An interview with Gruff Rhys in Cardiff
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Super Furry Animals Interview


Live and direct from Cardiff, Wales, the Super Furry Animals, Macca and you. Allan Martin Kemler interviews the UK's lefty anti-heroes on the eve of the US release of "Rings Around The World". Photo by Matt Greenberg.


The Super Furry Animals are not related to the Teletubbies. They aren’t a spin-off of Pokemon and you won’t find them in the candy aisle next to the root beer barrels and Gummi Bears. However, they could be any or all of these things, and in the future they may well be. What the Furries are is band of five Welshmen from Cardiff who sublimely juxtapose just about every hyphenated genre of pop music known to mankind with effortless style and charming grace.

From the Beach Boys harmonies of “(Drawing) Rings Around The World” to the nookie boogie Gamble & Huff string parts found on “Juxtapozed With U” to the electronic, head-thwapping Aphex Twin-style outros and interludes, the Furries’ latest release in a string of art-pop gems, Rings Around The World, manages to boldly go where no other band has thought to (or probably ever could) go. But where most bands these days seem to spend lifetimes prefiguring their future stardom, image and niche, the Furries appear more like time-travellers from the fourth dimension of pop culture, bent on tickling us all out of our deadly serious and careerist image-consciousness with a musical juggling act equal parts Brian Wilson and Groucho Marx. And the best part is it all comes naturally.

“It’s not a method,” explained Gruff Rhys, from the band’s 30-quid-a-month room turned state-of-the-art recording studio located in a Cardiff community centre. “I suppose we became friends first. I mean, there’s a set of brothers in the band and they know each other because they’re brothers, not because they stuck an advert in a window somewhere advertising for someone who’s got the same taste in music, you know. We didn’t form with one particular musical vision in mind—we’ve never been into the same clothes, or necessarily the same records—but for me that makes it more exciting to be in a band like that.”

As well it should be. But the Furries aren’t all hugs and rainbows. Since their inception in 1993, the band has had a penchant for surrealist-anarcho-leftist politics, manifesting itself in such straight-to-the-point songs as “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” and “The International Language of Screaming,” with its fantastic couplet, “Every time I look around me everything seems so stationary/It just sends me the impulse to become reactionary.” But perhaps the most compelling aspect of the band’s sweet ‘n’ sour pop confection is its Situationist-style ability to subvert the meaning of trad pop music structures by infusing them with dead-on piss takes at the politics that walk hand-in-hand with, and give rise to, global warming, homelessness and gentrification, to name a few. Add new friends and icons like the non-conformist Cardiff City football star Robin Friday and Welsh drug smuggler Howard Marks and you’ve got the makings of the ultimate band: Fun, cool, rockin’, politically astute and so whip-smart they continuously confound expectations. And it’s exactly this blend of qualities that balances the Furries’ creative yin and yang.

“If we’re sounding incredibly tortured that’s when we laugh the loudest,” revealed the Furries singer/guitarist. “Em, because usually it’s in a $1000-a-day studio and you’re singing this silly, mourning song and that’s when we laugh. But we don’t want to make...we never try to achieve comedy. The exception is “Receptacle for Respectable,” you know, where we completely went with our silly streak.”

Silly indeed. Surely pissing off Beatles purists everywhere, the Welsh quintet tapped Sir Macca himself to reprise his carrot and celery champing role on the Beach Boys classic “Vegetables” rather than asking him for more a pedestrian contribution like actually singing or playing the old Hofner. For his part, though, Rhys said he loved the idea of people carefully trying to discern the “Cute One’s” rabbitty crunching.

But, really, with five full-length albums worth of deliciously surreal tunes, who has the time for that shit. A better question might be how the hell this band of brothers’ music has largely escaped the attention of the American indie rock ‘n’ pop-loving public? If tunes like “She’s Got Spies” or “Tradewinds” aren’t the archetypal blueprint for bucolic summertime road-trip soundtracks, nothing is. But that’s just conjecture. The fact is, they’re not going to be on the radio anytime soon and they probably never will be, so fuck it. Go buy the albums and find out for yourself. Rhys, however, hasn’t even considered the question in any depth.

“I don’t see it as a trouble. I think it just takes time for the music to travel. I mean, it’s as much to do with distribution as anything,” he proffers. “Sometimes it’s just that you can’t get your records distributed... it’s just mundane things like that. It’s got nothing to do with the music. And occasionally records make more sense at a certain time than others. On a basic level we are very happy to just make the records. There’s so many coming out every week, I think you’re lucky if you get one record heard.”

As for being heard, while the Furries certainly don’t get the airplay they deserve Stateside, they have more than enough material available, and right now the band is working on yet another album, and this time they’re steering the ship. Where in the past the band has worked with producers like Gorwel Owens and Chris Shaw, this time the band is producing itself. And why not? Sony threw enough cash at them for the recording of RATW for the Furries to be the first band ever to record an album and release a corresponding DVD using the latest 5.1 surround-sound technology. Funny that: a band that deconstructs the perils of a technologically advanced, yet morally depraved society, gets to use the instruments of that very culture to spread its populist, tear-down-the-walls message. (Fucking right on!) But as for how the new album will sound, even Rhys isn’t entirely sure. When asked during a recent interview if the record the band is working on now is, in fact, a Furries album, he replied, “Yeah, as far as we know.” But upon further interrogation, Rhys went on to reveal the method to the Furries madness.

“We don’t think about our music in stylistic terms, really,” Rhys said. “We usually write pieces down before jamming them out and then we just go with the band, you know. I suppose we listen to a lot of records and they make their way on to our records, but we don’t sit down and say, ‘Right, we can copy this and we can copy that.’ It’s just sort of what comes out. We don’t rehearse a lot because we don’t want to make the songs too tight ”

Interestingly enough for a band of such accomplished-sounding musicians, Rhys said he doesn’t remember when he became such a kick-ass arranger and musician; it just sort of happened. While that might sound like so much self-effacing bullshit, to hear the curly-headed singer tell it that’s really the way it went down. If anything, he argued, it’s just the experience that comes with writing 150 songs over the last 9 years. As a result, his chops evolved to the point where he was able to execute his ideas with an increasing level of sophistication.

Nevertheless, how the songs are created is fairly academic. Furries fans, like crack addicts, just want more, and Rhys is in no mood to disappoint. Of the new album, he says, “We’re still getting to know the equipment and I think the playing is a bit more exciting—the drums are more explosive and I think there’s maybe a little more spark in this one. There’s more a fire going on. I mean, with the current one (RATW) we wanted to make something more laid back and sort of wiped clean, but I think this one has a little more energy to it.”


Allan Kemler for Crud Magazine 2002©

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January 2001

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