They may be marking 20 years as a band and showing no signs of making a new album after their last one in 2009, but if any musicians could be said to have captured the moment this summer, it’s Gruff Rhys and his group Super Furry Animals.
In April, Rhys released a solo single, I Love EU, a heartfelt ballad containing wry lines such as: “You liberated me from pie and mash/You cultured me with sophistication and panache.” He put it out there to encourage his fans to vote remain in the referendum. Then in May came Bing Bong, the first Super Furry Animals single in seven years and intended to be an unofficial anthem for the Welsh football team (Manic Street Preachers wrote the official one).
Things came to a head in June, when, having painted his face red and green and watched Wales finish top of their Euro 2016 group, he returned from France to cast his vote and stay up to watch the result. “It was a very volatile time,” he tells me. Overall, 52.5 per cent of Wales voted to leave the EU. “There had just been elections in Wales, and the two biggest parties were at loggerheads trying to form a government so weren’t in a position to campaign together. There was a big vacuum which Cameron was warned about and ignored. I do think people were misinformed with emotive issues like the NHS. It was an enormous tactical error from Cameron. I feel angry that it was an issue in the first place.”
Despite Super Furry Animals’ reputation as wacky pranksters, buying their own tank to take to music festivals and calling their debut single Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space), they are a political band. Keyboard player Cian Ciaran has participated in anti-nuclear power protests and performed on top of a wind turbine. Rhys’s father, Ioan Bowen Rees, was an essayist, poet and politician who had campaigned for Welsh independence before his death in 1999. Asked if he thinks his pro-EU song had any effect, the singer replies: “I shouldn’t think so,” but he wanted to do something.
“The biggest influence I could hope to have was to remind anyone who’s into my music to vote. I think on a different day it could have been worth it. Generally artists are in a good place to be independent observers. Politics is ultimately about compromise, whereas art is the opposite. The most powerful music is usually uncompromising.”
His quotes are transcribed here for ease of reading, with “um”s and some of the longest pauses I’ve ever endured removed. Welsh is the 46-year-old’s first language, so he may speak slowly as he’s constantly translating in his head. He may also be jetlagged, having just returned from a US tour when we meet near his Cardiff home, or shy, or simply dilligent about being recorded saying exactly what he means. He’s not unfriendly, but as he sits side-on, eyes scrunched, in protracted silence, I often can’t tell whether he’s still thinking or waiting for me to say something. At one point he searches for a word for so long that I consider calling the coastguard.
He’s all smiles when talking about Wales’s unprecedented run in the European football, however. In their first ever Euros they ended up being knocked out by Portugal in the semi-final. Rhys attended every match except the second round game against Northern Ireland, but “There was Super Furry representation at every game,” he says.
It turns out that the band’s surreal football song was actually written for the 2004 Euros, when Wales narrowly missed out on qualifying in a play-off against Russia. They re-recorded it this year, their first time in the studio together since 2009. They had played a one-off gig together in 2012 and have been touring again since last summer, playing their old favourites and focusing on songs from their Welsh language album from 2000, Mwng. This summer they’re doing a handful of festivals including topping the bill at a new London one, Caught by the River Thames, at Fulham Palace this weekend. However, the mood is still one of warm nostalgia and Rhys doesn’t indicate that there will be any more music any time soon. An announcement coming next week, which I’m forbidden from revealing, will still be looking back at their career rather than forwards into the future.
“We’ve got a whole Milky Way of solo projects now,” Rhys says. He has released two albums with US hip hop producer Boom Bip as the electronic duo Neon Neon, and four solo albums. The latest of those, 2014’s American Interior, was an incredibly ambitious project that told the story of his distant ancestor, explorer John Evans, with an album, a tour, a film, a book and an app. “It was the most extreme thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I couldn’t do a project like that every few years. It completely took over my life. I was half-living in the 18th Century for three years.”
So it’s almost a relaxing mini-break to retreat into the embrace of his long-term bandmates, all of whom still live within a mile of one another in Cardiff, and play hits of yore including Something 4 the Weekend and Northern Lites. As if to prove that the band are still popular, in the café where we’re talking, in between songs by Bloc Party, Wilco and The 1975, Super Furry Animals’ joyous 2001 single Juxtapozed With U comes on the stereo. Rhys doesn’t look surprised.
“We’ve never split up but we have completely different lives now. In the first few years of the band we had no kids – our whole lives were completely devoted to the band,” he tells me. He had his third child last year. “There’s a certain rigour to music that’s made under those conditions that’s difficult to approximate now without putting everything into it. I’m sure we’ll do more new things but all in good time and not if we can’t do it full on, you know? It’ll be at a completely different pace. The first 15 years of the band were at a thousand miles an hour.”
That’s not to say that they won’t be giving everything to their latest live shows. Anyone who caught them last summer will know that they don’t stint on the lasers. “The philosophy in general is: ‘More is more’. We’re a maximalist band,” he says.
He sounds happy to be focusing on the period when SFA were at their peak, a simpler, referendum-free time when Wales were less good at football but you could get in the top 20 with a song about a golden retriever. “The past couple of years have been incredibly positive for us. There’s so much to remember and a lot of it is so strange. It’s good to verify that it really happened, and it is amazing to be able to enjoy it.”