feature interview

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Welsh songwriter Gruff Rhys has something of a Cheshire cat quality about him. It's not just the wide, generous grin—which he brandishes eagerly and often—but rather it's the way he manages to be two things at once. Like a Lewis Carroll creation who just missed the Wonderland cut, he's simultaneously an outlandish caricature and real flesh and blood. So much of the reputation of both himself and his group, Super Furry Animals, is based on contradictory mixes: rock culture/rave culture, saturated noise/restrained calm, atonal dissonance/harmonic marriage, cold electronics/warm acoustics, giddy humour/political commentary.

It's this last juxtaposition that perhaps underscores what's so special about his band; they're one of the few acts to nail the kind of social satire mixed with a highly marketable image (at least in the UK) that is normally the domain of cartoons like the Simpsons. Whether it's been showing up at the Glastonbury festival in a tank(!), releasing their albums in 5.1 surround sound with DVD films for each song, or singing songs on stage through a giant Power Rangers helmet, no idea is too surreal or excessive for the band. And yet, despite these excesses, their heartfelt songs are able to address issues of not only love and loss, but colonial imperialism, global warming, war, and politics in ways that avoid the heavy-handed, preachy tone for which so many of us have long lost a taste.

In person, Rhys happily continues the contradiction. His speech can be slow to the point of paralysis, but just when you wonder if you've lost him, his comments reveal themselves to be quite economical and insightful. His social graces echo that of a Victorian gentleman. He stands when people arrive and leave, looks you in the eye, inquires as to how you are, gives you his full respect and attention. But, as he pauses in the midst of answer, there's that mischievous grin again...

More than anything Rhys is a very educated, highly talented musician who knows that all of the issues about which he sings mean everything and nothing all at once. We discussed politics in their songs; his new solo disc, Candylion; working on SFA's latest, Hey Venus!, with Toronto producer Dave Newfeld; and the group's "horrid" new musical experiment.

Soundscapes: I've noticed that Super Furry Animals don't really have political songs, as much as politics and social commentary are naturally part of the tunes. I want to know if that's somewhat accurate, and how you feel about addressing politics within the songs?

Gruff Rhys: Yeah, we didn't form the group because of politics. Y'know? Our instincts are musical, and our reason for being together is our love of records and to play music. I think that we grew up in a period of political activism and a lot of our friends' families have been politically active. So, it's part of our upbringing. But we come from a generation from after punk rock...

SS: Yeah.

GR: ...which was full of political sloganeering. So we're kind of turned off rhetoric and sloganeering. So we decide, um, it's rare that we're inspired by an event to write a song in a kinda protest singer way.

SS: Right.

GR: There's lyrics and they're very, y'know, it's inevitable that it will be part of our lyrics in the end in some way.

SS: Well, there's a sense that that kind of sloganeering, people are sort of dead to it now. It doesn't resonate in the same way, it's not the same "call to arms". There's a sense that it should be casual dialogue amongst people (when discussing politics now). That puts people at ease.

GR: Yeah, and I suppose there's less, people are less ideological than they used to be. And don't necessarily follow one doctrine. So in that sense, maybe in the 1980s, you had bands that rigorously followed Marxist doctrines...

SS: Mm-hmm.

GR: ...something which would be really difficult to apply today.

SS: Do you think it's good that it's become a little more personal? That it's not so easy to just be left or right anymore?

GR: Yeah, and also people are naturally so hypocritical, that it's often difficult for a rock band to have any kind of credibility if they start making political statements. It's just sometimes so obviously contradictory to what they do.

SS: Mm-hmm. Well, I thought about that a little when I was listening to "Neo Consumer" (a tune about mass consumer confusion off Hey Venus!), just because at home I have a Phantom Power mug and a Rings Around The World uh, little dish...

GR: Yeah, yeah, exactly yeah! (smiling)

SS: (laughs) ...I mean, I understand what you're getting at (in the song), but I also understand that it seems to be a part of the band that you're kind of, well, there's no way to separate yourself from this kind of vortex. You can observe it, but you're still...

GR: ...in it, yeah yeah. I mean, it's observations from within it.

SS: I was reading in a interview that when you were working on Hey Venus!, that a lot of it came from wanting to make some songs that were a little more upbeat to play live. Was it frustrating at all that a record like Love Kraft didn't come across the way you'd like live? Because I felt like that record was a little misunderstood.

GR: Uh, I mean, we're not really worried about... (pauses) I mean, we're pretty happy with (Love Kraft), but it's quite a symphonic record, y'know? And the only frustration was that it was just difficult to play. (laughs)

SS: Yeah.

GR: And any frustrations are purely with ourselves. You know, it's a very long, beautiful record, but it requires a lot of patience to listen to and to play.

SS: Well, certainly on a song like "Zoom!" the crescendos in there, with all the choirs and strings, would be extremely difficult to pull off live with just five people.

GR: Yeah.

SS: So, is there that too? Not just the energy level, but with Hey Venus! you really get the sense of the five of you playing in a room together.

GR: Yeah, obviously on the arrangements it's pretty, umm, it's a very simple record. I suppose the emphasis was more on songs than the arrangement. I think we've made records that are more adventurous sonically, but I think we always react to the last record that we did.

SS: I often felt, especially when watching you guys play live, that for a long time you were trying to merge dance culture with rock culture. Is that still a big part of what you're doing or has that evolved live?

GR: Yeah, I don't know. Our decision making is pretty chaotic and anything goes and everybody pushes and pulls the band in different directions. On this record, nobody brought samplers into the studio, so there's far less electronics than on a lot of our records. I think, and in a way it's difficult for anyone to speak on behalf of the band (laughs), but I think what we were trying to do is, we're making...(pauses) Well, you see, a lot of electronic music is quite a solitary pursuit. You sit at your computer or sampler and sometimes it's more of an individual kind of thing. Whereas with this record, we were trying to play as a band: a five people at once kind of record.

SS: Yeah.

GR: But, but, sometimes we...(looks up smiling) ...I think. (laughs)

SS: I certainly remember seeing you guys play for Rings, when you released the DVD (with a video for each song), and you guys were starting to play with a lot of videos and sequencers.

GR: Yeah.

SS: The first time I saw you guys on that tour, I felt like the energy level was a little lacking because the rhythm section felt like it was learning how to play with a click track for pretty much the whole night.

GR: Right, yeah, yeah.

SS: And then later, on the second leg of Rings and for Phantom, it felt like you had it nailed. What you're saying about electronic music being an individual pursuit, there's that sense of rigidity. It's difficult to be loose.

GR: Yeah.

SS: You've already got a script.

GR: Yeah, absolutely. That can be very frustrating, and in a way, the purer and more electronic it is, the better it sounds. I mean, when we take it to extremes, it's usually more convincing then. We often use a lot of click tracks and it's very difficult to get right. We're still trying to learn that, and I think energetic music, if it sounds energetic then you can get away with it. But with a record like Love Kraft, there's a lot of click tracks in order to orchestrate the show live, and it's very slow music. (laughs)

SS: Yeah.

GR: Whereas on this tour we've got rid of all the video and we've still got a computer on stage which we're using on some songs, but it seems a bit more energetic.

SS: There's a sense to me that on Hey Venus! the layers are still there, it's just a little more purely integrated. It's almost as though now that you're learned another language, the band is a little more multilingual. I don't know if you know what I mean, but instead of just speaking rock, or speaking electronic, now that you know how to speak both of them, there's not the same need to speak one of them exclusively at certain times.

GR: OK, yeah, yeah.

SS: Because parts of Hey Venus! remind me of Fuzzy Logic.

GR: Yeah, yeah.

SS: But then there are bits where the orchestration reminds me of stuff on Phantom Power or even Love Kraft. Like "Carbon Dating" sounds like a Love Kraft song to me, or even "Battersea Odyssey".

GR: Yeah, yeah.

SS: But then, I know I just picked the two songs you didn't write.

GR: No, no. (both laugh)

SS: But it feels like you have more of a command of musical languages now. Does it feel that way to you?

GR: Yeah, I think it's real interesting if you listen to "Carbon Dating", which is a song by Cian (Ciaran, keyboardist and electronic whiz), most of his, because he's developed a lot as a writer and his background is electronic, and he put out a record as Acid Casuals (Omni) a couple years ago, and that record is almost like a greatest hits of the past ten years of his stuff. 'Cause he was making all this music, and he put out some 12"s which we're like minimal techno, kind of newer dance floor things, but he was making all this other stuff and he's very much a perfectionist, so he wasn't releasing it even, but he was giving it to friends.

SS: Yeah.

GR: And some of it would end as Furry songs. We'd all jam, like on "Slow Life" (from Phantom Power). We'd kind of sing on top of it and try to bring it in the group. But, with the Acid Casuals album, by the end he's singing a song. I think the last song on the record is lyrics, and you can see how he's changed his position. So, when he brings things to the band now, he's often reluctant to play them from the computer, but he'll try and get us to play his tunes live.

SS: Right, like he doesn't want to dictate the format to you. He'd rather it came out, give you all the chance to imprint yourself a little bit more on the song from the start.

GR: Yeah, well, I think, although nobody's particularly pushy in the band--it's not a part of our culture--I think he's just really keen that way. For us to take his ideas and play them rather than just keeping an electronic demo and then stick it into the record. Thought we'd rehearse his ideas. Y'know, the stuff he writes is very beautiful, melodic. Hopefully, this makes it quite original. Hopefully, we start to belong to our own sound. Our ultimate goal would be to lose a lot of our influences and make something original. I think we're still quite far away though. (laughs) But that's what we're trying to do.

SS: Well, the influences tend to be evolving constantly at least.

GR: Yeah.

SS: It certainly always comes out sounding like you guys. And that is one other thing too. Now that you guys have been a band as long as you have, your mark on the landscape is little bit different now. You're not a band that has just begun.

GR: Oh no, yeah, yeah.

SS: You have a real history, a huge amount of time and lots of side projects. And some influence, too. What was that collection you did, Under the Influence (a UK compilation series)?

GR: Oh yeah.

SS: And Guto (Pryce, bassist) just did the Trojan Furry Selector (reggae) compilation.

GR: Oh, yeah, yeah.

SS: And there was a quote of yours on the front of the Selda record (cult Turkish psych singer), at least over here. You know the one I'm talking about from Finders Keepers?

GR: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SS: So, I mean, it's different now. You've reached the point where you guys are recognized as having varied tastes. That there's something that can be learned from where your ears lead.

GR: Yeah, I mean, we formed because we didn't come out of a... I don't know, we've all got quite varied tastes, but I think that's what we were interested in when we all came together. Try to see what we could do. (laughs)

SS: Well, there's a sense of a common language that gets brought out—and I don't mean in the 'music is a universal language sense'—but the fact that when you integrate psychedelia, Beach Boys pop stuff, electronic music, dub or whatever, I find that you guys are able to draw a lot of the same things from them. The qualities that address the dreamier part of the mind, or the more euphoric part of the mind. It seems like you're drawn to the same things about them: their sense of exploration and of melody, regardless of the style of music.

GR: Yeah, I think we've got a sweet tooth, you know, melodically. And sometimes we shy from using it, and sometimes we gorge too much on it. (smiles) Sometimes we just embrace it. And y'know, we formed during the sort of electronic boom in Britain. We used to go to a lot of raves and stay up all night and come home the next day and listen to Surf's Up on ecstasy. (laughs)

SS: Yeah, yeah.

GR: So, that's basically the kind of soundtrack when we formed.

SS: In a lot ways, that's how it sounds to me!

GR: Sort of. (laughs) Yeah!

SS: Particularly Rings, there is that real collision of kind of a 60s pop culture meeting this electronic boom culture and that notion of gorging and excess, there are elements of that. But also something like your first solo record (the all-Welsh Yr Atal Genhedlaeth), which seems like a real purifying moment. Everything is very minimal, the way it's written. There's a lot of repetition of phrases. Even without knowing the language, it seems like some songs only had a couple of lines to them.

GR: Yeah.

SS: What was your aim with that first album?

GR: Well, the first record, was, um, our friend Gorwel Owen has a studio in his house, and that's where we've done, where we recorded a lot of our earlier music. Albums like Radiator and most of Mwng. So, we've been going there to record really for the past twenty years. So he's a real close friend, so I went to his house. I often go there to do demos as well. Just go there for a day so I can reel off fifteen songs every couple of years.

SS: Right, yeah.

GR: So, I'd been going there. I went there for a couple of days and made some kind of demos and I liked the sort of feel of them. So I ended up going back for another few days and did some more. And then, I took another couple of days and mixed them. So, when I made that record, for the first couple of days I did them, I wasn't really aware that I was making a record as such. I just having a laugh and just messing around and having a good time. Just creating. And y'know, Furry records had become, especially at that time just after Rings Around The World and Phantom Power, where the albums had become huge undertakings. Because they both came out on DVD and we mixed them in 5.1 surround sound...

SS: Yeah.

GR: ...as well as stereo, so the record took twice as much time to mix.

SS: They were like big movies.

GR: And we had to try and collect films for each song...

SS: Yeah.

GR: ...so that was quite an undertaking, just keeping all that together. And then, there's a remix for every song as well on both those records.

SS: Yeah, yeah! (laughs)

GR: You know, it was just kind of mind-boggling. But, y'know, fantastic thing to try out. So, making a record in seven days flat is just great, y'know? (laughs)

SS: Yeah, yeah. So how did that lead to Candylion? This seems to be less of a surprise solo record.

GR: Yeah, yeah.

SS: Things are much more richly worked out.

GR: Yeah, I thought I'd make an acoustic record. So the initial idea is that. I had a self-conscious decision to make a record. So, I had all these songs on acoustic guitars and they sort of coincided with, after Love Kraft, we (SFA) were kind of thinking of making a loud record. So, I had a lot of quiet songs, so I thought maybe I'd go to Gorwel's house and record them quickly. I took two weeks to make it. I wanted it to have a sense of spontaneity, but I didn't keep the mistakes. If there was a mistake, I'd try and do it again.

SS: Mm-hmm.

GR: On the first record, I just left it how it was and kept all the imperfections.

SS: Right, right.

GR: So, it was more refined. But I got excited and threw in drums, got a double bass player down. So, it wasn't as, I thought it was going to be more minimal, more based around a single guitar, but, maybe another time. (laughs)

SS: Well, some of my favourite moments come from how the percussion works, especially on "Lonesome Words", so I wouldn't say it's a mistake. (laughs)

GR: Yeah. (smiles)

SS: What led to you guys working with (Broken Social Scene producer) David Newfeld? I mean, we're pretty familiar with him here...

GR: Yeah, yeah.

SS: ...but it was pretty excited to see what would come of you guys working with him. So what led to that?

GR: Well, we were looking for a kind of, coach-style figure stroke referee.

SS: (laughs)

GR: Because we wanted to make quite a live record and we didn't wanna repeat the past two records either. So, we were looking for someone new to work with. So we were racking our brains trying to think of whose records we actually liked the sound of. And our recording sessions are usually very creative but they're like quite fracturous as well. They're very tense. So you're looking for an outsider that could be objective and help out.

SS: Mm-hmm.

GR: And I was having a conversation with our friend, and listening to his records. I think we were listening to a Broken Social Scene record and we all kind of, "Oh fuck, y'know, it must be nuts making those records because there's so many of them. Wow, maybe this is the one!" (both laugh)

SS: If he can rein in 13 people, then he can probably rein in five.

GR: So, I mean, obviously, I only knew his records, I didn't know anything about him. So, it was real interesting making that kind of, we wanted to make a pop record as well. We wanted to make a rowdy pop record. And he revealed to us early on that he had a background as a wedding DJ...

SS: Yes!

GR: ...and that he'd done 500 weddings at least? Or something, it's a big statistic.

SS: Yeah, I've been to one of them. He's done a lot.

GR: So, he's perfect! He's got such a knowledge of pop and what makes people react. What gets the whole family to the dance floor. And so, he, I think we were with him for maybe three weeks? And most of the time he just stood there by the desk. We had a bit of an adventure, because went to France, and we haven't spent that much time in France. We found a studio that was one big room where we could all sit in and I don't think that he'd (Newfeld) been to France either and we had the studio guys who were forcing wine and cheese on us all the time. It was a bit of an adventure. And then, he wouldn't accept a take until he was physically moved by it, in a wedding kind of way.

SS: (laughs) Yeah.

GR: You know?

SS: Yeah.

GR: It was great, you know. He could reel off all the songs that he was reminded of, if you were doing a song like "Run-Away".

SS: Well, for sure, there's a load of pop references all over Venus. It's funny too because, Dave seems to have a really distinct sound (as a producer), but sometimes I think that's only because so much of what people know of him is Broken Social Scene where you do have a ton of instruments coming at you at once.

GR: Yeah, yeah.

SS: I was talking to Kevin (Drew, BSS) a little while ago about speaking to you, and he asked about Hey Venus!, "Does it sound like a Newf record?" And I said that it didn't sound like a Newf record BSS has done, but it sounds like a record Newf would be a part of because there is so much classic pop reference it in. It's that other part of his language.

GR: Yeah.

SS: It seemed like a good fit.

GR: And it's something that he completely grasps, y'know, and understands. He really pushed some songs. Because you listen to the demos, and there were songs that we were gonna leave off, like "Suckers" for example.

SS: Mm-hmm.

GR: Which is quite a kind of obvious song, melodically. You know, it's like, that was his favourite. So, he had the power in kind of shaping the record, in terms of what songs we ended up recording. We had so many of them that, I mean, we recorded maybe twenty songs.

SS: Yeah, really?

GR: We demoed much more. So he listened to demos of kinda live versions of the record.

SS: It's almost funny to hear you say that, just because it is such a short record. It's interesting to know that it came from such a large pool.

GR: Yeah, we were quite brutal, and the record could have been very different as well. Some of the songs we left off were really heavy and raw, you know? So initially, at the time of recording, we thought we were making a heavy record. What we ended up with is more consistent with our back catalogue.

SS: Mm-hmm.

GR: But we almost made a really radical record, (both laugh) but we didn't manage it.

SS: But is it not true that you also have been working on more than just, you were working on a couple records?

GR: Yeah, we've been working on a, we're working with a conductor. (laughs) We've been making an instrumental record, with a guy called Charles Hazelwood as a kind of coach figure. He comes from an academic musical background, which is kind of the opposite of our musical background. It's been real interesting, and we've been working with a notater as well, who can actually orchestrate our ideas.

SS: Right, he helps, writes them out?

GR: Yeah, and the conductor has been giving us advice on what orchestras can do and what they can't do, which we usually ignore. (smiles)

SS: Do you mean in general, or just for this project? (laughs)

GR: Well, no, y'know, he's been encouraging us to try things that maybe, y'know, saying, "Well, that's not orthodox, but you should try it anyway. See what happens." Because, we don't want to make a kind of 'rock band meets an orchestra' record, which is a horrid thing. So we've been jamming with the kind of core members of this orchestra. So we've got about, I think we've got about twenty hours of music so far recorded.

SS: And is the idea for this to be an album at some point?

GR: Yeah, it's probably going to take years, because we've got hours and hours already, some of which sounds pretty good, but not very focused, and then we'll probably listen back to them, arrange the whole thing, and then maybe record it live with an orchestra.

SS: Right, and this would be the five of you playing along.

GR: Yeah, I mean, maybe not strictly an orchestra, but a lot of orchestral musicians and a conductor. (pauses and laughs) It's sounds awful, but...

SS: No, (laughs) I mean, it sounds totally plausible to me. I wouldn't bet against you guys doing anything at this point.

GR: The stuff that we've recorded so far sounds like goblin records, it's almost like an Italian horror soundtrack.

SS: Right. Yeah, like some Argento movie or something.

GR: Yeah.

SS: Yeah.

GR: But I think it sometimes sounds awful, y'know?

SS: (laughs)

GR: But, when it's good, it sounds like a horror soundtrack.

SS: Well, you've got twenty hours to pull from. Can't be all bad.

GR: Yeah... (drifting, smiling) There's still songs left over from Hey Venus!, which we'll either make that into a record or do it all again, not sure. We're starting to tour, so we'll all be together for six months. We'll formulate a plan. Or, probably do something completely different. (smiling)