SUPER FURRY ANIMALS

 

In June, 2000 Elfyn Llwyd, the Member of Parliament for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, submitted Early Day Motion number 800 for the Parliamentary year 1999-200. The Motion stated:     


‘That this House congratulates Super Furry Animals on their chart topping new album, Mwng; notes that Mwng is the best selling Welsh language album of all time; and notes that the Welsh language is re-establishing itself as a central part of popular youth culture and that this album is a celebration of Welsh culture embracing the new wave of confidence in the Welsh nation.’


As is often the case, the MP used Parliamentary privilege to exaggerate a statistic. ‘Mwng’, released the month before the Early Day Motion, did not ‘top the charts’ but nevertheless reached Number 11 in the Top Forty. Its success celebrated a moment of self-possession in the newly devolved Wales, as a generation of bands with major label recording contracts drew on this national confidence to establish wide-ranging careers.


‘Mwng’ was originally scheduled for release on Creation to whom Super Furry Animals had signed in 1995. According to Gruff Rhys, the label was excited by the prospect of working on a record sung entirely in Cymraeg. ‘They were going to market it as if it was a specialist jazz album. So they were totally into it - but had no commercial expectation.’ As plans for ‘Mwng’ were finalized the record company ceased trading and the band decided to release the album on their own Placid Casual label. ‘We were weary of handing it to another major label as we didn't want it be marketed as some kind of novelty Welsh record with a dragon sticker on the front or something’ says Rhys ‘We loved the record and didn't want it hyped out of proportion to the music itself.’


The five members of Super Furry Animals, who all speak Cymraeg as their first language, grew up hearing the personal-political music of Meic Stephens, Heather Jones and Huw Jones, whose songs drew on national experience while retaining a sense of musical intimacy. ‘Dwr’ a song written by Huw Jones concerning the flooding of Welsh communities during the 1970s for the construction of dams - dams that supplied water to English cities - is typical of the sensibility this generation of songwriters shared. To those who had come of age during its febrile momentum, the DIY Cymraeg punk movement of the 1980s also provided an influence and intellectual framework for Welsh identity.


‘As musicians first we were reluctant to become political figureheads’ says Rhys ‘we had been politically informed when we were growing up with the Anarchist teachings of the Anhrefn label - who were fans of Crass (they got them to play in Llanerfyl) and Anhrefn rejected all flags and national anthems as an archaic and irrelevant sentiment. We were part of a generation of young musicians who bullishly saw Wales as a culturally and politically independent entity, but wanted it to be free of xenophobia and have the upmost respect for all other cultures.’


In recording an album in Cymraeg, Super Furry Animals were furthering a lineage that began with the songs of Meic Stephens and his contemporaries and consolidated by the spleen of Welsh language punk.


‘The songs on ‘Mwng’ are influenced not only by Anglo-American songwriting but also by other Welsh language records’ says Rhys ‘we covered ‘Y Teimlad’ as a nod to David R Edwards and Datblygu. David R Edwards and Meic Stephens have remained outside of the Establishment in a way. They were artists on labels that were created during confrontational political ages and both deeply personal song-writers/singers, but they aren't defined as artists by their political identity. In that sense whilst we can in no way compare our work to that of these geniuses - we didn't feel burdened by politics. Previous to SFA we were all in a series of bands who exclusively sung in Welsh. It's the language we communicate with each other in - so in that sense it was just inevitable that we would always record Welsh tracks. I'd never sung a word in English till I was 25. (I was 28 recording Mwng)’.


The largely subdued atmosphere and haunting melodies of ‘Mwng’ ensure any non-Welsh speaking listener is able to share in its richness. By singing in their first language Super Furry Animals created a record that is probably the most affecting in their catalogue. The album’s arrangements feature trumpet, harmonies and key changes that evoke a familiar but unnamed feeling buried deep in the Welsh subconscious, a sensation that is amplified by the record’s use of echo and reverb. As a result of singing in his native tongue Rhys’ vocals have an audibly emotional charge


‘Maybe I'm slightly more fluent and economical in Welsh, the songs themselves are for the most part deeply personal’ he says ‘but listening back I'm sounding like I was in a bit of a dark place. The vocals of ‘Gwreiddiau Dwfn’ sound a bit hysterical - like I'm crying or something. Maybe I just wrote it in the wrong register for my voice. Finishing and mixing the record was hard as I was in a time of mourning. But musically the sad tone was purely coincidental as those emotionally heavier tracks were recorded previously.’


Two of the album’s songs: ‘Nythod Cacwn’ and ‘Drygioni’, were initially demo recordings that were then refined for release. ‘Y Teimlad’ was recorded at Real World, in Wiltshire and the basic tracks for ‘Y Gwyneb Iau’, ‘Ysbeidiau Heulog’ and ‘Gwreiddiau Dwfn’ were recorded in Cardiff on the Easter weekend of 1999. The tapes were then taken for overdubs to Anglesey, to the studio of the band’s long-term collaborator Gorwel Owen.


‘Gorwel is an amazing producer’ Rhys says ‘His name translates as 'Horizon'. I gave him some demos when I was 16 in (my first band) Ffa Coffi Pawb - he really liked them - and we used to record all our records above the Post Office that his parents ran in Rhosneigr, Anglesey. It's right on the Irish Sea.’


‘Mwng’ was completed on a small budget in Owen’s bungalow on Anglesey. Prior to its recording Super Furry Animals had released three top forty albums in English. The ease the band felt in creating a record together in Cymraeg in these familiar surroundings, along with the island’s eerie but comforting bleakness, was surely a contributing factor to the warmth of the album.  


‘We finished the record on the day of the Solar eclipse 1999’ says Rhys ‘Gorwel took a photo of his dog with the Solar shadow behind him as a visual memento of the end of mixing. There was always inevitably cosmic serendipity when we recorded with Gorwel - on our previous visit - a three month stay to record Radiator in 97 - the Hale bop comet hovered above the studio for the entire period.’


The album concludes with the eight minute-long ‘Gwreiddiau Dwfn / Mawrth Oer Ar Y Balned Neifion’. The song’s first section is one of the band’s most expressive performances; translated into English its title is ‘Deep Roots’.


‘The ‘Mwng’ record was very personal to me’ says Rhys ‘I didn't drive at the time so sometimes we had some time to kill before someone would give me a lift back to Bethesda. I was waiting for my two nephews to come and pick me up one time. We started messing about with the end of ‘Gwreiddiau Dwfn’ - Gorwel sampled the guitar and speeded it up so that it sounded like a harp - we couldn't help but construct a quasi - Germanic coda for it. We sampled up the trumpets and played them off a keyboard. When my nephews arrived we got them to clap out some rhythms. It was really spontaneous and fun. We called it ‘Mawrth Oer ar y Blaned Neifion’ - A Cold Mars on Venus - I think those Mars Bar choc-ice bars were a recent innovation.’


As ‘Mawrth Oer a y Blanned Neifion’ drifts into a cloud of languid Cymreag-ik rhythms and wash of trumpet, the listener is left with the experience of having visited a strange, ominous, warm place. Although the lasting impression the record leaves is perhaps more powerful, that anywhere people meet in Wales: a miner’s institute, a village hall, a Megalithic circle or Anglesey Post Office, is ultimately a communal, psychedelic space, one that is open to everyone.