This feature appeared in Amplifier Magazine, May 2003.
Frank Zappa famously opined that rock journalism was essentially "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk…for people who can’t read." Present company included! Singer-composer-guitarist-surrealistic poet, Super Furry Animals leader Gruff Rhys is speechless when queried about his band’s highly anticipated new release. "I haven't got a word for it! I'm completely stumped! I can't think of anything to say."
Whereas the operative for the Super Furry Animals previous album, Rings Around The World,was "extravagance," the upcoming album, Phantom Planet, consequently defies description from its most vocal principal.
Brimming with the more sophisticated elements of psychedelic rock, electric folk, and Brit pop, Phantom Planet aurally (and aesthetically) transports the Welch quintet (comprised of Rhys, guitarist Huw Bunford, drummer Dafydd Leuan, keyboardist Cian Ciaran, and bassist Guto Pryce) somewhere towards the latter half of the 1960s; a decade which serves as their spiritual touchstone for the lads. Rendering six albums in eight years, and touring in support of each release, SFA are following in the prolific road-warrior footsteps of their ancestors from a bygone era before MTV, corporate sponsorship, and ad agencies transformed art-rock into product – and vise versa. Phantom Planet will be available as a CD and DVD with 5.1 surround sound and further embellished with Pete Fowler's mind-blowing artwork which is most evocative of Peter Max.
Rhys professes that Phantom Planet is a game changer for SFA. "This record was a bit more home-grown. We had our own set up and we engineered everything ourselves." Working sans outside supervision in the studio and perpetually given to experimentation has its drawbacks too. Rhys readily confesses "sometimes it makes the record a little incoherent, it's inevitable..."
However SFA never expected to be in this position in the first place when they debuted with Fuzzy Logic in 1996. Rhys recalls "we tried to use as many strings and brass sections as possible in case we never got to make another album." The singer beams as he talks about SFA’s good fortune: "this lifetime in music is truly amazing. All of us feel very privileged to get the opportunity to do what we do and put out so many records. It's a luxury we'll never waste. This band can never outlive our recording fantasies. I know many people in our hometown of Cardiff who could fill our shoes. We can only take every opportunity we get and make every record as if it's our last album and final statement."
Given the strong sales of every SFA release to date, Rhys’ statement is yet another humble gesture. As excess rules in the studio, SFA on stage are no less treacherous. During the wild and crazy Rings tour of 2001-2002, the band was dwarfed by a video backdrop that evoked comparison to the legendary Joshua Light Show circa the Monterey Pop Festival. Digital technology affords SFA an uncanny ability to re-create their swirling orchestral arrangements and odd sonic sound effects at will. "We felt on the last one that the films were taking away from the music," notes Rhys. "There was too much emphasis on the images. We like to do the songs justice to a certain extent on stage - Cian is very much a perfectionist. He's always trying to get everything just right. We do our best to keep up with him. Fortunately there's enough imperfection in the band to keep it interesting."
The band has discovered a happy medium to satisfy concert goers who wish to go along for the SFA’s visual magic carpet ride in addition to the music. "We'll have animations between the songs, and during the songs we’ll project wallpaper, which is a nice visual because our show is in quadraphonic.
The multi-media atmosphere of the band's last American tour was nearly upstaged by fanatical cyber-savvy followers. "Ah, the power of the internet" exclaims Rhys. On an early tour stop in New York City - just days after the domestic release of Rings - the band couldn't help but notice that fans were already intimate with the new repertoire, which found its way onto home computers and MP3 players.
"It's all glorious. It's changing everything. We don't know where it's going to lead, but I think it's very exciting." For an album-oriented ensemble, the next wave of downloading could render the long-player obsolete. "Albums are getting longer and longer as people's attention span grows shorter and shorter," Rhys emphasizes. "Listening to an album start to finish? We wouldn't want it any other way. But because of the way things are headed, we try to be consistent and make shorter albums. Between the five of us, we can never decide what to leave off. It's a bit tricky. Maybe in the future we'll just need the instant excitement of a hit song. Apparently this album is already on the web. And even though we have yet to perform the new material, I'll be curious to see how many people know the lyrics before the record hits the stores."
The Super Furry Animals look forward to yet another extended journey across the States to spread the sounds of Phantom Planet along with their greatest hits. "We love to tour and perform. The secret of keeping a band together is to not let our personalities get in the way of creativity. Everyone does a great job of keeping their egos in check. We're all very head-strong and have a wide variety of opinions. Perhaps the reason we don't clash is because we're so very different from each other."
In smaller markets the SFA is a welcome surprise to the uninitiated, many of whom show up out of sheer curiosity. "We can be less nervous in places like Indianapolis or Cincinnati. It's a chance to step out of our boundaries, be a bit freer. It's best when people don't know a thing about us." Of America in general, the thrill of it all continues. "I never know what to expect when we come here. It's still fresh and exciting for us. There's so much energy and more diversity than in any other part of the world. America is absolutely mind-boggling. It's really several countries in one."