EVEN for a musician who has displayed a knack for lateral thinking as often as Gruff Rhys, collecting complimentary hotel shampoo bottles for 15 years was maybe taking it a bit far.
But there was method in this apparent madness. Not only did these little bottles of bubbles trigger memories that led to songs, the Welshman named his new album Hotel Shampoo after the structure he fashioned out of them.
The former Super Furry Animals leader, who plays Sheffield’s Memorial Hall on Monday, had the lotion notion 10 years ago that his collecting might lead somewhere other than cluttering his home.
“In the first year I decided I was probably going to keep them all and do something with them,” he recalls.
“Initially I was going to make a lake of shampoo as a monument to waste. After two or three years I decided I was going to build a hotel instead and was purposefully keeping them.
“They were all round the house in jars and bags. Then about two years ago I started to organise them into boxes and around the same time I was writing the songs and ended up stealing the title for the album.
“Looking back at the same time period as I collected the shampoo it became one thing in my head.”
Sheffield marks the opening date of his first UK tour for three years. He will be joined on the road by North Wales instrumental surf rock quartet Y Niwl who played on the album he releases the same day.
In addition to playing as support at all gigs, the band will be putting in a double shift and helping out on some of Gruff’s songs too.
“I think it’ll be a good night for surfing,” says the laid-back musician whose art installation Hotel Shampoo became an artistic statement about disposable, wasteful free hotel products acquired while touring the world.
“Having never kept a journal these items have become like diary entries, triggering memories of all those buildings and random people I’ve met and inspiring songs on the album.
“People like me take them and make weird kennel-like hotels, but it’s also been quite a handy resource to have in the house.
“Ultimately, hopefully, it’s funny at the very least.
“It’s a daft idea and a cheap gag and I’ve enjoyed building it. I don’t expect anything else.”
Of course, one thing Gruff’s mission has done is expose the guilty secret that most of us who use hotels share, even if it is simply a case of snaffling a half-used bottle of conditioner so it doesn’t go to waste.
“Most places I stay don’t give away free things. And if I’m staying in someone’s house I won’t take anything,” Gruff confirms.
“But when I started touring it was such a dramatic change from my previous existence that I was quite shocked by how much stuff is given away.
“Now I don’t care about where I stay. I’m grateful if I’ve got a roof over my head, but this kind of documents the boom years and I’ve managed to build a dwelling out of the shampoo bottles so at the very least if it all goes wrong I’ve somewhere to live. It’s not very big, though.”
Sadly Gruff isn’t taking the installation, which stood for three days, on tour with him. But if it really did inspire the record then it did a fairly decent job as Gruff has tendered some of his finest songs alongside a few moments that simply wash over you.
“I keep books to keep lyric ideas but I suppose it’s just at certain points I was touring more than I was at home in any year,” he says, dashing our hopes of Sheffield hotels providing much for the collection.
“You just work with what’s in front of you and for a long time that’s what was in front of me more than anything else.
“It was there for the taking, but I realise it’s a big contradiction; on the one hand it’s an environmental disaster how all this is available and then there’s the general human kleptomania instinct I’m still excited by.
“Now I’m happier if there’s nothing to take and I’ve absolutely stopped.
“Once I’d built the hotel that was the end of that. I’ve got no interest in them outside of building that.”
As for details - that bottle of Jo Malone lime basil and mandarin shampoo or that silky Molton Brown conditioning rinse – Gruff doesn’t attach tracks to specific products.
“The songs for the most part are quite random, small observations and lots of them in one song,” he confirms.
“To stop songs becoming too literal I usually end up mixing it up with a completely different memory and when I look at a hotel I’m looking at things that cover the 15 year period simultaneously.
“It’s a case of memories rather than talking one defining memory, I think.
“I’m very happy to stop collecting now.”