to the confines of vinyl running time. It’s the first time ever I’ve had such an existential quandary with my tracklist! But in any case, I’m happy enough with the tracklist but might flip it if there’s ever a 10th anniversary edition or something!
GB: With the rise of streaming, do you still think of albums as singular pieces? “Architecture of Amnesia” works wonderfully as a second to last tracks, but I wonder how it would sound set on it’s own or between two other randomized songs.
GR: I see what you mean. I suppose that applies for the tracklist question too, is the album still an artform? It still is in my own world so I’m happy to be still working in that tradition, but by all means chop it up to bits on a playlist, I’m all for hearing music in different and surprising contexts. Though of all my records this was an album in which I was most careful just to have one sonic palate throughout – to make a cohesive album.
GB: How involved were you with the orchestral arrangements that Stephen McNeff composed?
GR: I had worked with him before and knew I could trust him with the songs. I just sent him a playlist of playful orchestral pop arrangements and the odd melodic suggestion, like the intro melody for “Same Old Song”, for example. Otherwise I left him to it but he was sending me synthesised demo versions continuously so that I could flag up anything that didn’t seem to work
GB: Performing the songs live, are you going to try and replicate the sound on album or is the live show a different experience you’re trying to create?
GR: The core band on the record will be playing with me live so it will sound very similar. Osian [Gwynedd], the pianist, works some of the arrangements into a synth part too – whilst playing piano with the other hand – he’s amazing!
GB: Seeing Super Furry Animals in Detroit is one of my favorite shows in memory, I actually had went to see the opening band and now can’t remember who they were. Do you plan as large a production for your solo shows or is that more of an intimate experience?
GR: I guess it will be more intimate due to the material, especially the new album which we’ll play in full. Having said that, with Kliph Scurlock on the drums the shows can really take off!
GB: Being from Wales seems to be a large part of your identity as a musician; having sung an album in welsh, using the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for Babelsberg. Why is that important to you?
GR: I guess it’s such a small country that it’s inevitable that Welsh artists have to point out where they are from a little bit more. Beyond that I would never try and make music that’s self-consciously Welsh in particular – though my political and linguistic identity having grown up speaking Welsh, definitely defines my worldview in general.
GB: These songs are two years old, but still deal with a lot of the issues that we’re battling through today with Trump and Brexit and everything else nasty in the world. How do you feel about the state of things? Your songs still feel hopeful despite it all.
GR: Obviously the political climate in general worldwide is horrific with facist ideologies becoming mainstream. It really gets me down yet I’m still hopeful that the majority of people instinctively know this is the wrong way to go.
GB: Social media gives us all a platform to take public stances, but with it comes a seeping sense of ubiquity and futility. Like, maybe the best it’s doing is giving us some tiny feeling of fighting against it. Do you ever feel similar as a musician when you’re trying to take a stance on something?
GR: Yes. I’m not the fastest person in terms of digesting the news cycle, by the time I’ve formed a coherent opinion another travesty has happened and people’s attention have moved on. With my songs I can consider things gradually and I can comment on the world like that – although very few of my songs are protest songs in a direct sense. My blog was hacked out of existence following my anti Brexit song [“I Love EU”] so that was pretty freeing in a strange way. I just decided to just comment through the songs themselves.
GB: Everyone in the band seems so busy, but is there a new Super Furry Animals anywhere on the horizon?
GR: No new stuff but we’re continually working together on reissues and there’s lots of solo projects on the way.
Catch Gruff Rhys on tour:
Aug 30-Sept 2 – Salisbury, UK – End Of The Road Festival
Sept 12th – London, UK – Barbican (with the London Contemporary Orchestra)
Sept 15th – Manchester, UK – RNCM Concert Hall (with the RNCM Orchestra)
Sept 16th – Manchester, UK – RNCM Concert Hall (with the RNCM Orchestra)
Oct 5th – Montreal, QUE – The Ritz
Oct 6th – Toronto, ONT – Garrison
Oct 8th – Boston, MA – Great Scott
Oct 9th – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade
Oct 10th – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s
Oct 11th – Washington, DC – DC9
Oct 12th – Pittsburgh, PA – Funhouse
Oct 13th – Columbus, OH – Ace Of Cups
Oct 14th – Chicago, IL – Chop Shop
Oct 16th – Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center
Oct 19th – Vancouver, BC – Fox Cabaret
Oct 20th – Seattle, WA – Barboza
Oct 21st – Portland, OR – Doug Fir
Oct 23rd – San Francisco, CA – The Chapel
Oct 24th – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
Nov 8th – Portsmouth, UK – Wedgewood Rooms
Nov 9th – Brighton, UK – The Old Market
Nov 10th – Folkestone, UK – The Quarterhouse
Nov 11th – Oxford, UK – O2 Academy
Nov 12th – Bristol, UK – SWX
Nov 13th – Birmingham, UK – Glee Club
Nov 15th – Glasgow, Scotland – SWG3
Nov 16th – Leeds, UK – Church Leeds
Nov 17th – Liverpool, UK – Arts Club
Nov 19th – Paris, France – Le Badaboum
Nov 20th – Schaffhausen, Switzerland – Tap Tab
Nov 21st – Munich, Germany – Ampere
Nov 22nd – Berlin, Germany – Privatclub
Nov 23rd – Hamburg, Germany – Turmzimmer
Nov 24th – Copenhagen, Denmark – Alice
Nov 26th – Brussels, Belgium – Botanique/Rotonde
Nov 27th – Cologne, Germany – Studio 672
Nov 28th – Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso Noord
Nov 30th – Other Voices
Dec 1st – Cork, Ireland – Live At St.Lukes
Dec 2nd – Galway, Ireland – Roisin Dublin
Dec 3rd – Dublin, Ireland – Button Factory
Photograph: press provided
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