Embedded deep in the American consciousness is the idea of the frontier. The taming of the Wild West and the birth of the nation are part of American identity and it’s not for nothing that Captain Kirk and his Star Trek crew explored “Space, the final frontier”. While you may have heard of Buffalo Bill, General Custer and Dodge City you now need to make room for the forgotten tale of one of the most astonishing characters of the frontier myth.
John Evans may have been born an impoverished farmer in North Wales and he might have died a pauper’s death in New Orleans. However, in between those two events lies the tale of a trailblazer whose actions helped to change the course of entire country. And the person who has updated his story into the 21st century is arguably Wales’s most inventive and exciting creative talent, Gruff Rhys.
It’s not surprising that such a character might appeal to Rhys. Fresh from his exploits singing about, and dramatizing, the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli for Neon Neon, and a previous film, Seperado, on the journey to find a long lost cousin in Patagonia, comes his latest multi-media release on another intriguing character.
“I see him a bit like Jimi Hendrix” Rhys tells me about Evans. “Live fast, die young. There are some parallels with the musician’s life; between the ages of 22 and 29 he was ‘on the road’ continuously, and in the end it killed him.”
The project started not because Rhys saw any personal parallels with Evans, however, but because his father claimed that the explorer was a distant relative. “Whereas an album was recorded for Seperado but wasn’t released at the same time as the film, this time I wanted to tie them together,” he says. The result is American Interior, an album of material written as part of an investigative concert tour, following the path of Evans’s journey and a film documenting the tour and the trailblazer’s life.
And while Dylan Goch, who also directed Seperado, was editing the film, Rhys realised that “I needed to write a more detailed, contemporary history” of Evans’s exploits. Writing an album, a film and a book led to an app, “to tie the project together.” It makes Rhys’s wonderful collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales for Neon Neon’s Praxis Makes Perfect seem limited in comparison. “Most people eat their culture from a phone” he says practically, “and the app will allow them to explore it all in a different way.”
Despite one song on the album, 100 Unread Messages, obviously charting Evans’s journey and experiences in America, the songs stand on their own. Rhys’s creative output is quite extraordinary as is the quality of his work. Even though the title is American Interior, there is little of the Americana influence on the sound of the album. The title song gives a good indication of where the album is heading with its piano-led opening and showcasing the type of beautiful and playful pop sensibility that has been his trademark from his early days in the Welsh language band Ffa Coffi Pawb, on to Super Furry Animals and through to Neon Neon and his own material.
Rhys admits that none of this would have happened without storytelling and myth. Both of those elements are vital parts of Welsh culture, stretching back to tales like the Mabinogion, a lineage that Rhys himself seems to be part of. Another of those myths and legends is that long before Columbus, it was a Welshman, Madoc, who was the first to ‘discover’ America. This is just one of those myths linked to Evans that Rhys is so fascinated by.
“It was a revolutionary period. In the 1790s the Americans were fighting for independence, the French were getting rid of their royal family and there was a small window where people were talking openly about revolution. A radical generation had to leave Wales or face prison. John Evans was a follower of Iolo Morgannwg and they put their hope in a myth, searching for The Madogwy, a Native American tribe descended from Madoc, in a bid to set up a sort of Welsh utopia and start all over again.”
Rhys says the characters he’s looked at, from John DeLorean, Feltrinelli, and now John Evans, “All looked at the world as a whole rather than being introverted.” That parochialism that is so typical of the Welsh is not something that neither Evans nor Rhys would share. In fact, the singer again finds parallels with more contemporary sources as he begins to talk about the punk attitude that is still an inspiration.
“When I was growing up, Welsh gigs always ended with the audience singing ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’. Someone like Anhrefn, a Welsh punk band from the 80s, changed all that. I was once kicked out of a Heather Jones gig at Clwb Ifor Bach for not standing up for the Welsh anthem because Anrhefn refused to stand for any anthem. They were extroverted rather than introverted, completely confident in their own culture as well as making room for all other cultures.”
Looking outwards rather than inwards is certainly part of Gruff Rhys’s attitude but that doesn’t mean leaving Wales behind. “One of the things I enjoyed most about the tour was explaining about John Evans’s life and about Wales to people who knew next to nothing about either.” This is one of the reasons he’s opted for smaller, more intimate venues for his tour with five nights at the Soho Theatre in London and a slot at the Dinefwr Literature Festival. He wants to tell a story.
When asked whether he sees his role as a sort of spokesman for Welsh culture he vehemently denies it, again underlining his punk credentials, “I don’t see myself as a spokesman for anything or anyone, apart from myself.” It strikes me that perhaps this is one reason he is so confident and creative, steering away from being bogged down by some political manifesto.
Like Evans himself, you feel, here is someone whose eyes are open to the richness of the world around him and taking on board the best of other cultures as well as keeping his own. It’s one of the aspects that make the film so watchable. Rhys doesn’t judge but rather lets people speak for themselves, revealing their own stories around the central thread of Evans’s tale.
The film is also testament to Rhys’s wry humour. At one point a couple at one of the concerts are uncertain whether Rhys is spinning a comedic yarn or whether there’s some sincerity in his explanation of Evans’s remarkable life. This may be partly down to the metre-tall felt doll of John Evans that accompanies Rhys on tour and the dry delivery of his PowerPoint presentation.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the film is Rhys’s visit to the Mandan people, a Native American tribe. They were once, it seems, at the very heart of the American nation. People came from all over the world to trade with them at one point in their history and yet only one fluent speaker of their language remains.
“It was a profound experience,” admits Rhys. “There was a realisation of what it was like to lose a language, to lose a culture.” It was such a profound experience because the parallels with his own situation were also obvious. “We have a golden opportunity in Wales to save the language, yet people don’t take it seriously, there are no policies or plans in place. If we don’t take this opportunity, the same thing could happen to the Welsh language.”
The whole project seems to be based on these elements: Wales, the world and the stories of individuals who see beyond their own boundaries. During the film and in the press releases for American Interior, Rhys wears the head of a wolf. “It was because I was going to be turning into a werewolf during the film but we thought in the end that it was a tangent too far for audiences.” The interest in these extroverted individuals wasn’t too far away though, “The headgear was originally inspired by William Price from Llantrisant” he adds. Price was a true radical. He advocated the abolition of marriage was a Chartist, a Druid and wore a wolf’s head.
Rhys sings on the title track of the album, “Your visions carry me to a new world”. It’s the vision of John Evans that is the inspiration for the project but this is also what Rhys been doing through his music since the start of his career. He’s been breaking new frontiers, opening our eyes to what lies beyond our own boundaries. In that way, he too is a radical visionary and we are all the richer for having him.
A version of this article first appeared in the May edition of Buzz Magazine.