“It’s been a bleak few years politically and the album definitely reflects that” - hmv.com talks to Gruff Rhys
Gruff Rhys’ journey to release his new album Babelsberg is an odd one, even for him.
The recording of the songs for the Super Furry Animals frontman’s latest venture took no time at all. It was recorded in Bristol in three days at producer Ali Chant's now-demolished Toybox studio in early 2016 with Rhys backed by former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock.
Then things slowed down rather a lot. Rhys had his heart set on working with composer Stephen McNeff and bringing his songs to life with the 72-piece BBC National Orchestra of Wales. That process took a lot longer, Rhys had to wait 18 months for everything to line up. So the songs gestated and waited for the right time. That came at the end of 2017 and now the album is ready for us to hear.
We spoke to Rhys about this unusual recording process and why he’s convinced the long wait has been for the best...
The album is coming out now, but it’s been ready since 2016, was it your plan to let it gestate for that period?
“It was just how things turned out, it wasn’t by any particular design. I made the album over two years ago, in the sense that I committed the songs to record, all in live takes. That didn’t take very long, only a couple of days. I was working with an arranger called Stephen McNeff on another project at the same time and I was kept for him to arrange my songs as well. He was quite busy and we had to find an orchestra, so that whole process ended up taking another year and a half before we could finally work with the orchestra. Once that was done, I finished it as soon as I could.”
Was it frustrating having to wait all that time? Or were you relaxed about it?
“I was quite relaxed. I knew how I wanted it to sound and to get there needed that process. It was quite good being able to have that time. Some of the songs were quite politically engaged and I wanted to make sure they didn’t date terribly badly. They needed to be universal enough to last. It’s quite exciting now to get it released because I feel like I can move on.”
What’s it like watching a 72-piece orchestra bring your songs to life?
“It was pretty mind-blowing. You don’t think you’ll get that experience and it was an incredibly moving experience, it took me a while to get used to it, to get over feeling like you’ve walked into the wrong building.”
You recorded a lot of the album in a studio that was about to be demolished, what was that like?
“It gave me a really hard deadline, the studio wasn’t going to exist after a few days, it definitely coloured the album lyrically and it’s a very dark record. I don’t know if I’m capable of making anything but a dark record, but even for me, this felt dark. It does have a sense of urgency, most of the vocals are live takes, you can feel the pressure of needing to get things down.”
Is there a theme to the record in the lyrics?
“I recorded it in 2016 and I was very keen not to make a concept album, I just wanted it to be a collection of songs, no theme, no narrative, just songs that capture the mood I was in. It’s been a bleak few years politically and the album definitely reflects that.”
When did you decide what the title was going to be?
“It came quite late. I had a few ideas for titles, but I wanted something to capture the album’s mood and gave a nod to the fact that the studio was about to get turned into luxury flats. This amazing creative space, now not deemed of any value, I wanted that in the title. I wanted something that suggested the Tower of Babel, building luxury flats to reach the heavens, but end up creating hell. I was thinking about that and I remembered seeing the name Babelsberg on a sign while I was on tour, I thought that fitted this imaginary tower block really well.”
In terms of taking the record out live, you’ve got a couple of gigs booked with the orchestra, but the rest must be a much smaller operation…
“I’m going to get to do about three gigs with an orchestra. I’m doing Cardiff with the orchestra that’s on the record, Stephen McNeff is going to conduct and that will be as close to the record as you’re ever going to get. The orchestra on the record is quite low in the mix because the band recordings are so intimate, so it’ll probably sound much bigger. Whatever I’m doing, the orchestra will be awe-inspiring.”
Then after that…
“I’m doing some gigs with a 21-piece orchestra in London and Manchester and then I’m going to tour as a four-piece band. The songs, despite the orchestra, are actually simple, so I think it’ll translate well to the set-up.”
You’ve had a bit of time waiting around to put these songs out, do you have your next project lined up? Or are you focused on this album for the time being?
“I’m excited to play these songs, they’re going to work well live and I’m just going to enjoy that for the time being, I’ve got no concrete plans beyond that.”