Photo credit: Kevin Westenberg
I’m supposed to interview one of the Super Furry Animals, but who? A carousel of weird Welsh names bounce through my inbox. First Guto. Then Cian. Finally, Daf. A phone call to Daf’s place leads to a polite woman with a lilting British accent. She says that Daf isn’t there, and asks me if I have his mobile number. I tell her I’ve already tried it. She gives me another number and says reassuringly, ” I know they’re there, because I’ve just been.”
I call the number, and a mildly gruff voice greets me with a thick Welsh “Hello?”
“Is Daf there?”
“Um, well—Is this for an interview? Daf’s busy right now, but I can do the interview if you’d like.”
There’s a second of silence. A looped guitar plays over and over again in the background.
“My name is Guto. I’m in the band as well.” Then, laughing, “I’m not this random guy. I’m the bass player.” The moral to the story is that if you want to reach the Super Furry Animals you should try the studio first. According to Guto (pronounced like “guitar” with a long “o” in place of the “ar”), their days often begin and end there.
“We work until we drop, really,” he tells me. “We work late, because we enjoy it, you know? It’s not like a job where you do your seven and a half hours and then you go home.”
That made me wonder: What would he be doing with all of that time if he wasn’t in the band?
“I’d be trying to get into the band. It’s funny because all we’ve ever done is be in bands and make music. I had a job before this, but that was just to tide me by while I was making music, to pay for studio time, et cetera.”
The single-mindedness has paid off for Guto and the Animals. The band has watched its currency rise steadily over its ten-plus years together—the longevity a feat in itself when rock bands typically flare up and burn out faster than low-grade bottle-rockets. The secret to their staying power, says Guto, is simple: After all these years, they’re still able to spend long stretches of time together without any Gallagher brother-like acrimony creeping in. “I think that’s what it comes down to. We can all live on the bus together. We all get along. And we still love what we’re doing.”
And while that’s good for them, it’s even better for we, the unwashed few who need and crave aggressively innovative rock music. Or poppy prog music. Or glitch-punk music. Or Welsh-language garage rock. SFA have done it all, often crossbreeding genre after genre to dizzying effect. Their biggest influences, at least these days, are probably the harmony-happy California pop of the Beach Boys and Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, but a number of other tributaries find their way into the mix too.
“Gram Parsons and Gene Clark, psychedelic country music of the sixties and the seventies—we listen to a lot of that,” Guto says. “But we also take our influences from artists like Missy Elliot and Timbaland as well.”
The ingenuity doesn’t stop with the songwriting either. Their 2001 release, Rings Around the World, was released on a sprawling DVD that featured 5.1 surround sound, experimental animation and films, thirteen videos, various remixes, storyboards, and a picture gallery. Then on last year’s Phantom Power, also released on DVD, they laid off the extras just a bit and focused on the surround sound mix. But Guto dismisses the suggestion that SFA are digital or multimedia pioneers in the rock world.
“We see these machines, or we hear about them, and we just want to use them. The only things you can get in surround sound are things like Eagles albums. We just wanted to make some of it more contemporary. We’ve got a record deal and everything that comes with it, so we just try to get everything we can out of it. If somebody else is willing to pay for us to make a DVD, then cool.” His modesty is commendable, if not exactly accurate. To wit: the band not only releases albums with surround sound and mind-bending visuals—they break it all out on the road too. A quadraphonic sound system and an AV whiz accompanies them to nearly every venue, where they turn bits into atoms, bringing to life the rich media environment of their DVD releases. Still, Guto talks about it all as if it’s just a matter of convenience.
“We’ve done two DVD albums and various videos, so we’ve got all of these images lying about, and you know, we feel the need to use them.”
So you just throw the videos and animation on a projector and play over it then?
“It’s actually programmed. We have a friend who helps us out with that. He’s linked up to our computer, so, for example, whenever Cian plays a certain sound, or certain note, you get a particular visual.”
SFA are (regardless of what Guto says) using digital media in more exciting ways than most of their peers. But it’s still about the music. In the case of the Super Furry Animals, the music is catchy, quirky, lush, stimulating, angry, and at times deeply affecting, as is the case with Phantom Power‘s “Liberty Belle”, a startlingly poignant commentary on 9/11. And they quashed any suspicions that they were just a novelty act that relied on oddball studio trickery with the ‘00 release Mwng, a no-frills psych-garage-pop masterpiece that also happened to become the biggest selling Welsh language album of all time.
So they should be huge, right? Huge at least big in a Beck-ish sort of way.
They’re not, of course. Not in the U.S. anyway. They play the Kinks to Radiohead’s Beatles. They’re just as good, but only a small percentage of Americans realize it. “That’s why we come to the States at all,” Guto points out. “We want more people to hear our music. A lot of British bands, they do one tour there, they hate it, and then they come home and never do it again. Every time we come over, we play to more people. Every time.”
But he’s quick to acknowledge that the band isn’t banking on mainstream success.
“We’re pretty realistic,” he says. “As long as we can keep on going, make a living—and then maybe eventually one of our albums will be a twenty million seller. That would be nice.”
It would be nice, for the two very reasons why it probably won’t happen: The Super Furry Animals are fantastically original and admirably sincere. Their music is consistently, wonderfully weird. Yet almost every album includes some thoughtful, thematically sober tracks, dealing in everything from religious fanaticism to the dubious moral integrity of the U.S. and British governments. SFA don’t say things that haven’t been said before, but they say them in a wholly fresh way. However, Guto stresses, they are not talking about a revolution.
“We’re not a political band. We’re a human band. When I was growing up—well, not when I was growing up, but ten years ago—we were all pretty taken away by the whole rave scene. That turned into a sort of political movement and I think it changed a lot of people’s outlook on life, but it didn’t really change anything. Of course, that’s not a reason for us not to talk about those things. I mean, if you take the mass media as truth, well, you’ll be pretty disillusioned for starters. It’s nice, I think, to hear somebody who actually agrees with what you think, and it gives you a little hope in the world.”
It turns out that the looped guitar that I heard in the background was the sound of SFA making their next release, an EP, which Guto says has a “funkadelic sort of influence.”
“A lot of stuff we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks has been pretty digital, dance floor influenced, as well as more modern—”
“It’s quite hard to describe, really, because it doesn’t sound like anything that we’ve done before.”
And everything is in its right place.
“We certainly don’t have a formula for what we do. There’s no traditional way of making a Super Furry Animals song. It usually happens with a melody, a few words, or a guitar line, and we take it from there.”
As for the next full-length, they’ll begin working on it in the spring after finishing up a headlining tour through the States. As for how it will be different from anything else they’ve done before, Guto wasn’t saying.
“I don’t know what is going to come around the corner, really—I’m sure another format will come about for us to play with. I’d like to do album that involves smell, for example. So I’ll just sit back and wait for that technology to be developed.”