Gruff Rhys’ doesn’t play by the accepted standards of the music industry. He leads the Super Furry Animals through wonderful genre defying albums that successfully combine Beach Boys harmonies, throbbing techno beats and Steely Dan samples and the sounds of Paul McCartney chewing celery. He recorded an album with a Brazilian madmen in just five hours. He had released a conceptual album about the life of maverick engineer John DeLorean. He’s tried his hand at writing a pop hit for Britney Spears. And when he makes his solo Australian debut he’ll do it by playing at tiny venues on a Monday and Tuesday night.
If that’s not enough to vouch for Rhys’ eccentricities he’s touring an album, Hotel Shampoo, inspired by the huge collection of shampoo bottles he liberated from hotel bathrooms while on the road with the Super Furry Animals. Rhys’ glued the bottles together to create a giant version of the Monopoly hotel you’ve no doubt proudly placed on the blue rectangle of Park Lane and Mayfair on rainy Sunday afternoons.
It takes a lot of bottles to make a model hotel large enough to crawl into so when his odd habit of collecting bottles become an obsession? “I don’t know what the distinction is between an ‘odd habit’ and an ‘obsession’ is,” Rhys chuckles quietly down the line from Wales, “right from the start my plan was to build a hotel; right from the minute I started collecting them. I was just so shocked – before signing a record deal I’d been living on welfare cheques for about a year so I couldn’t believe how much free shit people were giving away. It’s weird how much stuff people try to give you like hats and coats… I was just hoarding [the bottles] in case it didn’t last, but with the idea that I’d do something with them.”
Rhys has stopped collecting the bottles now and admits with a soft laugh that it’s a huge relief to have them out of his life: “I was dreading [that people would bring bottles to gigs] I thought it was going to be really bad, but it has been ok. And I’ve stopped collection them because once I’d built the hotel there’s no purpose for me to have them now.”
Sadly there aren’t many bottles pilfered from Australian hotel rooms in the collection as Rhys has only has only toured Australia twice with Super Furry Animals (most recently in 2003) and once with his Delorean inspired side-project Neon Neon for Parklife in 2008. “It’s my first time playing solo stuff in Australia and I’m real excited,” Rhys says, before explaining that he never plays any Super Furry Animals material on solo tours as “it would be unfair on the other Super Furry Animals and I can’t really do them justice on my own.”
By strange coincidence Rhys’ two solo album before Hotel Shampoo were released in the same year as Super Furry Animals albums, but it’s not a trend that will continue in 2011. “Unfortunately I never plan things properly so sometimes I record things years apart and they all come out in the same week,” Rhys explains, “This year only my solo record will come out so I’m concentrating on touring my solo record, I’ve never toured much on my own. It’s unlikely that there’ll be a Super Furry record this year, but there will be one at some time.”
The Australian shows will feature songs from his three solo albums – 2005’s Welsh language release Yr Atal Genhedlaeth 2007’s Candylion and the new record – and from the record he recorded with Brazilian TV repair man Tony da Gatorra The Terror Of Cosmic Loneliness. “When I play on my own I have some gadgets that help me play the more intricate parts. Some songs are just me and the guitar, but I play records as well. I mix in dub plates and there’s an element of karaoke all mixed into one big mess… There’s nothing as ambitious as [the “mixture of drums with electronic synthesizer] the Gatorra – the instrument that Tony invented – but there are one or two home made items.”
At the other end of the musical spectrum from homemade instruments and rough recording sessions there was a brief dalliance with the world of mainstream pop, when Rhys was asked to help write a song for Britney Spears. “That was the first time I got a call from the pop world. It didn’t work out,” Rhys splutters as he bursts into a hysterical wheeze. “It was interesting to see how these people work,” he says, but it’s not an experience he’s keen to repeat – “It’s not something I think about a lot and definitely not something I worry about. I try to concentrate completely on what I do and maybe someone could apply that to a pop record. There are no rules, I suppose, but I don’t know how likely that is of happening.”