In the dozen or so years that Super Furry Animals have been rocking our world, it's been damn near impossible to nail down the Welsh band's signature style--but it sure is a blast to try.
Voracious music consumers since they were schoolboys, the Furries convincingly play punk-, art- and glam-rock, psychedelia, easy-listening pop, techno-rave jams, elegant R&B, music-hall drinking songs and Latin-flavored dance numbers--sometimes combining elements from various styles into one tune.
Through it all, the quintet has retained an ability to create preternaturally infectious songs in any style, emphasizing intricate melodies and magnetic hooks. Pick up any of the eight SFA studio albums, and you'll hear a cornucopia of popular music of the highest quality.
On their latest masterpiece, Hey Venus!, the band again demonstrates its broad range, from the psychedelic chamber pop of "Battersea Odyssey" to the vaguely country lope of the closing "Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon." Dense, romantic sock-hop rock à la Phil Spector ("Run-Away") gives way to a Burt Bacharach-style arrangement ("Show Your Hand") and Motown soul hooks ("The Gift That Keeps Giving").
If it is possible to identify a classic Furries sound from its early albums and singles, it would be one in which '70s glam melds with '80s New Wave. That infectious approach also is represented on the new album with "Neo Consumer" and "Baby Ate My Eightball."
Guitarist Huw "Bunf" Bunford--the group's oldest member, at 40--said the band's members always have had catholic tastes.
"We were listening to quite a lot of varied choices, with the five of us, when we made this one. We're probably quite eclectic, really, in our varied choices of music, but we were probably fed the same type of pop that our fans were. This is our pop album, really."
Bunford spoke on the phone from his London home a couple of weeks ago. During a conversation occasionally punctuated by the gurgles of his new baby son and the barking of the family dog, Bunford also found time to pack for a trans-Atlantic flight to the United States for the band's new American tour.
Super Furry Animals--including lead singer Gruff Rhys, bassist Guto Pryce, drummer Dafydd Ieuan and keyboards player Cian Ciaran--will play Tuesday, Feb. 5, at Club Congress. The buzz-generating Canadian electronic band Holy Fuck will open the show.
Addressing the new album, Bunford saved much praise for the contributions of Sean O'Hagan, the Brian Wilson-manqué pop genius behind the band High Llamas, who wrote the alluring string orchestral arrangements.
"For years and years, we've tried to find someone who was on the same wavelength as we are in terms of that. We kind of let him come up with a lot of ideas, but we obviously also sort of already had some stuff in our heads. Some of the other members would, like, hum a part to Sean just to give a guide to where they wanted the arrangement to go."
And O'Hagan took off from there, Bunford said.
"There are some amazing Motown strings, just to die for. And we did really go for the obvious Phil Spector thing. You could say it's pointless to try to re-create it directly, but we tried to give it a different twist. And from the start, Sean had many of the same ideas that we had."
Replicating the sound of those lush arrangements in a live context featuring just the five band members might seem a difficult challenge, but Bunford said Super Furry Animals is a band with a plan.
"It is possible now. I mean, we can bring an orchestra to Tucson without bringing an orchestra, you know? All the kinds of technology that are available--well, it is a double-edged sword really, isn't it? But with programming and samples and the like, it is possible to have the sounds of trumpets and strings."
Hey Venus! was released on CD on Jan. 22, but SFA fans have been able to buy the music since last August, when it was simultaneously released on LP and as a downloadable digital file.
Bunford was a bit cryptic in explaining the philosophy behind such marketing, except to say, "Well, we all love vinyl, and we figured people would be downloading it anyway, so we might as well make it available that way."
Super Furry Animals came together in the early 1990s in Cardiff, Wales, where the lads had migrated from more rural villages. Most of them had grown up under the influences of the great Bs: Beatles, Bowie, Bolan and Barrett.
All had played in other bands before, but in this new group, their initial goal was to create a fusion of punk and techno, Bunford said.
Soon, the band was at the forefront of a dynamic movement of fellow Welsh acts such as Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, 60ft Dolls and Catatonia, groups that most casual American rockers will have forgotten.
Not so with Super Furry Animals. Although their sound is an acquired taste, they have toured the United States many times and have gathered a strong cult following thanks to their 1996 debut, Fuzzy Logic, as well as albums such as Radiator, Guerilla and Rings Around the World. The latter featured cameo appearances by John Cale and Paul McCartney.
In 2000, SFA released the shimmering, lovely Mwng (roughly pronounced "mung") through their own indie label, Placid Casual Recordings. All the songs on it were written and sung in Welsh.
Mwng wasn't the first recording the band made in Welsh. Before making their debut album, Super Furry Animals released two EPs with songs exclusively in their native tongue.
The band turned to all-English releases to make their sound more accessible to a wider audience, Bunford said. But the Furries still perform tunes in Welsh at every concert.
"It's a very ancient, old language, which surprisingly still exists. We've all spoken it since we were young. Most of us didn't actually learn much English until we had gotten a bit older. Everybody was bilingual, though, by the time we were like 16."