“Speakers and microphones work on phantom power, there’s no batteries and they’re not connected to the mains, and yet they work. Similarly, as a band our make up is the same as anybody else and yet we write songs and play music to people, and we have no idea why. It’s a mysterious power source. I like the idea of it, a phantom power that nobody understands.
“’Phantom Power’ also sounds like a sinister power source that controls the world from beyond people’s comprehension. And a lot of the things that go on today seem completely illogical and I think we watch the world go by with disbelief.”
Gruff Rhys is talking about the sixth Super Furry Animals’ album – ‘Phantom Power’ (seven if you include 1998’s ‘Outspaced’ rarities compilation). Never badged as an ‘issue’ band, nevertheless SFA have discussed contemporary themes throughout their life-time: global warming on ‘Northern Lites’ and ‘Alternate Route To Vulcan St’, communication overload (‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’ and ‘Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home’) or the death of rural communities (‘Pan Ddaw’r Wawr’). And to a point ‘Phantom Power’ is no different: songs of war, loss of life and radiation feature. As Gruff says, “We seem to be living in such a heavy time. We’re just absorbing all the words thrown at us from the TV and regurgitating them back.
“I suppose its almost unavoidable that lyrics like that are coming out at this point when almost all our entertainment is based around war. Musically as a band we tend to regurgitate what we absorb from our record collections, and lyrically I suppose the same goes, the topics of conversations over the last couple of years have been based around violence more than usual. We’ve been put on high-paranoia alert by the media!”
And yet… ‘Phantom Power’ just might also be the Super Furries’ most personal album yet. “There are a lot of songs on this record about broken relationships and war, and I think they go hand in hand. But always with a positive outlook to the future.” Originally conceived as a ten-song song-cycle based around the tuning of D-A-D-D-A-D, some of the ‘Father Father’ songs (the album actually contains two lush interludes entitled ‘Father Father’) reflect the meditative side to the band. But there again… the first single ‘Golden Retriever’ is a DADDAD song that confronts the outdated lexicon of bluesmen language, and ‘Out Of Control’, another song in DADDAD might be the heaviest-metal-est SFA moment yet, as it ironically spews back TV-speak.
So forget duality. ‘Phantom Power’ is a mood-bigamist. Musically, this magnificent record is as schizophrenic as past SFA efforts. Recorded during the second half of 2002 with engineering help from long-time collaborator Gorwel Owen and Tony Dougan (“who’s worked with half of Glasgow”) a lot of the album was shaped “In our own studio late at night in an office block in Cardiff. We’d erect tents in the corridors at nights to record acoustic guitars and we’d have to take them all down in the morning before other people our neighbours came to work.
“There’s a dressmaker next door, an interior designers the other side, on the floor above is No.Brake, the people who do our website and have been producing the DVD, so we could work on the visuals and the sound simultaneously. Our percussionist Kris Jenkins has a studio downstairs and he was working on our remixes and the dressmaker was made some balloons for one of the films – I think the whole building was involved at some point.”
It’s disingenuous with SFA to use the band’s previous albums as pointers to the form of their current songs. If there is any link between 2000’s extravagant opus ‘Rings Around The World’ and ‘Phantom Power’ it might be in the overall tone of the record (although Gruff concedes “I think this one’s less satirical.”), but not the music. This warm, honest often acoustic-based album is a leap away from the techno excesses of ‘Rings Around The World’.
“We didn’t really feel any pressure to show off, we just wanted to impress ourselves. The last record was the first for our new label, and we wanted to make a completely over the top ambitious album because it might have been the only chance we’d get to make the sort of album where we could hire engineers and expensive studios for a crazy length of time. We took full advantage of it – that was our brief to ourselves. It was a similar approach to our first album where we were used to recording in Gorwel Owen’s house. We saw ‘Fuzzy Logic’ as an opportunity to spend six weeks in a residential studio with a Jacuzzi and three meals a day. I think we would have made a better sounding album back in our Gorwel Owen’s house. And we did with ‘Radiator’.
“Similarly with this album we didn’t feel any pressure to make a follow up to ‘Rings Around The World’ production-wise, we were able to follow our own noses and experiment with engineering it ourselves. I think it’s warmer; we wanted to make a more human record. The last one was made by scientists and a computer. To a certain extent there’s less to talk about and more to listen to on this album.”
Super Furry Animals were one of the first post-alternative bands, fusing together a number of disparate musical genres — including power pop, punk rock, techno, and progressive rock — creating a shimmering, melodic, irreverent, and willfully artsy rock & roll. As one of the leading bands of the mid-’90s Welsh movement, they were already tagged as outsiders by their tendency to sing entire songs in their native tongue, but their very approach was unique, full of both whimsy and left-wing political activism. What set them apart from their fellow Welsh bands were their infectious melodic sensibilities and their wildly irreverent attitude, which peers like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, 60 Foot Dolls, and Catatonia lacked. Super Furry Animals’ 1996 debut album, Fuzzy Logic, became a major English hit, charting in the Top 40 and placing in the Top Ten of many year-end critic’s polls.Formed in Cardiff, Wales, in 1993, Super Furry Animals was comprised of Gruff Rhys (lead vocals, guitar), Huw “Bunf” Bunford (guitar, vocals), Guto Pryce (bass), Cian Ciaran (keyboards, electronics), and Dafydd Ieuan (drums). All five members had played in bands throughout their teens prior to forming the group, most notably Rhys, who had previously played in a jangle pop band named Emily which was briefly signed to Creation, as well as a Welsh noise rock band called Ffa Coffi Pawb. Following the dissolution of Ffa Coffi Pawb, Rhys played in a trio with Pryce and Ieuan, which eventually evolved into Super Furry Animals. Initially, the group was a techno outfit, yet they quickly evolved into a neo-psychedelic and progressive pop outfit. After two years or writing and touring, the band signed with the Cardiff-based independent label Ankst and released their debut EP, Lianfairpwllgywgyllgoger Chwymdrobwlltysiliogoygoyocynygofod (In Space), which was sung entirely in Welsh. It was followed within a few months by another EP, Moog Droog, which was also sung in Welsh. Both EPs were produced by Gorwel Owen.By the end of 1995, Super Furry Animals had gained a strong, cross-generational fan base in Wales while gathering a strong cult following in Britain, which led to a six-album record contract with Creation Records. Prior to signing with Creation, the band had decided to sing the majority of their songs in English, in order to reach a wider audience. Super Furry Animals and Owen produced the group’s debut album, which was preceded by two singles in the spring of 1996 — “Hometown Unicorn” and “God! Show Me Magic” — which became moderate hits. Fuzzy Logic, the band’s debut album, was released in the U.K. in June of 1996 to uniformly excellent reviews. Within a few months, SFA had become one of the hippest bands in British independent music, with several of the group’s lyrical touchstones — most notably the notorious Welsh dope smuggler Howard Marks, who appeared on the cover of Fuzzy Logic — had become pop-culture refrences. Super Furry Animals also became infamous during the summer of 1996 for attending all of the pop music festivals in a gigantic tank. “Something 4 the Weekend” and “If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You” became hit singles in the summer and fall of 1996. The latter single was scheduled to have a B-side called “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck,” which was built on a sample of Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids,” but Donald Fagen refused to give the group permission to use the recording. By November, he relented and “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” was released as a limited-edition single in early December, and it reached number 22 on the U.K. charts. Super Furry Animals entered the studios in January of 1997 to record their second album, Radiator, which was released in August of 1997. Guerrilla followed two years later, and in mid-2000 the band resurfaced with MWNG.