When we first met Welsh pop heroes the Super Furry Animals in 1993, they were staring down the barrel of a monolithic Britpop culture armed only with a wicked sense of humor, an unbridled imagination and the Welsh language. Oh, and a psychedelic tank.
If SFA owed (owe) a tuneful debt to British pop, it’s via Yoko Ono and 10cc rather than the Kinks et al. This is evidenced as much by their notorious early Generation Ecstasy anthems, “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” and “Something for the Weekend,” as by the more recent “Happiness is a Worn Pun” and the lovely and elliptical “Juxtaposed With U.” That song features the classic lyric “You’ve got to tolerate/all those people that you hate/I’m not in love with you/But I won’t hold that against you.”
At birth, the Furries were of two minds — a rock band and an electronic gang — comprised of Gruff Rhys (vocals, guitar), Dafydd Ieuan (drums), Huw Bunford (guitar, vocals), Guto Pryce (bass) and Cian Ciaran (keyboards, electronic devices). While they eventually decided they were better at making “straight” song-based music, the band never lost their affection for the electro edge. They just mixed it in with other sonic DNA chunks of swirling psychedelia, anthemic rock, grand prog-rock, conspiracy theories, unexplained phenomena, sci-fi and anything else they could get their hands on to get their point across. It’s been clear for years that SFA is on a mission to surprise — surprise the growing crowd of ears tuned in to the sound and themselves alike.
Their point? Optimism amid the dystopia, keeping your feet rooted on home turf while embracing a hyper-connected world, love while surrounded by psychic rubble, having a good ol’ time while you’re yearning inside, playing a harmonica fashioned from celery while singing about a love “subtle as a nail bomb in the head/you came to me in peace/and left me in pieces.” In a world where cell phone ringtones are a viable musical medium, Super Furry Animals make symphonies for open pop-music minds.
It is, in fact, the notion of interconnectedness — like it or not, cosmic or mundane — that seems to unify SFA’s work to date.
“It’s very difficult not to be influenced by things that, even though you don’t necessarily believe in it or agree with it, it still affects you,” says Bunford from the Welsh studio where SFA are laying down tracks for the follow-up to Rings Around the World.
“Like American politicians that have as much of a direct effect on your life as the policeman down the street. It can be quite frightening or you can get paranoid. So we take a tongue-in-cheek attitude.”
That attitude manifests itself in songs like the cheeky, processed pop of “Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home).”
“We run the whole gamut of emotions about life. You can’t be depressed all the time,” says Bunford. “You know, we try to make pop songs as well. We thought that should be No. 1. [Love songs] have been done so well before. But there’s still a lot of room for cheesiness.”
For Super Furry Animals, though, a simple pop song is anything but simple. From the longing tropicalia-meets-mellow-tronica of “Northern Lights” on the 1999 album Guerilla to the Supertramp-meets-the Byrds loft of the rapturous tale of “Run! Christian, Run!” from Rings Around the World, SFA offer the too-rare (in pop music at least) chance to get hooked by a song’s “simplicity” only to be consistently amazed on repeated listenings as its layers are peeled away.
Since the group is firmly ensconced in the process now, Bunford is only too aware of the cost of simplicity.
“You kind of spend the first week in the studio learning the songs. It’s quite easy — I’m lying, of course! Some ones are easy and some ones are bastards,” he laughs.
“I think there was one there (on Rings Around the World) that Gruff had written about 10 years ago. But he couldn’t play it 10 years ago!”
As for the new record, expect more of the Furries’ trademark eclecticism.
“[The songs] are very wide-ranging,” says Bunford to the sound track of drummer Ieuan banging away in the background. “We have a pool of 40 songs — and from that we try to make a coherent record. I suppose there is the thought that we haven’t quite cracked that nut yet.
“We’re doing it all in a studio which isn’t really regarded as a really good studio because nobody knows about it,” he says.
“You could spend thousands and thousands of pounds (in the recording studio) but we’re just trying to approach it a different way. It’s kind of exciting for us and it might come through in the music.”
Some music critics have noted that Rings Around the World (the recent U.S. reissue features six bonus tracks) sounded like a Super Furry Animals greatest-hits record, representing as it did the many musical facets they group has polished over the last decade. The record did manage to expand the band’s audience, particularly in the United States. Guests on Rings included John Cale, Paul McCartney and Sean O’Hagen of the High Llamas.
In the conventional sense, it’s baffling that Rings has been the Furries’ most successful record to date, despite the band skipping from a major label to indie imprint XL. And somehow it makes perfect sense in Super Furry-land that the North American public’s growing awareness of the band started around the time they released the Welsh-language record, Mwng (which means “hair”).
“Mwng really started it off for us,” says Bunford. “We left Sony in America to get on an independent label. Since then more people get to hear your music. It’s ironic.”
His explanation? “You don’t spend as much time trying to get in touch with people who won’t listen anyway.”
But let’s not get too cosmic. There are certainly practical reasons the Super Furry Animals name is on the tip of music-heads’ tongues. The band was everywhere in 2000, gracing the covers and feature pages of hipster mags across the land. After all, it’s not often that a truly exciting rock band offers such an enticing 1-2 punch as a record entirely in a language very few people here speak, followed by the kind of record that regularly shows up on those oh-so-adorable “Top-10” lists critics like to foist upon readers.
“Chalk it up to our press campaign,” Bunford explains pragmatically. “There was just one girl and she managed to get us in every mag. It was timing too. It was just the right time.”
“We’re on XL now. They’re pretty sympathetic to stuff like that,” he continues. “It sounds so naff. Nothing ever really had ever gone right in that field of things. So when something actually goes right it’s actually a surprise.”
Super Furry Animals will perform Sept. 18 at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit; for information, call 313-961-MELT).Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]