18 September 2014

Interview – Gruff Rhys talks about American Interior

American Interior is the second film by Welsh musician Gruff Rhys after 2010’s Separado!.  The film tells the story of Rhys’ distant and greatest uncle John Evans, who in 1792 was sent on a quest to discover a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans living alongside the Mississippi River.

With Rhys primarily known for fronting psychedelic Welsh pop band Super Furry Animals and electro-pop duo Neon Neon, there was always going to be a musical element to Rhys’ telling of the story.  To accompany the film, Rhys wrote an album that tells the story of Evans and built a live show around the record.  The movie sees Rhys trace the steps of his ancestor, playing shows along the route that Evans took on his journey around the USA.  On the tour Rhys meets up with local historians to try and learn more about Evan’s story.

The story of Evans is truly amazing and fantastical and the story is told in such a way, that the film will appeal to fans and newcomers to Rhys' music.  This is an engaging, thoughtful, sincere and down right entertaining film, that by the end you'll be wondering what life was like before you knew who John Evans was.
We sent some questions to Gruff Rhys about the film.  Read on to find out about his directorial process, his favourite concept albums and of course the wonderful world of John Evans.
Could you tell us a bit about the journey from first hearing about Evans and the project happening
I've always known the story - since I was a kid - my dad was obsessed with it - he was descended from Evans's uncle. I had no direct relation with the story until I was approached by a theatre group in 1999 to write some music for a play written to mark the bicentennial of his death - they didn't end up using the music but the idea stayed with me and the more I toured in the USA in the intervening years the more I wanted to visit all the places he'd been on his highly unusual journey.

You decided to turn the project into a film, book, app, album and live show extravaganza.  What was your thought process behind this?
One thing led to another - I did a previous investigative concert tour researching the Welsh diaspora in South America. Dylan Goch documented it for the film Separado! I recorded an album of music for it but never got round to releasing it. We also had some plans for a book and installation that we never got together. When we got around to producing a follow up investigative concert tour - American Interior -we made sure we were organized enough to complete everything we were hoping to achieve. All the formats are interconnected and act as companions to each other. Digital formats especially are always morphing into something else - we worked with Penguin at a very early stage and held back on committing to a digital format until we were confident that an App was the best place to house the material - otherwise the film, album and book were the documentary results of the investigative tour itself which was the spine of the whole project. 
Gruff co-Directed both American Interior and his previous film Separado!. I was interested in how much he gets involved in the film making process.  Personally I think established roles like producer/director/DP etc are often very interchangeable and sometimes meaningless especially in low budget digital film making. When we were making Separado! We were a core collaborative team of Dylan Goch (who shot and edited it) Catryn Ramasut (producer/ second camera) and myself (I'm in it - and had a story to tell - and made a rough story board). Film making by committee - Some roles were completely interchangeable. On the other hand sometimes I think it's quite fanciful that I'm credited as a co-director in both Separado! And American Interior with Dylan Goch - I have no technical knowledge of cameras or editing. That is all Dylan. He also excels at documenting the moment and coaxing good interviews out of people. We are passionate people but not hot headed so aesthetic decisions are very collaborative. Likewise Dylan is very hands on with the music and I'm always open to his ideas. As I'm in the film sometimes it's important that Dylan directs and edits the documentary aspects objectively - and that I stay out of it. The production was crucial to American Interior - especially in setting up the main interviews which are central to the film. So many people involved visually this time too - Ryan Owen Eddleston came in as a director of photography. Pete Fowler (who has been collaborating with Rhys since the early Super Furry Animals albums) and Paul at Bait on graphics. 
During the edit of American Interior we had hundreds of hours of material and approached Chris Morris (a lecturer in film making who had championed and understood our previous film) to help us construct a satisfying narrative - unbelievably he'd shot a short film on the same subject in the 1980's and really helped us out a lot. What I'm stressing is the collaborative effort in making a film and that there is flexibility within roles - but in general with these two films I'd break down the directing roles to: I've got a personal story to tell visually - which Dylan Goch shoots and edits and turns it into a film. Therefore on the credits I define my role as writer (which is confusing as it's a documentary!) and Dylan's as Director. Are there similarities between producing an album and producing a movie? If so what are these?
I think they are very different and fearsome beasts -  but making a movie is much more intensive time wise. And especially with documentary it's quite a responsibility putting real lives and subjects on to film. Making an album feels like a nice irresponsible breeze in comparison. In American Interior you meet some fantastic characters, my favourites are the New Orleans cemetery tour guide and the lady who wanted to move to Carmarthen.  Who was your favourite person you met whilst on John Evans' trail and why?
The characters make the film! It was really inspiring meeting Cory Spotted Bear in particular. His generosity of spirit and general outlook and worldview was an education for me. With the two Neon Neon albums and American Interior, you're a master of the concept album! Do you find it easier to write with a preconceived concept? What is your favourite concept album of all time? Well I suppose they are biographical albums - they tell someone's life story which is quite a clear proposition in terms of song writing - you just narrow someone's life to 10 or so key moments, birth, 1st marriage, divorce, death etc. 
So they are hopefully free of the cod-spiritual hallmarks of the dreaded 1970's prog concept record - and pretty straight forward to write once you've hit on a musical tone for it.
Also many of my favourite albums growing up were Hip Hop records - which almost always had a central concept - Three Feet High and Rising by De La Soul for example. 
I love Serge Gainsbourg's concept albums. Especially (musically speaking) Histoire de Melody Nelson - though I'm pretty relieved through lack of French that I'm spared the lyrical nuances as I gather the lyrics are pretty dodgy - but the recurring musical themes are magnificent and it's only 27 minutes long but feels like entering another world. Likewise the Olivia Tremor Control's raw 8 track concept albums, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage are pretty inspiring.
Do you have plans to make more films?  Do you have more ancestors to investigate?
Yes, definitely - there was a quote by someone - saying that the best plans are the ones you don't tell anyone about. Which is generally a good piece of advice -  though I've always seen the investigative tour films as part of a trilogy...
American Interior is now available to buy on DVD

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