Super Furry Animals – Album By Album
As Gruff Rhys prepares to release his new album/film/book American Interior on Monday (with an app to follow!), we reach back into the Uncut archives to find Rhys and guitarist Huw Bunford taking us through the creation of each of the Super Furry Animals’ excellent albums (from Take 131). “We were bragging about how we were going to make loads of albums in interviews back in 1996,” recalls Gruff… Interview: Piers Martin
The band’s Creation debut arrived with Britpop in full swing, to their amusement. Notable, too, for launching its cover star, drug-dealing raconteur Howard Marks, on the student circuit.
Gruff Rhys (guitar, vocals): We’d signed a deal and we were sort of blagging it a bit. We could ask Creation for a tank and they’d say, “Yeah, no problem.” We’d heard about Rockfield Studios and we wanted to record there because they had jacuzzis and you got three meals a day, all the wrong reasons for going to a studio. So we went there for three weeks and had Jacuzzis every day and ate loads of food and we were usually too full to be arsed to record anything. We were reacting to Britpop in a way – we just hated the idea of making parochial music. We felt Britpop represented a conservative, backwards movement in music. But then when we started recording Fuzzy Logic, we were in this old ’70s studio making this ’70s rock album! We got in touch with Howard Marks because we did a song about him. He was back in Wales after being in jail and he came to see us in Pontypridd. He turned up wearing leather trousers and a cloak with a big entourage. We were very ambitious, you know, and we thought we could make a Never Mind The Bollocks and have lots of jacuzzis and hang out with our version of Ronnie Biggs.
Released just four days after labelmates Oasis’ colossal Be Here Now, the Furries found their feet on their warmer, poppier, sadly overlooked second.
Rhys: After making a record with jacuzzis, we recorded this in Gorwel [Owen, long-standing SFA producer]’s house near Anglesey, to be able to make contemporary sounds again, and use computers. So we went to his house for three months solid and the Hale-Bopp comet was in flight, I remember. We’d been touring solid for a year and had completely wrecked any personal relationships, in tatters, and his house is quite small. So we were in this bungalow at the end of an RAF runway and the shed had been destroyed a few years earlier when a US jet hadn’t taken off properly. Apparently a ghost of a US airman was in the house. So there was no distractions. We asked if we could go back to Cardiff for the weekend because Beck was playing and Gorwel’s going, “No way! What are you thinking? We’re trying to make an album!” It was so intense. But he had Atari computers, and banks of old vintage synths, so musically it was much more adventurous. And we made much more interesting music.
Huw ‘Bunf’ Bunford (guitar, vocals): Gorwel’s sister cooked for us and she put different styles of carrots out every night. They lived next to the biggest carrot field in Anglesey.
Blossoming into unusually fine songwriters, they took risks on this satisfying, experimental third.
Rhys: Guerrilla’s one of our most ambitious albums and we hired all sorts of instruments and recorded a lot more electronic stuff.
Bunford: Yeah, I think we worked out how to use the sampler with this album. We’d bought it with the advance and hadn’t had a chance to take it out of its box.
Rhys: We were writing conceptual pop songs like “Wherever I Lay My Phone That’s My Home” around the ringtone of a phone. And the rhythm section, we were sort of jamming in the studio and [bassist] Guto tripped over the lead and landed over a table and Bunf hit a guitar note and that became the rhythm track. I think if any of our records could’ve sold a lot, this is the one. I don’t think any of the others have been proper pop albums, but I think Guerrilla could have been. “Northern Lites” could have been bigger but it didn’t have a video. The guy who was supposed to do it got offered a Red Stripe commercial in Jamaica. We met him later and were like, “We understand, we’d have done the same.” Creation was coming to an end, just as Nostradamus predicted, so they weren’t bothered.
Bunford: They said, “We could make this a huge hit, but I don’t think you really want that to happen.”
(Placid Casual, 2000)
The Furries’ Welsh language album, released on their own label. Reached No 11 in the charts.
Rhys: We recorded that extremely quickly in a session over a weekend in Cardiff. Then we went to Gorwel’s house for a week to do the other songs and mix it. Probably took a couple of weeks. Radiator and Guerrilla took ages, months to make. The recording process had become a bit frustrating and we thought, ‘Oh let’s make a really immediate record.’ The batch of songs at the time happened to be Welsh language. It was going to come out on Creation, who were putting out their last records at the time, and we bought it back from Creation for six grand or something. In terms of contracts and stuff, we were in limbo and we didn’t want to get some label who didn’t understand us pushing a Welsh language album, and putting flags on it or something, it could’ve been horrific. So we did it ourselves. It was coming off the back of some records that had sold well and Creation had spent a fortune on advertising and Mwng came in that slipstream. We had a tiny marketing budget and we got to do our own adverts. We got all the worst quotes from the reviews – it was quite well received, but we found some negative quotes – and put them on two adverts. The Jewish Chronicle called it “career suicide”. I think it’s a really pure record.
RINGS AROUND THE WORLD
Not so much an album as a wildly ambitious, mind-expanding multi-platform investigation into the possibilities of digital entertainment – and the band’s most coherent musical statement to boot.
Rhys: We started recording Rings Around The World without a label because Creation had finished and we’d done Mwng, so we started recording another record. We’d started playing in surround sound and did a concert in Cardiff in 5.1 broadcasting for the BBC. DVD technology was coming on at the time, so we thought we’d make an album on DVD in surround sound with films and remixes. Sony came and said they’d take the project. Now we can make DVDs and surround sound things for nothing, but at the time we had to go to an editing suite to mix the record. We spent seven months in London in the most expensive studios in the world. We went to Woodstock, to Bearsville, where The Band used to record.
Bunford: Sony were just leaking money.
Rhys: But we were actually doing stuff with the money. It was a very ambitious project and we were on the right label to spend those amounts of money. They were taking the risk. We weren’t a secure commercial proposition, so it’s a longshot for them. You get people with nightmare stories with major labels but we got it really easy and they were very understanding. We were trying to make a blockbuster album that was going to be like the Eagles, but we left the tracks that sounded like the Eagles off. We had big debates about the line-up, but it ended up being a 50-minute album; it was going to be an hour-and-a-half. I was into the excess of it, that was the whole point. We had Chris Shaw, who’s produced records for Bob Dylan and makes a huge sound, engineering the record. We were trying to make a kind of utopian pop music that had pretensions of being progressive and exciting. I think Guerrilla maybe represents that kind of idea best because it’s more concise than Rings Around The World, but the process was amazing. The making of it was epic and the music represents that, with really over-the-top arrangements. By that point in Britain people knew about us already and were maybe getting bored. We were releasing a weird plastic soul record at the height of a garage rock revival. And then XL put Rings Around The World out in America and that became our breakthrough album there. We were doing sell-out shows coast to coast. People threw eggs at us in Baltimore because of the contents of the DVD, really crazy. And with Rings… we were reborn in Europe. We toured properly and got on easy listening channels in Sweden. We’d always gone down well in Japan. “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” was on heavy rotation in Australia – it had loads of swearing.
After the success of Rings… another multimedia opus. A case, perhaps, of too much information…
Rhys: Gorwel came back. He’s like, “Go on, one last job.” We recorded the warm-sounding live songs like “Hello Sunshine” with Gorwel. We were trying to tone down the big glossy production of the last record. We worked with our dear friend from Scotland, Tony Doogan, who’s done records with Mogwai and Belle And Sebastian, and he bought an element of danger to the recordings. Loads of guns. We were in Mono Valley studio near Monmouth and he arranged for this guy to come down and bring an Uzi and an AK-47 because we were recording a lot of sound effects. We had a kind of mock battle in the garden and I think he got arrested on the last day. We invented a new game called fire golf where we’d hollow out a golf ball and fill it with inflammable material and set it alight and shoot golf balls at each other…
The idea behind the DVDs was they’d be used like platform games where you’d go into the album and with every song there’s different options for the mixes. On Phantom Power there’s two sets of films for every song and everything was in 5.1 cinematic sound which is far superior as an experience to stereo. But no one gave a shit because people just want to rock’n’roll!
Gorging at Sony’s heaving table, the Furries’ sumptuous seventh found them blissfully adrift from their audience after the greatest hits effort, Songbook: The Singles Vol.1.
Rhys: Love Kraft is the most beautiful record we’ve made. Where some records have had potential to have a cultural impact, like Mwng or Guerrilla, which are of their time in a positive way, I think Love Kraft isn’t. I think it’s a beautiful record, really orchestral and fairly timeless, but it certainly doesn’t fit in any cultural scheme. Sony were dishing out quite a lot of money for us to make really mental records but we were actually spending it on real things; it was amazing in a way. We recorded it in Spain and mixed it in Brazil because our mixer, Mario Caldato Jr [producer for Beastie Boys and Beck, among others], who lives in Brazil, wanted to be close to his family. We had a really good experience with Mario when he mixed Phantom Power and asked him to do the next record and he insisted on doing it in a warm climate because last time he’d come to London in February and the rain. I think we took him to Cardiff for a night out to see Wales play Bosnia in a friendly. He was there in his woolly hat, freezing. Rio was amazing. We were going out to funk bars and really dodgy hip-hop clubs. I bought a hell of a lot of records. Loads of random vinyl. I think they had a big boom in the ’80s of international music in South America where they embraced Phil Collins and The Alarm. There are just mountains of weird ’80s rock records. They stopped making vinyl in 1993.
(Rough Trade, 2007)
SFA play it straight on their debut for new label Rough Trade, breezing through 11 soulful pop numbers in 37 minutes. Safe, but utterly sound.
Rhys: Rough Trade sort of poached us. With them it’s the most interactive interest we’ve had from a label since Dick Green at Creation. Bit of a shock having people listen to your demos. We left a song off the album and they said, “Why are you not keeping the single on?” Hey Venus! is a straight-up collection of songs. At the same time we recorded 30 improvised songs, and also a lot of harder, groovier music. We were going for a recording of a band playing live, more or less. I suppose we were trying to make some kind of pop record and kept the other stuff for the next album. We have got another batch of songs and I see Hey Venus! as part of a song cycle. In that context it makes sense. With “The Gift That Keeps Giving” we tried to make an AOR Christmas single. Last December we were in Japan, and they celebrate Christmas as a commerical holiday with all the decorations. Over there it’s a love holiday, like Valentine’s Day. And there in one store they had Santa on a cross hanging from the wall. Perfect. So the Christmas single was just an excuse to have Santa on a cross on the cover.
Bunford: Sums up Christmas perfectly.
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