Craig Austin speaks to the members of the Welsh band Super Furry Animals about their work and unique musical style and presentation.
At a point in time when this government has seen fit to grind salt and vinegar crisps into the gaping wound marked ‘Brexit’, there’s nothing I take greater comfort in than sitting down and having a good old chinwag about the co-operative power of internationalism. It may not be the most traditional means of promoting Super Furry Animals’ current tour of the UK and Ireland, but as I speak with bassist and songwriter Guto Pryce it strikes me that SFA has never been a band to play the traditional industry reindeer games so seemingly beloved of their more malleable peers.
Unapologetically Welsh in spirit and purpose, yet one whose speaker cabinets remain a refreshingly dragon-free zone, Pryce reflects upon the way in which this most otherly of bands has always sought to engage with the wider world: ’We’ve always had an internationalist outlook. We come from Wales, and we’re very proud of that. We care about our culture, but we’ve always been very outward looking. Even when we first started to get some recognition in the 90s we didn’t identify with that whole Britpop thing at all. We found it insular and backwards- looking. We didn’t necessarily feel British and we certainly didn’t look back to that supposed golden age of London. It certainly wasn’t representative of the UK as a whole. We were listening to music from Bristol at the time, drum and bass, the kind of music that was pushing boundaries. We were far more interested in that, and the attitude that came with it. With hindsight, it was a horribly decadent and naïve period. So many of those bands staggering round with bottles of champagne and banging on about how supposedly great Britain was. But it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now’
It’s the much-loved and seemingly timeless albums of that period – Fuzzy Logic and Radiator – however, that SFA is about to revisit on a nationwide tour. A wondrous festive gift to the fans, but perhaps not entirely in keeping with the futurist spirit of a band that has always sought to challenge itself creatively and artistically. ‘We do try to do that’, Pryce considers ‘but I think we’ve possibly mellowed over time and accepted our back catalogue after a good number of years in which we just wanted to move forward and create new music. We’re chilling a bit now though and looking back to that earlier period. We’ll celebrate these records but we’re aware of that heritage thing up to a point where we can play our songs, but we don’t want to see our audience grow old with us. We like to see kids coming along to watch us as well. There’s no fun in seeing an audience covered in cobwebs’
Having recently released a stand-alone single that was ostensibly pitched as a ‘football song’ – the ‘communal disco anthem’ Bing Bong – albeit, one that sounds bugger all like a football song, SFA were also keen to join their brothers and sisters in making the journey from Wales to France for this Summer’s utterly unexpected display of national achievement and collective pride, one that allowed them to play a show to the emergent Toulouse diaspora. ‘That first game in Bordeaux was just magical, Pryce recalls. ‘I was bumping into people I went to school with, people I’ve known all my life, and then all of a sudden we’re drinking beer together in the sunshine, in Europe. In Wales, we’ve always been used to watching these things on TV and just not feeling part of it, so it was just great to have this amazing experience of togetherness in another country. It was a bizarre couple of weeks because we had that whole Brexit thing going on at the same time. That in itself made me feel really depressed, but for a couple of weeks it was great to feel like a strong small nation in Europe. That’s what Wales should be, and it felt good. It felt very dreamlike, and as we all know you always wake up from dreams’
The reality of Brexit is clearly something that has hit Pryce and his band-mates hard, a skewer to the heart of their internationalist ethos, and I ask him to what degree he was surprised by the appetite for it within large pockets of his homeland: ‘With hindsight I’m not surprised. I knew something was up when I saw one of the Port Talbot steelworkers blaming Europe for their problems and I just thought “Wow”. My personal opinion is that people have been totally hoodwinked and that there’s possibly some genius evil plan behind the whole thing. I can’t understand how all these years of austerity have come to absolutely nothing and that things are just going to get worse. Turning people against each other is a nasty, nasty way to live and I feel that the press were particularly bad throughout it all. I’m absolutely disgusted with politicians. The Labour Party disappointed a hell of a lot of people, by just not standing up for anything. Wales has such a strong socialist history and has almost always sought to do the right thing in often difficult circumstances. People now just feel beaten to a pulp though and they can’t stand it anymore. And that’s just really sad. I honestly don’t know where the ray of sunshine is going to come from. It’s time for the good politicians to stand up now, and more often than not they tend to be the female ones’
On a more positive note, the laudatory press reappraisal of the 2015 reissue of the band’s marvellous Welsh language album Mwng – a project derided by some as commercial suicide upon its 2000 release – perhaps gives some indication that the perception of the Welsh language within the hoary vernacular of rockunroll is no longer the supposed idiosyncrasy that it once was. ‘I think so’ Pryce agrees. ‘It’s perhaps evidence of the normalisation of the language to the point that it’s no longer seen as a weird or novelty thing, that it’s now something to be treasured’. True to form, SFA purposefully chose not to tour the album within Wales: ‘We didn’t want it to be perceived as some kind of nationalist event. Instead we toured it in America and in Japan where they just took it for granted. Rock’n’roll is an international language anyway and in somewhere like Japan it makes no difference to much of the audience whether you’re singing in English or in Welsh. When we were thinking about it we always talked about Cobain. You couldn’t always tell what he was singing about, you could just tell that he was really pissed off, and that’s all you needed to know. We always hope that the melody wins through in the end. We listen to a lot of Brazilian music but none of us speaks a word of Portuguese. Ultimately, the album got accepted for what it was. Another album’
I’m intrigued to discover whether these latest SFA shows will lead to a mere creative hiatus for the band or whether they might potentially precede a more definitive full stop. On this, Pryce is refreshingly philosophical: ‘I think we’ve done this current thing as far as it will go, without turning into a heritage act. We’ll see what happens, but as for recording an album, it’s such a huge investment in time I’m just not sure. We’re under no pressure to do anything and I do hope it will happen somehow’. ‘But if it does’ he adds, ‘it’ll almost certainly happen accidentally’
In the true spirit of Super Furry Animals, and like all the best things.
Super Furry Animals play Llandudno, Venue Cymru Arena tonight (3rd December). The tour continues to Cardiff Motorpoint Arena on 17th December.