Gruff Rhys on cue cards, Welsh music and The Edinburgh Fringe
Ahead of his first run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, we speak to the Super Furry Animals frontman and prolific solo artist, Gruff Rhys about his love of cue cards, the future of the Welsh language, and why people sometimes struggle to understand him
If you were confronted at a gig by a musician holding up a large sign proclaiming "APPLAUSE!", chances are you would immediately start clapping. That's the experience of Gruff Rhys, sometime leader of the Super Furry Animals and prolific solo artist. He is the undisputed master of cue cards at live shows. Why engage in banal on-stage banter when you can simply hold up a piece of cardboard with a snappy one-word pointer?
Those unfamiliar with the inimitable Welsh songwriter might presume such actions are based on ego. But for Rhys, perhaps the most softly spoken of all frontmen to find fame in the swaggering mid-90s, the idea to use cue cards was a practical one. “When I was a kid I was into bands like Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain who didn’t communicate at all with the audience,” he tells The Skinny in his distinctive half-whisper.
“I found that a lot less condescending. For about the first ten years of performing, I didn’t really bother speaking to the audience as I didn’t want to start being condescending myself. After a while, the audiences started to get a bit bigger and I felt I needed to communicate. But then no one could understand what I was saying. I don’t have a very commanding voice. It was mostly my accent and the low volume of my voice and a lack of projection. I have the same predicament in the Welsh language as well. I'm equally unclear.
"Then, by accident, by holding up the signs people would react immediately and be very obedient. I couldn’t believe how malleable the audience were.” He laughs: “I try not to exploit that hour of the show and try to use the signs responsibly!”
Rhys will bring his many cue cards to the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh when he arrives into the Capital for an eight-night residency as part of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he'll play a selection of songs from his long and varied career. And what songs they are. There are few touring musicians in the UK who have achieved such critical success, first with a band, and then as a solo songwriter while staying true to their firmly-held beliefs.
Back when record companies still had sizable promotional budgets, the newly-signed Super Furries spent theirs on a specially-modified army tank to play impromptu techno sets – a fun-yet-serious protest at the infamous Tory clampdown on illegal raves which could see a DJ’s equipment impounded by police. Just you try and impound this tank, was the band's message.
Several years later, the band would reject a seven-figure offer from Coca-Cola to use their song Hello Sunshine in an advert citing alleged malpractice by the company in one of its South American bottling plants. "We felt we couldn’t justify endorsing a product that may have had a part in violently suppressing some of its workers,” wrote Rhys at the time. While working on his own or as part of the Neon Neon electro project, he has since explored in song such matters as Brexit, hotel shampoo bottles and the life and death of Italian communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.
But back to Edinburgh. “I’ve played the odd gig at the festival but I’ve never been there for a week before,” explains Rhys. “It’s just something that happened, accidentally, really. I started doing a slideshow when I was touring American Interior. I had like a Powerpoint presentation that I was doing on the road, in-between playing songs. Since then, I've got a new slideshow and I got offered these gigs. It’s something that’s built gradually and something I’ve fallen into rather than having any grand ambitions.
“I’ve been to the festival a little bit and had a sort of glimpse of what goes on without completely understanding it, you know? This time I’ll get to live in it for a while. I’m playing a really late show (11pm) so it’s going to be a bit like a midnight movie. So I’ll have all day to figure out what goes on. I’ll just be doing it myself with a guitar and a slideshow. I’m going to play songs from my new record and lots of old songs from the past 30 years. I think it’s going to make sense! The slideshow is about – for the most part – how I’ve been using cue cards to communicate with audiences for the last decade or so. So I’m going to bring all of them and the slideshow is going to feature a lot of them. I’m going to see how far I can take these commands to the audience."
Tracks from Rhys' latest solo album Babelsberg, which was released in June despite being largely finished in 2016, will be played throughout the show. The album features orchestral scores by Swansea-based composer Stephen McNeff and the work of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. "It just took as long as it took,” he says. “I had the bulk of it done a couple of years ago but I was keen to get the arrangements right and had to find an orchestra, which took a while – a couple of years! Which is longer than I usually take with a record."
The record’s title is a reference to the kind of plush residential towers that have sprung up in many major UK cities in recent years, often at the expense of more community-minded facilities – including the Cardiff recording studio where Rhys taped the songs for Babelsberg. “The record is not particularly political, although there are some themes here and there,” he explains. "When I was looking for a title I wanted it to allude to the recording process which was disrupted by the studio being knocked down to build luxury flats. It seemed to sum up a kind of societal moment where cultural spaces are no longer considered things of value, and instead, they are turned into these kinds of homes that have a veneer of opulence, which only magnifies disparity. The record is opulent itself, with the orchestra, so it has that veneer as well.”
Looking beyond the Fringe, Rhys is working with his Furries bandmates to prepare more SFA reissues following the successful remastering of the group’s first two albums. Further down the line, we could also hear new solo material in Welsh. Rhys and his band have long been proponents of their native tongue and its central role in Welsh culture. “I’ve got a few Welsh language songs on the go at the moment,” he says. "Welsh language music at the moment is very healthy. There’s a digital distribution service, PYST, and they’re putting out loads of bands. There’s new stuff going up every week – from interesting music, to middle-of-the-road music. Like any other language!
"Most people in Wales are now very accepting of the language even if they don't speak it. But the reality on the ground, in areas where it has been spoken traditionally, means it is being disrupted for all kinds of reasons. People are being priced out of their communities by the housing market. There's been a huge drop in many areas in the number of Welsh speakers in the past 20 years, areas where you once took it for granted they were 100% Welsh speaking. When you reach that threshold of 50% it can go downhill very swiftly. In a lot of industrial areas, they lost the language a century ago and it's been revived by Welsh language education. So it's increasing in some places and decreasing in its heartlands. It's a real battle, you know?"
Gruff Rhys: Resist Phony Encores!, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), 17-25 Aug (not 20), £19.50-£23.50, part of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe