Gruff Rhys’s new project, American Interior, comprises a feature-length film, album, book, and app, all telling the story of Rhys’s eccentric, adventuring ancestor, John Evans. Pete Fowler has provided visuals for all elements of the project: we talk to him about the work.
The tale of John Evans is an extraordinary one: a Welsh farm labourer, who at the age of 22, in 1792, set off to America in search of a fabled tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans, supposed ancestors of the Welsh prince Madoc. His journey took him across the American Interior, much of which was not mapped at the time, and into all manner of peril, including war, malaria, jail, as well as predators such as alligators. Along the way he also mapped part of the region for the first time too. In Rhys’ telling of the story, which is presented with his characteristic mix of deadpan wit and pathos, we discover a man who must have been hugely charismatic and determined but has become only a footnote in history.
Not for long though: via all the elements of Rhys’ project, Evans is brought back to life. Helping him do this is artist Pete Fowler, a long time collaborator of Rhys, having worked with him extensively in creating visuals for his band, the Super Furry Animals, and also on numerous solo projects, including solo albums, and also Separado!, Rhys’s first film.
Fowler and Rhys discussing the project
“I got involved at a fairly early stage,” says Fowler of this project. “I think the team realised from doing the first film that there was a hell of a lot of work involved and this project was way more ambitious than the previous one. One of the first things I did was come up with a holding page image, which was a drawing I did of Gruff and John Evans. Then the font was the next thing. Initially it was quite small pieces of work, and then as it went on I realised and understood the incredible ambition of the project.
“He’s an incredibly restless creative spirit, Gruff, it just seems to pour out of him. There’s a compulsion with me and my artwork, that I always have to do it, and I think Gruff’s a bit of a kindred spirit in that respect. And the more he learnt about John Evans, the story got bigger and bigger and more involved…. It’s unpeeling lots of layers to American history really – John is a known character but not enough is known about him, so as Gruff discovered that, the project became more ambitious.”
Font designed by Fowler, used in the film titles
Clip from the film on Pete Fowler’s work for American Interior
In the American Interior film (which is directed by Dylan Goch with Rhys), we follow Rhys as he embarks on an ‘investigative concert tour’ across the States, following the path of John Evans. Along the way, he talks to historians, fans, and Native Americans from the tribes that Evans would have met 200 years ago, and slowly a complex portrait is drawn, of Evans and his story, but also of the questions of identity, particularly regarding language, that affect both Welsh and Native American communities today. Rhys’s quest is idiosyncratic and humorous yet also moving, and a pleasure to watch.
Fowler designed the album and book covers, as well as illustrations for the app and the film, and also a felt figurine of John Evans, shown top, which Rhys carries with him on his journey across America. (Designed by Fowler, the figure was made by Felt Mistress, and photos of the making of it appear on the app.). He also designed the font, which is used across the whole project, and available for free download, here.
“It was kind of like being a doctor on call,” says Fowler of working on the project. “There was a period where I was working on some extra bits for the film, the app, the book and the album at the same time, so lots of plates spinning, but really cool. I work on such a wide variety of projects that if I get stuck on one I can dip into another one, and then use a bit of inspiration from that – and Gruff’s project has been very much like that, it’s been like working on four different projects in a way, but it’s a real nice thing for me to bounce between.”
Illustrations from the film
“There have been tons of characters that I’ve drawn, of key players in John’s story, that I’ve redrawn from old portraits of them, and that’s been really fun and a slightly different way of working,” he continues. “When I’ve worked with the Super Furries and Gruff before, the imagery comes out of nowhere, it comes from my imagination, whereas with this, everything is kind of laid out – it’s interpreting that in a different way.
“A lot of the work for the entire project is hand-drawn with a brush pen, which is something I’ve started to do a lot more of in my work, rather than it being purely vector. I think it’s all been drawn down from the font, because when I first designed the font, we wanted something that was unique, that looked old without being too retro. Something that could be used across the whole project that would be a thread linking through. Everything was informed by that – I’d done the font by hand, so it made sense to do the rest of the imagery by hand.”
Stills from the American Interior app
As no portraits of John Evans exist, Fowler and Rhys researched the region he grew up in to help put together the felt figurine of the adventurer that appears alongside Rhys in the film. “We looked at photographs of locals from where he lived to see what the jawline was, and looked at what clothing he would have worn – he would have had very little money so it would have been very drab, and very humble clothing,” says Fowler. “All that really helped me get into the mind of this person. The more I’ve contributed to the project, the more I’ve got into the psyche of John Evans and the huge adversities that he faced walking across America.
“The film is totally surreal, very funny in parts, really thought-provoking and very moving,” Fowler says. “It’s a very genuine story, it all comes from stories that Gruff’s gran used to tell him and he was like, ‘who is this guy, is he real, is this a story that’s been embellished over time and things added?’ And actually, no, it’s all real.”
Stills from the film
The American Interior album, film, book and app are all out this week. Both the book and the app are published by Penguin. For more info on all aspects of the project, visit american-interior.com. Rhys is currently touring the album across the UK too, where he gives a Powerpoint presentation on Evans as well as singing songs. More info on the tour is at gruffrhys.com.
Pete Fowler’s font for American Interior is also available for free download. Click here to access it.