The vast expanse of the American West, the story of its discovery by Colonial Powers and the decline of Native American culture is one riddled with myth, speculation and tall tales. But even amidst this morass, the story of John Evans stands out.
A simple Welsh farmer, Evans attempted to trace a lost tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans. Tracing a route across the American frontier, his journey has been passed down in Welsh folklore for generations – until it reached Gruff Rhys.
“It’s just something that I’ve been told about all my life, really. It’s a story in the family and he’s well known in our village,” he tells Clash. The Welsh songwriter gradually became entranced by the tale, and in 2012 launched an ‘Investigative Concert Tour’ across the American continent, tracing the journey of John Evans in the process.
“I’ve done a lot of tours and I thought it would be interesting to make use of the tours instead of just selling records, y’know? That was an ‘Investigative Concert Tour’, so I booked more gigs along the route that John Evans took through America between 1792 and 1799. I did that tour three years ago, collected information and I wrote and recorded songs along the way. Then I filmed it all as well, before I came back and finished the record in Bristol.”
A lengthy journey in both time and distance, the process of recording new album ‘American Interior’ took Rhys into some unexpected places. “I did some cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cinncinati, St. Louis and then I did the Omaha Reservation and some other reservations. I played small towns, villages and towns that didn’t exist anymore. I encouraged people who came to the gigs to help me out and I met a load of random people. Some were academics, some were archaeologists, some were homeless boatmen. I met a voodoo priest. They all helped me out in different ways.”
Collating information as he travelled, Rhys was able to find time to sketch down his thoughts. Calling in at the Saddle Creek collective in Omaha to lay down initial parts, the songs themselves are deliberately intended to sit alongside but not within the overarching story. “The songs for the most part are pretty opaque, impressionistic. I think they can stand on their own – I hope they can stand on their own beyond the narrative of the story. It’s in some kind of order, but I think you can listen to it without that in mind. There’s a few songs which are really specific, like ‘100 Messages’, but others are more opaque or inspired by the weather conditions.”
Accompanied on the tour by filmmaker Dylan Goch, ‘American Interior’ is also set to become a feature-length documentary. “Well, Dylan’s been editing for about a year,” Rhys explains, “and I know nothing about cameras so my role is, I suppose, putting the tour together and doing a slide show and singing songs every night. Its Dylan’s take on it, although we were interviewing people together, choosing colour schemes together. It’s very collaborative but Dylan directed it and had an objective eye over the whole thing.”
A sprawling, cross-media effort, ‘American Interior’ will also be turned into an app featuring unseen clips from the journey and biographical information about John Evans. Returning to somewhat more traditional forms, Rhys has decided to pull together his experiences into a new book. “There’s no contemporary book about John Evans,” he reveals, “so I ended up writing an account of the tour. I suppose it’s about half my tour and half John Evans’ history in a lot more detail than I could get into a film or an album. It’s got fragments of the song lyrics, so I suppose it’s connected to the album like that.”
At once fragmentary and also uniquely unified, the ‘American Interior’ project could not exist without the mythology surrounding John Evans’ journey. Searching for a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans – often said to be the Madog, or Madoc, people – it’s a tale of hopeless ambition in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
“It’s all referring to the danger of myth,” the songwriter explains. “The danger of mythology and the havoc it can cause in the world. In terms of stuff I’ve taken away from it, I’ve had some profound experiences meeting people I never imagined I would have ever met. Being in situations that are completely unimaginable and learning knowledge I had no idea I would ever be able to learn. Meeting the last speaker of the Mandan language was a really profound experience.”
Ultimately, it is America – its unimaginable size, the enormous diversity of culture – which shines through in this most Welsh of conceptual documents. “Every community on Earth is represented in America,” Rhys reflects, “which is one of the fantastical things about the place.”
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'American Interior' is set to be released on May 5th.
Gruff Rhys (online) is set to play the following shows:
2 Cardiff Acapela
5 - 10 London Soho Theatre