Gruff has experienced a fair degree of difficulty with the hotel's pretension of putting a spoon in his portion of nuts. He looks up bewhildered at me. “Erm… so what do you do with this then? Eat them like soup?
Incendiary chat to Gruff Rhys and Guto Pryce from Super Furry Animals
Typical, an afternoon off work and I'm treated to an overcast day in the middle of what had to be the best spell of weather Holland had enjoyed all summer. In some ways it is appropriate that I'm off to meet Guto & Gruff from SFA, as it's weather that could best be described as South Walian; lurking, lowering cloud banks letting go the odd spit or so of rain. Ho hum... Still I am soon sitting comfortably in a hotel garden, watching the gangling Gruff Rhys show off his considerable kindness and beautiful manners as he laboriously drags a large sunshade – replete with a concrete base - over to a table where he and another journalist are sat (just in case there's any more rain). As for me I'm yapping to SFA bassist Guto about airports and the Dutch concept of space... Guto sits back contentedly, skins up and lets me get on with my history lesson.
IN: Schiphol is designed as a concept of total movement in that it is a building that is designed never to create bottlenecks. And that's the same concept as Louis van Gaal's 1990s Ajax team; pre-ordained thinking, pre-planning, action...
G: Very sensible the Dutch. Compare Schiphol to Heathrow, where you are going from one building to the other... that's more a set of warrens. I mean, look at grass, you can buy the strongest grass over here, but no-one smokes it all day, do they? Whereas we would... We are...
IN: Tolerance certainly breeds it's own self control. Plus I think the Dutch see our excess in coffee shops as being in very bad taste.. Have you ever seen the drugs bin at Schiphol by the way?
G: (now laughing) No! I didn't.
IN: Erm. I'd better ask you about the new album, Love Kraft. It's so different in scale of concept to the other earlier releases... Your earlier albums were full of songs concieved as small, personal vignettes, sharp little tales; stuff like Mario Man. Now it is huge themes, sprawling orchestration, epic tales of love and loss in the abstract... I take it this is deliberate?
G: Yeah, oh definitely. Normally we decide what sort of album we want to make by sitting down and picking certain tracks. This time we chose songs that worked together, so we could create a sound that was as cohesive as possible. There was also a policy that there were going to be different singers on certain tracks, something we'd never really done before. So it was even more impotant to get it more cohesive. And then we had the title, which we had knocking about since the last album. This was a theme which, albeit loose, was pretty constant throughout the album, that of love. Whether it be personal love, love of life, even hatred of flying, which is a kind of a love...
A lot of our albums have been quite mad in that they have jumped around from place to place in terms of style, but definitely not this one.
IN: What I always liked about SFA is that you never set yourselves up in opposition to anything, you were always very inclusive, sonically... very much like Funkadelic. You have retained that but this album has a cohesiveness that is like a film score. Is that what you wanted?
G: No not necessarily though we listen to John Barry and Morricone a lot. A lot of arrangements are very filmic, Sean O'Hagan, when he comes in and does the strings, his background is film; he always brings something unexpected and something that is a pleasant surprise.
IN: I thought the art work was very much like a film poster this time too
G: Yeah, a spaghetti western!
IN: So Love Kraft is a completely different set up all round. With that in mind, was the greatest hits record last November a drawing a line under a lot of your musical past?
G: No, that's something that the record company wanted to do, and we were fine with that, but we were in the middle of making this album, so Love Kraft was where our heads were at. Suddenly we had to start thinking retro. It was easy to decide what was on the album... We did two gigs as a promotion, we didn't do a greatest hits tour. It wasn't really us. I mean it's probably very frustrating to some people that on each tour we like playing the new stuff so much. But we try to make every tour different. We wouldn't have lasted this long either if we'd have done that. We'd have gone stale very quickly.
IN: Its funny how as a band you have ridden a lot of trends. Tens years on and you still run parallel to virtually every hype or scene.
G: People tried, but it was never anything to do with us. NME tried to put us down as part of a Welsh scene, and failed, then there was New Psychedelia, where we had an album out and Mercury Rev had an album out the same month and everyone tried to create a scene. We reserve the right to make any kind of music. But I think the pigeon holing is their way of dealing with us...
IN: You are much more like a Krautrock band, say Amon Duul 2 who just keep knocking albums out one after the other.
G: We've never stopped, because we've never had a massive album and then had to constantly tour it for two years, so we make an album, tour it, and then go and make another album. We've never had time to really think about any of our work in that kind of way. We work much more in a stream of consciousness way, we just let the ideas come rolling out.
IN: What are you trying to codify in your music? What is the essence of your music? Other bands would get worried if the core essence of their band was constantly being noticed. Do you not worry about that?
G: The songs are written the same way. If its Gruff, it'll mostly be on acoustic guitar, or on a whistle. So the song comes from the basic melody. From there on, we allow it to go in a myriad of different directions,we could synthesize it through a computer, or we could play it live. We take every song separately.
We allow the music to dictate itself; if one instrument sounds right we allow that instrument to "choose" an accompanying instrument... On Northern Lights we liked the steel drums idea, it wasn't something we'd thought about before. Cian can't play steel drums in any case... When you see stuff lying around studios you just use it anyway.
IN: This codification idea came to me whilst listening to that Phantom Phoarce album you put out, I like the idea of a band trying to "play drums like celery" which is mentioned by the narrator on there... Not something that is really allowed in these angular times.
G: That running commentary is tongue in cheek, it's our road manager pretending to be a producer, and he ends up sounding like a.... twat! But there is an element of truth in it as well, we do like to try to make drums sound like they never have before.
IN: Ever thought of building your own studio, like Can's Inner Space? You obviously like studios.
G: Yeah we do, and that would be nice, we've got a basement furbished out, but no-where where we can play unfortunately. You know, records are there for ever, and live performance is a very transient thing. You can never capture the live performance fully, you come close if its amazingly well recorded. Albums are there. We are music fans first and foremost and when we get into a band, the first thing we do is get all the albums. We really want people to get that buzz off us. I think that is what we mostly want to do is create this document of work that people can listen to.
IN: In some ways a gig is an easy pre-ordained sequence of events, easy for the band in that its mapped out to a fair extent, easy for audience and journalists because you know there will be highs and lows..
G: And you can't comment on what the band looks like (laughs). But live is important to us, we like to do things to the best of our abilities, there is the visual aspect with us, and the sound quirks, we're not a band to turn up with three light bulbs and charge three grand...
IN: Hence the Yeti costumes.
G: Yes... And that reminds me; you have to destroy things as well, like with the Yetis, it was almost coming to the point where you could have the worst gig in the world, yet if you got into the Yeti suits everything was alright, and it was good, but you can't keep doing it. Now we use light suits, our latest "gimmick"...
There are some things that are difficult, ike we try not to finish with Man Don't Give A Fuck, but it's difficult not to...
IN: It is an artistic instinct to destroy things.
G: And that's when it gets exciting using a blank canvas to create things, using all these streams of consciousness ideas that come out. We never tried to re-make an old album. As well as that we learnt that nothing is ever perfect. You can't learn everything there is to learn in music.
IN: Otherwise why bother doing it?
G: Ha, exactly. Some records are like wallpaper, churned out in this formula, its so perfect, why do it?
IN: How long will you carry on?
G: We keep going. That'll be strange, stopping. And if we stop we will stop. We might slow things down, not tour so much.
IN: You are very much a band aren't you?
G: Yeah, and its always for the common goal. There is a SFA ego rather than any individual egos. We are very confident in what we do, we are usually happy with the records. I suppose if you've got to tell people you are the best band in the world, you are probably not. One peson's best band is another's piece of shit. But we do admire the Manchester bands who do a lot of that. It was great to see that confidence turn into filling stadiums, but we've never been that kind of "in yer face" confident.
At this point drinks were set on the table and Gruff (fresh from his last interview) came to join us. Gruff had to play a few songs for some TV appearance or other, so we loped off to collect his stuff (for those who remember the Paradiso gig this year it's that unwieldy non-descript hold all that seemingly has everything he owns in it, including those strange musical instruments). Gruff tells me about the SFA's last appearance on on Top Of The Pops.
GR: It was crazy, we nearly had a fight with Girls Aloud, because they had outfits and we had our glow in the dark space suits. But we made it up... They were all quite taken with Bunf later on.
IN: The album is very inclusive, not angular at all Gruff.
(Gruff beams from ear to ear)
GR: No, that's right! We didn't want angular, so we took all the angles out, to make it circular. We wanted something like Funkadelic; Dafyd's really into them. We wanted something that was totally insular in a way, something that was totally ourselves, not interested in any scene. And we're really happy, it worked.
At this point, Gruff and Guto are whisked away by new press demands, but not before Gruff has experienced a fair degree of difficulty with the hotel's pretension of putting a spoon in his portion of nuts. He looks up bewhildered at me. "Erm... so what do you do with this then? Eat them like soup?" In the end he settles for the plain old fashioned hand scoop.
Not men who show time for these stupid fads, Super Furries..
Words: Richard Foster.