Leek jokes: just say no
Catatonia, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, 60ft Dolls: the new Welsh music scene is eclectic, has great songs and, well, the best names. Emma Forrest meets Super Furry Animals, kings of the techno / ambient nursery rhyme and scourge of English pop imperialism
Friday 06 December 1996
The Manics' pseudo-intellectual anthems and The Furries trippy Kinks techno / ambient nursery rhymes are curious bedfellows. Before The Manics get round to their "Design for Life", The Furries will sing "Fuzzy Birds", which is about a pet hamster called Stavros being used to harness electricity: "Hamster, spinning round in your wheel / I've got something to tell you, I can harness your feel".
The Manics and Super Furries are hailed as leaders of the new Welsh pop movement. If there is a genuine scene going, it is a dysfunctional one because, unlike "Madchester", all the bands sound completely different from one another. There's the breathy dream-pop of Catatonia, the freak- folk of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, the powerpop of 60ft Dolls, the Bon Jovi angst of The Manics.
"There's always been good music in Wales," says the singer, Gruff Rhys. "But before, the ones who made it did it by having no relevance to anything, like The Darling Buds. I don't feel anything in common with the other Welsh bands - we're all from different parts of the country, so it's quite funny to us. I suppose the one thing is we're all fighting against this romanticised, comedy view of Wales." Doesn't help that the band also includes the names Cian, Guto and Bunf (keyboards, bass and guitar, respectively).
Out of all of them, Super Furry Animals are the ones who sound different from song to song, which may explain why their Creation Records debut, Fuzzy Logic, has figured so highly in the end of year polls. "If You Don't Want Me to Destroy You" is a ballad of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" proportions, with quasi-Harrison lyrics to match ("I can sense your presence in the vicinity") whereas "God, Show Me Magic!" is a breakneck guitar- dance car crash (in a good way).
"Hometown Unicorn", which is about Frankie Fontaine, who claimed to have been kidnapped by aliens in 1979, sounds like a dream between the moment you wake up and the time you get out of bed. Fuzzy Logic is a truly innovative album. When everything else around just sounds like a good copy of something else, Super Furry Animals are a version of no one but themselves.
When I join them in Berlin, they are recovering from the effects of a night with The Manics on the Jaegermeister - a particularly potent German spirit. In this evil they are united, but that's about it. The stridently reactionary Manic Street Preachers are scathing about marijuana. Super Furry Animals practically have a copyright on it.
Their mascot is Howard Marks, once the most wanted dope smuggler in the world, now professional raconteur, a kind of stoned, Welsh Peter Ustinov. "We're introducing people to different kinds of heroes," explains Gruff, "who maybe don't live in that cliched leeks and rugby view of Wales." Marks is featured on the cover of their album and is the subject of track 10, "Hangin' With Howard Marks".
"It worries me," squints Gruff. "I realise now we could become friends with any of our heroes if we put them on the cover of our records." Gruff speaks painfully slowly, in a luxurious Burton burr. When he does get a sentence out it's usually something quite wonderful along the lines of "I know I'm of Iberian descent because my Nan measured my head with these giant forceps". It's a stoner thing. Even Oxford scholar Howard Marks speaks slowly.
"I first heard Super Furry Animals when I was in the penitentiary in America," says Marks. "Actually, I only heard about them then, but I said I heard them in my book because it was more romantic that way and they deserved a mention." Marks has re-mixed the new single "Man Don't Give a F***" because "before all my spoken-word shows, I always played it but I didn't like the slow bit at the start. I said it had to go and I ended up doing it myself." The single was banned for a long time because Donald Fagen refused to give clearance to a Steely Dan sample they appropriated. But having heard it he gave it the go-ahead.
On stage, Gruff looks like a very young and beautiful Ray Davies and the band play an inspiring set (as inspiring as a bunch of hungover Welshmen playing for stony-faced Germans can be). The sole track lacking in charm is the unrepresentative "Something 4 The Weekend", a rather vulgar stompalong that, surprise, surprise, was championed endlessly by Radio 1's Chris Evans. The best is "Gathering Moss" with it's gorgeous lyric "you and I, united by itemised bills". Of all the Welsh bands, Super Furry Animals have the greatest range. While Catatonia can sound a bit weedy, 60ft Dolls a bit boy-rock, and The Manics too stodgy and inelegant, Super Furries are truly liberated. There is something very feminine, God forbid, almost Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac about their sound, yet they are also influenced by techno. At every festival this summer, Super Furries were there, blasting out techno from an old tank they'd acquired.
"We're not releasing techno songs, like, it's just a different medium," agrees Gruff. "Songwriting is such a personal, intimate thing. Techno is more of a social thing."
"Phoenix was a joke," recalls Dafydd. "They had all these volume restrictions. And at V96, our tank was on the other side of a fence, so no one could get to it." The band now claim to have sold their techno tank to Don Henley, who apparently collects them.
Gruff s current fixation is the new Kula Shaker single. The b-side is called "The Leek" and features the bassist talking lengthily in a comedy Welsh accent. "It's not right. It's like, a black person can call themselves `nigger' but no one else should be allowed to. We can make fun of the leek, but they can't. I do find it really offensive."
At the same time, Super Furries have found themselves condemned by Welsh language purists at home for not singing just in Welsh. They reacted by recording a song called "(Nid) Hon Yw'r Gan Sy'n Mynd I Achub Yr Iaith", which translates as "This is a Song to Save the Welsh Language (Not)".
"Man Don't Give A F***", probably the best single they'll ever record, won't even get played on the radio because it says "fuck" 50 times - although it will chart due to their obsessive fan base. Super Furries are perverse and wilful scammers, but utterly charming and unpretentious with it. Ask them why they included Isaac Newton in their pantheon of album sleeve heroes and Gruff looks at you as if you shag sheep. "He invented gravity," he explains kindly, rolling his "r"s and his Rizla
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