Welsh musician Gruff Rhys’ band Super Furry Animals released its major label debut, Rings Around the World, in 2001 and the group appeared to be a successor to the throne occupied by fading superstars like Blur and Oasis. The album (following SFA’s excellent debut, Fuzzy Logic, and a trio of experimental-oriented albums put out by king-maker Alan McGee’s Creation Records) put a brilliant, creative spin on “Brit Pop,” highlighted by fascinating sounds between the grooves, but also an extraordinary knack for writing incredibly potent melodies. Rings contained several hit-songs-in-waiting and did well in the U.K., but never fully grabbed the ears of the U.S. mainstream like a few of the band’s predecessors did.
While some artists would have simply gone back and cleaned up/out the sound of their potential breakthrough to appeal more to the mainstream, it soon became clear that Rhys and the Furries weren’t interested in pandering. The band had always been underlined by a progressive, adventurous streak (early works embraced Electronic and Ambient music, among other approaches) and it was evident that the opportunity to crossover or become a massive success was less important to Rhys and Co. than following their own creative whims. (By the mid-’00s, SFA had left the Sony family for the artist-friendlier confines of Rough Trade Records).
Rhys’ work outside of the Furries’ domain has been even more exploratory. Rhys’ eclectic solo albums have contained songs sung alternately in Welsh, English and Spanish. And he’s a huge fan of collaboration, working with artists like Mogwai, Sparklehorse, De La Soul, Gorillaz, Simian Mobile Disco and Brazilian artist Tony da Gatorra, to name a few. One of his most celebrated collaborations has been with Cincinnati native Boom Bip; the pair’s Neon Neon project has been widely acclaimed, earning a Mercury Prize nomination in 2008 for the album Stainless Style (a loose concept piece about the life of John De Lorean).
Rhys’ current project is a follow-up to Separado!, a feature film/multimedia venture during which film crews followed the musician as his “investigative concert tour” traveled through South America. The film followed Rhys on his journey to learn more about his “long lost, guitar-playing, poncho-wearing uncle, Rene Griffiths.” Given his musical output, it was fitting that Rhys’ intellectual and creative curiosity had led him down such another unique path.
Rhys’ current “investigative tour” is another adventure in genealogy and travel, as the artist (again trailed by a film crew for a planned movie/music/prose/photo project) journeys through North America to find the burial site of John Evans, another distant relative who allegedly left Wales in the late 1700s on a quest to verify the legend of a Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans.
Rhys put this call out to anyone with info that could help: “Gruff urges anyone with clues regarding Evans’s unknown burial place; imaginary volcanos; wandering tribes of Welsh Speakers, or lingering river reptiles to come to the shows, where their help with his investigations will be appreciated and featured in the movie.”
Rhys’ performance will include music, discussion, his cutting humor and more (anyone who’s seen SFA live knows not to go into one of Gruff’s appearances with too many expectations because, most likely, they’ll be blown out of the water). Those attending the tour’s stop this week at the Contemporary Arts Center (visit contemporaryartscenter.org for tickets) will also be treated to a rare bonus — Rhys’ Neon Neon mate Boom Bip (aka Bryan Hollon) will be joining Gruff onstage after the main performance for a one-of-a-kind DJ set.
GRUFF RHYS performs Thursday, Aug. 9 downtown at the Contemporary Arts Center with Boom Bip. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.