Guerrilla Turns 20

Guerrilla Turns 20

Super Furry Animals insisted that drugs weren’t a catalyst for the band’s psychedelic vision, but some of SFA’s early decisions came across as if they had been made in altered states of consciousness. These were the years leading up the band’s ambitious, abundant third album, Guerrilla — which turns 20 today — as well as some of the factors that got them to that point, too.

The Welsh neo-psych rockers started their career by reportedly blowing much of their first check from Creation Records on strange-looking guitars, and their first dose of reality from the label soon came when they were told that purchasing an aircraft carrier to host maritime raves wasn’t within their budget. Deterred only for a short while, they eventually found a reasonable military-equipment dealer that would effectively lease them a tank for the summer of 1996. They promptly decommissioned it and painted it dark blue, put the phrase “A oes heddwch?” on the front (“Is there peace?” in their native Welsh), and installed a sound system with speakers around the outside and the DJ protected inside.

The tank stood for a few things. It was a functional defense against the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, a convoluted piece of legislation containing provisions aimed at wiping out the freewheeling outdoor rave culture of the time. With “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You” written on the cannon, the tank also promoted and served as the cover star of that Super Furry Animals’ single when it was released at summer’s end. Certainly, the highly photogenic techno war machine got the band a considerable amount of media coverage. One gets the impression, though, that they pulled the whole thing off first and foremost for themselves more than for the publicity (and not just because Instagram wasn’t a consideration yet).

The band and its label were an appropriate match. In his memoir, Creation Stories, label founder Alan McGee calls Super Furry Animals “perhaps the last great Creation band,” and recalls the tank hijinks. “It probably got loads more press attention than an advert would have done,” he writes, “but that wasn’t the thinking behind it. It just appealed to my sense of mischief.” When McGee signed up Super Furry Animals and their “raucous, quirky pop,” he thought he might have found another Blur, but soon it became clear he had a different kind of beast on his hands.

Super Furry Animals undoubtedly benefited from the Britpop wave, but they were one of the few who not only came ashore intact, but stronger. Their relatively late arrival to those festivities may have — in a quirk of timing and fuzzy logic — helped set them up well to get the after-party started.

SFA were an amiable bunch, willing to play the game to a certain extent, but at the same time they didn’t hold back. This can be seen in the video for “Demons,” from their second album, Radiator, wherein singer/guitarist Gruff Rhys and the rest of the group — bassist Guto Pryce, guitarist Huw Bunford, drummer Dafydd Ieuan, and keyboard and electronics man Cian Ciaran — are shown slowly walking around in classic Oasis video fashion. The difference is, instead of London, they are wandering some lesser kept streets of Bogota, Colombia, a country then rife with FARC activity and drug trade conflict.

They were different without having to try. Their first three singles for Creation dealt with, respectively, unicorns, magic, and sticking “something” on the back of one’s tongue and swallowing it (at the time, at least, they claimed it was about wine tasting). They adopted the fabled Welsh marijuana smuggler Howard Marks as a band totem, composing a song in his name and making the cover art for Fuzzy Logic, their debut album, out of photos of his different aliases. Mischief and mysticism came intertwined with Super Furry Animals, without purposefully overindulging in out-there-ness. They never played up the wizards-and-druids heritage of their homeland in the same way that their one-time Ankst labelmates Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci did on their earliest records, but some of the same blood coursed through their music.

Before Britpop, they had also been the beneficiaries of an earlier movement; a more localized burst of creativity. Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw its music scene build on the cultural momentum of the ’60s-born Welsh Language Society and other activists, and a Welsh-language rock scene was energized. Rhys and Ieuan’s first band together, Ffa Coffi Pawb, was a part of this scene, which had the newly founded Welsh-language label Ankst Records at its center. Their experience in Ffa Coffi Pawb allowed Rhys and Ieuan to hit the ground running when they decided their next band would be aimed at more sizeable English-speaking audiences — audiences who were mostly unaware they had any such history.

Bunford and Pryce also shared a past playing in the punk band U Thant, and there were other detours taken along the way to SFA coalescing, including an incarnation as a loose techno-based collective. Incoming fans picking up Fuzzy Logic in the summer of ’96 wouldn’t have considered that particular episode very relevant, but by the end of the year when the band put out one of their earliest tunes as a single, the Steely Dan sampling “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck,” their enthusiasm for electronic music was revealed. A rousing live favorite that could easily be extended to keep crowds dancing, the song was set to be a B-side until McGee insisted otherwise.

Radiator followed Fuzzy Logic by little more than a year, and captured Super Furry Animals hitting their stride. From this point forward into the early 2000s, the more adventurous their songwriting became, the stronger the results were. Though plenty of fans out there would justifiably view Rings Around The World, their sprawling fifth studio album from 2001, as the culmination of this momentum, the album that best embodies Super Furry Animals’ sense of wide open possibilities is their third, Guerrilla.

Listening through their discography today, Guerrilla comes across as an outlier, but, being the product of an outlier psychedelic pop band, it is that very quality that makes it such a crucial piece of their puzzle.

Guerrilla was the first album that Super Furry Animals had recorded during a summer, and they waited until the following summer in 1999 to release it. The feeling all around was that the record was the band’s most upbeat turn yet, and the band partly attributed that to the season it was made in. Organized resistance was a theme that ran through both the title and the tagline printed on the back cover, “Non violent. Direction action.” The opposition force was never clearly identified, but that slogan was unmistakably borrowed from the Welsh Language Society.

Super Furry Animals didn’t know what to expect when they entered Peter Gabriel’s capacious and professional Real World studios in England’s South West countryside to put together Guerrilla. Right away they hit a significant road bump when Gorwel Owen, longtime SFA friend and producer, for the first time backed out of joining them, citing exhaustion after previous commitments. Instead of hunting down a last-minute replacement, Super Furry Animals wandered into new territory alone and produced the album themselves.

“Determined not to fluff the responsibility,” writes band biographer Ric Rawlins in Rise Of The Super Furry Animals, “Gruff vowed that he wouldn’t drink during the recording process and, while in the nearby city of Bath, bought a book called Teach Yourself Taekwondo in Seven Days.” Discipline became the frontman’s focus as he took the reins of his band’s most stylistically undisciplined batch of songs yet, but Rhys’ exercise regimen wasn’t for nothing. Track by track, Guerrilla is all over the place, but it is clear-eyed and, almost against the odds, ultimately cohesive. Its unpretentious eclecticism foreshadowed modern genre mixing.

Speaking to the London Evening Standard around the time of its release, Rhys declared of Guerrilla that, “It’s not self-consciously experimental, by any means.” The “self-consciously” part might be true, but Super Furry Animals were inquisitive and spontaneous by nature, and Guerrilla liberated their sound to a new degree. Most of the album’s middle stretch, from “Northern Lites” to “The Door to This House Remains Open,” is unlike almost anything on their other albums before or since. This was the part of the record where Ciaran was really set free. Rawlins observes that “many of the album’s most radical sounds started life in Cian’s sample laboratory before being taken in unexpected directions by his bandmates….”

The impromptu use of steel drums was one such plot twist. Rhys had the melody for “Northern Lites” kicking around for some time, but the tropical character of the final version was a chance, albeit very fitting, attribute. Lyrically a serenade to the apocalyptic power of the El Niño climate system, musically it is an infectious oddity, Super Furry Animals’ airiest single. That it also remains their highest charting track goes to show that sometimes it paid to try something different in the days of the post-Britpop fallout. The steel drums were such a hit with the group that they were dropped into the blissfully downbeat “Some Things Come From Nothing” and the drum and bass micro-odyssey “The Door To This House Remains Open.”

Super Furry Animals’ techno past and fondness for futuristic technology collided on “Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home).” “Status symbol disease says/ I’ve got a mobile phone/ I’ve got a mobile phone/ Wherever I lay my phone that’s my home” may read quaintly today, but cell phones were then only beginning to come into common use. The band’s thumping ode to the positive powers of communication and chaos was built around a modified rendition of the old Nokia ringtone and a sample from a previous recording session of Bunford falling into some equipment in a studio. The low, summoning horn-like intro and the track’s up-tempo and malleable form made it a frequent SFA show opener around this time.

Guerrilla wasn’t all left turns; there was plenty of room for fast guitars, sincere swoon, and their abiding love for the Beach Boys (fellow Brian Wilson fan Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas provided the understated string arrangement on “The Turning Tide”). “At the heart of it all is the psychedelic pop that’s their stock in trade,” assured the Guardian in their review of the album, “to which they return time and again.” Other reviews of Guerrilla also emphasized the “pop” angle, but that word took on a skewed meaning within the SFA context. One of the band’s original motivations was to reach more people than they had in their previous outfits; they weren’t suddenly trying to be commercial and they hadn’t avoided being commercial up to that point. If this was a synergetic moment it was just the wider world catching up to them.

The wider world immediately outside Wales across the rest of the UK was in fact having a moment with Welsh bands right at the time Super Furry Animals started work on Guerrilla. In 1998, the British music press lionized the likes of previously marginal players like Catatonia and Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers became chart toppers, and the notion of “Cool Cymru” took hold. The following year, a month before Guerrilla was released, a different kind of change for Wales came with elections for its first National Assembly, which transferred to the country greater governmental power over itself. Here was yet a third popular wave for Super Furry Animals to surf, but in interviews at the time they came across as hype skeptics who weren’t looking to start wrapping themselves in the red dragon.

“I think we’re all happy that Wales has finally been normalised as a place where bands come from,” Rhys diplomatically told the Observer in May of 1999. “We may not have much in common with Catatonia musically, but, y’know, we’ve shared amps with them. Wales is so small, there’s no room for fighting.” Two years later, when Cardiff was no longer the new Seattle, Ieuan explained to music journalist Simon Price how in that moment less deserving bands got signed while others were passed up by record labels that felt having one Welsh band would suffice to be on trend. “At least now Welsh bands have a chance,” Ieuan said of the aftermath. “The idea of a band coming from Wales isn’t a novelty.”

The thing is, instead of keeping that facet of their identity at arm’s length until the buzz had died down, Super Furry Animals followed up Guerrilla with Mwng, a comparably quick and simple album of stripped down folk-ish rock songs sung entirely in Welsh. The time constraint was a self-imposed reaction to the hours they logged at Real World, the budget constraint was a byproduct of Creation going belly up and the band forming their own label, and the language constraint gave them a different kind of songwriting freedom after the boundary stretching of Guerrilla. Super Furry Animals had their own motivations for making Mwng, but, understandably, the album was interpreted by some as a political statement, and fashioned into another feather in Wales’ cap. Super Furry Animals were and are a unique national treasure, but of a state sovereign unto themselves, of porous borders and no fixed map coordinates. Wherever they lay their phone is home.

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