words, photos and drawings by Neal Obermeyer
My favorite quote comes from Bill Drummond, who said “I have a rule: Don’t meet heroes.”
He had been tasked with interviewing Richard Long, an artist he admired, for a weekly entertainment newspaper in Bristol. The resulting essay is amazing, and ends up doing more justice to the artist than an interview probably ever could, but the underlying point was that we admire our heroes, particularly our creative heroes, because of the work they create and our personal connection to that work — not to the people behind it. We need to simply let our individual myths live and not worry about whatever external truth we might find by seeking some kind of tangibility behind it.
If I’ve ever had any more of a hero than Bill Drummond throughout my creative life, it’s been Gruff Rhys. As the frontman for Welsh psychedelic pop band Super Furry Animals, Rhys and company were coming onto the scene when I was in my late teens — the perfect time in your life to have your mind blown.
There’s a quote I perhaps mistakenly ascribe to Rhys — I’ve tried to find it with no luck, so either someone else said it, it’s from an undigitized issue of some British music newspaper, or I just made it up — that’s roughly paraphrased as “I’d rather be in a one-track studio with a 48-track mind than a 48-track studio with a one-track mind.” It obviously most directly applies to his path of making music, but it has always resonated with me and reminded me to never let anything serve as an excuse for creative restraint.
Most of my professional career has been as an editorial cartoonist, and I’ve been able to see over the years how SFA’s combination of political and personal sensitivity buried, if not masked, behind a seemingly anarchistic creative chaos has left its mark on me. I lead with all of this not just to be self-indulgent, but to also make it extremely clear that Gruff Rhys is undoubtedly one of my heroes. And so I had managed to overthink his show Aug. 14 at Slowdown and interview assignment to a point where I was questioning my engagement.
This isn’t just a normal tour for Rhys. He’s following the steps of John Evans, an 18th century Welsh explorer — and a distant relative of Rhys’ — who crossed the Atlantic in the 1790s in search of a white Native American tribe that spoke Welsh. Legend had it that Prince Modoc of Wales and a group of countrymen sailed off in 1170 to what would become known as North America, where they settled and eventually spread descendants to various native tribes. Rhys’ tour includes musical performances, but he and a film crew are also producing a documentary on Evans’ travels, retracing his path across the United States.
Dan McCarthy of McCarthy Trenching, who opened for Rhys, closed his set by telling the crowd “I don’t know what you’re in for or what’s in store, but it’s gonna be cool.” Rhys, watching McCarthy’s set from the back of the room, gave a slight smirk and proceeded up front to set up his multimedia operation.
Rhys took the stage by explaining to the crowd that he is on a concert tour, but he’s also on “… an investigative tour, of which Omaha was an important stop.”
“He had a little trouble finding them.”
Rhys then introduced a short BBC documentary on Prince Madoc to give the audience some background into the legend, the controversial history and the evidence for Madoc’s journey and the Welsh legacy amongst Native American tribes. The documentary featured a few comically dry segments from Gwyn A. Williams, a University of Wales professor and Welsh historian who lived on the street where Rhys lives now (the two never met; Williams passed away in 1995 before Rhys moved to the neighborhood, but his legacy inspired Rhys to follow his research).
Flippantly displaying his skepticism, Williams pivots to explain that it really doesn’t matter what actually happened; people lived their lives and made profound choices based on their belief in the legend.
“Myth can become an operative historical reality,” Williams said, ending the film. And at that point, the multimedia slideshow/concert began.
“I’ve never done a slideshow before,” Rhys said. “You’ll have to bear with me.”
The next hour or so was an endearing combination of Rhys retracing his decade-plus involvement with the Evans story, some new songs specifically written for the film, some old songs with admittedly tenuous connections to the story being told, and Rhys’ delightful sense of humor that combines British dryness with an infectious childlike earnestness (at one time, he asked the sound guy “Can you put shitloads of echo on my voice so it’s like going through a cave in a desert? That would be amazing.”). The songs drew passionate applause and the jokes met their marks.
Rhys' set included only one Super Furry Animals song, and it was a B-side I wouldn't have recognized as one of theirs had Rhys not specifically said so. "I don't normally play Super Furry Animals songs on tour, because it's not fair to the other guys," he said. "Because I ruin them."
Rhys shared a story about an awful toothache he came down with while in Pittsburgh, and how he chose his dentist on the basis of his logo.
“It turned out to be a good choice,” he said.
The dentist had prescribed Rhys with a seven-day course of antibiotics, of which today was the seventh. So Rhys ceremoniously finished his prescription for the audience.
“I don’t have any dentistry songs, so let’s move on.”
Rhys continued the story of Evans until its sad conclusion. Evans first found himself marked for death by the Canadians for putting up Spanish flags everywhere he went and causing an international incident (Rhys told me that Evans attempted to offer the Canadians a deal in exchange for his life, which apparently just perplexed his would-be assassins enough to the point where they just went home), but then he simply went to New Orleans to die at the age of 29.
“He died of a broken heart, feeling he’d failed,” Rhys said.
Rhys then shared a few more songs written specifically for the Evans film before segueing into the next portion of the evening, which he dubbed the “interactive” segment. He and his drummer would perform another new song while audience members would come up and play “Whale Trail,” an iPad game his crew had hooked up to the on-stage projector. The player controlled a flying Gruff Rhys through the sky, collecting stars and avoiding storm clouds. The rules were simple — if the character dies, the band stops playing.
One of the crew members demonstrated for a while before the first audience member in line stepped up.
“What’s your name?” Rhys asked the young man.
“Ah, Conor,” said the audience member, recognized to most in attendance as musician Conor Oberst.
“Conor, nice to meet you.”
The band started up again, and almost immediately Oberst sent Cartoon Gruff plummeting to his death, resulting in an abrupt stop to the music. The audience laughed.
“It’s quite simple once you get used to it,” Rhys assured him. The music started again.
It quickly stopped when Oberst once again proved to be charmingly awful at the game and failed to keep Cartoon Gruff alive.
“Are we going to have to have a briefing?” Rhys asked. The crowd was loving it.
Rhys’ drummer stood up and asked Oberst if he’d like to switch places, an offer that was quickly accepted. The drummer then masterfully guided Cartoon Gruff through the clouds for several minutes as Oberst gingerly accompanied Rhys on drums for the duration of the song.
Rhys then asked if Dan McCarthy would join them on stage, and the three of them sang Kevin Ayers’ “Singing a Song in the Morning,” which ended the set with a parade through the crowd to the back of the room.
At this point, all I could think about was the Bill Drummond advice. On one hand, Rhys seemed to be every bit the charming person you’d imagine from his music. On the other hand, that’s the trap. These are performers. We see them on stage (or on the gallery wall, or on screen, whatever the case may be), and that’s where we need to leave them — they can’t live up to the myths we build of them.
But Rhys was just standing around, and I thought I might have a tough time telling Hear Nebraska Editor-in-Chief Andrew Norman, “Well, Andy, I couldn’t actually interview Gruff because I read this article in a magazine in Bristol 14 years ago ...” so I said hello.
We had a nice chat about the film production, a topic that you can tell from body language genuinely energizes him. Rhys told me that coming west of the Mississippi has made it all seem more real to him. His father was quite absorbed in the family legacy, and his brother had come to live with the Mandan tribe, which Evans had done centuries before. But Rhys had never felt the personal connection his family had — until this trip.
“Since gaining an hour,” he said, referring to the passage into Central time, “It’s started to hit me.”
In spite of his father and brother’s passion for the topic, Rhys’ interest in Evans had only started when researching the history of his neighborhood predecessor, Professor Williams.
“I had never met [Williams], but I became fascinated with him,” he said. “I read all of his books.”
You wouldn’t know from the presentation — or at least you wouldn’t be sure — but like his mentor, Rhys doesn’t believe a shred of the Prince Madoc legend.
“I’ve got no interest in Madoc,” he said. “I’m interested in John Evans. Madoc was all just a myth, just something the British invented to lay a claim on the land, but Evans was crazy enough to want to go find them.”
It was the belief in the myth, —the desire to believe in something that seemed too good to be true — that holds the magic for Rhys.
Rhys said production on the film will continue for a little while longer, and then he — like Evans did on his journey — will take a break for winter. The film is due to be completed in 2014 with an original soundtrack from Rhys.
The scene that played out with Oberst, “Whale Trail,” the cameo drumming and the closing singalong will likely be a show-stealer, as it conveniently played out in front of the tour-documenting camera crew.
It was all just a little too good to be true, so I was tempted to ask Rhys how much of it was pre-planned. But I abstained.
I decided it was just better to leave the myth intact. As far as I’m concerned, it was just spontaneous rock ‘n’ roll magic.