Interview: Shy Gruff Rhys finds new way to connect with audiences

Gruff Rhys admits he isn't the chattiest of frontmen, but his solo gigs are still rich with language, both written and sung. Picture: Tracey Paddison/REX/Shutterstock
Gruff Rhys admits he isn't the chattiest of frontmen, but his solo gigs are still rich with language, both written and sung. Picture: Tracey Paddison/REX/Shutterstock
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Gruff Rhys is making his Fringe debut, and has developed a novel, effective way of interacting with his audiences, writes Fiona Shepherd

Play your cards right at the Fringe and you could end up: drinking beer onstage with some hunky male vocalists; gambling away the GDP of a fictional nation; or submitting to an interrogation of your online practices. Or avoid selection for all three cameo roles, depending on your feelings towards audience participation.

One thing is for sure – if you reach the end of the Fringe without encountering even the mildest form of audience involvement, you’ve probably been going to the wrong shows. But even the most interaction-phobic need not fear participation in Gruff Rhys: Resist Phony Encores!, a late-night audience with the respected frontman of much-loved Welsh indie rock adventurers Super Furry Animals.

Rhys’s Fringe debut is essentially a solo gig featuring material from across his career – solo albums, including his latest offering Babelsberg, as well as Super Furry Animals gems from the past 20 years and, maybe if we do what we’re told, some selections from his other band Neon Neon’s two synthpop concept albums on the lives of celebrated car manufacturer John DeLorean and Italian communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

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Rhys is a shy performer but he’s not shy of a theatrical concept or two to spice up live performances. In their time, Super Furry Animals have commandeered tanks and glow-in-the-dark golf buggies, worn yeti costumes and been joined onstage by squidgy cartoon aliens. For Resist Phoney Encores, he will revive his simplest, but most enduring stage device – his collection of homemade signs and placards issuing a series of instructions to the audience (“applause”, “louder”, “apeshit”) which were originally conceived because Rhys was conscious that he wasn’t the chattiest of frontmen.

“I’ve found that it’s quite a handy way of communicating with audiences,” he says. “It happened gradually and quite accidentally and now I’ve got hundreds.

“I make new signs all the time and they all have a story. I’ve got a ‘lasers for Scotland’ sign from when Glasgow City Council banned the Super Furry Animals from using a laser at shows a couple of times. It was a health and safety issue I think but we were really frustrated so we had a campaign Lasers for Scotland and then the next time we played it was allowed again, but the sign was still useful because we’d won the campaign.

“Some signs are self-explanatory, but there’s also cases where there’s been extreme misunderstanding of the sign. There’s signs that work in some countries and have the opposite effect in others. Hold a ‘Tax the Rich’ sign up at the peak of a night in most places and people just go nuts but I’ve done the same in London and half the audience just looks confused and unsure how they should react.”

Any similarity to Martin Creed’s Words and Music residency from last year’s International Festival – solo multi-instrumentalist with slideshow exploring the impact of simple language and wordplay – is purely coincidental. Like Creed, Rhys hopes the show will evolve over the run, with changing setlist, signage – and audience.

“I don’t know what the Festival audience is going to be like,” says Rhys, who has passed through Edinburgh in August before with one-off shows and a Book Festival appearance but has never taken up Fringe residence. “I’m looking forward to sussing out the crowd psychology from night to night. I imagine it will be like going to a late-night movie. I’ll have to be ready for that. I want to take it to an extreme, sort of creating a demented barrage of graphic commands so hopefully I can take the audience into interesting and unexpected behaviour.”

Rhys is a thoughtful interviewee – in that he gives his answers considerable thought before saying anything. But while he may not have the gift of the gab like many of his Fringemates, he has always been interested in language – written, spoken and musical.

“I started out as a drummer so all my favourite records have really prominent drums,” he says.

“My best mate was a guitarist but he got into industrial music and saw the guitar as a regressive instrument so I had to step up and start playing guitar.

“I’m not a great musician or anything, I was just empowered by listening to the Jesus & Mary Chain and people like that who could write amazing songs with two or three chords. That was a good introduction to songwriting and melody.”

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Rhys has been playing in bands since his early teens. Prior to forming Super Furry Animals, he fronted alternative rockers Ffa Coffi Pawb – native Welsh speakers can enjoy the phonetic wordplay in their name and English speakers can probably get the drift too – recording for the great Welsh indie label Anskt which also nurtured the bilingual Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci as well as Rhys’s next predominantly English-language endeavour, the gloriously playful, eclectic and melodic Super Furry Animals.

“I grew up, on one hand, immersed in Welsh-language pop culture which was quite vibrant and still is,’ says Rhys, “but I was also obsessed by Anglo-American pop culture, as is half the world. If my artistic considerations were purely political I suppose I’d only write in Welsh because maybe the world doesn’t need more English-language records.”

But let’s not even think about a world without Super Furry Animals records, or Rhys’s similarly life-affirming solo output which has included Candylion, adapted as a stage show by the National Theatre of Wales, and American Interior, a film, book, app and album for which Rhys spent three years retracing explorer John Evans’ 18th-century trek across the USA.

His latest offering, Babelsberg, is almost modest in comparison, a sterling exercise in 1970s MOR pop, lushly orchestrated by Swansea composer Stephen McNeff for the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

“I’ve always used people with composition skills to arrange my work. I had no advanced musical education and so when I do arrangements I sit down with people who can notate as I whistle my melodies. I’m from the James Brown school of composition – communicate verbally.” Or with handmade signs.

• Gruff Rhys: Resist Phony Encores! is at Pleasance Courtyard, 17-25 August at 11pm