Heard about the artist who made an album as therapy? The latest solo project from Gruff Rhys actually cured him of bathroom kleptomania…
Milestone birthdays for men over university age are a minefield of emotions. And hitting forty can send many scuttling into the arms of young mistresses or straight down the local Porsche dealership with a fistful of fifties. When Gruff Rhys reached such a momentous birthday this summer, however, having lived a genuine touring rock musician existence for a full fifteen years, debauchery or reclaiming youthful years lost to the inside of an office weren’t relevant. Hence, his mindset went on an opposing trajectory.
“I got into this record because, in the back of my mind, I really did think, ‘I’m forty, I should relax a bit and make an album of piano ballads’,” Gruff recounts, a lopsided grin adorning his bearded face. “I had much more existential angst when I was a teenager.”
Our story today begins in a hotel lobby, or more specifically in the well-heeled Metropole Lounge, just inside the entrance to the Hilton Cardiff, death venue of none other than Gene Pitney. There will be no crooning today, but Gruff – resplendent in dapper brown suit, Martini glass nearby – is seated at the bar’s glossy white piano, tinkling out bashful waterfalls of low-key notes for Clash’s photographic benefit. The bar staff are intrigued, a few curious customers halt busy schedules long enough to gaze at the indie-rock royalty dressed to the nines at 11am. None of them would guess, from this, what ‘Hotel Shampoo’ really sounds like.
“I wanted to base it around something really simple and document the songs very quickly,” Gruff elaborates. “But sonically I wanted it all to fit together, so I was trying to base it around piano. For me, songwriting came before I was a musician, making tunes up in my head. I didn’t play guitar until I was nineteen and then I’ve been playing around with a piano for a few years.”
Which is all very nice, but on its own hardly formed the basis for a coherent solo album fit to follow up his last solitary opus, 2007’s ‘Candylion’. Then came the realisation that a somewhat unusual pastime was actually the thematic key to the record: since his main vehicle, the Super Furry Animals, were snapped up by Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1995, Gruff had gradually accumulated disposable bottles of shampoo and assorted toiletries from every hotel they stayed on tour. Nine albums down the line, it doesn’t take a Mensa genius to calculate that’s a fuck-load of freebies, confirmed when we hand him a printout of the astonishing totals he claims to own: including five hundred and sixty-seven shampoo/conditioner/shower gel bottles and a hundred and twenty-one shower caps. Gruff merely says “Oh yeah” in a manner that suggests it’s no big thing.
A spell of goofing around with an oversized champagne bottle later and we’re out the door and into a waiting taxi – summoned, slightly surreally, by the Hilton’s traditionally-dressed doorman – heading toward the city’s Musicbox Studios. Much more natural surrounds for Gruff, Musicbox is a hub of rehearsal-shaped life and more for South Wales’ music scene, today he is meeting with his touring backing band, Welsh language surf-rock outfit of some rising repute Y Niwl.
Shivering in the midwinter cold, we decamp to their practice room, mercifully equipped with a mini electric fire. Surrounded by the tools of his trade – guitars, pedals, amps and even a cute little record player arranged around the space – Gruff begins to recount how, at home, he became encircled by his entirely less useful collection of cleanliness-based detritus.
“I started to collect them partly because I was extremely excited being on tour for the first time and staying in hotels,” he admits. “I thought it wouldn’t last very long. But it became autopilot. I’d hoard fucking everything. It’s like a weird diary of the boom years: disposable income, disposable hotels and disposable shampoo. Two or three years ago they started to get really out of hand and I started to keep them in boxes. I started to look at them and get reacquainted with some of the names on the bottles. It did reacquaint me with places. It’s easy to forget the details of the past, so they’re very useful in that sense.”
In the hands – or dusty cardboard boxes – of lesser artists it would be easy to dismiss all this as forced eccentricity. For Gruff though, a man who always seems to be regarding the world with a gentle wonder, such an odd habit seems perfectly palatable. Gruff did keep childhood caches of action figures and, er, Smurfs, but maintains that he’s “not a completist, so I’m not a great collector in that sense”. A decade and a half after his accidental obsession began, Gruff decided to take a literal stance to the problem that was mounting up in his house and used his collection to construct a sizeable model hotel – big enough, he claims, to mostly crawl inside – during a three-day project for Cardiff’s innovative Chapter Arts Centre.
“I began to realise how incredibly wasteful all this disposable shit is, so then I was trying to think of ways of making a statement about it and ended up deciding to build a hotel. I based it around a classic Monopoly-style hotel shape,” he laughs. “Now I’ve built myself a house, if the shit hits the fan, I’ve got somewhere to live. I didn’t make any money, but I’ve got myself a house!”
“Coincidentally, the batch of songs I was recording were quite autobiographical and the two things started to merge,” Gruff continues. “It got to the point where they became inseparable in my head and I felt that the album had to be called ‘Hotel Shampoo’. What I like about ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is it’s sort of Esperanto; it’s understood internationally.”
With aid from, among others, longtime studio collaborator Gorwel Owen and crate digger extraordinaire Andy Votel, the album born from that unlikely concept is typically Gruff Rhys: two parts enigmatic Welsh fantasy to one part Brian Wilson pop sensibility, dominated by English language songs but still taking joy in playing with language. It has, most importantly, though, halted his kleptomania. On his forthcoming February UK tour, the bathroom supplies will only be used as necessities.
“I’m happy to never hoard anything like that again,” he grins, relieved. “That part of my life is over.”
Words by Adam Anonymous
Photo by Mei Lewis
‘Hotel Shampoo’ is out February 14th on Ovni/Turnstile.