Over the last several years, Super Furry Animals ringleader Gruff Rhys has quietly released a few solo albums. 2005’s Yr Atal Genhedlaeth was sung entirely in Welsh; 2007’s Candylion relied mostly on sunny acoustic twiddlers. Both worked to distance himself from the weirdo psych-pop he’d cultivated with the Super Furrys. His third solo album, Hotel Shampoo (Wichita), came out earlier this month, and is named after his longtime practice of hoarding tiny bottles of personal-care products while he’s on tour.
Shampoo resembles Rhys’s work with the Furries in that it’s full of rather lush orchestral pop tunes that continue on with his wit and self-deprecation… or what sounds like it. He’s been a bit of a pickle to try and decipher over the years. Sound of the City recently spoke with him and found he was a pleasant enough fellow, although he revealed himself as one of those guys who, oddly enough, enunciates better on record than in conversation.
When did your obsession with hotel shampoo begin?
Umm… well, I started touring in 1996 and got signed to a record deal, which changed my life quite a bit. I was living on welfare checks for the year previously. I started finding myself staying in hotel that were giving away free shampoo and things and it was quite [inaudible]. I couldn’t believe these things were being given away. I started hoarding them and… it’s kind of disturbing and exciting at the same time… I decided around that time … [trails off].
And I read you made a sculpture out of these?
Yeah, about 15 years in… for the most part, if we toured, I’d stay anywhere… you know… it’s still a novelty.
Those tiny bottles are good to hide stuff in.
I think that’s what musicians here use them for.
Wow, yeah. So versatile.
You’ve quietly been releasing solo albums over the last few years, but at the same time, you were still active in Super Furry Animals and the Neon Neon project [a collaboration with Boom Bip]. What do you get out of the solo experience that the others can’t give you?
Um… well, I suppose they’re just simple records. I suppose being in Super Furry Animals has given me all these opportunities to record these records in the first place. Um… I suppose at this time… I suppose I find it very instinctive but on a self level, it becomes, incredibly easy to record… eh… I suppose one of the attractions is that I can record very quickly and document sounds fairly raw.
I know the other two were a little experimental, but I like the more poppy element of Hotel Shampoo.
Yeah… I mean… it’s quite, um… yeah… I was trying to make a simple record with simple songs and… um… record it in an immediate way… uh…
A handful of these songs don’t have the most uplifting lyrics. Some sound like depressing breakup songs. Like “Honey All Over” and “Sensations in the Dark”–these are not songs about amazing sex.
Oh, no, no.
Are these autobiographical in any sense?
Yeah, I mean, um, some experience, but if I’ve written a song about someone or talk about someone, it usually gets me a lot of sass. People will get upset and it creates lots of problems for me. The reality is, with songs, a lot of the songs have two or three different scenarios mixed up into one song and I usually shroud them so I’m not exploiting anyone. I could be really exploitative and explain minutely who every line is about and what the scenario was.
What I did like about this album is that there’s a lot of use of brass and string instruments. But how do you know you’re not overstuffing, which some people can do?
Uh… yeah, I suppose this experience is quite egocentric, and I’m fairly happy with this record. There’s a twenty-second part of one song I only regret. It’s completely unnecessary and I should’ve taken it out. [Laughs.]
Your documentary Separado! Is showing at BAM in June. This is an adventure story, yes?
It’s an investigative concert tour. Yeah… when I started playing solo for the first time, six years ago, I found myself completely vulnerable. I’ve always been in bands. I started a tour in South America, looking for a distant relative who was part of the Welsh-speaking diaspora.
With regards to your output over the years, you seem like a guy that constantly needs to be working on something. Are you constantly busy or fidgeting with stuff?
I’m extremely excited to get to make records… um… in that sense, yeah, you know, I enjoy writing, getting to record music. Um. And, you know, make sure I… use the opportunity given.
Do you have any other collaborations coming up?
I suppose I’ve got [inaudible] to put out at some time. I’m going to [inaudible].
So the Super Furry thing–that’s done? Or just on break?
Um, I’m sure we’re [inaudible]. We’re just older and slower with more kids, basically.
Gruff Rhys plays the Knitting Factory on May 18 and the Mercury Lounge on June 15. His documentary, Separado!, screens at BAM on June 18.