Cian Ciarán looks back on Super Furry Animals’ commercial height.
For a band with such a rich and diverse a career as Super Furry Animals, selecting a career peak is a thankless task. But the consensus is that they were at the top of their game around the turn of the century, at least commercially.
During the nineties Super Furry Animals were defined by their uniqueness, with tank purchases and world record-beating recordings containing the most sung profanities but in the post-millennial era, on a new label (post-Creation Records) and a bigger budget, Rings Around The World (2001) and its successor Phantom Power (2003) were both critically acclaimed (as usual) and mainstream hit albums.
Continuing their ongoing reissue project, the latter album is the latest to receive the bells and whistles treatment. In an exclusive interview with Live4ever, multi-instrumentalist (calling him just a keyboardist is doing him a disservice) Cian Ciarán walks down memory lane as best he can.
“It’s flown by! I feel like an old man when I say, ‘Time’s relative and it gets faster when you get older’, but it has,” he told us.
“It’s like reliving the past. Since 2016, there’s been reissues pretty much every year or every other year. It’s like retracing your steps, which is fine and I’m not complaining, but it’s a weird thing that I don’t think people do, necessarily. Relive and discuss your past every year!”
While music fans are often archivists, for the artists themselves it can often be more difficult to trace their steps, as the Welshman explains:
“Bizarrely enough, I don’t recall much of anything, in context. These albums all melt into each other whereby I confuse sessions with other sessions. Someone asks me a question and I just started rabbiting on, then five minutes in you realise it’s another album!”
“Which shows to me that it’s a body of work all the time. They were released as albums and stand alone as a piece of work, but for me looking back – if I do look back – they’re all one family of songs, they just happened to be released as they were in the context they were. So, the details get hazy!”
Hmm. This might be tricky. But when prompted on certain details, the memories do return for the musician. For example, part of the mythology around the album surrounds an initial concept in it being a ten-song cycle in the D-A-D D-A-D guitar tuning, an idea mercifully abandoned. Although he can’t remember specifics, he isn’t surprised when the story is brought up:
“When we were recording, we’d have these giant blank posters,” he recalls. “Stuff would get written on the wall, like lyrics or ideas. There’s a song called Bass Dudes D-A-D D-A-D and I think Gruff and whoever always thought there was no rulebook when we went to the studio. We were always interested in doing different things as it enforces the songwriting and what you’re doing in the studio.”
Although many songs on Phantom Power were written on acoustic guitar, the album is riddled with electronic loops because of Ciarán buying a batch of records from someone in the same building, as he explains:
“Because the building had loads of workshops, one was occupied by an artist. When he was moving out, he knocked on my door and said, ‘Do you want to buy my record collection? 700 records for 10p each’. It was lively music, all this KBM and collections like Sounds Of The Sea, Volume 1-10. We dabbled with sounds but I sold them on when I was skint! I didn’t digitise them all, I should have. That’s a bit of a regret.”
One such piece of music became one of Super Furry Animals most iconic songs: Slow Life. Ciarán needs no prompting to recall the gestation of such an important track.
“I used to live in this flat and I borrowed an Atari computer. I realised you could write a whole song on a computer, which was like, ‘wow’. I did a demo – because I could – put it on cassette in something like 1998 and forgot about it. We tend to document everything in the band and that resurfaced for some reason. I don’t know why it resurfaced then and not sooner or later. I think Daf (Ieuan, drummer) got hold of the demo, started playing guitars and singing on it and it took on a life of its own.”
“It was great because it actually sounded like a song rather than a scribble. That happens a lot with the Furries, where someone would add to it. It was very rare that any one member would come up with a finished article or a clear vision of what the song would be. And when they did, it would seldom turn out to be that because once the other four got hold of it, happy mistakes would happen and it would go on a journey where you’d just go with it because it feels good. Sometimes we or the producer would rein it in but we’d go with the flow…I’ll be using the word organic soon!”
So successful was Phantom Power that it caught the eye of corporations who approached the band to use their work on adverts including, most infamously, Coca-Cola. Although it’s a glib story within their legend, Ciarán explains to Live4ever how the whole saga was, in fact, a disconcerting period for the group of friends.
“How could I forget? It was a strange one because as a band we’d have a blanket answer: No. We’d never use the music to endorse stuff. We were and are still fans of Bill Hicks, and the sketch where he says, ‘You’re off the artistic rollcall forever’…We were fans of his and like-minded, I like to think.”
“We didn’t feel the need to or wanted to. We rejected countless offers prior to Coca-Cola, but they came in and offered six figures. We just said, ‘nah’ and we thought that would be the end of it. But they kept coming back and doubled it and doubled it again. So that became not a nice situation to be in, to be honest. Testing your resolve. It makes you evaluate your relationships and your priorities, with different people at different stages in their lives. Not a nice thing to have to deal with money having been there.”
“If someone asked me now,” he continues, “it might be a different answer. But it was difficult because you read about how Coca-Cola would go into loads of villages in India, open a plant and use up the water then leave, not reinvesting. Or you’d read about union leaders in Colombia being shot because they didn’t agree with working conditions or whatever. All money is blood money. So, we had these conversations going on, so it’s not a fond memory which gets bandied about quite often.”
And the fact that what they’d offered initially was about a quarter of what they were prepared to offer. I dunno, there was no crystal ball at the time; we were happy and making music and comfortable. Not so many responsibilities. Certainly, for myself, I didn’t have a family at the time. Money wasn’t the motivation for us. But, like I said, I sold that guy’s record collection because I was skint! There’s been black holes that have had to be recouped, finances and deals that would have swallowed up most of it. They might have offered a million quid, but how much of that money would you see?
“But then, you could argue that if you’d recouped in 2003 then you’d have 20 years of royalties. It’s all hypotheticals. It just doesn’t bear thinking about it. We’re still friends and that’s important.”
Indeed, it is, and an increasing rarity for longstanding musical groups. While the reissue project is a chance for fans old and new to discover new sides to Super Furry Animals (through a wealth of bonus material), for the band themselves it’s a chance to get together.
“These reissues are great,” said Ciarán, “because we get a chance to talk rubbish amongst each other and we get to document what happened. We’re finding old master tapes, having to tape them and remaster. It’s a cliché, but it’s closer to how the band sounded in the studio.”
“Converters at the time were shit. They were getting better, but not as good as they are now. So, it’s nice to go back and capture the tape and the quality of that sound. We’re lucky we’re in a position to do that. It gets us talking.”
Fans shouldn’t get too excited that the ideas may lead anywhere else, however: “But in terms of new material or tours, that doesn’t come up in conversations at all.”
Sad news, but there is the next best thing, and coming very soon. Ciarán, Ieuan, guitarist Huw Bunford and bassist Guto Pryce are imminently releasing a new album (23rd September) under the name Das Koolies. The Welshman gives us the backstory for this new project:
“The Furries’ last gig was in 2016 and it was great, we had fun. When that finished it was like, ‘What shall we do now?’, as we still like making music and you get into the swing of things. After a few months, at the end of 2017, we went back to the studio and just started opening up old files, writing new files. Then after a year we realised we had loads of material. Rediscovering shelved ideas as well and being influenced by your younger self. Like a time-machine! So that grew into what we are trying to do now.”
“We got together in 2019 and then COVID struck. We were supposed to do the album then and it’s taken us until now to get back together, finish the album and release it. There’s a wealth of material; originally it was a triple album with three sides but we managed to get it down to a double album. It’s a lengthy listen!”
“But style-wise it’s like the start and end of a Super Furry Animals gig without all the ballads and acoustic guitars,” he continues. “Soul Life and The Man Don’t Give A Fuck all crossed over. Obviously, you’re going to have references to the Furries because there’s four fifths of the band making music.
“You’re gonna get comparisons but we like to think it’s a development and a little different. We did make a conscious decision for it to be groove-oriented rather than our ‘traditional’ sound. There’s no lengthy lyrics or lead singers, there’s no poetry. We’re looking at lyrics in an instrumental sense, like a mantra, quite repetitive.”
The album (DK.01) will be launched with 3 shows at Rough Trade East, Bristol and Nottingham, although Ciarán is loathe to look beyond that:
“I’ve got a few new tours. It’s not reinventing the wheel by any stretch but we don’t want to be going over old ground. We’re just trying to make electronic music almost like we used to do: straightforward, playing to a click then putting it out. That’s what we used to do. At the first Super Furry Animals gig in Bangor, around 1994 or whatever, was all electronic and midi. No instruments and no computers. So, it’s kind of back to our roots. There’s a lot of going down cul-de-sacs and brick walls so we’re trying to refine the process.”
“There’s three shows at Rough Trade stores then we’ll get a taste of those first to see what comes next.”