In an age where rock’n’roll is increasingly the preserve of worthy men setting their careful explorations of modern life’s minutiae to music, anyone seen to be ambitiously pushing at the medium’s perceived boundaries is going to look like an outsider. By that principal, where to place Gruff Rhys and his new album American Interior – an interconnected collection of songs documenting the true story of a Welsh explorer’s fantastical journey across the heart of the unmapped American continent in the late 18th century – really is anyone’s guess. Maybe it takes an outsider to get under the skin of rock’n’roll’s very best tales? Through nine albums with Super Furry Animals, two with Neon Neon and handful of solo LPs, Gruff Rhys has distinctively documented the lives of others.
Across those records, tales of gentleman rogue Howard Marks, controversial automobile engineer John DeLorean and communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli have rubbed shoulders with Welsh children’s TV staple Sali Mali, one half of outré-music duo Sparks and Grand Slamming sister act Venus & Serena. Each time, those stories have been set to pop music heavily seeped in timeless melody and wide-eyed wonder. American Interior may well be Gruff’s most fully realised character study yet. A warm and moving study of a true outsider life, it tells a story so far-fetched, it could only ever be true. The album (along with complimentary book, film and digital app) follows the path set by John Evans, a North Walian who set off on a quest to find the Madogwys – a legendary tribe of light skinned, Welsh speaking native Americans.
An untrained cartographer, the map Evans made of his journey went beyond the known borders of the United States and ended up becoming the guide for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition (1804 – 1806). Gruff’s own exploration of Evans’ life took him from a Native American sagebrush ceremony in an arts centre in Canton,Cardiff to the heart of Mandan country in North Dakota. Along the way, he undertook an ‘investigative concert tour’ that wound its way from Yale University all the way to Memphis; a tour that would help cement his reputation as a social historian and master storyteller. As a direct result of that nine-date tour and extensive research undertaken on the way, Gruff returned home as arguably the world’s leading authority on Evans’ incredible life. In anyone else’s hands, John Evans’ life would have been realised in blacks, whites and greys.
In Gruff’s hands it’s a truly cinematic vision rendered in psychotropic surround sound; a fully immersive topographical, time-travelling rock’n’roadtrip. As a record, American Interior sits proudly next to his very best – the result of two decades honing a truly unique musical vision. If this is an outsider’s vision, long may Gruff Rhys continue to map out the peripheries.