Super Furry Animals
Light Years Ahead
by Kevin J. Elliott

Just when it seems as if the Super Furry Animals have done all there is to be done in their 14-year span, perhaps now even running on technicolored fumes and recycling bits and pieces from their glory days, they enter the fold again with an album in Dark Days/Light Years as ambitious and imaginative as any in their catalog. The irony being that, through a conversation with head-Furry Gruff Rhys, it was learned that the album is the loosest and most spontaneous they’ve created in nearly a decade, with band members constructing songs from celebratory jams sessions and democratic submissions, in an effort to stray away from the arduous production threshold that may have in fact stunted the band’s creativity.

Looking back over their body of work, it becomes easier to swallow that notion, as records like 2001’s Rings Around the World and the follow-up Phantom Power were massive psychedelic pop adventures, complete with quadraphonic soundscapes, rich orchestral threads running throughout, and subversive sonics rife with electronic beats, mashed genres and a future-forward perspective. Further proof that they were thinking outside the sphere is found in the visual accompaniments matched with each of those albums. Around and in between, the Super Furry Animals had a brief dalliance with Brit-pop success, recorded their most moving piece of music, MWNG, completely in their native Welsh, and toured the world several times over. But all of that seems more or less lost on American audiences, whose appreciation for their contribution to pop music has never been as enthusiastic as that in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, despite a lack of universal love for the band, they continue on, each member always involved in some radically inventive solo project, and when the mood strikes, reconvening to map out yet another kaleidoscopic jaunt through the annals of pop music, always adding their twisted, irreverent and inherently fun vision to the results.

To me, being a long time fan of the band, and not to diminish the work on Hey Venus and Love Kraft, but it sounds like there’s a bit of playfulness and experimentation on Dark Days/Light Years that’s been missing for a little while. What do you think inspired you to get a little wilder on this album?

Gruff Rhys: It was definitely a lot more fun to make this one. I think the previous two were quite drawn out in terms of mixing. We took a long time and remixed a lot of stuff and lost some of the initial spontaneity that the songs had. We were thinking about it too much.

If you had to place a theme or a feeling on this new album, could you think of something that underlines the whole thing?

GR: We recorded it quickly. As Super Furry Animals, we’ve gotten heavily into production techniques, so it’s gotten difficult to back down once you’ve got 10 layers of Hammond in the mix. So we maintained that, but the songs themselves were written in a quite spontaneous way, with jams and the whole band involved. We kept all the fun bits, without redoing most of it.

You’ve done so much with genre and orchestration and electronics that it seems like it might be hard to top yourselves in terms of making ambitious albums. Do you ever find that a problem when you get together to make an album?

GR: Yes, especially with albums like Rings Around the World and Phantom Power, where we mixed everything in surround sound and made films for each song. We were making visual albums. It’s nice to just get the songs out instead of worrying about the DVDs that will accompany them, and it’s nice to not spend six months on an album. But the results were good, and I can see how that’s considered ambitious.

Is there an even more ambitious album then in your head? Would you like to get back to that, or continue with the way you made Dark Days?

GR: We’ve talked a lot about doing an instrumental record and add it to a film, but we’ve saddled that and I’ve taken parts already and added lyrics to it. So that might take another 10 years to finish.

It also seems, more than usual, the democracy in the songwriting is more pronounced. Is that something important to the band? Do you contribute that to the band continually being fresh and cooperative?

GR: Over the years, I think everyone has just gotten more confident in their places and in their own skills. I think on this record it sounds coherent. We choose songs on a whole that everyone had an involvement in, whereas previous albums were more song-based and completely independent of each other on the whole.

You’ve been doing a lot of things on your own in the past few years, with a solo album and you’re work with Neon Neon. What then distinguishes the work you’ll use for Super Furry Animals and something you’ll use somewhere else?

GR: I suppose I just write songs and then decide what those songs become. I think collectively we create, for lack of a better word, music made by a macho drinking club—or at least a slightly macho sort of band. So a song like “Candy Lion,” from my solo record—I knew that it wouldn’t sit well with the band. Or a 15-minute track like “Skylon!” might cause some debate with the band since it isn’t concise. It was better not to even bring it to the table.

I know that your Welsh culture and language is very important to the band. Have you ever thought of another album entirely in Welsh, like MWNG?

GR: I definitely see us doing more of the Welsh folk stuff. Welsh is our first language and it’s what we speak in the band. You know, it’s the language I speak everyday with my family, so I have no idea why we haven’t written more. I did do a Welsh language solo album, but then again that was four years ago. For some reason I’ve been churning out English language songs. I don’t really know why, but I definitely like the feel of MWNG. It is the most spontaneous record we made. It took two weeks start to finish, and it really captured the band live. We enjoy completely over the top pop music, but this was lively and spontaneous.

I know you toured in the Welsh regions of Patagonia, was that because you have family there or just because it was a Welsh-speaking population? How did that turn out?

GR: I have some family there, and I think they are sixth generation now. There was this guy that lived in the Andes who essentially had no contact between the family in Argentina and the family in Wales. Then, in 1972, this guitarist came from Patagonia to Wales and it turned out that he was my distant uncle. He was playing Welsh language songs with an Argentine guitar backing. So in finding out more about this guy, Rene Griffiths, I decided to do a tour there. I’ve almost finished a film about my search for Rene Griffiths. We’re going to show the film for the first time in November and hopefully someone will help me put out a DVD for release sometime next year. The film’s going to be called “Seperado.” I also did a soundtrack for it, so that will be my next solo album by default.