For a little band from Cardiff, Wales, Super Furry Animals sure have big ideas. On their latest record, Rings Around the World, the band wanted to record in surround sound, shoot a video for every song and work with music legends John Cale and Paul McCartney.
They got all their wishes.
Each accomplishment was more incredible and unusual than the next, yielding a lush, orchestrated album of psychedelic pop vistas, prog-rock netherworlds, quirky singer/songwriter passages and galactic electronica. The band recorded most of Rings Around the World at Monnow Valley Studios in Monmouth, Wales, and finished up at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. Unlike their last disc, Mwng, recorded in just two weeks in 1999, Super Furry Animals invested more than 14 months in the new record, which hit Europe last July but was only just released in America.
"We were striving for excess," singer/guitarist Gruff Rhys said. "We wanted to make a completely excessive, overproduced record that was absurdly ambitious. We wanted to use all studio trickery possible and use techniques we've never tried before. It was interesting to make, but it probably wasn't as fun as doing a garage rock record, where you can just party. We were working on this album on computers the whole time, and you have to stay fairly straight to operate them or you spill things on them and destroy your record."
While Super Furry Animals were working on the album, Velvet Underground member Cale was in Cardiff for a few weeks working on the film "The Beautiful Mistake." When he entered a studio to record some music, he asked Super Furry Animals to back him on a track and returned the favor by playing piano on the Rings track "Presidential Suite."
"It was interesting to see what kind of character he is," Rhys said. "He's still wearing leather trousers, but we weren't allowed to smoke in the same room as him. He's very firm when he has an idea, and there was very little interpretation anyone else can do on [his music]. His records really made sense after working with him."
A far stranger relationship developed between the Furrys and the former Beatle. The two forces first intersected in 2000 at an NME Awards ceremony in London when Furry keyboardist Cian Ciaran got drunk and found himself in the men's room next to the music legend. Their bathroom conversation continued into the ceremony room, and by the end of the night Ciaran had convinced McCartney to let the Welsh band remix some previously unreleased Beatles music.
"One minute Cian is dragging Paul McCartney to a table, and within two weeks four boxes of original Beatles master tapes arrived in our office in Cardiff," marveled Rhys. "We sampled chunks of John [Lennon] and Paul chatting, and we made loops of George's guitar and Ringo [Starr]'s drums. That was extremely surreal."
The music came out last year on a record called The Liverpool Sound Collage and was used as background music for an installation by British pop artist Peter Blake at the Tate Gallery in London. Pleased by the collaboration, McCartney agreed to guest on Rings Around the World. The only problem was scheduling the time.
"He was always going to fashion shows in Paris and was always canceling on us," grumbled Rhys. "Also, there was a lot of security involved. It was like trying to make a record with the pope."
In typically perverse fashion, Super Furry Animals didn't want McCartney to sing on their record. Instead, they asked him to chew carrots and celery into the mic on "Receptacle for the Respectable," as he allegedly did for Brian Wilson on the track "Vegetables" from the unreleased 1967 album Smile.
"He claims that was his favorite moment of last year chewing the celery and carrots to the beat," Rhys said. "We just didn't want him to strain his voice, and we didn't want him to play bass because he's done that so many times in his life. He's probably sick of singing cameo roles."
Super Furry Animals will begin an 18-date North American tour on April 18 in Minneapolis. Dates run through May 11 in Vancouver. After the tour, the band will return to Cardiff to start working on its next album, which Rhys hopes will be less involved than Rings Around the World.
"Because the last record took so long, this time we want to make a quite simple record," he said. "We've already got 44 new songs that are all demoed, and they're all pretty diverse. So we'll start the album once we decide what kind of record we want to make."