Gruff Rhys is, again, a man on a quest. After successfully turning a Patagonia trip to locate his extended family into the 2010 documentary Separado, the Super Furry Animals singer is now looking for the final resting place of his relative John Evans, who left Wales in 1792 to find a tribe of Welsh speaking Native Americans and prove that Prince Madog had actually discovered the New World in 1170. Using a map that Evans drafted (and was later used as the basis for the Lewis and Clark expedition) as a starting point, Rhys is spending August on an “investigative tour”: playing music, doing research, and scouring the country for anybody that can possibly finish this story.
What made this the right time to undertake this project?
The last film that I made, Separado, was also an investigative concept and that took about five years to make. I’m finally getting over that process, and I feel like I’m geared up to make another one now. The main reason the first one took so long was that I made it with a friend of mine, Dylan Goch, and neither of us had ever made a film before.
Did you learn any lessons the first time around?
I’d like to think so; we shot a lot of things we didn’t really need to shoot last time, but we still want to maintain a sense of excitement and spontaneity about the project. I don’t want to have so many hours of footage, but you also want to document the adventure as it happens.
You’ve decided to look into the story of John Evans, who is your relative? How did you find about him?
My father was descended from Evans’ sister, and in his generation there was only he and his cousin left from the relatives. He was pretty obsessed with the story, and passed it down to my brother and me. My brother has become just as obsessed; for me it’s more about verifying these stories. I imagine most families have these tall tales about a relative who did something crazy and ended up with a great story to tell. I’m trying to separate the truth from the myth.
Other than the map that he left, what other documents are you using?
He wrote a lot of letters that are still in existence. Some of his journals ended up in Seville. One of the claims about him was that he was the last conquistador of the Spanish empire. He ended up in jail in St. Louis after spending a year knocked out by malaria, then he defected to Spain and became Don Juan Evans and got on a boat that was heading up the Missouri River. He traveled through the lands of the Omaha and the Sioux. He ended up living the winter with the Mandan tribe. There’s documentation of his travels, and he was putting up the Spanish flag everywhere he went. He left a trail of chaos that’s pretty easy to follow. The whole time, though, his mission was to find the Welsh speaking tribe. The Mandan was his best bet, but of course there are no Welsh Native Americans. He ended up in the Spanish capital of New Orleans where he died of alcoholism, and, really, a romantic disposition. These are all the things that I know; it’s the other things I want to verify.
Are you worried that you won’t be able to connect with Evans, given that the landscape has changed so much since the time that he made his travels?
I don’t think that I’ll have trouble coming up with the sheer scale of his journey, but there isn’t a visual representation of John Evans. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would have been painted, so a friend of mine called Pete Fowler and I sat down and tried to figure out what John Evans would have looked like. Then we made a three foot tall John Evans out of felt. I’ll have him with me in the van like an avatar. Also, many of the cities that he visited don’t exist anymore. I’ll be playing shows in the ones that still do; for those that no longer exist I’ll be playing some shows in fields.
You’re asking people from the surrounding communities to show up with information at your shows. What kind of things are you expecting to hear?
I have no expectations about getting any information about John Evans. I’d rather just talk to the people who live in these cities about their experiences and what they know. If I end up learning something for my research, it’s all the better. One of the things that Evans put on his map was volcanoes in Missouri. I don’t think there are any volcanoes in that part of the country, but there was some sort of mound there. Maybe somebody knows what that was and is willing to talk about it.
That’s something I wanted to ask about. I didn’t know if the imaginary volcano was something I should already know about or not.
Yeah. He genuinely believed that there were active volcanoes in Missouri. I don’t suppose he would have known what an active volcano would have looked like anyway, but maybe he thought that’s what he was seeing. He was interacting with animals and vegetation that he had no precedent for, so he did the best he could. It’s only when we look back on it that it becomes misleading.
You’ll be making a documentary about the subject, but also an album. What’s the album going to be like?
I imagine that it will be a mixture of field recordings of our experiences with studio versions of the songs that we’ve written while out on tour. This project is still a couple of years away from being completed, though; those songs will undergo a process of change during that time. This is only the first part of the trip; I’m hoping to go out on another tour to some of the places John Evans visited. I’ve recorded a whole album of songs from Separado, but I still haven’t compiled it all. I’d also like to get that out some time, so it’s hard to say what will happen.
When everything is said and done, and you’ve done the tour and made the film and the album, what will make this have been a worthwhile experience for you?
I guess at this point what I don’t fully appreciate is the sheer distances that he traveled and his interactions with Native American tribes and even where he was buried. It’s going to be a big experience to take all that in, so I’m looking forward to experiencing the magnitude of his journey. What I’m most interested in a way is that he was searching for a myth- that he thought his descendants were walking the plains. I suppose that I’m really interested in how myths can sometimes lead our lives to travel along tragic paths. Some of these myths are still perpetuated today in Wales. I guess I want to understand that on some level.