The singer and guitarist with Super Furry Animals, tells how his huge collection of hotel mini-shampoo bottles helped inspire his new album .... called Hotel Shampoo.
Interview with Super Furry Animals front-man Gruff Rhys
For a musician who's toured extensively for 15 years, and released 13 studio albums in that time, Super Furry Animals front-man Gruff Rhys is not a man in a hurry. Talking to him ahead of the release of his third solo album, Hotel Shampoo, is a bit like having a nap on a sun-kissed hillside: his soft, heavily accented sentences crawl along at about two miles an hour, with pauses the size of the Welsh valleys.
"I've been working on this collection of songs …" he's saying, explaining the genesis of this semi-concept album about life on the road. He pauses "…for about…" he pauses again for a small eternity "…for about two years. They're quite melancholy songs. They cover, um…" he tails off again. "…fragment …fragments of things I've encountered, over the last 15 years or so. And by coincidence, I'd collected shampoo bottles from hotels the whole way along, and started collecting them in boxes. And I wanted to build them into a hotel. So this is the soundtrack for me building that hotel."
And he really did build it, as recorded in a superb video on his website - his collection stretches to hundreds and hundreds of tiny shampoo bottles, sachets, mini-soaps, free slippers, shower caps and so on. "They were scattered around my house for a long time, in jars and cupboards, cluttering up the stairs. So about two years ago, I started to organise them in boxes." It's a typically bizarre, typically hilarious art project for Rhys to conceive: what looks like an oversized dog kennel plastered with all his accumulated tour detritus. "When I finally finished the hotel, in the last night I slept in it... for about five minutes, anyway."
The record itself is a sweet, multi-faceted collection of psychedelic pop, 1960s swing, mariachi stompers and reflective songs about love and loss. For such a philosophical, cheerful man, Hotel Shampoo has quite a lot of melancholy moments. Is there a sadness that comes from being on tour, from being away from home? "It's like any other life situation, you get highs and lows," he replies. "This happens to be a batch of predominantly low songs."
Hotel Shampoo was initially supposed to be an album of piano ballads, but then things changed midway through recording. I start to ask him what happened, and for once he was quick enough to cut me off mid-sentence:
"In my mind it still is an album of piano ballads!" he laughs. "But nobody believes me. The piano's still the main instrument on every song, it's in there somewhere. In my mind it's quite middle of the road, actually." This is under-selling it somewhat; Hotel Shampoo may be more straightforward than some of his work, but it still has the dreamy, otherworldly sensibilities on display on his two previous solo albums, his Neon Neon collaboration with the experimental hip-hop producer Boom Bip, and the nine Super Furry Animals albums Rhys has fronted.
"I don't know how eclectic I am really," he says, "but I've always liked incorporating sounds from around the world, in a haphazard sort of way. With Super Furry Animals, when we were on tour, we were always enthusiastic to try out local instruments. We've tried steel drums and the electric saz [a Turkish stringed instrument], and on this record I suppose there's some mariachi brass, and Sensations in the Dark has a Latin bassline." He stops again, seemingly careful to avoid sounding pretentious. "But we didn't really care for authenticity, and I come from a non-musical background. It's just out of enthusiasm, for the places we go, and finding a new way of making a racket."
Of all those places, is his favourite to play, he says. But he also has fond memories of his one gig in the UAE. "Dubai has the best Indian restaurants of anywhere I've been," he says reverentially, recalling the Super Furry Animals headline slot at Dubai Sound City in 2009. "Though I've never been to India, I imagine theirs are pretty good too. We were only there one night, and someone took me to a Rajasthani curry house - it was amazing. It was unlike anywhere I've ever been, Dubai."
A lot of bands complain of a transient existence when on the road, travelling from tour-bus to airport to hotel to concert hall, never stopping long enough to get a sense of real life in the city they're playing. Radiohead, for example, have suggested they might stop touring altogether, partly for ecological reasons, but partly for its soul-destroying sameness. Rhys is, as ever, endearingly upbeat about the issue:
"You just have to learn to make the most of it - and at least you never get bored, anywhere. Even if you don't have time to see the sights, because the places you end up mostly are night clubs, you still get to meet great people in their native cities, all over the world. And you get to see what a night out in another country is like. Even just watching TV in a different country is an insight into another world."
One number on his new record, Christopher Columbus, a glorious psychedelic 1960s-style pop song with shimmying brass and a bluesy rhythm section, seems to point to his sense of excitement at striking out from his hometown, Bethesda in north Wales. Does the lifestyle of a pop star in 2011 have any similarities to that of a 15th-century explorer?
"In a way…" he says thoughtfully. "I still find it quite strange, how I can live a normal life in Cardiff, and then go on tour, and live in people's houses for months on end. It's such a different lifestyle."