Strictly Kev Vs. Gruff Rhys
- Words: Ken Taylor
In the last few years, lost psychedelic-era gems have popped up left and right due to the persistence and curiosity of vinyl enthusiasts and folks intent on unearthing dusty musical histories. Strictly Kev, of Solid Steel’s crate-digging DJ Food crew, and Brit psych-rock advocate, Gruff Rhys, singer/guitarist of Welsh pop kings Super Furry Animals, have been integral to the phenomenon. Both have compiled and reissued old rock, folk, and soul records but for different reasons–Kev to introduce the far-out sounds to a new audience, and Gruff to uphold his cultural heritage. We got the pair on the phone to talk pop, politics, and preservation.
XLR8R: What got you into record collecting?
Strictly Kev: Hip-hop basically. I’m in my late 30s, so I’m from that era, but hip-hop made me search wider than the pop charts. And the whole breaks thing appealed to me: I quite liked the idea of making records out of other records. That’s what got me into it primarily, but once you start traveling as a DJ, you never really stop picking [records] up.
Gruff Rhys: I don’t come from a DJ background, so my collection is really random. I buy a lot of records, and have since I was a teenager, but I wouldn’t say I’m a completist. When [Super Furry Animals] started touring as a band, we would use the gaps between sets as an excuse to play records. And everywhere we’d go, we’d look for interesting vinyl from whatever country we toured.
Gruff, what process did you undertake when you went to compile Welsh Rare Beat for the Finders Keepers label?
GR: With the first Welsh Rare Beat collection, I got an email from [label head] Andy Votel; he’d started getting his hands on Welsh-language records, and he didn’t have a clue what they were about or didn’t know anything about the acts. He asked for my help in explaining what was going on. [What he’d amassed] basically mirrored my parents’ record collection. When I was a kid, I was taken to see these bands and I knew all the records, and I was completely blown away that people from outside Wales were into this music. I’d heard the odd rumor that Cash Money was playing [Welsh band] Y Tebot Piws singles–that hip-hop DJs were starting to buy up these records–and I got together with Andy Votel and Dom Thomas and we went through the records. I kind of vetoed some of the ones that I thought…had really dodgy lyrics, and suggested other artists they should look for. We’re just about to release Welsh Rare Beat 2. We went to the BBC record vault in Cardiff and spent two days going through a mountain of old vinyl.
So you’re playing both compiler and translator, then?
GR: Yeah, and maybe just helping explain the political context of the records. It was quite an exciting time musically and politically.
What was going on there when these records were being released?
GR: Well, the Welsh language had been suppressed for a few centuries, and in the ’60s and ’70s, I suppose all over the world, people were standing up for their rights to speak their native language. The pop scene mirrored the political scene.
That brings me to my next question. Why, when we have so much music out there already, should we feel the need to go into music’s tiniest corners to look for things that have already been released? Isn’t that just feeding into the “I need everything now” mentality?
GR: I think it’s just revisionist history. We keep getting bombarded by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as “the greats.” You know, you can redefine women in pop and languages beyond English in pop. I think it’s a useful thing to do, you know? I suppose for people like Andy Votel, who’s come from a hip-hop background, when a band’s record gets sampled by Madlib, or something [is sampled] from the Welsh Rare Beat compilation, I suppose it’s creating new music in some kind of sense.
SK: The “adding to the pile” thing… I think some music has a time. It comes out in a time and it doesn’t maybe fit [that era]. And it takes another generation to appreciate it for what it is. If it’s good, it will always be appreciated at some point, but sometimes it’s 10 or 20 or 30 years too early. I think what we’re doing, or helping to do, is introduce music that’s always been there, and had a worth, to a new generation. Or maybe there’s an older generation that heard it the first time around that can present it to a newer generation, as with the Sesame Street [DJ Food sample] record or The Dragons [whose BFI album Kev just issued though Ninja Tune]. With The Dragons thing, it got passed around at the time and passed over by everybody, and so they sort of slung back into obscurity and did their own thing. Now there’s a whole movement of surf rock and psych rock and all that very much coming back into vogue in the mainstream–it has been [happening] for years in the sampling and digging undercurrent. It’s almost ripe for rediscovery.
How did you go about reissuing The Dragons’ record?
SK: There was no record in the first place. There was a soundtrack with one track on it called “Food for My Soul” that I licensed for a Solid Steel mix in April on Ninja Tune. During the licensing process with Dennis Dragon, the drummer from The Dragons, he said, “Hey, I’ve got this whole album that was recorded at the same time as ‘Food for My Soul,’ but we never got anywhere with it. Do you wanna hear it?” He forwarded me some MP3s and we just loved it to bits at Ninja, and got together a remastering budget ’cuz it was all on quarter-inch tape; it’d sort of been hidden for years by the engineer.
Gruff, what’s been your experience with finding the copyright holders?
GR: With the first Welsh Beat compilation, that was all records from the Sain label–miraculously that label is still going and they’ve still got the master tapes. They’ve become a pretty mediocre label since then, but the first 10 years were pretty interesting… So it was incredibly easy. But with the second compilation, it’s music from a lot of different labels, and it’s frustrating to not be able to license key songs–either people demanding a lot of money or just being unable to trace the owners.
SK: I’ve had that similar problem with the Solid Steel mixes that I do. The first one, we got, I think, three quarters of what we wanted. It’s really frustrating because especially when you’re making a mix CD, everything is working together and if you just get one piece of the puzzle that’s not licensable, you almost have to scrap the rest, you know?
Have you ever gotten to that point where you scrapped a mix?
SK: It depends how much of a prime ingredient [a certain track] is. In a couple of cases, we’ve had to scrap bits, yes. I know Mr. Scruff is a real stickler for that. He will literally scrap 10-minute segments if he can’t get one track.
Gruff, what’s drawing you away from the band and into the club sound with the new Neon Neon project with Boom Bip?
GR: I’ve always had a magpie approach to music. It’s all music, you know? But I’ve come from a background of playing in bands, setting up equipment and playing live music… And a project like Neon Neon is more a kind of solitary record–just a couple of people working with a computer and making music. [Super Furry Animals] did quite a lot of tours with Boom Bip in the States. We asked him to remix one of our songs, and he did it in return for me doing vocals for a track on one of his records, and we ended up making an album for fun [Neon Neon’s forthcoming LP]. It’s like a rock opera about the lives and wives of John DeLorean–the first playboy car manufacturer.
SK: But weren’t SFA brought up on techno stuff anyway? You did a compilation of influential records and Joey Beltram was on there, along with some really out-of-the-ordinary techno records… Hardfloor and stuff like that.
GR: We kind of bonded as a band during the electronic explosion in the early ’90s. We used to go out to clubs and stay up ’til the next day or whatever, and we started out taking our soundsystem around to parties. Somehow or other we ended up making techno records and also records of songs–conventional records. The band got signed and the soundsystem didn’t.
So there is some truth to the rumored techno record of SFA’s past?
GR: Well, Cian [Ciarán], who plays keyboards for us, releases records under the name Acid Casuals. He’s made records for Novamute and makes really hard, minimal techno mostly.
You’re both big on collaborations. Do you see collaborating on cross-genre projects as a product of postmodern life, with artists tending to reject pure styles now in favor of cross-pollinations? Like, Kraftwerk never would have remixed The Eagles... That’s a relatively recent concept.
SK: I think there are two different viewpoints. Kraftwerk remixing The Eagles wouldn’t happen because management wouldn’t allow it back then. They would think it would damage the bands’ respective careers. Kraftwerk wouldn’t work with Michael Jackson, as the legend goes. And nowadays [Kraftwerk] don’t have to do it ’cause a kid in his bedroom can do [a remix]. Secondly, I don’t play an instrument, so in that sense I collaborate because otherwise I wouldn’t get the sound that I want.
GR: I think people tend to be more objective today and overlook that romantic idea of having to know your place and whatnot. They’re more open-minded in the 21st century.
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