"I'm kind of gate-crashing various American songwriting traditions as some weird Welsh guy singing Wild West music. But I think it makes sense—it's very ornate, cinematic." That's how Gruff Rhys described his wonderful 2018 album Babelsberg to Gothamist when he joined us for our latest edition of Gothamist House. It also does make total sense: it's as good a summation of Rhys's unique approach to songwriting as any I've ever read.

Rhys is the longtime leader of the Super Furry Animals, the single greatest Welsh rock band in history (who are, sadly, currently somewhere between in limbo and on extended hiatus). The group had an eclectic and whimsical approach to songwriting, combining everything from Krautrock to bossanova to Britpop to folk songs to the Beach Boys to psych to techno, producing some of the greatest pop albums of the late '90s/'00s (the run of Radiator-Guerrilla-Mwng-Rings Around The World-Phantom Power rivals the Stones in the late '60s/early '70s in terms of sustained brilliance). Despite that, you may not be super familiar with them: they never quite broke through in America the way they did in Europe and other parts of the world.

Since the band went into what Rhys calls "hibernation" (their last album came out in 2009, though they went on a few short tours in the mid-'10s), he's been reasonably prolific, releasing three excellent solo records (plus a bunch of singles, EPs, and at least two soundtracks) filled with the kind of weird and woozy songs he's long been known for. Musically-speaking, his latest album sees him staking out new territory: he fully embraces orchestration (played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) as he never has before, combining it with a lowkey country-western vibe. It reminds me of some of Lee Hazelwood's brilliant early '70s solo albums, such as Cowboy In Sweden, in which he juxtaposed an outsider's perspective on a timeless American genre only to produce something stranger and more timeless.

Lyrically, it may be his darkest album yet. Bigots, delusional alpha dudes, and privacy-smashing drones all populate the words, and the whole record ends with an ode to taking selfies as Armageddon sweeps through. As Pitchfork wrote, Rhys takes that countrypolitan sound and provocatively delivers "a flaming pile of dog shit encased in a rhinestone-studded jewelry box."

"I think it's been a very heavy time politically, and I was engaging a lot with that during the time of writing it," Rhys told us. "It's kind of an easy listen because of the veneer of opulence that the orchestration brings to it. But, it represents a bit of a bleak time...take a song like 'Selfies in the Sunset.' It's not a particularly radical record, musically, but it does engage with the present day: gentrification, selfies, vegan burgers, craft beer, fancy apartment blocks, as well as the affairs of the heart."

"I take the songs I write very seriously," he adds. "I love listening to records and I take the records very seriously. I don't want to necessarily take myself too seriously, because a lot of culture is egocentric follies."

Rhys, who a few years ago wrote a preemptive anti-Brexit song called "I Love EU," is clearly concerned about the rise of extremism and xenophobia around the world. Although he generally takes his time to answer questions throughout our interview, carefully formulating his thoughts before slowly speaking them outloud, he lights up as he gets into the state of Britain this year, and how right wing politicians have "turned globalism into a dirty word." But he also feels like he's perhaps been too affected by the constant negative media coverage, and is trying to become "more selective about where I get the information from. I feel it's kind of very liberating, and the songs I'm writing are much more optimistic because of it."

Unlike his 2014 album American Interior, which was a concept album based on the life of the explorer John Evans (who came to America to look for a mythic Welsh-speaking indigenous tribe), his newest album did not come with any one overarching theme. As you may have guessed, it's title was partially inspired by the tale of the Tower Of Babel. Well, that and the ever-encroaching gentrification of artistic spaces.

"The title came about because of the condition of the recording studio, which was being knocked down shortly after we recorded the album to build luxury apartments, which is something that's happening all over the world, creative spaces are getting bulldozed," he said. "I wanted the title to be a nod to the condition of the recording building, so I thought maybe the title could be like the name you'd get on a fancy apartment block."

"Then on the cover of the album, the illustrator drew a scene on the top floor of this tower of Babelsberg, and this kind of horrific tower they're trying to build to reach heaven, but creating hell for everyone else. If you see the illustration, you'll get what I'm hinting at."

Language, and the constant struggle to communicate across borders and cultures, is an important topic for the singer, who writes songs in both his native Welsh and English. "My first language is the Welsh language," he said. "That's what I speak at home with my kids and my family. It's strange in a way that I'm not writing more in Welsh. But I've gotten an infatuation with American pop culture, it's been particularly influenced by that. I enjoy writing in English." He tells us that he has started work on two separate new albums, one in English and one in Welsh. (Drummer/tour manager Kliph Scurlock followed up a few weeks later to say they had already finished recording about half of the English album.)

He spoke more about the complexities of thinking, speaking and writing in dual languages, and the way it adds to a more empathetic, global perspective:

I like writing songs because I can take my time. I'm not great at talking like this. There's gaps sometimes [when I] make some thoughts, but with songwriting I'm able to gather my thoughts in a concise way and sing them. I don't translate from one language to another in real time. I don't think that's how the brain works. I'm asked a lot, what language do you dream in? I don't think I dream in any language, I think you dream in colors and maps.

Retaining multiple languages is incredibly important to deal with people's experience in a particular space. Any given insight [is] developed over thousands of years from someone's experience in a particular location. I love when idioms are translated from a language to another, it can introduce another culture to some insight that another culture brought to life.

As a fan of pop music, I enjoy listening to people singing in English who maybe have another language as their first language. I love listening to Bjork and I often wonder if her songs are just ...Icelandic idioms translated into English. Whatever she's singing sounds really profound to me.

As we were finishing up our conversation, he mentioned how excited he was to get to tour America for the first time in several years. The band had even made plans to visit Paisley Park, as well as the site of the world's first payphone in Hartford, CT: "Imagine who made the first call. Who were they calling? Who will make the last ever call from a payphone, as they disappear?"

He was especially excited about returning to New York City. "I love coming here," he said. "I've been coming since the mid '90s and it's changed so dramatically. It's incomparable to how it was twenty years ago. Maybe for the worse. I think cities are continuously changing, but the gentrification is really dramatic as well."

"To me, it's still a kind of romantic place, to come and look at these old buildings and see the yellow taxis. It's quite exciting to be in them," he added. "So I can't be completely objective. It's quite an interesting process seeing somewhere change. I suppose I was kinda inspired when I was a kid by bands like The Velvet Underground and the beat poets. That was kind of my idea of New York. I suppose this is a different New York to that era, but that's inevitable, anyway. I'm sure there's something else bubbling away waiting to come out."