Artists Must Be Delusional

American Interior author and rock musician Gruff Rhys learned a lot by following in footsteps of a gullible pioneer.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The story told in Gruff Rhys’s American Interior—a vast, interdisciplinary epic by the lead singer of acclaimed rock band Super Furry Animals—sounds outlandish, but is as true as life. The project chronicles the travels of John Evans, an 18th-century pauper who came to the United States looking for the descendants of Madog, a mythical Welsh hero said to have sailed to America three centuries before Columbus. For many years, it was said that a lost, Welsh-speaking tribe—proof of pre-Columbus contact—roamed the Great Plains. For some, the story became accepted history. Thomas Jefferson, in his instructions to Lewis and Clark, told the explorers to look out for them.

American Interior is about the power, danger, and limits of myth. In what he calls “an investigative concert tour,” Rhys traced Evans’s route—to the dismay of his managers—playing songs written about Evan’s quest in places like Columbia, Missouri, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Throughout the trip, Rhys carried a large John Evans puppet by his side, photographing him at every stop, a symbol of their overlapping journeys. The tour is the subject of work by Rhys across four mediums: a book American Interior, published by Penguin, which is part travelogue, part scholarly history, and part tall tale; a documentary film, directed by Dylan Goch; a mobile app, which supplements the story with maps, audio, and video clips; and through it all, of course, the American Interior album, which forms the journey’s soundtrack. It’s a feat of (self-)mythologizing that explores the theme we discussed in our conversation for this series—the dangerous and delightful ways made-up stories are absorbed into reality.

In addition to playing with Super Furry Animals, Rhys makes biography-influenced music with Neon Neon. He wrote the theme song for the forthcoming film about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, starring Elijah Wood. He is—or says he is—a descendant of John Evans’s maternal uncle. He spoke to me by phone.

Gruff Rhys: In the 16th century, the British were angry that Columbus had already staked a claim in North America. So, after they annexed Wales, they unearthed this obscure Welsh myth. The original Welsh tale of Madog was very vague: A Welshman sailed to the West around 1170, the story went, and that was about it. This shadowy figure was plucked from fiction by the Elizabethan court to make land claims on North America—their guy had got there a few centuries before Columbus, they said, so the land was theirs.

Of course, there’s no historical proof Madog ever really existed. But here we have an example of a story influencing global affairs, of fiction altering fact. As the Welsh historian Gwyn A. Williams writes in his study of the Madog story:

Myth itself can become an operative historical reality.

Two hundred years later, their claims had solidified into a kind of real history. By the 1790s, the intelligentsia in Wales really believed this story. Many people thought it was true that, somewhere in the American interior, there existed a tribe of blue-eyed Native Americans who spoke Welsh—Madog’s descendants. An orphaned farmhand, the 21-year-old John Evans, volunteered to make his way through the Americas to verify the existence of the Welsh-speaking indigenous tribe. He raised the money, sailed from London to Baltimore, and took a seven-year walk through America looking for them.

Evan’s journey is a further example of the way that myths can have real political consequences. It was Evans, in his search for Madog, who first mapped the Mississippi River; his maps were given by Thomas Jefferson to Lewis and Clark, who used them in their own quests. Later in his quest, Evans was financed by the Spanish—and that portion of his journey may have had long-lasting implications for the way the borders of the United States were drawn. My brother, the geographer Dafydd Rhys, has a theory that, had Evans not raised the Spanish flag near the 49th parallel, the British Canadians may well have been able to create a foothold much further to the south. North and South Dakota and Montana might have become part of Canada. If this had happened, Al Gore would have won his election against George Bush. Possibly the Iraq War would not have taken place, and the whole legacy of that war would not exist.

Looked at this way, the consequences of the Madoc myth theoretically have a connection to the Iraq War. I’m sure there are countless examples myths affecting real history in this way—and the Iraq War itself is one modern example. A dossier was created showing conclusive proof that there where weapons of mass destruction in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein—in the U.K., it’s famously known as “the dodgy dossier.” The document was created by Tony Blair’s government and given to the Bush Administration. Colin Powell took it to the U.N. In this case, the mythology facilitated the invasion, though the invasion might have happened in any case, and myth again becomes an operative political reality.

I think it’s human nature to get carried away with certain very powerful ideas, the way John Evans did with Madog. You see the same obsession in rock stars or touring musicians. Touring is a chase after a dream, and a form of self-mythologizing. It’s a quest for a kind of vague glory, and not a very direct quest. As John Evans travelled, making his way through cities like Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans, he was on a search for his own kind of glory, similar to the way a rock star or touring musician would. There’s a sad rock-and-roll element to his life. As a touring musician, I see parallels between Evans’s journey and the journeys taken by deluded rock musicians—also convinced they’ll find some kind of glory on the road.

There’s also the fact that Evans’s search had a colonialist flavor to it. Well, the industry of rock touring is also quite imperialistic in a way. People in the industry refer to countries as “territories.” Cities are called “markets” in booking agent jargon. Musicians are sent to conquer these territories. People talk about “breaking” America, and the whole vocabulary about it is very violent. I’ve always found it very offensive as a musician, my primary goal is in the work itself. I’m trying to write songs that have value, to myself at least. But it’s undeniable that the music we listen to is related to political power. I often think about how, after the Second World War, Anglo-American music and visual arts were aggressively pushed worldwide. In the 1960s, for example, English pop music was dominant worldwide and was aggressively pushed by global corporations as a cultural force. (The term “British Invasion” has new resonance when you think of it in this light.) I grew up listening to Neil Young records—but if someone else had won the Second World War, I might have grown up been listening to someone completely different. It’s very obvious, but the culture and the art we consume is very dependent on who’s dominant economically and politically. I often ponder whether I’m being coerced into listening to something, or if it’s my own choice.

Myth with an overt political goal is propaganda, the way the Madog tale was used as propaganda by the Elizabethan court. But artists create their own myths about themselves, too, in their quests for cultural power. In a way, these acts of myth-making are beautiful and innocent, like the Bob Dylan story—he took the name of a Welsh poet to be his own and create his own myth around himself. Or a band like the White Stripes, who created the mythology of this brother-sister act. Maybe in pop music it doesn’t hurt anyone. But when it comes real exploration and imperialism, it can be catastrophic. When people become obsessed with an idea, and nothing will prevent them from pursuing it, it matters very much whether they’re working in politics or art. Political myth-making can lead to devastating consequences. David Bowie’s cultural myth-making obsession leads to some very beautiful costume changes.

To a certain extent, artists must be delusional in the way John Evans was. Growing up in Wales, aspiring to be a touring musician, is a very deluded mindset as well. I’m still completely deluded in my music. There must be something deeply wrong with me if I feel if I feel it’s so important to document to my ideas and put them on plastic. Though I’m happily deluded, in that sense, I often wonder why. I have so many friends who are great musicians or well-read, and you might they they would be perfect candidates for the life of the artist. But they have no interest in anything like that. They’re very sensible, and their jobs have practical value to society. I’ve often thought, why am I not like one of these people? What makes me so restless that I feel it’s extremely important to me to make music? It’s not something I can define. It’s one reason I was interested in John Evans as a character: Why did this guy sacrifice so much to go on a vain quest through America, while his brother stayed home?

Art is a form of mild madness that’s within the realm of normal behavior. It’s not the most noble of occupations, in that it’s not always of immediate value to people. But anyone who has appreciated art knows there’s something naïve, and innocent, in it that has the potential to create beauty. It’s a fine line, but the artistic obsession can create things of lasting beauty.

I think it’s one reason I felt I could exaggerate a bit in my book, American Interior: I was conscious I was building a myth of my own. As I wrote about our investigative concert tour, I knew I could be playful with my personal history. I’m not a historian in an academic sense, so I had a license. Using constructs, like traveling with a large avatar of John Evans, was a way of bringing the story to life. I removed things from the story that had limited narrative value. I rewrote my very boring flight to the U.S., for instance, as a seven-week boat trip like the one Evans took. That’s far more interesting than writing about my journey to the airport. I also took out all the people who traveled with me on the road—even though the music and film crews were made up of some very interesting people, and it was a constant soap opera in the van. In the end I opted for this more simple narrative of me and John Evans on the road alone: That simplified, constructed version of the story better brings out the resonances between my journey and the one Evans took two hundred years ago. Paradoxically, the constructed version comes closer to a certain kind of truth. The ideas are more important than what happened literally.

It’s a strange thing that I’ve fallen into the habit of making biographical albums. I’ve done two projects with Neon Neon that were biographical albums—the first was about the car mogul John DeLorean, which took key events from his life, and then last year we put out Praxis Makes Perfect, an album about the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a communist playboy industrialist. These projects have been amazing ways for me to find new methods of writing songs. I’ve written plenty of personal songs—but since my songs are fairly conventional, they have verses and choruses, it’s difficult to make radical work when I’m writing about myself. Biography has been a way for me to experiment with new ways of writing, and it’s been a transformative education for me. I spent time in a library for radical tracts in Milan. I got to go to Yale’s Beineke Library to study John Evan’s maps. After years in a fairly vacuous world of touring, all that time in vans, it’s been extremely rewarding to spend time in these institutions where I never, ever imagined I would visit. It’s opened a world of possibility for me.