An Armored Tank and a Drug Smuggler: Super Furry Animals Revisit Making Their Debut 'Fuzzy Logic'
These Welsh wonders bought a tank, installed it with a sound system, and drove it round the UK blasting their LP. And that's just for a starters.
Rumour has it that prior to 1995, Creation Records boss Alan McGee declared he would never sign a Welsh band to his label. The reasons were unknown as to why, but he quickly went back on his word (that is if he actually said it) later that year after seeing a band from Cardiff called Super Furry Animals perform at London's Camden Monarch. McGee was known as an impulsive type—just two years prior he signed Oasis after seeing them perform once—but also arguably the most influential record exec in the UK. He was responsible for breaking Primal Scream, the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, the House of Love, and of course, Oasis, and now he wanted to do the same for five shaggy Welsh dudes whose first EP was named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofod (In Space), in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the longest EP title.
"[Signing to Creation] was extremely important to us," admits frontman Gruff Rhys. "I think we were offered different deals from bigger labels but for us that Creation was interested was mind-blowing. I was a huge fan of the Jesus & Mary Chain as a teenager, and Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, I'd seen those bands live countless times. And then there was Teenage Fanclub and The Boo Radleys, bands whose records I knew really well. So for me it was like a dream. And it was a great environment too."
After witnessing the band live, McGee had one suggestion in mind: The songs would sound better if they were sung in English, as opposed to Welsh. The band's response? "They were in English."
"[McGee] booked some studio time for us to make some demos because he couldn't fully understand what he was listening to," Rhys says. "My accent would have been stronger back then. I was 25 and singing in English for the first time, so it took me a while to settle on my singing accents because I was kind of winging it. So on Fuzzy Logic I am trying on a few different accents. I think I'm trying on a Birmingham accent on 'Something 4 The Weekend' because I was listening to a lot of ELO and the Move, so it's pretty weird."
But "weird" is a pretty apropos word to describe Super Furry Animals in general. Over the last 20 years, Rhys, Guto Pryce, Huw Bunford, and brothers Dafydd Ieuan and Cian Ciaran have crafted their own special blend of sci-fi-pop music that is unique, unpredictable, and uncanny. Their collective curiosity is their strong suit, whether it is trying to see how many times they can squeeze "fuck" into a song, getting Paul McCartney to record himself chewing celery and carrots, and then overshadowing McCartney's veggie chewing with a death metal crescendo mid-track, or simply rapping about chickens and dinosaurs, the Super Furries have never drawn any boundaries with their music. And their debut album, Fuzzy Logic, was the jumping off point.
"Sonically we were more interested in electronic records and raw rock 'n' roll records," explains Rhys. "When we started recording at our producer Gorwel Owen's studio, it was a more immediate process but we wanted to try out what a big studio would be like."
Up until that point, the band had always recorded in local, affordable studios. But for their debut album, they requested to work at the big time Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire. "It was in Wales, and it's a studio where Black Sabbath, Queen, and The Teardrop Explodes, Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Boo Radleys, and Iggy Pop all recorded," Rhys says. "Some crazy massive records were made there, and we didn't feel it was ever accessible for us as a local band. So it was partly some kind of forbidden kingdom, y'know? So we were really intrigued to go have a look and live the dream. And it was fun, it was amazing. But when we got there it was so complicated to use because it was a first-time experience for us."
Aside from the bewilderment of using all the fancy equipment, the band discovered that living the high life tended to interfere with their motivation to actually make a record—specifically the hot tubs and never-ending supply of grub.
"It was a very exciting prospect for us, like winning some kind of lottery," Rhys says with a laugh. "We were really demanding when we got signed. We were like, 'OK, if we sign we want to go to a gigantic, 48-track studio and have jacuzzis.' And the meals were crazy. We were getting three-course meals and we just wanted to sleep all the time. So it was kind of crazy. We'd always made records on empty stomachs before. Maybe we'd make quick pot noodles and maybe be hung over as well, so we had a sort of hyper energy based on low nutrition and excitement. So we ended up learning to dial back on the food for Fuzzy Logic."
One intrinsic component to the Super Furries staying grounded and hungry in the studio was producer Gorwel Owen. A long-time friend, supporter and collaborator of Rhys', Owen had become a bit of a local guru, having recorded albums for a number of Welsh bands, including national heroes, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.
"By the time we began making Fuzzy Logic I'd been working with Gorwel for about nine years," Rhys says. "He was an inspiration. His background was in making pretty groundbreaking electronic and industrial music, in very experimental but also musical ways. He was always a musician, and he has a degree in both music and physics, as well as a Masters in post-Cage composition. So he was from that background rather than a run of the mill engineering background. There was no small talk, and it was more about just getting things done. Anytime I've recorded with Gorwel I've ended up making a more interesting record because of him. That goes musically and lyrically."
Fuzzy Logic's lyrics became a major point of discussion for the Super Furries. Although Alan McGee couldn't really decipher the difference, the band's Welsh fans held a torch for their predilection for writing songs in their native language of Welsh. However, the band knew that signing to Creation gave them the opportunity to reach a much wider audience with their music than ever before. And so they decided to go with an all-English collection of songs, partly to see if they could fulfill their commercial potential—but also to defy expectations and mess with those who believed they should remain a purely Welsh band.
"The decision came to just to make a coherent album," says Rhys. "It was mostly down to the material we had. It was a merit-based thing for the most part. It would have been a shame to not have these songs in the world. I'd only released Welsh-language music before then, and I had quite a batch of English songs I'd never been able to record or release. So it seemed like the right time to release them. But I think we were comparatively young and we enjoyed winding people up. Making an English-language album was like some kind of rebellion."
Timing also had something to do with the album being Anglicised. Adds Rhys: "By the time we made the B-sides we had some new Welsh songs that were probably better than what was on the album itself. Stuff like 'Dim Bendith,' which would've been on the album had it been written."
Rhys claims that upon its release, Fuzzy Logic was met with a lot of criticism from some of their early supporters who felt it was an act of betrayal. "We created quite a media stink when we came out with Fuzzy Logic because in a way we were turning to another language in not a particularly subtle way. It was really overnight," he says.
Of course, Super Furry Animals weren't the only Welsh band singing English lyrics. Peers like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, Stereophonics, not to mention legends like Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, and Scritti Politti, were all guilty of it. "A few other bands were doing it as well," Rhys explains. "We certainly thought we could bring Welsh language to an international audience by co-opting the English language. Plus we had a genuine love of Anglo-American pop culture, so I was enjoying working in the English language. So it was a decision that seemed to make sense as a bilingual band, where at least two-fifths of the band spoke English to one parent, and Welsh to the other parent. It seemed like a logical decision on something we needed to do."
But Super Furry Animals paid respect to their Welsh roots in other ways. Firstly, there was the song "Hangin' With Howard Marks," a tribute Rhys wrote to famed drug smuggler and national hero, the recently departed Howard Marks. Nicknamed "Mr. Nice," Marks was a bit of a playboy, who made millions of dollars over his life smuggling drugs internationally. According to Marks, his biggest cargo was 30 tons of cannabis, estimated between £60 to £70 million in value, which he took from Thailand to Canada.
"He was a kind of folk hero, a dissident and a fugitive," Rhys says. "People knew that he spoke Welsh, which he used to dodge all of these different government agencies internationally. The song we wrote was about imaginable scenarios in general, like a dream sequence. But by the time we had recorded the song Howard was out of jail, and someone got in touch with him and he came to see one of our shows. He'd written his autobiography and it was being released the same week as our album.
The band's fascination with Wales' greatest criminal went one step further: onto the album's cover. Before they established a long and healthy relationship with artist Pete Fowler, the band hired Brian Cannon at Microdot to design a montage of Marks' various passport photos for Fuzzy Logic's cover shot. The band felt it was a bad-ass move.
"He was a bit of an anti-hero and an outlaw, so putting him on the cover was an outlaw move and made us feel like an outlaw band," Rhys says, laughing. "When we met him, he was extremely charismatic, full of advice and very charming and helpful. So it was a real experience to actually hang out with him. It was a pretty amazing experience! In his autobiography he claims to have heard our song while he was in jail but it's historically impossible. His line was, 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.'"
Another way in which Super Furry Animals wore their Welsh roots on their sleeves was rather quite literal. For the album's four singles, the band included quirky phrases alongside the credits on the sleeves. For example, on the sleeve for Something 4 The Weekend," they included one that read "Bydded Ara deg mae dal iâr." Translated into English it means "Slowly is the way to catch a chicken."
"There are loads of great Welsh language idioms," says Rhys. "I think we wanted to share our culture. It's a minority culture even within Wales, so absurdly through the English language we wanted to share them. We wanted to build a culture around the band and give the records some meaning in a way that people could engage with the records in meaningful ways. It was about creating an environment in which to listen to the music."
Released on May 20, 1996, Fuzzy Logic reached a respectable number 23 on the UK album charts. Although their songs were about alien abductions, befriending a notorious drug trafficker, and the hazards of drug abuse featuring George Foreman quotes, Super Furry Animals somehow found themselves smack dab in the thriving Britpop movement. Even though the association proved to be beneficial—a tour with heavyweights of the scene, Blur, would come the next year—the band tried to distance themselves from Britpop's insular nationalism. All they really had in common with the bands involved was compelling pop songs, UK passports, and a label that led the charge.
"On one hand it's absolutely relatable," Rhys says of the Britpop connection. "If you listen to Fuzzy Logic it's an album of melodic pop played by a bunch of people playing guitars, but politically we could never fly a Union Jack. That is a politically offensive flag for us. It doesn't even contain any references to Wales. So in that sense it's a colonial flag and Britpop was a regressive movement. In no way did we want to be aligned with it politically. But culturally we grew up with a lot of the same reference points of melodic guitar music. So that was undeniable. We also had very different reference points like experimental Welsh language and electronic music. But with Fuzzy Logic you can see why we were lumped in. Our strenuous reaction to it was something that set it apart though."
One way in which Super Furry Animals stood alone was in how they promoted their music. When it came time to promote the album's fourth single, "If You Don't Want Me To Destroy You," the band opted out of paying big bucks to advertise in the music papers and magazines. Instead, drummer Daf Ieuan suggested something a little out of the ordinary. "It was definitely different times," says Rhys. "We were a band on a happening independent label that could afford to buy big adverts in magazines. At some point I think we heard that a full-page ad in the NME cost £25,000, and that kind of money seemed crazy to us. The record label was extremely accessible and nurturing, and they were people we hung out with and drank with. They used to buy us cool records and helped educate us, so we felt comfortable in asking them casually, 'How about we don't take out one of these adverts? How about instead we buy an armed vehicle and put a sound system in it?'"
A week after they proposed the idea, Creation purchased a tank in Nottingham for approximately £10,000. McGee loved the idea of something so preposterous. And so once they had the tank and painted it with the name of both the band and song title, they started taking it to festivals. "At the time the government had banned repetitive beats on a loud sound system. So anyone caught playing repetitive beats in public could have their sound system confiscated," Rhys explains. "We wanted to DJ at music festivals, so we thought if we converted a tank and put some decks inside and speakers on top, nobody could mess with us or shut us down. Creation didn't flinch. They thought it was a fantastic, logical idea. So we were just in this incredible situation where we could mess around and try things out. So we took it to some festivals, and we didn't have noise restrictions on ourselves. I remember going to the Reading Festival and our sound system was louder than the second stage. We were drowning out all of these other bands. So people would dance on and around the tank while we pumped out German techno and 12-inches by artists like Hardfloor."
As fun as it was to own, they only held on to the tank throughout the 1996 festival. Their one last hurrah was using a photo of it to adorn the sleeve to "If You Don't Want Me To Destroy You." Then it was time to say goodbye. "The tank kind of ran its course," says Rhys. "It was so successful in creating publicity. Our record plugger found a by-law where you could drive armed vehicles around London between four and six in the morning. So he drove the tank to Radio 1 and parked it outside and plugged the record. It got A-listed. So after a summer of taking it around to festivals we felt we needed to move on. I mean it was difficult to store. We stored it at a guy from the record company's brother's field. It was a bit of a pain, so we put it up for sale."
Selling the tank proved to be easier than anyone expected. In fact, they were already familiar with the buyer. "Don Henley collects armed vehicles, and this was one that he didn't have," says Rhys. "He got it shipped over to his ranch in Texas. But he had no interest in the band and I think he got it painted back to its original colours. It was just a weird kind of epilogue."
Twenty years after its release, Super Furry Animals have reissued Fuzzy Logic as a remastered, remixed and re-edited deluxe edition that includes the B-sides that accompanied the album's singles. Along with the reissue, the band are touring the album, playing it in its entirety along with their sophomore album, Radiator. Looking back on their debut album, Rhys says it captures a young band at one of the most exciting times in their career. "Fuzzy Logic was very exciting for us to make. It had life-changing consequences for us, so I'm very fond of it," he says. "The record came out sounding quite soft and it wasn't as accessible as we thought it could be. We were listening to a lot of contemporary electronic music and hip-hop, and we envisioned using more samplers. To us it was a weird sounding record. We found the earlier, rawer records to be more listenable. But I don't think it matters really because it's got a good energy and vitality from our youth and enthusiasm. It was definitely a sound we didn't plan for, which is equally exciting. Obviously it's good to make something unique without trying."
Super Furry Animals UK Tour Dates
Tue 6 Dec - Bristol O2 Academy
Wed 7 Dec - Bournemouth O2 Academy
Thu 8 Dec/Fri 9 Dec - London Roundhouse
Sat 10 Dec - Birmingham O2 Institute
Mon 12 Dec - Edinburgh Usher Hall
Tue 13 Dec - Brighton Dome
Thu 15 Dec - Leeds O2 Academy
Fri 16 Dec - Nottingham Rock City
Sat 17 Dec - Cardiff Motorpoint Arena
Cam Lindsay is an Anglophile living in Canada. Follow him on Twitter.