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Gruff Rhys: Records that changed my life

Gruff Rhys: Records that changed my life
From experimental rock to Eighties hip-hop, singer-songwriter Gruff Rhys tells us the records that changed his life and his approach to music
Gruffudd "Gruff" Rhys is a musician, composer, and filmmaker. He is widely renowned for his solo music, his work with the electro-pop duo Neon Neon and as the frontman of the Welsh indie rock band Super Furry Animals.
His latest album, Sadness Sets Me Free, is the 25th of his career and will be released by Rough Trade Records on January 26, 2024; you can hear his latest single "Silver Lining Lead Balloons" here. He is touring around the UK, Europe, and the US from January to March. Here, Gruff tells us the three records that have changed his life and how he approaches his music.

White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground

I don't know if it's my favourite Velvet Underground record, but in terms of being life changing I think it fits the bill. My brother's friend had left a vinyl copy in the house when I was about 13, and gradually over the years I started to play it.
At first, I don't think I understood it completely; I used to listen more to mainstream music, but it was the song "The Gift" that pulled me in eventually. It's sung by John Cale, but it's not sung really: he's reciting a short story by Lou Reed in a Welsh accent. So, I thought they were a local band! So, I accidentally got into New York junky music at an impressionable age.
Then over the years I started to hear their influence on another bands. I remember seeing New Order when I was about 16 and they did a live cover of "Sister Ray" from White Light/White Heat, so I knew the tune and I knew what they were going for. That album became my route into a lot of other music, especially experimental music.
I think it expanded my mind to what was possible in music. I'm interested in melodic songwriting, and there's plenty of that on this record. It's got such a subversive energy, and it showed me different ways of how you could present songs; they could be short bursts of energy, or they could be mantras that go on for 20 minutes. It's such a radical album that widened up the goalposts for me of what music could be.
"White Light/White Heat expanded my mind to what was possible in music"
I think all their albums are near-perfect in their own way, and I love all their records for different reasons. I love the debut album for how John Cale's avant-garde noise clashed with Lou Reed's beautiful songwriting. I love the purity of the third album and the radical quietness of that album, and I think Loaded is a classic rock album. But they're all so different.

Wyau by Datblygu

Similar to Velvet Underground, Datblygu opened my ears to how songwriting could be radical, and in a way, they represent to me a whole scene. When I was growing up in Wales in the 1980s there was a whole underground scene of Welsh language music with an anarchist outlook. The opening chorus of this album is, "living in Wales is like watching paint dry or the grass grow". It's really scathing about life in Wales and exposes a lot of contradictions about Welsh life.
The lyricist was called David R Edwards, and he was a great songwriter. The band were experimental, and the name of the band translates as "development”. He had a beautiful, almost country and western sound, like in the song "23", which is about being 23 and feeling down already. It's really great.
It came out on a punk rock label called Anhrefn and it was produced by Gorwel Owen; it was recorded at his studio in Anglesey. He was the first person to invite me to a recording studio as well, in the 1980s. So, in a way this album was like an avatar for the whole scene.
"Wyau was like an avatar for the whole Welsh language music scene"
It was really inspiring—it challenged political hubris and blind nationalism, and it was a rigorous look at life in Wales at that point. It was life changing for me, as was getting to record at Gorwel's studio, following in their footsteps. And now it's possible to stream it, whereas a lot of that music is still yet to be unearthed from that scene.

3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul

White Light/White Heat is an album with a monochrome record cover, and I think it's representative of the kind of bleak atmosphere of the 1980s. In a way it suited that decade better than the 1960s. That's what it felt like in the mid-1980s as well. But then, as a counterpoint, in the late 1980s (my late teens), the atmosphere was changing.
This album has dayglo flowers on the record cover, and it heralded a different atmosphere in 1988. It felt like a break from the bleak 1980s but with equally amazingly melodic music and production from Prince Paul. It coincided with political events, like the Berlin Wall coming down, Glasnost in the USSR, and Nelson Mandela coming out of jail. It heralded the rise of optimism.
"This album heralded a changing atmosphere and the rise of optimism"
It was also my introduction to 1970s soft rock, with its Steely Dan and Hall & Oates samples. It's such a rich and melodic record, and it was also the first concept album I ever bought. It was my introduction to the world of the concept album. I've ended up making a lot of themed records, but they weren't influenced by 1970s prog rock, I suppose they were more influenced by 1980s hip-hop.
It's got great singles like "The Magic Number" and "Eye Know", and it was also just released again for the first time on streaming. It's great that a new generation can hear that.
Banner photo: Gruff Rhys tells us the records that have changed his life (credit: Mark James)
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