With 2000's sprawling
double album, "Rings Around the World," and a collaboration with Sir Paul
McCartney on the remix album "Liverpool Sound Collage," the Welsh quintet
the Super Furry Animals became cult heroes in America, staking out a place
as one of the most ambitious pop bands of its generation.
Like all of the group's albums, last year's "Phantom Power" has moments
of undeniable beauty -- the group has long been dedicated to attempting to
answer the musical question, "What would the Beach Boys' 'Smile' album have
sounded like if Brian Wilson actually finished the job?"-- but there is also
a fair amount of silly psychedelic self-indulgence. It can be argued that
the band is at its best on stage, when it's focusing on an at-times
overwhelming multi-media experience, and rocking out without the
distractions of the recording studio.
I spoke to bandleader and key songwriter Gruff Rhys by phone from Wales
as he geared up for a rare American tour that brings the band to Metro on
Tuesday. Papa M, the band led by former Zwan guitarist David Pajo, opens.
SUPER FURRY ANIMALS,
*9 p.m Tuesday
*Metro, 3730 N. Clark
*Tickets, $16.50 (18-over show)
Q. Tell me about making "Phantom Power." The band reached the
largest audience of its career with "Rings Around the World"; there had to
be a lot of expectations going into making this one.
A. We don't really feel expectations, we just follow our musical
noses, and the smell that we followed this time was towards something a
little more acoustic and something a bit simpler after ["Rings"]. The songs
really didn't dictate an epic production, so we kind of played mostly songs
that all five of us could play together in a room.
Q. Do the songs come to you first, before they're fleshed out
with the group?
A. Usually the song will come first, although there are no rules,
and sometimes a jam will inspire a song. We all bring bits and pieces into
the mix. We inevitably get carried away in the studio as well. We're in the
studio at the moment, so this week we've been going off on a cosmic funk
excursion. We've been going a bit mad, and it's sounding very different to
the album. It's sort of like Funkadelic, with outrageous keyboard solos and
huge grooves, and it's been a lot of fun. We won't necessarily release it,
and we may or may not play it live, depending on how we feel on the night.
Q. Do you enjoy playing live as much as recording?
A. Yeah, but it's extremely different. It's much more of a social
event, and it's interesting to gauge what people think of your song and how
they react to them.
Q. You go out of your way to make the live shows a real
experience, with the multi-media presentation of different videos for every
A. We've sort of figured that this band is largely about excess,
and our records are usually quite excessive. We use the full spectrum of
sounds available, and when we play live as well we're usually as excessive
as we can be. We bring films in, and the last two albums have been on DVD,
so we've got a lot of footage that we bring to our live shows. We've got
lots of new animations that were on the "Phantom Power" DVD.
Q. Do the images come at the same time as the music?
A. What we did this time is we asked Pete Fowler -- who's
responsible for most of our films --we gave him the songs and asked him to
make a visual interpretation of each song. He created the short animations
that were about two minutes long, and then we took those animations and
sound-tracked those with music that was completely different to the songs.
It was a lot of fun, and we got to make a lot of silly noises. This time, we
didn't want the visual aspect of it to overwhelm the songs. The animation is
a separate entity, it's got its own soundtrack, though live we pair those
films to the songs from the album.
Q. Microphones work on what's called "Phantom Power" -- they're
not directly connected to an energy source. Judging from the lyrics, you're
using that as a metaphor for mysterious political forces that are beyond our
A. "Phantom Power" is some kind of dark, evil force that we can't
see, and we don't really understand where it is or how to stand up to it. I
think we made a pretty paranoid yet accurate album. I hope in the future we
can record albums about sunshine and flowers and things, you know?
Q. Do you get crap about your politics at home in the U.K.?
A. Yeah, we've had crap all along, since we started, but it's
usually because we sing in English and in Welsh. When we started out in
particular there were some people in the Welsh-language community who were
scandalized that we were nice Welsh-speaking kids who were singing in
English, and then of course a lot of English-speaking people didn't like the
fact that we sing in Welsh. We've always been kind of in our own universe.
Q. I read a fascinating article on the Web about a relative of
yours in the 18th Century, John Evans, who apparently explored North America
in 1792 in search of the fabled Welsh-speaking Madoc Indians.
A. He was family in North Wales, and he adopted what had been a
theory in Wales for centuries that Prince Madoc had discovered the Americas
in the 11th Century. He got a grant from the Spanish government to go look
for this tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans, and he went over and
lived with the Indians. On the way, I think he accidentally annexed a third
of North America as Spanish territory. But he didn't find the Welsh-speaking
Indians, so disillusioned, he went back to New Orleans and drank himself to
death by the age of 38.
Q. That sounds like very rock-star behavior. Knowing your
devilish sense of humor, I'm tempted to ask if you invented that story.
A. Well, usually the stuff we invent is pretty lame! Truth is
absolutely stranger than fiction.