Gruff Rhys Q&A: “Chelsea Manning is a Welsh-American icon”

The musician discusses the late Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans, Desolation Radio and advice he received from Howard Marks. 

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Gruff Rhys was born in Pembrokeshire in 1970. A musician, film-maker and producer, he is best known as the lead singer of the band Super Furry Animals and is considered a figurehead of the “Cool Cymru” era.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being stranded on a ground-floor window ledge trying to figure out how to get down safely. It’s like the movie Cliffhanger.

Who are your heroes?

Gwynfor Evans, whom I heard speak at a rally when I was ten years old. Chelsea Manning, who is a Welsh-American icon and an inspiration for her composure under the full weight of the US military establishment.

What book last changed your thinking?

Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti by Patricia Albers. Pre-pandemic, I played a festival in Udine in northern Italy. Modotti is a local icon; it was my introduction to her varied and dramatic life of art and activism. A week later I found a discarded draft copy of her biography on the pavement in downtown Los Angeles. It changed my previously agnostic attitude to serendipity and cosmic coincidence.

[See also: Carmen Maria Machado Q&A: “The Golden Girls is keeping me from losing my mind”]

Which political figure do you look up to?

The irreverent podcast Desolation Radio has a great introductory episode to Antonio Gramsci that outlines the structural problems in today’s society through his lens. With added toilet jokes.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The Velvet Underground 1964-73. I have a bootleg cassette of their gig at Lampeter University in 1972 (without Lou Reed and John Cale). Maybe that was the final straw.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Life under the anarchist/communist coalition of the Far Eastern Republic 1920-22 would be a great place to invent electronic music and wrestle with the idea of expression in the name of socialism, away from its eventual capitalist masters.

[See also: Anne Marie Rafferty Q&A: “I consider myself a stem-cell Brownite”]

What TV show could you not live without?

Deutschland 89 floated my boat so much that I’m finding it hard to adjust to real life.

What’s your theme tune?

It keeps changing, but today it’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” by Neil Young.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Howard Marks told me to live with enthusiasm, the greatest human trait.

What’s currently bugging you?

Boris Johnson’s flawed and overbearing infrastructure plans. Wales has been stripped of its railways already. All roads and railways lead out of Wales, abandoning centuries-old trade routes and cultural ties.

What single thing would make your life better?

For now, a direct, north-to-south-Wales, green-but-fast railway line. Ultimately, teleportation.

[See also: Anne Boden Q&A: “I come from a long line of strong, determined women”]

When were you happiest?

When you’re having a good time you don’t stop to think about it.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I have lots of connected lives. Somehow the industry of chance thrust me into the life of a paid musician, but I was doing other things related to art, too. Then I won the music lottery, which is what signing a record deal seemed like in the 1990s.

Are we all doomed?

It depends on whether you believe in the afterlife. I believe in science and in the spirit of the living and their legacy through others. In which case maybe everything will be OK. 

Gruff Rhys’s album “Seeking New Gods” is released on Rough Trade Records on 21 May

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

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