Super Furry Animals' 2002 album, Rings Around the World, was very loosely a concept album about telecommunication. Or, more specifically, the vagaries of telecommunication--how, in a world filled with the low-grade buzz of infinite, free-floating conversations, enabled by a chain of fiber-optic links that no one save a few specialist engineers really understands other than abstractly, so little actual communication seemed to be taking place. Allegorically, songs as varied in surface theme as "Presidential Suite" and "Sidewalk Serfer Girl" struck home the idea that human experience was getting lost in disconnects (of distance, of time), the breach finding its perfect metaphorical expression in static-filled, ever-throbbing phone lines. We "get in touch" with people we cannot actually touch, and something is lost in gap between euphemism and reality.
It's worth bringing up Rings Around the World, because in talking to Furries front man Gruff Rhys, the vagaries of telecommunication put themselves front and center. At the moment, the band is home in Cardiff, Wales; in order to reach Rhys from the United States, it's necessary first to dial his record label, where a helpful representative patches through, via an international calling card extension, to Rhys' cell phone. Somewhere along the line (literally) things have fallen apart: Three tries in, Rhys at last picks up the phone, and what's audible after all that effort is:
Super Furry Animals perform September 23 at Gypsy Tea Room, with Grandaddy and Earlimart.
Anyone who believes that the Super Furry Animals are rock's premier surrealists hasn't been paying enough attention to the mundanely surreal realities of life in the 21st century.
Fourth time in this case being the charm, Rhys answers the phone. You can kind of hear what he's saying, but the overall effect is like trying to talk underwater, or possibly under mud. Give yourself over to the Furries' mind-set, however, and what should be infuriating takes on a brilliantly funny absurdity: Of course, this is exactly how a conversation with one of the band's members should go.
SSSHHHHHH... "arca, tie--" SSHHH... "t'money."
"What I was saying," Rhys resumes, once the phone line has unclouded, "is that most bands, they record in an expensive studio, so the attitude is, you know, time is money. But in our case, time is not money." For reference, Rhys is trying--generously--to address a fairly broad question: How, precisely, did Super Furry Animals come to be the world's most sonically adventurous band? Although new LP Phantom Power continues to mine the Beach Boys-go-glam sound the Furries essentially invented on their breakout record, Radiator, their forays into genres outside traditional guitar rock (including but not limited to tropicalia, bossa nova, hip-hop, jazz, Nordic death metal, Delta blues, soul music and ambient techno) make Radiohead's excursions sound tame by comparison.
"This time," Rhys says, "the goal was to make the whole thing a little more coherent. In the past, you know, we'd put ideas kind of side by side, and on this record we wanted all those sounds to be more blended. Other than that, we didn't have any kind of plan--we never really do. We just kind of go into the studio and play."
There was one other idea germinating when work on Phantom Power began, however; as Rhys notes, he started out with the guitar tuning D-A-D-D-A-D, both because he liked it and because he was intrigued by the paternal implications. (Juxtapositions of the sonic and thematic, the literal and emotional, are frequent in the Furries' world.) Although the songs "Father Father No. 1" and Father Father No. 2" are the most obvious examples of the influence of that early decision on the final recording, he notes that most of the songs on the record began life in the double-dad tuning.
"And then, you know, it just depends on the song," Rhys explains. "Like 'Bleed Forever' was pretty much recorded live; we just came in and played it. Whereas 'The Piccolo Snare'--I guess that kind of started when we bought, oh, 700 used records from the library here, you know, stuff you'd never heard of, and began sampling from them obsessively. So it was born on the computer," he notes, "and then once I'd found some sounds I really liked, I came up with a few guitar chords that seemed to match--and then we really went nuts with it."
All Super Furry Animals songs are worked out in very different ways, in other words, with the guiding theme being to explore every creative avenue that occurs to the band. Rhys also cites the example of "Slow Life," off Phantom Power, explaining that the original, purely electronic version of the song was recorded by band member Cian Ciaran six or seven years ago.
"We always really loved the song," Rhys says, "but we couldn't ever find the right context for it, or an excuse to release it by itself. And one day we were in our studio here, and we just started jamming live on top of his track. It was about 15 minutes long that way, so then we started chopping it and rearranging things to make it shorter. And finally we felt like we'd gotten it right."
As Rhys explains, the ability to work on a song such as "Slow Life" on and off for more than five years is one of the privileges of a leisurely recording atmosphere. Time is not money for the band, he says, because they rent the space where their studio is housed from the city of Cardiff, and thus they get all their electricity for free. It costs them about $100 a month, and they go in just about every day, he says, even if it's only to charge a cell phone or make a cup of tea on the electric kettle.
"It's somewhere we can really play around, so we do," Rhys says. "We went to a conventional studio a few times to record drums, and then when Mario Caldato did the mix, that was in a 'proper' space. But the rest of the time, pretty much, we just hang out and make sounds. And some sounds make us happy, or laugh, and some sounds make us scared, but it's all exciting. The best parts on any of our records, I think, come out of a couple of us being in our little room in Cardiff at three in the morning, just wigging out and being ecstatic in the music."
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The Furries' audible joy in their music is one of its triumphant conundrums, given that the themes they so frequently address are ones usually tinged in melancholy. Phantom Power, Rhys comments, is both an album about loneliness and--especially--an album about conflict.
"I don't know how not to write about the things going on around me in the world," Rhys explains. "But I guess I write about them in a particular, personal way. Like 'Liberty Belle'--it's about a girl, but it's really pretty much about the Bush administration.
"Belle has these very noble ideals," he elaborates, "that result in complete and total devastation. Because she's forgotten the mistakes of the past, and so she's making them again. But, then, in a bigger way," he continues, "I guess it's also a song about the simple idea that people should respect each other as individuals, but humans everywhere are fucking that up right now. And the result is war; the result is poverty."
And yet there is--as there always is in the Furries' music--a kind of transcendental impulse in "Liberty Belle." Beauty rises from the ash of all the destruction visited on the world. In one verse, Rhys sings of birds flying out of the smoking wreckage of the World Trade Center towers, over the Jersey banks of the Hudson and out to the sea, and it's the most joyful, thoughtful elegy for the September 11 victims yet set to 2-inch tape. Never mind that it's only one element in a song obliquely chastising current American politics--or better yet, do as the Super Furry Animals do, and embrace the contradiction.