The summer before I started the sixth grade, my parents took my brother and me on a trip to Wales. We rented a tiny car and made gravestone rubbings at overgrown cemeteries where long-dead distant relatives were buried. I wanted to feel some ancestral pride, and though I found the pastoral landscape enchanting, seeing the Welsh language on road signs baffled me. Who could possibly wrap their mouths around all those consonants?
Nowadays, I mostly feel ancestral pride toward the musicians Wales has produced. There's Tom Jones, for one. (Take that, England. Wales does have sex appeal.) The Welsh also boast a more current export in the retro-inflected, alt-rock quintet Super Furry Animals, who formed in 1993 and released their eighth studio album last year.
The band's front man, Gruff (pronounced “Griff”) Rhys, chuckles at the confusion his native tongue has caused this countrywoman-in-spirit.
“Well, let's see—those consonants count as a single sound,” he explains, before quickly running down the language's different diagraphs. Dead silence on my end.
“Rather than make unique symbols, they just stuck some consonants together,” he continues. “Some council just sat down and made it all up.”
He's joking about that last part. The Celtic-family language has a long history, and though at one point it seemed English had taken over as the ruling language, Welsh has experienced a revival during the last 50 years. It's a point of national pride that the Super Furry Animals have recorded several songs in their homeland's language. In 2000, SFA even recorded an entire album in Welsh called Mwng (pronounced “Mane,” duh) that reached No. 11 on the U.K. charts.
It takes some cajones to sing songs with titles that bear no trace of linguistic familiarity to the rest of the world, but Super Furry Animals have always been known for their out-there-ness. They play bouncy, melodic rock spiked with kaleidoscopic psychedelia. They have performed dressed as spacemen and yetis. They've made perfectly clear their political leanings (to the left, thank you). Meek and mild they are not.
The band's last album, 2007's Hey Venus!, might signal a gentler new era for Super Furry Animals, whose members are now in their mid-30s. Though it still embraces the ebullient styles of decades past—the usual '60s stuff (The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, The Byrds) and even a dollop of doo-wop—it lacks the experimental electronic texture that's popped up on previous efforts in favor of a more straightforward live sound.
“It's a simple record,” Rhys says. “It's not our most adventurous record, sonically. We concentrated on songwriting and playing music like it's just five people in the room.”
Rhys says that much of Hey Venus! is autobiographical. (At the beginning of the track “Run-Away,” Rhys declares, in his thick accent: “This song is based on a true story, which would be fine if it wasn't autobiographical.”)
“A lot of the songs were, lyrically, us looking back: leaving home, escaping small towns, getting into trouble,” Rhys says. “Rather then expose our lives to everyone listening, we felt more comfortable applying the songs to an imaginary woman—Venus.”
As a result, Rhys has had to clear up misconceptions that the band's latest effort is some kind of concept album. “It's coincidence that all the songs are, quote, autobiographical,” he says with an easy laugh. “It's just that there's more stuff to write about because we've been around longer. That's one benefit of aging.”
Rhys also released his second solo album last year, Candylion, a Spanish-English-Welsh follow-up to 2005's Welsh-only Yr Atal Genhedlaeth. He says working on outside projects—something every member of the band does—keeps the creativity percolating.
“I can go through my own ideas, get my ideas out of my system, without piling too many of them on the band,” he explains.
This last solo effort was carried out in a very low-key fashion with Rhys spending a couple of weeks writing and recording simple acoustic songs.
“We take the band very seriously and at times we make… albums and films and big projects that take a lot of time and energy,” Rhys says. “Sometimes it's a breeze just to record [an album like Candylion].”
Super Furry Animals take politics seriously, too (they often conclude live shows with “The Man Don't Give a Fuck”). Rhys mentions that lately he's been listening to American politics on all-night radio. (“It's like listening to a loooong football game,” he jokes.)
“I'm sure the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief that we still exist after eight years of George W. Bush,” Rhys suggests with a sigh of his own. “It's been incredibly depressing. Though this second term of [Prime Minister Tony] Blair was equally depressing. Unfortunately, for us, Blair was the progressive candidate, so it can only get worse.”
Rhys realizes he sounds like a downer and says so. Then he perks up at the thought of playing in San Diego. He says it's dreary and rainy and cold in Wales and asks about the weather here. I exaggerate and tell him it's warm enough to head to the beach, even though it's actually chilly outside. I can almost hear him smile, way across the pond, in my ancestral stomping grounds. Super Furry Animals perform at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, with Holy Fuck and Free Moral Agents at Belly Up Tavern, 143 S Cedros Ave., in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140. www.superfurry.com.