Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals): Interview
“The artist can be entirely undiplomatic. I think that’s the power of art.”
Gruff Rhys sings about chickens, unicorns, and Bill Clinton. He and his band once dressed as Yetis and had Paul McCartney as a guest spot to crunch celery on a track. His band, Super Furry Animals, may very well be the most famous indie group to hail from Wales.
Rhys and the rest of the Animals are on tour to promote their newest release, Hey Venus! (TMT Review). We spoke in his dressing room during a sound check at the 9:30 Club, a few hours before he was to perform. To make the interview more lifelike, blast some Daft Punk in your living room at maximum volume.
Welcome to DC!
Thank you very much.
Have you been here before?
Actually, we've played at this club three or four times. We've played the Black Cat a few times and I was here last September. I did a solo show at the Rock and Roll Hotel.
Do you get the time to look around when you're here?
We've been able to look around a little bit. We've been down to the monuments a few times. Last time, we went to see the Lincoln Memorial. The statue had the largest boots I've ever seen. I didn't know there was going to be so much detail.
You guys have a new album, Hey Venus! I am wondering what the origin of the album is. Where did the ideas come from for this one?
I suppose the background of why we made the record is we got signed by Rough Trade. They asked us to make a pop record for them. They asked us ‘Can't you make one of those pop records like you used to make.' So we looked at the songs we had, because we're always writing. We kind of chose songs that we could play as a band that would be quite simple to record that we thought was some kind of pop music.
There are a lot of mythological creatures that show up in your songs. Venus, the phoenix, and whatnot. Has that always been a trend with your albums or is that something you have been thinking about more recently?
I suppose we've been flirting with mythology since we've started. It was a reaction against all the punk rockers we used to hang out with. A lot of our friends, who were like three or four years older than us, came totally from punk rock and we used to tour a lot with those bands. We almost started writing songs about things like unicorns almost to wind them up. I think it was a generational thing. We were just messing around. It's more disturbing that we're still including mythology in our songs 12 years on.
Yeah, you've been around for 12 years. How is the songwriting process compared to what it used to be?
I am a very prolific songwriter. I write songs all of the time and I don't know why. I don't know if it's necessarily a good thing. I don't know if the songs are necessarily any good, but I write all of them. It seems to come to me naturally and I don't try and question that too much. So when we started out, I just had shitloads of songs and recorded them. As we've been touring for 13 years now, everyone else in the band has rather developed as songwriters and become more confident as well. Bunf (guitarist Huw Bunford) and Cian (Ciárán- keyboards) have started to write and sing their own songs in the band. Dafydd (Ieuan- drums) has always written songs since he was a kid, as well. He's not prolific, but when he writes something, it's usually great.
It seems Love Kraft was a more democratic album. More songs by more people in the band. On the new one, you seem to be upfront again.
I just had loads of songs. We also write songs together. We'd recorded some songs from Cian and Bunf as well, but we decided to keep this album short. We don't worry too much about quotas. We split all the royalties anyway. Obviously there are a lot more Cian and Bunf songs to come. Also, we've got more and more songs, so we put out solo records. Like Dafydd is putting one out this year. He's got a band called The Peth. They are like an outlaw rock ‘n' roll band with huge, anthemic songs.
You should have them open for you.
They might blow up actually. We might have to spot them. The songs are so vast, they are kind of stadium rock songs. Cian is working on his second album under the name Acid Casuals. They had an album out about a year ago.
On your new album, the song that is getting the most attention is called “Run-Away.” People are comparing it to Phil Spector-type production. Was that your intention?
Yeah, it's a pretty much genetic kind of a Spector sound. The drumbeat is definitely a nod to that. We started collecting a lot of old 7-inch singles recently. Cian got heavy into doo-wop music and I was getting into late ‘60s girl groups. “Run-Away” came out of listening to “Be My Baby” too many times. I had a French version of “Be My Baby.” We bring “Record X” with us everywhere we go. We put it on every night. You feel it out along the line. The stuff we're playing on this tour will probably affect our next record.
Do you have any particular favorite tracks off the new album?
When we started making the record, I initially wanted to make a really noisy record. A lot of the noisier stuff got left off in the end. But “Into the Night” was kind of where my head was at, which is quite a ridiculous place to be. So I like that one. I think Cian's “Carbon Dating” is probably the most beautiful song on the record. They are kind of my two favorites at the moment.
You mentioned that each record is where your head is at and said in another interview that this album was a reaction to the hazy, slower songs from Love Kraft and that you wanted to do something completely different.
We started dropping a lot of those songs off the set and playing noisier shows that were more energetic. So when we went to record Hey Venus!, we were already in that kind of mindset. But when you listen to the record, it doesn't seem that much of a radical reaction. When we were recording it, the record could have gone a few ways, and at one point we thought we were making a noise record. But it didn't happen.
You have a new producer [David Newfield] and new label for this album. What was the decision behind going there?
Just to make a different kind of record. We put a lot of records out and we don't want to make the same record for perpetuity. They are going to sound pretty similar anyway, because it's the same singers and same musicians. The difficulty with the previous three albums [Rings Around the World, Phantom Power, Love Kraft] is we were completely left alone to make anything we liked. With this record, even though Rough Trade is a smaller label, they were very much hands-on. It was very interesting. They almost commissioned this type of record, which was really great.
Do you listen to your old records?
Anyone that is still close to your heart after all these years?
At the moment Radiator, Guerilla, and Mwng -- and maybe Phantom Power. I like all of them on certain levels. Often we have to leave records when we feel we've pushed it as far as we could. We're quite self-critical, and sometimes we leave the studio in tears. We thought our first record [Fuzzy Logic] was terrible at the time because it wasn't what we were trying to sound like. But we only had six weeks studio time and that's what we made in that kind of alien surroundings. We had never been in a big studio, and we wanted it to sound like the stuff we were cutting at home. We couldn't get that sound with proper microphones. So that was upsetting. But I still enjoy listening to it because it encapsulates that time.
On your new tour, you're letting fans vote for songs on your website?
Yeah, we're having problems with that. In the band, we all have different thresholds towards improvisation in front of a live audience. I have to be pretty relaxed about getting people to vote for the whole set. But we're all different people. It's pretty scary playing for people, and some of the band would rather play the same set every night. Some backers have been looking after this machine for us. Everyday they text us the winning song. We thought they were going to send at least 10, the top 10 voted. We're going to try to get them to send us more songs.
The song I wanted wasn't even on the list.
Ah, shit. We rehearsed three hours of songs. The set is about an hour and half long. Which song was it?
“Presidential Suite.” I was actually going to ask you about that song anyway. It makes a pretty bold statement about United States politics during the time of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I know you are very interested in politics. What do you think about what's going on over here?
“Presidential Suite” was an observation that we were being fed this Washington soap opera by the media even in Europe. It was big news. I thought it was extremely trivial. Obviously, it was not trivial to his close family and whatever, but I personally don't think it was interesting to anyone outside his immediate family. That was more about the media than a criticism. It's very interesting what's going here with the election. I follow it on a sporting level. The statistics and whatnot. What's so frustrating about U.K. politics as well is the limitations of a two-party state. It's exciting that it seems possible that there may be a radically different government here next year. It is so difficult to be radically different in this type of political setup.
So what is the artist's place in all of this?
The artist's place is to observe from a distance that is outside of diplomacy. The artist can be entirely undiplomatic. I think that's the power of art.
Thanks so much for the interview. Can we expect any Yeti costumes tonight?
No, we cut those up.
[Photo: David Harris]