Super Furry Animals – Feature

When Super Furry Animals appeared on the British music scene in the mid-1990s, they were surrounded by foppish, guitar pop bands – bands like Radiohead, Oasis and Blur. While it took those bands years to turn to experimentation – to get “weird” — SFA had been weird from the get-go. The Welsh band’s 1996 release, Fuzzy Logic, was an oddball in a year of Wonderwalls and Country Houses. Their debut record whirred, blipped and squawked but unlike other artsy rock, it actually rocked. Like a masculine Ziggy Stardust, SFA charted a course through edgy guitars, bizarre lyrics (dreams about hamsters generating electricity?), and oddly catchy choruses.

Each subsequent release has proven that their fertile imagination knows no bounds. Radiator was somehow weirder yet even more catchy. Songs like “Chupacabras” turned their sci-fi lyrics (in this case about vampire bats) into fist-pumping rock anthems. Even if you couldn’t understand the choruses you could chant along.

Once they’d perfected their own brand of space rock on their third record Guerilla, they released the mostly down-to-earth, though sung entirely in Welsh, Mwng. Their last two records, Rings Around the World and last year’s Phantom Power, have explored a more expansive, lush sound. Strings accented the analog synths, sequencers and rock instruments. The results have been something like a space-age Pet Sounds. The band also released these last albums in quadrophonic (surround) sound on DVD.

SFA’s keyboardist, Cian Ciaran, told The Rage that the road to DVD albums began as an experiment in sound that blossomed into a full-blown media show. “We did quadrophonic sound in our live shows about two years before, like the end of ‘98. Then DVDs started becoming more accessible over here. Primarily we wanted to have surround sound. It was a sonic thing not a visual thing.” But the versatility of the DVD medium pushed the band to develop a visual element that eventually made its way to their live show. “The sound came live and then on DVD. And then the visuals came on DVD and then to the live show.”

It was the logical step for a band who’s always been fascinated by technology. Samplers, sequencers, techno beats, and synth sounds have always been a part of the band’s music. Ciaran attributes the electronic influence to the dance music that the band has listened to since the late 1980s. When questioned about technology’s influence, he says, “It’s more a question of embracing what’s available. If people shied away from technology we’d still be playing acoustic guitars around the campfire. Technology is something you can’t be blinkered to. You should embrace it and push it and if it helps your music, then use it and abuse it. We’re not purists in that sense … or in any sense.”

SFA’s voracious appetite for new sounds and ideas begs the question: How do they keep challenging themselves? “It’s not something we think about,” Cian answers. “I suppose you think more about when’s it gonna stop rather than where the next thing’s coming from.” It’s a problem most bands would love to have. “There’s so many ideas. They start backing up and you can’t get them out of the way quick enough or fast enough.”

Despite their citations of dance music influences and their liberal use of any and all electronics, there has never been any doubt that SFA is a rock band. From the wiry, distorted guitar riffs of “Frisbee” off their debut to the steady fuzz of “Venus & Serena” from their most recent record, SFA have never abandoned rock music. They may take rock music on some interesting detours, but their experiments only strengthen their musical voice. At once international and provincial, rural and cosmopolitan, lo-fi and high-tech, Super Furry Animals personify a 21st century rock band. Their appearance at the Exit/In is a rare treat to see this fascinating Welsh group.

[This piece originally appeared in All The Rage.]