Gruff Rhys: ‘I thought it would be interesting to write a biography of a mountain that’s lasted thousands of years’

“I’m a bit scared of concept albums anyway, having grown up with punk rock,” says Gruff Rhys, musing on how his latest solo album, Seeking New Gods, morphed from a musical ‘biography’ of the Korean volcano Mount Paektu into a series of pop songs meditating on time and civilisation.

Gruff Rhys. Picture: Mark James

“Sometimes I start off with good intentions and then just gloss over them,” adds the 51-year-old erstwhile frontman of Welsh band Super Furry Animals.

Loosely linked though the nine songs on Seeking New Gods are, they form arguably the most fully realised of all Rhys’s seven solo albums. The initial inspiration, he says, came from a biography of a Korean film director which mentioned the mountain and its part in the folklore of North and South Korea. “It’s a major part of Korean mythology, so I started looking into it,” he says.

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“I suppose the context is I’d written a lot of biographical records about people – I did one on (the American car inventor) John DeLorean and the Welsh explorer John Evans and the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was a Communist. I thought I was starting to repeat myself a bit so I thought it would be interesting to write a biography of a mountain that’s lasted thousands of years, rather than a human lifespan.

“But then it kind of worked as well as an album about ageing and going through phases and time, that’s where I went with it.

“I didn’t think I was the best-placed person to comment on Korean mythology.”

The album’s sunny West Coast feel channels the vibes Rhys and his band experienced on a three-week tour of the US. “I had these new songs and I thought it would be fun to try them out at soundchecks, he says. “The band on tour was incredible – they played on (his 2018 album) Babelsberg as well – and everything sounded really great from the arrangements so we started playing the songs at night. Towards the end of the tour I started to think I should book a studio. The last concert was in Los Angeles.

“It sounds like something from The Mighty Boosh, but the day after we drove into the desert where we’d booked a studio for three days to get the basic tracks down, but the first day the studio didn’t work at all. In the other two days we managed to cover seven songs because we were really well rehearsed. It was recorded in a house in the desert with a lot of (sound) bleed. A lot of grunge comes from the piano mic, for example.

“Apparently sound travels faster in the desert, because there’s less moisture. I usually record in North Wales so it’s slightly less damp-sounding than usual.”

The Solina string synthesiser features heavily on the album because Rhys wanted an instrument to tie the songs together. “I put washes of the Solina over everything,” he says. “It’s a synth that was invented in the 1970s as a replacement for violins and things. It doesn’t sound anything like it, but that was the idea of it. It’s on records like ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie, for example, and a lot of those Germanic mid-70s albums that had inspired that record.

“I put it through a phaser so it sounds like wind blowing through the whole album. It’s that kind of wind that drives you nuts in the end.”

To coincide with the album’s release in May, Rhys worked with BBC Research and Development on an Audio Orchestrator project that allowed listeners to create a web of speakers through which to play the songs. “I’m not a particularly technical person but I’m interested in what technology can do musically,” he says. “Next time I make a record I will probably use the technology then and try and push it a bit further.”

He seems to have weathered the past 18 months of musical inactivity relatively well. “I had to stop being a musician, in a way,” he says. “My priority was to feed the kids and wash up at dinner time. There was nowhere I could play anyway.

“I wouldn’t say it was hard, in the context that thousands of people were dying. I was able to stay safe and keep everyone healthy, but I couldn’t function as a musician.”

It’s now five years since Super Furry Animals last toured. Despite the fact that the band are “always in close contact” and have been working on reissues, from what Rhys says, it seems unlikely their hiatus will end soon. “There’s no plans for new stuff,” he says. “(But) we’re still discussing colour schemes for things and we still have a Whatsapp group.”

Gruff Rhys plays at Crookes Club, Sheffield on October 21.