Interview: Illuminating the Legacy, Neon Neon.

Interview: Illuminating the Legacy, Neon Neon.

“Things have to change just to stay the same” Gruff Rhys soothes in that inimitable North Walian croon of his on a track entitled The Leopard. It features on the forthcoming sophomore Neon Neon record Praxis Makes Perfect, the project comprising the Super Furry Animal and Boom Bip – aka Bryan Hollon – but the song itself derives its title from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s seminal Il Gattopardo, a revered literary work first posthumously published by the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore in 1958. And irrespective of the “fascist architecture” cited amid the oppressive industrial electropop of another named The Jaguar, this is a work inspired not so much by Italy and Italian culture, but instead by Feltrinelli and the leftist counterculture that he so staunchly upheld.

As such, whereas their immaculately named début Stainless Style centred itself around the life and agitated lifestyle of John DeLorean, it’s not so much Back to the Future as back to the past as Rhys and Hollon here move on to the founder of Italy’s most illustrious casa editrice. Feltrinelli serves as their muse and although perhaps not the most transparently logical of progressions, faint threads do indeed connect the two men: “Both DeLorean and Feltrinelli have life stories that are extremely dramatic and frequently contradictory” Gruff delicately confirms. “We couldn’t consider following up a record [dedicated] to John DeLorean until we’d found someone with a story that was equally unlikely.”

About as unlikely, say, as a Welsh-speaking region in southernmost South America, I’d suggest. For those of you to have seen Gruff’s typically psychedelic voyage of self-discovery across the area – Separado! you’ll be only too aware of his far-flung heritage, though is there any Italian influence swimming about in either his, or Hollon’s gene pool? “Well, the Romans invaded Wales three millennia ago, but other than that I’m not aware of any” Rhys admits. So what was it that first attracted the pair to Feltrinelli? Bryan at this particular moment takes the mantle: “Gruff had received a senior service book from his friend Dr. Kiko, who is this Italian pharmacist. He read the book, and I think I was over at Gruff’s for a barbecue or something in London when he mentioned it, and spoke of how it was a really crazy story. And then a few months later, he sent me the book with a note in it saying if I ever wanted to do another autobiographical album, then this could be it – Feltrinelli could be the guy.

“So I read the book, and it was just insane. We talked about it a little bit after, but then it kinda went quiet for a while. But Gruff had by then written a couple demos concerning Feltrinelli’s story and once we had a gap in our other project outside of Neon Neon, we decided to get together in Wales to track up the demos and really develop the story.”

And make no mistake – although obscure at first, there’s an intense narrative connecting every piece of Praxis Makes Perfect. Thus far, however, if you’ve as yet only heard the sassy Cate Le Bon-featuring Mid Century Modern Nightmare then the key themes may be yet to reveal themselves. Though this concise centrepiece is a fundamental chapter in itself – a monolithic, hypermodern pop song. And the pop tag is one that Neon Neon are more than happy to have up in their increasingly inviting storefront: “I think it’s a pop record, you know?” Rhys tranquilly concurs. “That’s one of the enjoyable things in a way – that we’re able to try out ideas that we would otherwise shy away from on our solo records. And so Neon Neon is basically a fantasy pop group, within which we get to turn all our super-synthetic fantasies into musical realities.”

Though at the very core of Mid Century Modern Nightmare is a potent political message that rallies against the stagnation of popular culture at large. It’s a plea which is as pertinent today as it was in the oppressive atmospheres of the Communist 1940s and ’50s – albeit to a less noxious, if artistically speaking self-imposed extent. And this juxtaposition between cerebral, conceptual theme and a spangly, ebullient pop aesthetic is immediately striking. It’s surreptitious communiqué in the spirit of Feltrinelli himself, though this is perhaps purely incidental as Rhys calms the conspiracy theories: “We’re very conscious of some aspects – musical aspects, and the choosing of certain sounds. That’s all very conscious but other things just happen, and it’s just the conclusion we come to. And so it’s better not to question something that comes quite naturally anyway.”

“It is a detached record. It’s not one of disguised political rhetoric, but more… melodramatic, I think.”

But this lead single – it stands as a protest against the monotonous dross we’ve come to accept of popular culture at this, the start of the proceeding century: the flavourlessness of commercial dance music; the whitewash brainwashing of television; the suppression of genuine artistry by the enduring inanities of the internet. These are all concerns discreetly attacked via the medium of imagery of Feltrinelli looking down upon the bourgeoise from his “panoramic window” though without doubt, we’re now inhabiting overwhelmingly perturbing times for those with any form of musical agenda, or even a mere vested interest. And such premonitory notions turn to disquiet Gruff “sometimes, you know? But I’m as guilty as anyone of plundering the past!”

This of course couldn’t be truer, what with the entirety of the Neon Neon discography thus far being autobiographical reconceptualisations of the histories of the two disparate individuals to have served as the recordings’ respective muses. His solo endeavours meanwhile – frequently articulated in a lilting Welsh lingo – call upon the folksy eccentricities of the Fairport Convention etcetera more often than not, while the Super Furry Animals were bred from the ’70s in which Rhys spent many of his formative years. And the hyperbolic lamenting of the decline of contemporary music in the interim is “something I definitely, categorically think about.”

Though to return our attentions to the here, the now and Neon Neon, as was Stainless Style their latest has been baptised with a quite flawless title. Though as the project itself has developed, has the synergy Rhys and Hollon share in evolved in such a way so as to suggest that praxis really does make perfect? “In a way we are trying to make quite perfectionist pop music, I suppose” Gruff hesitantly intones. “We found the title in the Feltrinelli library – it was a heading in an old ’60s countercultural magazine that was in the collection – and I mean it’s obviously dangerous putting perfect in the title, but it seemed to fit in with this record. And so too with the last one.” But how has the dynamic matured? “I think it’s constantly changing and evolving. I think?” he quizzes the metaphysical conference hall we find ourselves in puzzled, his Celtic brogue drifting up and away inquisitively as it feels for his counterpart over the ocean.

Of course that the three of us should be sat at various coordinates scattered across the world and locked into a conference call – itself a modern nightmare if you will, replete with distinctly unmemorable PIN numbers, disquieting American accents, unending dial tones and so on – is indicative of the drastic ways in which technology has facilitated modern-day communication. It’s opened the world right up, and it’s a waking reality many of us are yet to compute with. I conflict with it personally, and it’s something of a wonder this conversation takes place at all, I feel. Though how did the record itself come about?

Bryan intervenes for only a second time: “It was a pretty even divide this time between Los Angeles and Wales. And we also spent some time in Italy recording and conducting research. But the initial demos were tracked in Wales and I then brought those back to L.A. to tinker with them, and try to decide on the best instrumentation, sounds, and so on. Gruff then flew over, by which time I’d compiled a few key synthesisers, drums and different things to help define the sound.” So much more intensely involving and so too innovative than your average hands-off pop troupe, then. “So we spent a few weeks here kinda tracking-out and recording the majority of the record. It was really nice this time ’cause we pretty much recorded the whole thing in the same room, together. And there’s a really cohesive feel to it because of that…”

Hollon says little, though what he does utter is largely irrefutably true and Praxis Makes Perfect makes for a thoroughly cohesive album. An illogically coherent one even, as was Stainless Style yet they’ve this time favoured a more versatile, and sonically varied palette. The opening title track systematically works its way through the acute precisions of Germanic techno and electronica while its closing canzone, Ciao Feltrinelli, sees Mediterranean acoustic twangs interwoven with a glistering Balearic kind of balladry. Variety is the unmistakable spice with which the record is seasoned, and that despite the fact that they “tried to limit the number of instruments on the record to make it gel that bit better.” Rhys continues with a cursory compare and contrast: “I suppose the difference is that the last record had the motorik groove inspired by the car factories, whereas this is a more relaxed record.”

And certainly he himself sounds that bit more at ease than he did when we last spoke, but Praxis Makes Perfect is less a personal reflection of where its authors were at both mentally and physically when the songs were first conceived, and more “where Feltrinelli took us”, he assures me with a steadfast conviction. “We wanted to remove ourselves from the rhetoric and relocate to a kind of melodramatic Mediterranean atmosphere. And that was in complete contradiction to the politics of the time.”

Boom Bip butts in: “And I think similarly, that diversity comes from the story itself. It’s really not the instrumentation which creates that range, but rather the theme of each individual song. Both of the protagonists we’ve chosen thus far have led really turbulent lives with loads of highs and lows, and so that’s kinda how both of the records flow, you know? They’re composed of extremes, and it’s that real feel of natural diversity which powers this record. Each song keeps the story bobbing along and so musically, the album traces Feltrinelli’s story.”

Though what the album ultimately represents is a multi-faceted reflection of contrast and contradicting identity. It’s symptomatic of Rhys’ incessant stylistic transmutation though with their every concept vicariously directed by a deceased historical figure – one American; the other Italian – and the authors of these works themselves hailing from the two opposing sides of the North Atlantic, the project is not only one of profound collaboration but so too of contradistinction. And it thus becomes an escapist endeavour in kind – one which is devoid of definitive time and place. “Yeah, we’ve tried to remove Feltrinelli himself from that era” reckons Rhys, “and it seemed to make sense to us that we should try to evoke some kind of synthetic beachside atmosphere.” Naturally. “Feltrinelli was interested in the Third World, and the concept of the nonaligned states that were out of sync with NATO and the Soviet Bloc. He was drawn to Cuba, Yugoslavia, and Indonesia and I find it interesting that we should therefore make a really humid record!”

Thus that which joins the dots between these remote locations is the littoral connection. Whether Los Angeles, Wales, or the emulation of this Mediterranean ambience as is so often the case with Welsh artists the sea appears to be seeping into all that they do. “It’s probably not consciously” Bryan subdues as rippling guffaws ensue, “but you can’t help having those things influence you in some way or another. And, you know, that’s always been the mindset we’ve put ourselves in.” Their primary objective, this time, is to therefore “keep the Mediterranean vibes alive.”

It’s another element that is at once at odds with its predecessor: “When we started talking about the record, it was going to be like a Communist industrial album, but it didn’t quite turn out like that!” Title track aside, I would contend. “Instead, it went Europop!”, Rhys’ voice immediately onomatopoeic. “Though there’s an EP called Years of Lead, which is coming out with the LP and that’s a 4-track release which is more in tune with how we imagined the record was going to be. It’s amazing how music can take you places you really wouldn’t expect! And initially, that happens on a synthesiser but then you find yourself physically taken somewhere by the music itself. For example, I never expected to be recording with Sabrina Salerno [who features on the gloopy Europop bim bloopery of album standout Shopping (I Like To)] in Venice, you know? I never imagined I’d sing a duet with her – it’s something I never imagined would happen to me. It’s beyond any kind of fathomable reality, really!”

Thus there are indeed definitive places to which Neon Neon, as a vehicle, has transported the duo – not least when they come to perform live, of course. That most memorable instance was at Glastonbury when, in the midst of a blistering heatwave and with the Stainless Style show in a very much prototypal phase of existence, Rhys sat static in a director’s chair for the duration while an array of liggers pranced artlessly about his reclined, and patently relaxed figure. It is a project which effortlessly lends itself to collaboration – distilled from the very essence thereof – and the live experience is to benefit from this to a greater effect later on in the year, as they are to team up with the National Theatre Wales for a slew of shows in both Cardiff and London. “It’s gonna be mental” by Gruff’s own admission though for want of not divulging too much, he stops at informing of there being “a cast of actors, and it will be a real experience that’s radically different to the generic concert format.”

Again, the inevitable comparison: “Last time, we started playing the record and just played the songs [straight]. We were touring a concept record and by the end of the touring, that too had become a concept in itself. Har Mar Superstar ended up becoming John DeLorean, and by the end we had our own dance troupe. So this time, we wanted to start at that point, and create a concert which will be equally far-out as the album itself. Or one which at least helps to tell the story!

“It’s maybe just the atmosphere. There won’t be a straight narrative, but people will be engaged by political elements. People will have to make judgements and hopefully they’ll come away with a better outlook, or a better understanding of Feltrinelli’s legacy…”

Quite what that is I’ve as yet only a few impressions and inklings foggy as Milan itself, but Hollon is hopeful it may engender “a desire to buy loads of books, and to learn Italian!” The pair are, however, somewhat self-effacing when it comes to their own linguistic capabilities. Gruff’s, he self-deprecatingly confesses, is “nonexistent” before Bryan corroborates: “Yeah, shit. It’s terrible!” Perhaps it’s of little surprise – their time spent in Italia has thus far been somewhat minimised – though again, Praxis Makes Perfect is a record which transcends geographical confinement anyhow: “We just spent an intense few days there. We’ve both toured Italy a little bit here and there, but we were helped out by some Italian friends who live over here. And I suppose the Feltrinelli story is quite international anyway, in that he was married to a German woman, was smuggling books out of the USSR, couriering money to Bolivia, and playing basketball with Fidel Castro in Havana [the inevitable anecdotal inspiration for loveably sultry album track Hoops with Fidel]. So I think the album is more about the Third World than Italy, in a way.”

And so we return to where we once began – with Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. A man ahead of his time – as was DeLorean, of course – but one constricted by the era into which he was born and subsequently impounded within. Though as does every human being, he did what he could with that which he had at his disposal. “He smuggled Doctor Zhivago [another literary work from which a track incarcerated on the album takes its name] out of the USSR, and they kicked him out of the Communist party for it – for being a dissident. He hid it under his bed in east Berlin, and went out nightclubbing. So his influence is everywhere – it’s beyond the books and finds itself in films, and it was he who popularised the famous image of Che Guevara. He took that photo and turned it into posters, so it’s more than just the man. I mean the man was full of contradictions, and he was living in a time of violent civil war which, you know, doesn’t translate well to any period but his legacy – his books, and his ability to popularise some radical ideas that could potentially make society a better place…”

His legacy looks sure to live on, even though Gruff’s words abruptly stop dead and doze off. He’ll have you back with him soon enough, however, and your world will then undoubtedly become a far better place for it.

Praxis Makes Perfect is anticipated April 29th via Lex Records, while Neon Neon illuminate the Village Underground June 4th–6th.

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