(Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Gruff Rhys is perhaps best known as the frontman for the Welsh band Super Furry Animals. But in addition to recording and touring solo, he has spent the past four years making creative documentary films. The first, Separado!, followed Rhys on an epic musical quest to meet up with a long-lost uncle in Patagonia. His latest, American Interior, deals with history, fiction and myth as Rhys follows in the footsteps of the 18th-century Welsh explorer John Evans.
The film, part of a unique multimedia project that includes an American Interior book, album and app, screens at Hot Docs in Toronto Saturday. Check out the trailer below, followed by a Q&A with Rhys.
American Interior is the second documentary you've directed. What is your guiding principle or philosophy for the films you make?
I am guided by the notion that any edited documentary is a somewhat artificial account of reality which brings into play the possibility of transforming the protagonist into, for example, a Werewolf, Power Ranger or a whole range of other fantastical, fictional truths.
The film documents, among other things, your second "investigative concert tour." What exactly happens on an investigative concert tour?
An Investigative Concert Tour (TM) is somewhat similar to an ordinary concert tour. The routing, however, is decided upon with an investigation in mind, turning the performer into a Columbo-style character during down-time. The tour is also free to take in wild turns and impromptu happenings. ICTs exist beyond the need to hit "major cities" — which are known to concert agents by the inferior term: "major markets." My friend, the director Dylan Goch, documented my latest one for the film American Interior.
A central figure in the film is the Welsh explorer John Evans. Why was he important and what does he mean to you?
I'm descended from his mother's brother — so I've been aware of his story all my life. John Evans (1770-1799) left Wales a poor orphan at 22 years old, was loaned a one-way ticket to America and explored the wilderness of the Missouri basin in search of a mythical tribe of Welsh-speaking First Nation Americans. He lived among the Omahas, Sahnish and Mandan tribes. He became Don Juan Evans, a citizen of Spanish Louisiana, had wild adventures, caused a lot of political chaos and died young. His maps were subsequently used by Lewis and Clark for the first year of their journey to the Pacific.
What are the parallels between the Welsh people and North America's First Nations/aboriginal people?
It's maybe disingenuous to compare the Welsh experience with the practical genocide of many North American peoples. But there are parallels when it comes to the historical suppression of the language in education for example.
Why was language suppressed by colonial powers?
I've no idea why anyone deemed it to be a good idea, what a crazy power trip! Why would anyone want to impede on the glorious diversity of human kind?
What can help a language from disappearing?
As dull as it sounds, the key for survival is thorough planning and education policy. A shared understanding of the seriousness and sensitivity of the situation by the minority and majority communities. In the case of the Welsh language, its very future needs to be seen as an emergency by the Welsh government or its first-language communities will fall apart.
John Evans was searching for a utopia. What is your idea of utopia?
Well, maybe John Evans found it when he was a guest of the upper Missouri sovereign First Nations. Ultimately, he was searching for a place where he would be free of the archaic British monarchy and the ruling classes, who deemed his whole being culturally, politically and socially to be inferior. In this case, I think I share his sensibilities, but coming from the cold damp of the Northern European Welsh mountains (don't knock it — we have free prescription drugs for all — and unlimited travel for senior citizens), I also believe in the absurdist campaign for a tropical Wales that some artists began a few years back.
Who is your favourite fictional hero?
In the case of this interview, it would have to be Madog (also known in English as Madoc) — the mythical Welsh prince who apparently "discovered" America in 1170. John Evans was searching for his descendants, who according to legend were roaming the Great Plains in the 18th century still speaking Welsh.
Would you rather travel to the near future or the distant past?
I'm not fussy — I'd be thrilled to go to either, thanks so much! When do we leave?
What’s next for you, in terms of music?
I'm releasing American Interior, the album, in North America in October. I hope to be back in Toronto to play a non-investigative show in November.
American Interior screens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto Saturday, May 3 at 11:30 p.m.