The Super Furry Animals are planning the UK release of their new album Phantom Power in the near future. Jonathan Donaldson catches up with main-Furry Gruff Rhys about the end of the journey of their 2001 classic, Rings Around the World.
Super Furry Animals? Who are you?
My name is Gruff. I write a lot of songs and mostly play guitar and sing. Also in the band are Bunf, Dafydd, and his brother Cian who all sing and are multi-instrumentalists, and Guto who specializes in the bass guitar.
I was at the last incredible Boston show. While I wasn’t sure how you guys were going to pull off the maximalist pop of Rings Around the World, I was surprised to see you playing live to pre-recorded music and to what might’ve been a click track in your ear. Combined with the effect of the visuals on the projection screen, I think that an element of theater has been introduced into your performance that certainly changes the context. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for improvisation and spontaneity, does it?
The set usually changes every night for about the first week of a tour. Then we usually settle on a set which leaves enough time for Cian to program his sampler during songs or between songs with the least amount of gaps! There’s only three or four full songs to click (including some pre-recorded loops). The videos are mixed live by our friend Dylan Jones but we also use a program called “V-Jam” pioneered by Coldcut which means certain notes played on Cian’s keyboard for instance will trigger an animation or a snare hit will trigger a blink of an actor’s eye on the screen.
How do you guys deal with playing the same songs night in and out?
We all have different improv thresholds in the band! Some of us would like to have a radically different set every night. Others, because of technical reasons, would prefer the safety of a recurring set.
I was immediately made to feel comfortable when the you announced “Hi, We are The Super Furry Animals, and we are going to play songs from all of our five albums.” It was just very frank and down to earth. I get the vibe from you guys that you are much more down to earth than a lot of bands with your stature. A lot of people in famous bands are just pricks, you know?
I agree there’s a lot of deluded arseholes around. The reality is we’ve spent most of our musical lives playing in bars to 5 people so we don’t take an audience for granted. Once in a while nowadays we get to play a full club or a theatre or whatever which is pretty fucking amazing though still very much a novelty. None of us were “born to do it” as Craig David would say.
There was a humorous moment when audience members were yelling out requests and a certain audience member yelled out a request in a phony Welsh accent. Whereupon your singer made a succinct “uhg uhg uhg” sound into the microphone. Do you find it particularly annoying when people yell stuff at you? Is it local to America?
No, I think it’s pretty normal to yell in Europe too. Makes for a much better live recording. We had a lot of yelling at a great show at the Otto bar in Baltimore. We thought it was friendly banter but these jocks threatened us violently after the show regarding our “politics”. They eventually resorted to a drive-by egg-throwing mission targeting our bus twice whilst shouting, “fuck off back to Europe”. The promoter then caught one of the eggs mid air and managed to throw it through their narrowly opened car window before exploding all over the interior of their car. She was some thrower. She should take up baseball! This is now known as “The Baltimore egg incident”.
American music is mostly very segregated with respect to racial dynamics. For instance, if you are white, you like some rock-related music and you may elect to like hip-hop. If you are Latino, you like Spanish music and hip-hop. If you are African-American, you like hip-hop and some Spanish music, but rarely rock. It’s a shame that an album like Rings Around the World, which succeeds so well at being cross-contextual, will isolate a huge audience by virtue of you guys being a “white rock group.” Does this strike you as odd?
Yeah! The States seem at first glance much more openly segregated musically than our experience of music in Wales.
Let’s face it. Rock has become pretty preposterous in many ways. We’ve all become “genre-fied” in the sense that there are rockabilly people who dress a certain way, and probably prefer bottled beer to draft, or new-wave people who dress a certain way and probably prefer Macs to PC, as opposed to hip-hop culture, which, for the most part, just “IS.” Rock audiences have so many choices. It’s hard to say if we’re “real.” The branches of the rock n’ roll tree really only appeal to the same kind of people who would collect model trains. Me for instance, I bring the Raspberries into work and people look at me like a dinosaur. Multiculturalism has really led to there being a smaller, more particular (and geekier) audience for rock.
I was listening to the Raspberries just the other day… and I collect toys… shit!
I think that you guys have managed to be relevant by using this genre-fication against itself. You manage to dabble in styles as divergent as over-produced swanky “pap,” glitch, death metal, and hip-hop, yet there is something very unifying and disarming about this. Almost like you guys don’t really care about the style, like you are “aliens… ”
Our musical diversity is probably the strength and the weakness of our band, but it’s just what comes out, we can’t help ourselves. (We probably could but we would become really bored and frustrated.)
I read on the fantastic Rings Around the World website that “Alternate Route To Vulcan Street” was inspired by a sign you saw crossing the Canadian border. I think that’s a great title, and with it’s lush and gentle soundtrack-like synths, strings, and even beats, it is a real favorite. Is it inspired by Morricone, Brian Eno and people like that? With a slight hip-hop influence? Am I hearing any influence of acts such as Radiohead or Sigur Ros?
Cian is the band’s biggest Morricone nut. He and Bunf built up the music from samples of a late night jam, then me, Daf, and Guto sang and played over it. We were indoctrinated in Eno from an early age by our friend, mentor and sometime producer Gorwel Owen. We listen to a lot of hip-hop albums. They usually have superior intros to rock albums. That’s why the first song of our albums is usually fairly different to the remainder of the songs. I really like the sense of adventure [in] Radiohead and the ‘Ros albums though we differ from that Northern European tradition in that our music has a sweeter tooth and less opera.
When I first saw you guys in Boston, it was in ’99 with some Elephant 6 bands (Elf Power and Olivia Tremor Control? I got so drunk, I fell asleep against the PA). I thought you guys were somehow allied with that neo-psychedelic movement. The title-track Rings Around the World is just so frigging noisy and has so much going on. But there is also a major punk influence at play, right?
Yes, we grew up on a diet of Welsh language politicized punk rock, though we have a deep love of melody, and there was a lot of highly melodic Welsh language folk and pop in the 60’s and 70’s, Medic Stevens, Y blew, etc., and more recently Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. We loved those discs by the OTC. They were unbelievable on that tour. They and Flydaddy introduced us to America.
Rings Around the World is the first album I have ever heard of that is recorded in surround sound. What’s that all about?
It’s like standing underneath Apollo 13 taking off! And yes, we are working on a new one.
While many of the songs are decidedly eclectic, “It’s Not The End Of The World” is so slavishly devoted to the Beatles. The drumming and the pre-chorus remind me so much of “Something.”
We were really scared that it sounded like “Forever” by Dennis Wilson though we only noticed after finishing the record. I love Shirley Bassey’s version of “Something.”
In other songs, I hear specific influences such as the Beach Boys (a no brainer in the 3rd part of “Receptacle For The Respectable”), Aphex Twin (“No Sympathy”), and Neil Young (“Run Christian, Run”). Do you guys have a conscious intent for imitating the famous styles of these artists?
We love all those acts you mentioned, though as I said, we’d rather avoid sounding like anyone else, though sometimes it’s inevitable (and sometimes unfortunate) that the things you’ve listened to over the years end up on your own record.
Sir Paul McCartney contributes to this record. I think it’s pretty novel to use one of the most famous figures in modern music history to crunch vegetables! Outrageous… I mean, you could have had him play bass on a track, or write a harmony for a vocal, but you used him as a pop-culture figure by repeating the Beach Boys “Vegetable” reference that I think most readers are familiar with by now. (Side note: in a funny Dadaistic moment, Rhys performed this song live wearing celery stuffed in a harmonica holder!) Did you guys entice McCartney by saying you were looking for “that distinct crunching carrot sound” that he delivers? Do you think he would have been more likely to participate at this level than to play bass for instance? Why?
He’s probably sick of sycophants kissing his arse and appreciated that someone didn’t want his voice on a record. He claimed it was the highlight of his year!!! It was a pretty surreal episode.
I think it’s funny that the song is called “Receptacle For The Respectable” because who is not respectable if not McCartney? Are the Furries warning people not to follow leaders too closely (see also “Run Christian, Run” and “Presidential Suite”)?
Exactly, one must piss on their heroes. Piss on your heroes.
The song is not about a lady, is it? Like the Stones song “Star Fucker?”
Yeah! It’s my most bitter lyric to date I’m afraid.
That second vocals really make that song?it wouldn’t be as good without it because it makes the rhythm so interesting. Was that part originally in the song or was it a development?
I had this mundane psych pop song lying around, then I added a Transformer/Bowie/Reed Glam (I don’t really rate Queen!) rock section, than Daf added that Bacharach style 3rd section.
The end of “Receptacle” is so dramatically out of place (death metal?). Where did that idea come from?
Yeah! It was far too slick so we though we’d fuck it up a bit…
I think that Rings Around the World is a real “Purple Rain” for the ‘00s, in terms of its variety and ingenuity. We haven’t even talked about the second half yet — the heavy side of the album. The middle of the disc leaves me a bit cold though. Not to say that, with their big choruses, “Shoot Doris Day” and “No Sympathy” are not good songs — they’re just a bit bombastic. “No Sympathy” was excellent in concert. On the recorded version though, the ending reminds me of what CSN will sound like in 20 more years.
Yeah! I would have left “Shoot Doris Day” off the record too, though I find “No Sympathy” more interesting. I mean I like all the songs but I think the album’s overlong. We couldn’t find a compromise of songs to leave off between us.
Let’s talk about “Juxtaposed With You”, in many ways the most musically irreverent song on the album. When my girlfriend heard me listening to it, she said with dismay, “What is this! It sounds like the Love Boat theme song.” I love it anyway — it reminds me of Curtis Mayfield. The use of the vocoder is pretty cool in hindsight, though I would think there must’ve been some objection to it. Do you guys ever say “No!” to an idea because it clashes with your ideas of tastes, or of what is cool?
I hate the idea of taste in general. I mean, surely “good taste” equates musical impotence. Tasteful music is just all wrong. Burn down Ikea!
Are people polarized by the song?
The lyric “You’ve got to tolerate all the people that you hate” really says a lot about what is going on in the world with Anti-Muslim sentiment post 9/11. The fact is, we don’t have the right to commit violence against another person even if we hate them; to physically touch their being that is. The world should agree upon this. Do you have any comments about this?
I agree, and it’s been going on way longer than since 9/11. I think it’s frightening how millions of people’s lives are being trivialized in the name of big business and what’s even more insane is that it’s all being done in our name by “elected” leaders.
“Presidential Suite” is partly a satire of politicians and also the hypocritical public that lynches them for committing deeds that we are all guilty of (in this case, Clinton and Yeltsen, alternately). The sentiment much echoes the line in Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” (“Sometimes even the President of the United States must have to stand naked”). In this case, you ask of Clinton’s scandalous Cuban cigar crisis, “Honestly, do we really have to know if he really came inside her mouth?” However, unlike Momus’ insidious song, “Coming In A Girl’s Mouth,” you guys approach the subject in a responsible way. Your careful wording of that lyric is very important to its being able to be on the record isn’t it? I wouldn’t guess any mature adult could disagree with the appropriateness of the lyric.
Just to get all of this name-dropping out of the way, let’s just say that I thought it was extraordinarily cool that John Cale played on your record. Was that important do you guys as Welshmen to work with such an amazing Welsh figure?
His work on “Presidential Suite” was very peripheral, though it was great to have him on there as a good luck mascot! It was always incredibly inspiring for me growing up that there was a Welsh speaking member of the Velvet Underground! Indeed as a kid I presumed they were an English-singing Welsh band. I heard “The Gift” accidentally when I was 13 years old (featuring Cale’s heavily accented narration of a Lou Reed short story). I got into a whole world of NYC junkie music by default.
I understand that the writing of “Run Christian Run” was a real group effort, and for a collaboration, it’s an outstanding track. I was really surprised when I saw the anti-fundamentalist video for the song at the concert. I had never read the lyrics and I honestly somehow didn’t make the connection that the song was really about religion until that moment. I just thought it was about a guy!
Cian wrote the cyclical piano riff in the intro and chorus. I added the verse, then I sang a melody over the top. Bunf found the title, inspired by a fundamentalist Christian website. There is, however, an athlete, a 200 meter sprinter called Christian Malcom from Newport, Wales. We sort of always had him in the back of our minds!
Have you been met with criticism from people or religious organizations about this song?
Only in Baltimore!
While I’m thinking about futurism, what is the future for the space-age career rock and roller?
I have taken up enough of your time, and I’d like to thank The Super Furry Animals for giving us another great record, their best yet. But as Andrew “Loog” Oldham said, “Not as good as the one they’re about to make.” Can you give me a hint as to what direction The Furries are going to take on your next LP?
“All directions,” as they say in France! Thanks.
How about some of the bands’ favorite albums?
I’m on my own at the mo’ up in a mountain village in north Wales… but mine would be 2 classic Welsh language albums: Gwymon (Seaweed) by Meic Stevens and Wyau (Eggs) by Datblygu.
Written by Jonathan Donaldson.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.