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Music Interview: Super Furry Animals

photo by Frederick Helwig

It’s been 20 years since psychedelic Welsh wizards Super Furry Animals released their masterpiece – the lavish and wildly eclectic Rings Around The World, their fifth studio album, which was nominated for the 2001 Mercury Prize.

In September of last year, it was re-released to celebrate its 20th anniversary – the original album has been remastered, with extensive bonus tracks, and is available as a deluxe double 180g gatefold vinyl LP, a single CD, a 3-CD set and a digital version.

The band’s first record for a major label, Sony/Epic, Rings Around The World was also the world’s first simultaneous CD /5.1 surround sound DVD release.

Recorded in Monnow Valley, in Rockfield, Wales, and Bearsville Studio, New York State, in Woodstock, it’s a hugely ambitious collection of songs, taking in diverse influences like techno, West Coast psych, plastic soul, A Guy Called Gerald, John Barry, Aphex Twin and Gene Clark. Guest musicians include Paul McCartney and John Cale. ‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’ sounds like The Beach Boys doing Status Quo, ‘It’s Not The End of the World?’ and ‘Juxtapozed with U’ are gloriously wonky summer pop songs, ‘Presidential Suite’ has lush Easy Listening strings and Burt Bacharach horns, ‘Receptacle For The Respectable’ is a complex, four-part epic – Pet Sounds-meets-electronica, Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and pantomime death metal – and ‘Run!Christian,Run!’ manages to mix trippy dub with Byrds-style, cosmic country-rock.

To find out some of the stories behind the making of Rings Around The World, I got keyboard player, Cian Ciaran, and bassist, Guto Pryce, on the phone.

SH: Does it feel like 20 years since Rings Around The World?

CC: It feels like another life. Our last studio album came out in 2009 – after that, we didn’t do anything for six or seven years, and then we did two years of touring and then nothing for five years. Once you have a break from that Groundhog Day routine of going into the studio, doing an album, going on the road and then having a break, it feels like a different life.

GP: It’s a weird one – it does feel like a lifetime ago. A lot’s changed.

Have you listened to it since it came out?

CC: I don’t listen to my own music once it’s been released. I rarely go back. I always think I would’ve done stuff differently. If people put one of your tunes on, it’s embarrassing. I say, ‘switch it off!’

GP: I listened to it on Spotify in my car recently. We made a high-concept, high-fidelity record thinking that was going to be the future and it turns out that the future’s possibly the opposite of that.

Were you involved with the remastering process?

GP: No – I think we’re better off not getting involved, as it would go a lot smoother if we stepped back from it. Making Super Furry Animals records was very democratic and quite a painstaking process to get something that we were all happy with.

What are your memories of writing and recording Rings Around The World?

CC: Pretty hazy. I don’t remember much of the pre-recording, but I’d just bought a new MPC [Music Production Centre – drum machine, sampler and sequencer], so I think a couple of the tracks were written on that, as I learnt how to work the thing. I was playing with loops.

GP: I have happy memories – I feel very privileged to have had the chances that were given to us. We used wonderful studios and to go on tour was a wonderful way to spend your twenties and thirties. When we made the album, it was quite an overwhelming time, because mobile phones were coming – it was right on the cusp between analogue and the digital revolution – pre-broadband. It was all dial-up.

We were still using tape in the studio, but we were also using Pro Tools – I think the computer cost ten grand. It was ridiculous, but we embraced the possibilities of it, because we were already into sampling, cutting things up and manipulating sounds. We had a love of cinema and soundtracks – we had a filmic concept for the record.

[To Cian]: You wrote the instrumental track, ‘[A] Touch Sensitive’, didn’t you?

CC: That came from pissing about – we sampled The Stooges and sped it up, so it wasn’t as smacked-out, but felt more hip-hop-based. We also sampled Ennio Morricone, but we didn’t get clearance to use it, so we recreated it.

It was the first album we did on a hard disc – we’d record it on tape first and then dump it onto Pro Tools and do overdubs on a computer. We did a simultaneous CD and 5.1 DVD release. When were in the studio we’d consider the fact that it would be playing on five speakers, so we did five-part harmonies instead of three, or we’d put a voice in a speaker – that kind of shit.

GP: We were very aware that we didn’t want to make a record that was too long, so the DVD enabled us to fill it with content, like remixes. We really wanted to push what you could do with the DVD format, so we kept on coming up with stuff. We even got silly with the menu system – it was probably far too complex.

What was it like recording in Bearsville, Woodstock?

CC: That was off the back of a two-week tour [of the US]. We didn’t get on with the bus driver, so at the end of the tour, in Woodstock, he dumped us on the side of the road early one morning and we had no idea where we were. I don’t know what happened, but we made it – we’re still here. Bearsville was like you’d expect in upstate New York. We did see a bear. It was a baby one.

GP: They’re the most dangerous kind of bear, because the mother’s close by, but we never saw her.

CC: We were in The Band’s studio – [producer] Chris Shaw reckoned it was the best sounding drum room he’d ever worked in. We stayed in houses a few hundred yards down the road and we had to walk through the woods every morning and every night. I think we had three weeks there – it was a great experience and we did five or six songs. ‘Receptacle for the Respectable’ was made in three countries and two continents – it started in Cardiff, was recorded in Bearsville and mixed in London. The song’s in four parts – there was a fifth part, but we had to say stop, as it was too OTT.

GP: Bearsville was nuts. We thought Woodstock was going to be flowers in your hair, but in reality it was full of New York accountants on shiny Harley-Davidsons, with clean bandanas. Everything was gentrified, apart from the studio – it felt like being in a time warp. It was a beautiful room in the middle of some woods. There were fireflies at night, which was something we’d only seen in films.

 

The arrangements on the record are lush and rich, with strings and brass. It’s arguably your most ambitious album, isn’t it?

GP: It’s an ostentatious record. I was surprised listening back to it how many of the songs had strings and how many guest musicians we had on it.

CC: We’ve never gone into the studio with a formula, but we’re a band that always embraced technology and where that journey takes you. We weren’t purists in that sense – the ambition was always there in previous records, but it might not sound like it, comparatively.

In terms of our approach, we’ve always been an ambitious band with what we wanted to achieve musically. We also wanted to travel the world and make a living out of it. You’d always throw everything at it because you’d think ‘maybe this is the last album we’ll get a chance to do’. We’d never go into it blasé. It wasn’t an unlimited cheque book, but it felt like it – when you’ve got that, it’s hard to stop. When four French horn players turned up in the studio, you’d say ‘who booked these?’

It was your first album on a major label – Sony / Epic – after the indie label you were on, Creation Records, went pear-shaped in 1999. Sony threw a lot of money at the record. Was being on a major label a good move for you?

CC: Yes – I think that’s what we’d always wanted. We embraced it. Creation was also a big step for us, as they had shitloads of money to spend off the back of Oasis – we went to Real World Studios for eight weeks to do the last Creation album [Guerilla].

GP: Fair play to Sony, but they said yes to anything we asked for.

The reviews of Rings Around The World at the time were polarised – some said it was your best album ever, while NME called it your worst. What do you feel about the record now? Is it one of your favourites?

CC: I’ve always looked at all our nine albums as a whole body of work, so I can pick out songs rather than albums. A lot of people didn’t like it because it was too polished – it wasn’t raw enough for some. There’s a lot of traditional songwriting on it, but also some more groove-oriented stuff. I think it’s reflective of the eclectic tastes we have.

The Beach Boys were a big influence on the album, weren’t they? There are lots of harmonies and also some Easy Listening, Burt Bacharach-style arrangements. ‘It’s Not The End of the World?’ and ‘Juxtapozed with U’ are summery pop songs, while ‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’ is a bluesy surf-boogie – it has a Status Quo feel…

CC [laughs]: I think it’s like Hawkwind – ‘Silver Machine.’

There are some great pop songs on the album, but you screw ‘em up at times with some weird stuff, don’t you, which I really like…

CC [laughs].

GP: That’s where our heads were at – we always had a broad musical palette. We were fans of The Beatles and Aphex Twin. Gruff [Rhys – lead vocals and guitar] wrote a lot of the songs on acoustic guitar and then we’d arrange them in the studio and give them all the textures and production. It’s such a varied record.

Paul McCartney is credited with playing ‘celery and carrot’ on ‘Receptacle for the Respectable.’ How did you get him on the album?

CC: We met him at the NME Awards, exchanged phone numbers and forgot about it. It was a late night. I didn’t forget that I’d met him, but I forgot we’d swapped numbers. A few weeks later, there was a message from him on my answering machine – it was pre-mobile phone days. I was like ‘it’s Paul McCartney on my answering machine!’ We did a remix for him and then we ended up working with him on the album – we asked him if he’d do it, and he said yes. He was going to come into the studio for a laugh, but he ended up sending it on a DAT. He also sent us a really dodgy impression of him doing a Welsh accent.

At the time, Gruff said Rings Around The World was written about “about Earth, and the pollution of space,” but it’s not a concept album, is it?

CC: In its tone, the album was about the state of the world and observations on that. I think Gruff was listening to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and he cited Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

The album was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2001, but it didn’t win – PJ Harvey got it. Did you go to the ceremony?

CC: Yes – we turned up and there were loads of cops everywhere. We thought, ‘what’s going on here?’ When we got to the hotel, we put the news on and saw that one of the Twin Towers had gone down. We were like, ‘what the f***’s going on?’ And then when we were watching it, we saw the plane go into the second one.

GP: It was horrible. That’s typical Super Furries luck – things just go tits up.

Rings Around The World (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) by Super Furry Animals is out now on BMG.

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