After six years away, Super Furry Animals are back to reissue and tour their landmark Welsh-language album ‘Mwng’. But there’s more than that at stake, as Tom Pinnock discovers in NME’s exclusive interview…
Super Furry Animals have persuaded the manager of Cardiff’s premier multiplex to let them into a locked, abandoned floor of the cinema – a dusty scrapyard of screens, hidden behind the cardboard, standalone Doritos ads and the imposing wall of pick’n’mix (“£1.35 a scoop”). “There’s Grangetown, that’s the Cardiff City ground,” says keyboardist Cian Ciaran, squinting out of a window at the Welsh capital’s landmarks. “The Taff. And there’s Ikea…”
With the city spread out in front of them through floor-to-ceiling glass, the returning Welsh band are getting changed into some super-expensive, borrowed tracksuits ready for their first photo session since 2009. It’s been even longer since the five have been interviewed together.
After six long years of silence, Super Furry Animals’ upcoming reunion gigs – to mark the reissue of 2000’s ‘Mwng’ – should by rights be celebratory affairs. But despite the Welsh four-piece’s supremely melodic and euphoric back catalogue, the mood is in grave danger of being dampened by events in the middle of their tour – the general election falls on May 7.
If David Cameron remains in No 10 (or if worse incumbents move in), however, Gruff Rhys reckons that the fightback will start at Brixton Academy the night after. “It will be the start of the revolution,” the singer and guitarist says, wryly. “It’s a battle for civilisation, this election. It could be horrific if a right-wing coalition came in; it could be the end of civilisation as we know it.”
The Furries’ sense of outrage at the world is still as strong as ever, if expressed with characteristic mildness. In protest of the prospect of five more years of hard rule, they are reissuing ‘Mwng’ on Friday, May 1 – aka International Workers’ Day. It’s an uncharacteristically hushed and melancholic collection, and the band’s only album to be completely sung in their native Welsh.
“We’re a band, we’re obsessed with music,” explains Gruff, discussing the significance of the record today, “and we’ve played a lot of music together. ‘Mwng’ as an album is a celebration of that; it’s a celebration of our love of harmony and rhythm and texture, but also in this political climate it does represent diversity, and we should celebrate diversity in life and in music. Living in Cardiff, there’s probably hundreds of languages spoken, and long live that.”
Super Furry Animals came together in Cardiff in the early ’90s, united by a love of rave, ’60s psychedelia, techno and Welsh-language punk. Though Alan McGee thought he was signing a Welsh Blur to his Creation label, the five-piece soon showed themselves to be a little more idiosyncratic than that. For a start, the Furries have always been thrillingly contradictory – a group signed to two major labels, but still staunchly socialist; a collective with punk roots mixing sweeping ballads with fuzz guitars, and orchestras with ear-bleeding techno, sometimes all within the same song; and a band fiercely proud of their Welsh roots, yet hungrily seeking out influences as diverse as Brazilian tropicàlia or Turkish psych.
Adored by their more commercially successful Britpop peers – Damon Albarn invited Rhys to sing on Gorillaz’s ‘Superfast Jellyfish’, while Noel Gallagher asked the frontman to appear at a Teenage Cancer Trust show in 2013 – the five-piece have always been a band out of place, both physically and geographically. Just that little bit too weird to conquer the mainstream, they nevertheless racked up four Top 10 albums in the UK and 18 Top 40 singles. That’s especially impressive if you consider that two of those were for the release and reissue of 1997’s ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ (from ‘Radiator’), their blistering finger to the establishment that features over 50 instances of the word “fuck”. They haven’t been above a spot of career sabotage either, most notably when in 2001 they released ‘Juxtaposed With You’, a slick disco single about rising house prices inspired by plastic Philadelphia soul, well aware that a garage-rock revival was in full swing.
“We were always in disbelief that people were allowing us to do what we were doing,” says Gruff of the band’s well-funded tenures on Sony and Creation.
“Sony did spend a hell of a lot of money on us,” marvels bassist Guto Pryce. “But I don’t think we wasted money, we didn’t buy yachts or anything like that.”
Instead, their corporate paymasters’ cash went on a huge array of instruments and a treasure trove of eccentric gimmicks, including a tank that pumped out hardcore techno, a quadrophonic PA, 40-foot-high inflatable bears, yeti costumes, an onstage golf cart and glow in the dark, fibre-optic cloaks. Though the band are certainly aware of the ridiculousness of their own excesses, many of their actions have been steeped in strongly held principles, and a distaste for neo-conservatism, multinational strangleholds and capitalist exploitation. In one typical move, when Coca-Cola asked to license their 2003 single ‘Hello Sunshine’ for an advert, the Furries instead donated the song for free to an anti-poverty charity who had campaigned against Coke’s treatment of its workers.
“We’ve never made comfortable career moves, really,” explains Gruff. “We could have done things extremely differently and made a load of money – for example, with adverts.”
“We’ve never thought about our audience,” says guitarist Huw ‘Bunf’ Bunford. “Blur are probably doing it by the book… they’re probably doing it really comprehensively. If you’re a businessman, you’d be thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s how you should do it.’ Not like… how we do it.” They all laugh. “But I think that’s refreshing.”
After 2009’s groove-centred ‘Dark Days/Light Years’, the band went on hiatus, exhausted from recording nine albums in 13 years in their dysfunctionally democratic fashion.
“We’ve sat in mastering suites arguing for hours and hours about the seconds of silence between tracks – to the point of fucking psychosis” says drummer Dafydd Ieuan, visibly reliving the experience.
Over the course of their break, each of the band pursued solo projects, with Rhys receiving acclaim for his ‘American Interior’ project and Neon Neon’s electronic concept albums, and the others releasing albums with new groups, or in the case of Bunf, soundtracking the Bafta-winning, Oscar-nominated short film, The Bigger Picture.
“It’s not like we stopped working with each other,” says keyboardist Cian Ciaran, who’s mixed the majority of the band’s solo work, “we just stopped working as the entity that is Super Furry Animals.”
“It was inevitable, in a way,” says Gruff of their reanimation as a working unit. “We’ve spent too much time together. Every record was mixed and mastered with every member of the band present – it’s an extremely tense way of working, so we’re extremely close. We’re not associates… it’s personal!”
True to the Furries’ maximalist ethos, the band’s previous tours featured all kinds of bizarre staging dreamt up in conjunction with their regular designer Pete Fowler, including an onstage lighthouse for 2007’s ‘Hey Venus!’ tour and Trojan horses with spotlight eyes adorning the stage in the ‘Phantom Power’ era, circa 2003.
“It’s gonna be extremely intense,” says Gruff of their upcoming tour. “It’ll involve video feeding back on itself, and sub-bass.”
“The brown frequency,” adds Cian. “Wear your incontinence pants and eyeball stabilisers.”
“It’s nice to be working with lasers again,” says Guto, laughing as he describes trying to tour with his band, Gulp, whose tour equipment stretches to a Volkswagen Golf that has to transport all five members.
“There’ll be no yetis because they got shot in the Hammersmith Apollo and got chopped up into little yeti costumes,” says Daf, referencing the old stage outfits that they destroyed in 2004. “I guess this will be no different from any other tour we’ve done, except we need a bit more rehearsal…”
Each member has submitted a list of the songs they want to play in typically democratic Furries fashion, enabling them to effectively curate their own greatest hits live. ‘Mountain People’, ‘Arnofio/Glô In The Dark’, ‘Citizen’s Band’ and ‘Zoom!’ are just four songs that feature on some of their longlists.
“We’ll probably narrow our list down to 40 songs,” says Cian, “then get it down to 20-odd. It’s hard to choose between them, as each one’s got a happy memory attached to it.”
“The criteria is to play good songs,” Bunf says. “Instead of shit songs.”
Despite the outpouring of love that has greeted their return, the band have no plans to record a 10th album just yet, claiming that the intense process of their past work might be hard to recreate now they have children and aren’t bonding and experimenting on endless tours.
“I couldn’t imagine us going into a studio right now and making an album,” Daf explains, “because every time we’ve recorded before, it’s been in an environment where there are constant ideas coming through, on the bus or in soundchecks, in this climate of always being together.”
“If we lived in a culture that celebrated the number nine, it wouldn’t be an issue,” says Gruff, “but we live in a decimal culture. So it’s always going to be hanging over us.”
Though they haven’t spent as much time together in the last five years, Super Furry Animals visibly still get on better than most bands, new or old. Over a few pints of local ale, they crack up about the time they attempted to play ‘Guerrilla’’s ambitious ‘Chewing Chewing Gum’ live in Ireland (“I was using a pedal called the Gonkulator,” says Gruff, laughing), and they try to recall who beat 2001 fifth album ‘Rings Around The World’ into the top two places on the UK album charts (“David fucking Gray,” sighs Bunf).
Their sense of outrage at the world is still as strong as ever, too. “Last time we put an album out, Twitter was around but not so much here,” says Gruff. “It’s amazing with Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain – they’re bringing a completely alternative viewpoint, pro-European, and they’re doing it through social media. But they’re getting completely bashed by the establishment of the media, who are completely freaked out, because it’s become so acceptable suddenly to be a right-wing bigot. We’re facing austerity in every aspect of life, and you can’t help notice the damage that it’s doing here. It’s apparent everyday.”
With the new version of ‘Mwng’ delving deep into the group’s archive of unreleased sessions and live recordings, talk soon turns to the matter of other archival releases, with a follow-up to their 1998 B-sides set ‘Out Spaced’ one of the projects in contention.
“We’d like to reissue other albums,” says Gruff. “All in good time. There’s so much unreleased material around the other records, it will take some time to sift through it. [Former Flaming Lip, Gruff’s solo drummer and SFA obsessive] Kliph Scurlock is on the case, though.”
“Nearly every year from this point on is an anniversary of some sort,” Cian points out. “It’s the 20-year anniversary next year of ‘Fuzzy Logic’. If we reissue everything, though, all the originals I’ve got would be worth less money!”
Future plans might be typically hazy, then, but if this tour, and the band’s headline slots at Green Man and new Sussex festival Forgotten Fields, remind anyone of the Super Furry Animals’ unique genius, then the group will be satisfied. Other than that, they’re happy to just see what happens, kick back and enjoy playing live without the pressures of a release schedule.
“The love for the band that we’ve felt has been really nice,” says Guto. “Because we didn’t stop for however many years, it felt like maybe we didn’t appreciate it at the time. It’s nice that people appreciate what we’ve done and are willing to stick with us.”
“What we’re doing this year is not a career move,” stresses Gruff. “We’ve done nine albums and I think it’s very hard for people to get a grasp on that many records. And in that sense, it’s nice to remind people what we’ve done. Because there aren’t many bands who’ve released nine albums with the same lineup. It’s something to celebrate.”