Pop go the Furries

February 15, 2008


After seven proper albums, a dozen odd side projects and nearly a decade's worth of touring since England's New Musical Express named them the Best New Band of 1999, the Super Furry Animals took the occasion of signing to a new label to pause, take a deep breath and reconnect with the sounds of their earliest recordings on last year's "Hey Venus!"

"Going into the studio, the goal was to make a pretty straight-ahead, light-hearted pop record," guitarist-vocalist Gruff Rhys says. "It was for a new label [Rough Trade], and [label head] Geoff Travis almost kind of commissioned us to make a pop record. He was saying, 'Well, you know, can't you make one of those big anthemic pop records like your first two? I'm a big fan of those kinds of records!'"

Rhys laughs. "We just kind of looked at each other and said, 'Sure, we can make a record like that!' Then we headed into the studio and just put down these songs pretty quickly, and in between, we'd be hitting Geoff up for Smiths stories!"

The bandleader makes it all sound absurdly easy, but from the relatively straightforward Beatles-flavored pop of those first two albums, "Fuzzy Logic" (1996) and "Radiator" (1997), through the more expansive and orchestrated "Pet Sounds" pastiche of their U.S. breakthrough, "Rings Around the World" (2001), up to electronic or experimental discs such as "Love Kraft" (2005) and Rhys' 2005 Welsh-language solo album "Yr Atal Genhedlaeth," the musicians have been wildly ambitious onstage and in the studio. Not for nothing do many of their champions consider them the British Flaming Lips (and those fans include some of the Flaming Lips themselves).

The band's eighth album takes its title from a character whose story unfolds over its 11 songs. A girl named Venus moves from a small town to the big city, experiencing thrilling adventures as well as painful disasters -- sort of like the Super Furry Animals themselves.

"What happened is that I wrote the songs, and then I noticed that some of them had very similar themes: ending relationships; moving on to the big city; leaving home, and just generally growing up," Rhys says. "So I came up with the idea of kind of applying all of these different stories to this Venus character as a way of making this character to represent all of these personal songs.

"It was more a way of structuring and compiling the album after the songs had already been written than writing a concept album per se. And I don't think you need to understand any of that to enjoy it, because we were trying to communicate with this Japanese fan who didn't speak any English, and he liked the music but he needed us to explain what it was all about."

Almost all of the Super Furry Animals dabble in side projects in between SFA albums and tours; the group is completed by lead guitarist Huw Bunford, bassist Guto Pryce, keyboardist Cian Ciaran and drummer Dafydd Ieuan. But Rhys' position as the frontman and primary songwriter makes his solo forays more notable. How does he distinguish between a solo song and a tune better suited for the band?

"I don't!" Rhys says with a hearty laugh. "Actually, in the case of 'Venus,' I tried to pick the kind of big pop songs for this record, because I knew that the other songs could go to 'Candylion' [the mostly acoustic solo album he released last year]. The quieter songs always ended up on my own record, if I have to kind of generalize. But really it's mostly just chaos and the songs wind up wherever they happen to wind up."

Fans who witnessed the band perform live circa "Rings Around the World" or "Phantom Power" will recall an ever-shifting and at-times overpowering multimedia assault to rival Pink Floyd at its peak or U2 circa the Zoo TV tour. The current SFA tour is more simple and stripped-down, Rhys confesses. But never content to play anything absolutely straight, he and his bandmates have found a way to inject a little random chaos.

"I don't know how's it's going to work out, but we're going to try to let the fans make the set list each night, and we've got this mechanism up on our Web site [www.superfurry.com]. We already have an extended set list -- basically the songs we have rehearsed recently and have some sort of working knowledge of -- and people can vote for the songs we'll play at each show.

"We have done some shows in the past where we put every song we ever recorded up and then chose the songs by a bingo machine. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it's awful. And I guess we'll find out how doing it this way works soon enough!"