JULY 4, 2014
IN SPITE of their now relatively modest reputation, Welsh pop band Super Furry Animals were among the great countercultural heroes of the trans-millennium era. Perhaps the last truly worthwhile Creation Records signing, SFA emerged in 1996 at the tail end of Britpop, preaching a gospel of surrealism and poetry that ran magnificently counter to the prevailing dadrock orthodoxy of the day. In their colorful pop Gesamtkunstwerk, Beach Boys homages rubbed up against Howard Marks cameos, artwork by designer Pete Fowler conjured a magic-realist demimonde of stoned aliens and psychedelic sea monsters, and Che Guevara’s asthma was described over fragments of hardcore gabba and melodies that wiped the floor with Bacharach and McCartney. SFA recalibrated retro culture rather than merely rehashing it. Political, playful, and seriously articulate, they belied the notion that classic pop is conservative and philosophically vapid as a matter of course.
Thankfully, although the band itself has been on indefinite hiatus since 2010, frontman Gruff Rhys has continued to extend the SFA’s singular legacy in singular ways. As one half of electronic duo Neon Neon (with Ohioan beat scientist Boom Bip) Rhys has been responsible for some of the most nuanced art-pop of the last decade — most recently 2013’s Praxis Makes Perfect, a concept album based on the life of Italian communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. In the same period, since the release of the Welsh-language Yr Atal Genhedlaeth in 2005, Rhys’s solo albums have cemented his reputation as one of the finest melodicians in 21st-century songwriting.
Arriving somewhat as the culmination of his post-SFA trajectory, Rhys’s latest project is a multimedia venture that recalls the heroic-age postmodernism of the late ’90s. (SFA releases were typically multi-format, collaborative, inclusive of special features, and exquisitely adorned with Fowler’s graffiti-age paraphernalia.) An album, book, film, and mobile app inspired by the adventures of 18th-century Welsh explorer John Evans, American Interior, is a wise, entertaining, and finally very moving work of international psychogeography that is a testament to Rhys’s conceptual and literary talents, hitherto only observable in his delicately carved lyrics and neo-Situationist public appearances. Especially in its fullest incarnation as an engaging 300-page book, American Interior is a work of mature idiosyncrasy and daring, one that proves alternative pop music still has the potential to be a cogent, culturally sophisticated medium.
John Evans, a distant relative of Gruff Rhys, and the hero of American Interior, was born in Waunfawr in the mountainous northwest of Wales in 1770. At the heart of his story is the legend of Madog — a fictional Welsh prince rumored to have discovered America in the 12th century — whose pseudo-history was revived in the revolutionary climate of the late 18th century to become a cause célèbre of the nascent Welsh nationalist movement. Evans probably first heard mention of Madog, and of the notion of a surviving tribe of fair-haired “Madogwys” on the American frontier, from his Waunfawr schoolteacher, the poet Dafydd Ddu Eryri (Black David of Snowdonia). But it was the radical litterateur Iolo Morganwg who finally persuaded Evans to journey across the Atlantic in search of the lost Madogwys, after the two became acquainted as members of the Welsh expat community in London in the early 1790s.
Evans’s subsequent odyssey provides the basis of American Interior’s narrative: through the lively popular history that recurs throughout, and also through the “investigative concert tour” Rhys embarks on to follow in Evans’s footsteps. Rhys is both thoughtful and eloquent in his description of the underlying motivation for the project:
In a musical age where the touring musician can feel like the puppet of consumer forces, and where cities have been renamed markets and entire countries downgraded to territories, the trajectory of the artist has been blown somewhat off course. My plan is to re-inject purpose into the headless-chicken act of international concert-touring, and to inspire a new era of purposeful touring itineraries. In short, to swing a laminated Access All Areas pass to discovery on the fluorescent lanyard of exploration. As moments in what I call an investigative concert tour, the locations of my shows should be chosen for their significance in the history of John Evans’s life, as opposed to their potential “market power”; and the location of my very last show should be determined by the discovery (or not) of his lost grave.
With a typical mixture of willful extravagance and gentle self-deprecation, Rhys departs on the first phase of the Evans quest — an astonishing seven-week transatlantic journey by boat, which is recounted here in a casual half-sentence — and the stage is set for what must rank as one of the most intrepid creative ventures in the recent history of pop.
His teeth ravaged by saltwater swilled during ablutions on the Atlantic crossing, Rhys begins his transcontinental dérive in Baltimore, where Evans disembarked in October 1792. Playing a live show at the Golden West Café, he is met by Liz Williams, a “sixth-generation [Welsh] settler” from Utica, New York, who hands him an encyclopedia of Welsh chapels in America, one of which is the church of Samuel Jones in Lower Dublin, Philadelphia, Evans’s first port of call after reaching the (newly created) United States. Musing on the “fluidity of the whole notion of identity,” Rhys and Williams “resolve that one aspect of belonging is about community and people help one another cope with life through communal living — not in the 1968 Bavarian Amon Düül II commune sense, but through small actions, such as bringing each other books that will help us reach our next destination.”
There is quite a lot at stake in this précis of postmodern internationalism. On the one hand, these comments are likely to strike some readers as naïve and paradigmatic of the weakness of the anti-grand narrative, Deleuzian commonplaces of the last half-century. The cliché that ameliorative “small actions” are preferable to larger-scale political change is a seductive one; however, the natural endpoint of this ethic, as is now increasingly apparent in all kinds of contexts, is a fragmented counterculture with blithely libertarian ambitions that never rise above the level of the individual encounter and the single-issue campaign. At times, Rhys’s narrativerisks getting carried along in the slipstream of such globalization-age truisms. Moreover, as is so often the case, the avowal of global “fluidity” is made here from a perspective that is bulwarked by very specific — not to mention pretty unusual — material circumstances. As Rhys concedes at one point, the privileged lifestyle of the modern pop musician was “once afforded only to soldiers, Miss Universe contestants, and long-distance truck drivers.” These careers probably give rise to slightly different attitudes to travel and diaspora than, say, those of asylum-seekers or sub-poverty-line migrant workers. Perhaps even more pertinently, a glance at the dust jacket of American Interior suggests that the whole enterprise was at least partially funded by state institutions such as Film Agency for Wales and indeed the Welsh Government — a condition of production that somewhat contradicts the “little things” view of life and hints at more lasting, structured ways of supporting communitarian activity.
Nevertheless, in practice Rhys’s exploration of identity and cross-cultural empathy is considerably more pragmatic, more bathetic, and more humorous than the average liberal-moralist travelogue. His trademark surrealism, for example, is present in his decision to commission Pete Fowler and textile artist Louise Evans (no relation) to construct a felt effigy of John Evans, who sits alongside Rhys in his tour van throughout the trip, and who is regularly called upon to act as spiritual mascot and — more often — conversational ice breaker. In other hands, this variety of whimsy might have combined with the postcolonial-lite premise to create a cloying mumblecore farce (the NME recently lumbered Rhys with the unfortunate epithet of “a rock Wes Anderson”). But the absurdist element gives Rhys’s narrative a self-effacing alibi it badly needs, and indeed “Avatar John” finally plays a key role in the haunting conclusion to American Interior.
The major part of Evans’s journey to the heart of the American West, and the phase of his life that is most interesting and best documented, is his navigation as a surveyor of the Missouri river in 1795–97 under the auspices of Spanish Louisiana, following a short term of imprisonment for suspected espionage in St. Louis. The governors of New Spain were desperate to break the blockades of the river by the Otto, Ponca, Omaha, Sioux, and Arikara tribes: to solidify commercial relations with the tribes further to the north, ward off British incursions from Canada, and secure the capitalist holy grail of a serviceable trade route to the Pacific Ocean. With the aid of the Scottish adventurer James Mackay, who was also curious to discover the truth of the Madogwys legend, Evans was recruited by the newly created Missouri Company trade expedition as its second-in-command officer. The map of the river subsequently produced by Evans would later be passed on to President Jefferson and provide the basis for the seminal (post-Louisiana Purchase) Lewis-Clark expedition of 1804–6, which did eventually reach the Pacific, thereby securing U.S. hegemony in the region on a more or less permanent footing.
Following Evans’s route along the Missouri with Avatar John for company, Rhys settles into a curious routine that alternates concert-playing, road trip, interviews with local academics and historians, and spontaneous adventures recounted with new-journalistic hyperbole. At Kaskaskia, Illinois, for example, where Evans spent a malarial summer before the Missouri venture, he is befriended by a PBR-swilling local (a man “so painfully aware that he looks like a generic small-town hillbilly that he refuses to be photographed as he thinks I would exploit his image for this very reason [to my shame I probably would]”). After several cans of beer are consumed on the back of the tour van, the mood turns sour, and Rhys is forced to beat a hasty retreat from Kaskaskia as the PBR devotee chases him along the freeway in his pickup truck. Whether this incident really took place as described, with Avatar John commanding Rhys to escape just at the right moment (“Get back into the chariot [tour van], NOW!”), is something the more empirically minded will have to judge for themselves. At any rate, it makes for enjoyable reading.
Clearly, the crux of the narrative for both Evans and Rhys lies in the outcome of their respective encounters with the tribes of the northern Missouri, especially the Mandans of North Dakota, believed to be the lost descendants of the Madogwys. Evans spent the winter of 1796–7 with the Mandans. Although, perhaps inevitably, he discovered no trace of Welshness in their language or lifestyle (apparently the lost Madogwys myth had arisen from references by other tribes to a “pale-skinned” people along the river — in reality slightly earlier European settlers), he was welcomed into their society and passed what must have been an astonishing few months at the center of a parallel cultural universe.
Documentation of Evans’s experience is relatively scant, but in drawing on contemporaneous and later accounts (by Lewis and Clark, Catlin, Prince Maximilian, and George Bodmer), Rhys is able to offer ghostly glimpses of what might have occurred in this interval. Evans would almost certainly have witnessed the famous Buffalo Dance and the Okipa ceremony, during which young male warriors fasted for four days before being hung from the roof of the tallest earth lodge by metal hooks pierced through their chest skins. And the written sources that do survive speak of a dramatic escapade in which Evans occupied and hoisted the Spanish flag over a British Canadian fort, inciting retaliation in the form of an assassination attempt by employees of the Canadian North West Company. According to Evans, the attempt was only averted because his Mandan friends refused to accept Canadian bribes and were “resolved to die in the attack should it be made.”
Rhys’s own encounter with the Mandans might easily have been a point of collapse for his whole enterprise, but once again the self-deprecation and bathos of his approach open the way for a sympathetic exploration of cultural parallelism. In place of the gung-ho orientalism often shown by musicians venturing into this sort of terrain, Rhys is deferential, inquisitive, and eager to grasp the totality of the Mandan worldview. Although the consistently excellent musical incarnation of American Interior contains one song (“Allweddellau Allweddol”) that seems to be hooked on a fragment of tribal music, it was clearly not Rhys’s intention to pilfer Mandan traditions merely to lay the ground for a new creative direction. Instead, he prefers a process of symbolic exchange, playing his own compositions and Welsh folk songs in return for pieces of information and recitals of traditional music and rituals. Furthermore, although he is keen to stress the limits of analogies between Mandan and Welsh identities (John Evans was, fairly unambiguously, a colonial agent), there is considerable poignancy in the passages that tie together the experiences of social and linguistic marginalization shared by both peoples. A characteristic moment occurs when in conversation with Edwin Benson, the last speaker of the Mandan language N’ueta, Rhys (a native Welsh speaker) remarks that his first English word was “cookie,” after the cookie monster in Sesame Street.
Finally, as Rhys follows Evans’s doomed retreat from the Missouri to New Orleans, where the governors of New Spain had lost enthusiasm and wherewithal to continue the struggle for control of the American interior, the sincerity of his project is underlined in a well-judged conclusion. Rhys is Evans’s relative, after all, and any suggestion that he has seized on this historical vignette out of caprice or pretention is banished by the gentle eloquence he shows in appraising his predecessor’s achievement. According to Rhys, this was as follows:
[an] almost transgressive power to defy the logic of what is considered possible in one’s lifetime, to complete an impossible journey, to defy what the strict and oppressive class structures of the day could have expected from an orphaned farm labourer. [Evans] disregarded the strict parameters of nationality, society and identity, to the point that he fell through the seismic cracks of history as the great colonial powers jostled for supremacy in a continent that’s still reeling from the most spectacular pace of change ever witnessed on Earth. In many ways his is a quintessentially American story, that of the heroic individual.
For all the ethical caveats we must apply to this energetic European mapping of the American hinterland, it is difficult not to be moved at last by its idealism, and by the secret history of the largely forgotten Welsh romantic at its core.
Alex Niven is from the northeast of England and currently teaches at the University of Oxford. His second book, a study of the Oasis album Definitely Maybe, is forthcoming in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.