The making of Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World
By K. Ross Hoffman
It was our big adventure,” Gruff Rhys declares, a little wistfully, reflecting on his band’s remarkably singular fifth album. That’s saying something, considering that Super Furry Animals have never, by any stretch of the imagination, been an unadventurous bunch. As producer Chris Shaw puts it: “We’re talking about a band that convinced their record label to buy them a tank to bring to festivals.” (The tank was blue and blasted techno music; they later sold it to Don Henley, and it remains the handiest shorthand evocation of the band’s penchant for goofy, imaginative excess.) “It’s just one of those things. I’m surprised that the labels allowed them to be so nutso with their ideas. But that’s what makes the Furries the Furries—that’s just the way they are.”
Even so, Rings Around The World was a colossal undertaking. It was their first album for a major label (Sony/Epic), following three for Creation—the venerable British indie that was, at the time, shepherding Oasis to global domination—and one, the relatively stripped-down, entirely Welsh-language Mwng, that they self-released on their Placid Casual imprint. The ample resources of their new label—and, crucially, the enthusiastic support of Sony UK CEO Rob Stringer, by all accounts a massive fan—afforded them by far the most elaborate and indulgent record-making process of their career, with sessions taking place in multiple top-of-the-line studios from April 2000 to January 2001. Rings was released simultaneously as a standard stereophonic CD and as a DVD with a 5.1 surround-sound mix (something entirely unheard of at the time, particularly for a new, original studio album) and videos for each of its 20 songs (beating Beyoncé to the punch by more than a decade), plus 16 remixes and copious extras.
It also happens to contain a lot of phenomenal music. Its kaleidoscopic bounty of sonic and melodic riches encompasses punchy, Beatlesque power pop, cornball electro-soul pastiche, otherworldly trip hop and sputtering IDM excursions and a bevy of gorgeous ballads outfitted with towering strings and Beach Boys-indebted harmonies. (“That’s definitely a Welsh thing,” says longtime A&R rep and fellow Welshman Mark Bowen. “We all grow up singing in choirs; we’re really good at close harmonies.”) Somehow, despite this madcap stylistic diversity, almost nothing feels forced, gimmicky or overreaching. It’s certainly epic, and arguably overstuffed, but it’s never excessive in an arbitrary, purely self-indulgent way. Everything follows its own particular fuzzy—or perhaps furry—logic.
Rhys, the band’s ever-affable frontman and principal songwriter, says, “I was into the complete maximalism of it: ‘More is more’ was the rallying cry. I was thinking of ridiculous statement albums like Prince’s Sign O’ The Times or Welcome To The Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes To Hollywood: glossy, overambitious records; completely excessive double albums. I think I had pretensions that the lyrics would capture the state of the planet in some way, although I got kinda sidetracked.”
“I think we’re guilty of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks,” says keyboardist Cian Ciarán. “And then we find we can’t bring ourselves to leave anything off.”
“It was very indulgent, but I think we managed to not go down too much of a concept album wormhole,” says guitarist Huw “Bunf” Bunford. “There were still tunes there—‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’ is just a pop tune, whether it’s in 5.1 or whatever.”
Rings came out in July 2001 as a single disc in the U.K., although the DVD version contained seven songs that were left off the album proper. The American release on XL, which followed eight months later, included these tracks on a fantastic, not-to-be-overlooked bonus disc, partially restoring Rhys’ vision by making it an odd, lopsided double set.
The album stands as an idiosyncratic artifact of, and monument to, its time, in both unwitting and deliberate ways. The very nature of its excess, and especially the specific, bygone technological horizons it ventured to explore, make it something of a relic. And Rhys’ lyrics—which touch on environmental devastation, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, religious doomsday cults, Japanese cyberpunk films, political spin doctors, the global telecommunications networks of the title and what he labels “the extreme sport-ification of culture”—constitute an insightful, if desultory, reflection of the globalized, satellite-televised, distraction-prone millennial moment—the burgeoning dawn of the information era—offering neither condemnation nor dismay but rather a bemused, value-neutral curiosity.
“It’s about how technology gives you problems,” is Rhys’ attempt at encapsulating the album’s themes—although, he admits, it’s not his own formulation: “I never understood a lot of our records, but we were lucky enough to tour Japan on every album, and Japanese journalists would explain the records to us, really eloquently. So: Technology brings many problems but also a lot of good things, so it’s about seeing the good and the bad in everything, and using the good stuff to make the record itself.”
While Rings was in many ways the furthest expression of the band’s eclecticism and experimentalism, those qualities stretch way back to the band’s origins in the early ’90s.
“In the early incarnation, there was kind of two bands,” says Rhys. “It was at the peak of rave culture in the U.K., so our social life was based mostly around electronic music. We had a sequencer, a drum machine, a few synths; there was a loose collective that would take this equipment to parties. We did a few tours as Super Furry Animals playing improvised electronic music. But simultaneously, we were always in bands playing conventional instruments—I’ve been writing songs for most of my life. It was really weird. We were in our mid-20s, we’d been playing music for a decade, we put this one EP out—1995’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space)—and did a couple of shows playing this more song-y material, and suddenly we were getting record contracts thrown at us. We thought it was like a joke, after being kinda ignored, but not particularly bothered about it, for a decade. We never took it fully seriously. Our attitude toward record companies was always, ‘Wow, let’s take advantage of this ludicrous situation, ’cause it’s not gonna last.’”
Bowen, who signed the band to Creation and served as its faithful A&R man even after the group moved to Sony, was astonished to discover the talent bubbling up from the sleepy country he’d left behind. “I felt like I had to get out of Wales when I was 18 just to be around more music,” he says. “There was a fantastic Welsh-language scene, but you would only hear that on John Peel very late at night. Suddenly people were saying, ‘There’s a really good band from Cardiff,’ and I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound very likely.’”
The Furries wasted no time in taking advantage of their circumstances. “Because Wales is quite a rural country, there’s all these residential studios that were the residue of the prog-rock era,” says Rhys. “Places like Rockfield, where ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was recorded, and Monnow Valley, where Sabbath used to go. They’re like colonial castles that the local people couldn’t use. So when we got signed we made a point of going to them, almost as a way of marking territory. We were like, ‘Right, we wanna go to Rockfield and reclaim these studios for the local community. And we wanna have jacuzzis every night.’ They have jacuzzis. So, we were interested in having jacuzzis. Unfortunately, it was to the detriment of the record sonically. We’d have made an album closer to what we were trying to do at home. We couldn’t make the interesting sounds we used to in our producer Gorwel Owen’s home studio. He always had a lot of Moogs and things; he was into Brian Eno and a lot of interesting techniques, but this was a 48-track studio that was set up to capture a band playing live, rather than being a laboratory for experimentation. So the first record (1996’s Fuzzy Logic) sounded far too conventional for us.”
It surely didn’t hurt, right at the peak of Britpop, to be releasing a guitar-based album with a scrappy, youthful energy reminiscent of, for instance, Supergrass’ debut a year prior. “We had a relationship to Britpop in that we were interested in melodic songwriting,” says Rhys. “But we were politically opposed to it, as Welsh speakers, as members of a minority group. We saw it as a conservative, jingoistic movement. There were a few great bands and lots of mediocre bands, but the British media got kind of drunk on it, obsessed with recreating a 1960s-style swinging London. We thought it was a bit one-dimensional and it didn’t fully reflect what was going on musically in Britain. There was a lot of very left-field electronic music being created that was ignored because of it. Although we played melodic guitar-pop, we were open to electronic music; it was an element of our arsenal. When we went to clubs, there’d be a lot of visual stuff going on and a surround-sound system, and then we were expected to go to a hall and see an average rock band. It didn’t seem as exciting as a lot of other things, so we were interested in pushing it a bit more, sonically and visually. We were more interested in sharing our insides through sound systems and video.”
The band’s first three albums mark a progression of increasing skill and comfort at incorporating these divergent interests and influences, paving the way for the supremely amalgamative Rings. “With the second record (1997’s Radiator), we stayed at Gorwel’s bungalow, in an outhouse,” says Rhys. “Then for 1999’s Guerrilla, we went to Peter Gabriel’s residential studio, Real World, which is the most unreal place I’ve ever visited. Famously, it has a river running underneath the studio, covered by a Perspex floor.”
That album also marked the band’s first encounter with Chris Shaw. Their longtime producer Gorwel Owen was burned out after months of nonstop work, so the band decided to produce it themselves. “But they needed someone to mix it,” says Shaw. The band’s first face-to-face meeting with Shaw occasioned some similar bewilderment, as Mark Bowen recounts with a chuckle. “Producers’ managers would send out CVs on paper; there were no photos or anything,” he says. “The internet existed, but we weren’t using it. So we were looking at Chris Shaw’s credits, and he’s done all these Public Enemy records. We wanted somebody who could bring the textures and energy of the rap and electronic music the band listened to constantly, so we said, ‘We’ve gotta get this guy!’ We booked the flight, we all went to meet him at the hotel, the elevator doors opened … and we all just stared. Chris is, let’s say, 5’5” or so, he had nerdy glasses and some long-sleeved band T-shirt. And we all sort of whispered, ‘Oh my god, what have we done? Where’s the Public Enemy dude?’ Basically, we thought we were getting a black guy. But no, he’s just another geeky indie kid, which is probably why it worked out so well.”
It was to become, in Bowen’s words, “a very, very fruitful relationship.” Shaw was one of the few engineers in New York with his own Pro Tools rig, which he brought along to the U.K. “We ended up using it a lot on the record—I used it to help rearrange the songs, to do overdubs, to twist the sounds and do a lot of sound design—and I had Cian and (bassist) Guto (Pryce) sitting behind me the entire time, staring at the screen, fascinated. When they saw what I could do with it when we were mixing Guerrilla, they had that heavily in mind when we went into the studio for Rings. They wanted to really dive into making the record on the computer and use Pro Tools to its fullest extent to flesh out ideas.”
“When we transferred the Guerrilla tracks from tape into the computer world, that’s when we realized, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world,’” says Ciarán. “We’ve always been a band that liked to embrace technology and use it to push boundaries, musically. We didn’t see sampling and synthesizers, for instance, as something that should be exclusively dance music—for us, sampling and loops were a quick, easy way of writing. As technology became more accessible, we as a band started to become more hands-on, so we started engineering and recording our own material more. Whereas before it was all tape and live takes, the whole approach changed starting with Rings.”
The album was still recorded on tape before it was transferred into Pro Tools. Huw Bunford remembers spending “a lot of the time making sure the takes were as natural as possible … We were conscious of the fact that you can tell—or we could—when something is Pro Tooled to the max.”
But it’s no surprise that, per Shaw, Pro Tools-enabled sonic manipulation came into play, heavily, on “pretty much every song.” Shaw’s friend Eric Tew, his assistant and co-engineer on the album, brought his Pro Tools system as well, effectively doubling the team’s efficiency. “We’d record takes and Eric would go away and work on editing them, and we’d carry on work in the studio,” says Ciarán. “Then we’d come back and do overdubs. I think that’s why we ended up with so many songs, because productivity was quite high.”
“There was always a sample that we’d loop together or some weird noise that we’d manufacture within the computer to complement things,” says Shaw. “And there were whole songs that were products of editing mistakes and ideas that we put together in the computer. I had to be careful about what I was doing when editing or mixing because I might be sitting at the console, fiddling around with a delay, trying to find something for the vocal, and accidentally hit upon some sound—and then everybody in the band kinda perk up their ears and say, ‘What’s that? Why don’t we use that? And we’ll do this with it.’ I had to kick them out of the room sometimes.”
Loopy outtake “All The Shit U Do,” for example, grew out of a portion of the song “Edam Anchorman,” which Tew was working on while the rest of the group were sitting around drinking at the end of a day of recording. According to Shaw, Tew was editing a chunk of the song’s vocal when Rhys and drummer Dafydd Ieuan looked up at each other, then at Tew. Before anyone knew it, they’d initiated a new Pro Tools session with just those four bars, looping infinitely, and started making overdubs. “We wound up putting five drum sets on it,” says Shaw. “I wound up playing piano on it, Cian wanted to get some weird keyboard noises, Bunf went out and did a bunch of overdubs, Guto played another bass line on top of it—all of a sudden it had turned into a whole ’nother song.”
The first sessions for Rings took place in spring 2000 at Monnow Valley Studio, the aforementioned former Sabbath haunt in rural, bucolic Southeast Wales. Shaw remembers first arriving to the studio well after dark, without much sense of where he was. “I woke up the next morning, opened up the curtains and saw this huge hillside covered in sheep—that’s when I realized we were way out there,” he says. “It was an experience. We got there and the owner basically handed me and Eric the keys, saying, ‘There’s the console. Goodbye.’ Every morning, someone came by and put sandwiches in the fridge, and we had a meal cooked for us every night. It was basically communal living; we got to know each other very well.”
Tew recalls that he’d just started an Atkins diet: “I get there that day and say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing starches; no carbohydrates,’ and these two Welsh housewives look at me, nod their heads OK, and then lay a plate of fish and chips right in front of me.”
Tew, who was meeting the band for the first time, recounts that they cut eventual b-side “Happiness Is A Worn Pun” on the very first night at Monnow Valley. A loose, bluesy, hard-rock stomp, complete with Sasquatch noises (and impromptu handclaps by the Manic Street Preachers’ James Bradfield), it made quite an impression. “I thought, ‘These guys have balls down to their knees,’” says Tew. “It was jaw-dropping. We spent a night recording that, got our process going. It bummed me out that song didn’t make the final album.”
Despite the potentially indulgent temptations of this residential arrangement, Tew says the team kept its knuckles down: “It was a lot of work, we didn’t go out much, we didn’t go too crazy or anything.” Shaw says they kept to a consistent schedule: “We’d all crawl into the studio by around noon, work for an hour and then have lunch; then work until 6:30—dinner was 7 p.m. Then I’d try to get as much done with them by nine or 10 because by that point the beers would come out—I’d plead with them for one more take before we start drinking, please! A lot of the crazy ideas would come really, really late at night—on average we were up until three in the morning every night, working on ideas, or if we weren’t working on the record, we’d be sitting in the control room listening to records and brainstorming. That’s the thing about the Furries. One thing I’ve gotta say about that band is that there’s never any lack of ideas, whatsoever. My job as a producer was keeping everything organized and telling them to stop at a certain point. Like, ‘Guys, I don’t think we can squeeze another idea on this song before it turns to shit.’”
“Receptacle For The Respectable” is the song cited by nearly everyone as a prime example of this. A fairly concise epic at less than five minutes—but an epic nonetheless—it’s a suite-like number that progresses seamlessly between four distinct sections, most of which were created independently and then strung together. The third part is a fluffy lounge-pop tidbit sung by Ieuan; according to Tew, he improvised and recorded it late one drunken evening and, seemingly, promptly forgot it, only to ask about it months later (requiring Tew to spend hours relocating it within his vast CD-ROM backup archive) and slot it into place. The fourth part, one of surprisingly few moments of pure, outright goofiness to make it to the album, has been described as “pantomime death metal”; it also features the sound of vegetables being chomped by one of England’s most notable vegetarians. (See sidebar.) Shaw recalls that the band didn’t want to stop at just four parts, and attempted to tack on a fifth, hip-hop-style section: “They were trying desperately to make a drum beat out of the looping echo that ends the song. After four hours of banging their heads against the wall, I said, ‘Guys, I think we’re done.’”
Ciarán agrees: “We had to pull in the reins and stop before it filled the whole CD.”
By Shaw’s reckoning, “We got maybe two-thirds of the recording done in that first month” at Monnow Valley. Then there was a break. The band went on tour in America, reconvening afterward to continue work on the album in Woodstock, N.Y.’s Bearsville Studios. It was as much of a thrill for the Furries as the sojourn in the Welsh countryside had been for New Yorkers Shaw and Tew. “Probably to most Americans it doesn’t feel cut off from anything,” says Bunf, “but I think ’cause we’re in Britain and the distances are so meager, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re in the forests!’”
“People would talk about, ‘Are you going to break America?’” says Rhys. “And we’d say, ‘No—we’re going there with the biggest respect, and we hope that we don’t break anything.’ Our only worry, really, were actual bears, because bears used to come to the studio every morning, looking for discarded bagels. We were staying in this house through the forest, and we were kinda worried, walking back at night, that we were gonna get attacked.”
Ciarán remembers “a baby bear—which was apt seeing it was called Bearsville—rummaging in the bins. The guy said to stay away because the mother’s probably close by. So we didn’t go up and say hello.” It was also the first place he’d ever encountered fireflies, which was unnerving at first: “It was around the time Blair Witch Project came out … I saw these flashes in front of me … ‘What’s that?’”
The band’s initial arrival at Woodstock was slightly rocky, due to a deteriorating relationship between the band and its husband-and-wife tour-bus drivers. As Bunf recalls: “Our bus driver was really awful to us—he was probably a redneck, and we didn’t see eye to eye. He didn’t even take us to the studio, he just dumped us in a lay-by about 10 or 15 miles away and threw our stuff out onto the road. All I can remember is standing there with one shoe, with most of my clothes still on the bus, driving away. He was crazy.”
“Maybe the last night of celebrating at the end of the tour pushed them over the edge,” says Rhys. “They were quite a conservative couple. In any case, we arrived pretty disheveled after the tour, but we were very excited to go to Bearsville. We had visions of Todd Rundgren and the Band recording there. Sally Grossman (Dylan associate and Bringing It All Back Home cover star) was the owner of the studio, which was exciting for us. She gave us a pot of maple syrup each. I remember we took a trip to NYC on a day off—it was the fourth of July, and we watched the full firework display over the twin towers. It seemed like quite an optimistic period of time. But when we went back to the States it was after 9/11, and things had changed radically. The atmosphere changed overnight, and it seemed like a very different world. But that summer was pretty idyllic for us.”
The album was mixed—not once but twice—at London’s Metropolis Studios. The second time was for 5.1 channel surround—i.e., to be played on five speakers, plus a subwoofer. Depending on whom you ask, the idea either arose out of the band’s experimentation with surround in its live concerts or as an outgrowth of the plan to create videos for each song—which the group wanted to do with Guerrilla—and release it on DVD. Probably both. More succinctly, perhaps, these guys did it because they could.
“I’d seen Orbital do a show in surround or in quad, and Pink Floyd did shows in quad back in the day, so it wasn’t a new idea,” says Ciarán. “We grew up listening to acid house and going out to clubs, where you’re immersed in the sound no matter where you are; there’s no focal point. That was something we wanted to replicate in our concerts, so even though you’re in the back, you still feel involved. Then surround-sound technology started becoming accessible, home systems became more commonplace, and we thought, ‘Well, filmmakers are using this new technology.’ We couldn’t work out why more bands weren’t. I remember doing an interview and saying, ‘I never want to go back to mixing in stereo ever again.’ I think I thought it would be like the revolution from mono to stereo. But it never happened. The digital-download revolution happened.”
When the band first got to Metropolis to do the surround mixes, they tested out the studio’s system by watching the launch scene from Apollo 13. As Tew tells it, “They had everything cranked up, so the rumbling of the rockets was just shaking everything, shaking deep inside of your gut. The rocket takes off, and—we’re just watching a stupid movie, but it’s so loud and impressive that when it finally gets up, we all stand up and start going, “USA! USA!”
“Cian came up with the concept,” says Shaw, “that the album opener, ‘Alternate Route To Vulcan Street,’ should sound like the band is on a carousel, rotating slowly, and the person listening is standing in the middle. To take the whole mix and gradually rotate it. So I had to find a way of doing that. There were a lot of technical challenges involved. We were doing things that were kinda out there. The house engineers would come in, and they’d look at us like we were crazy. I had no idea how massive an undertaking that record would become—it was chaos. All of a sudden my workload quintupled. But it was great.”
The process was further complicated and elongated by the nature of how the Furries worked: collectively, actively, all five of them fully invested and involved in every aspect of a project. As Mark Bowen put it—echoing many others’ sentiments: “More than any band I’ve ever worked with, it was a true democracy. The five of them had 20-percent input each. To the point where we would argue for hours over the smallest point—if even one of them wasn’t fully on board, we’d have conversations about it that could sometimes last weeks. All those ideas really did come from the five of them: all five contributing, across the board, really equally.”
“It could be hard to know their process sometimes because they’d huddle up and speak in Welsh, with me and Chris on the outside shrugging our shoulders, wondering what this is all about,” says Tew. “Then they’d come out and one of them would speak in English and say, ‘Yeah, we want that to be louder.’ Meanwhile, there was like a five-minute conversation going on that we had no idea about.”
Ciarán offers some insight: “Usually decisions are either made by a majority vote—which helps when you’ve got five. Or if you make a strong enough case, if you can win someone over through the gift of the gab; you might win regardless of majority vote. There’s always a degree of compromise. I can only think of one song where there was disagreement to the point where it didn’t make a release.”
That lost outlier, Shaw remembers, was titled “Chihuahua”: “It was part of a long, extended jam that they did in the studio, almost like a dance track. Somebody hit upon the idea of getting a samba band on the record. Apparently, there’s a Welsh samba band somewhere, because we found them, and got them to the studio, but it just didn’t work out. Though we did get something out of it. A girl in the samba band played one of these huge, deep-sounding bass drums; Eric peeled it off of one of the recordings and turned it into an 808, and that wound up being the obnoxiously low bass tone that you hear—or, rather, feel, though only if you’ve got a big enough subwoofer—on [Ciarán’s Stooges-sampling trip-hop instrumental] ‘[A] Touch Sensitive.’ So, the samba band kinda made the record.”
In retrospect, making Rings Around The World was an unforgettable, defining episode for seemingly everyone involved. Shaw calls it “one of the biggest experiences of my life.” It was a momentous time not just for the band, but for the state of the record industry as a whole. As Bowen reiterates multiple times, “It’s something I don’t see happening again. It was a very unique place in time. We were in one of the most expensive studios in London, using every facility they had for months on end—all stuff that seems unthinkable now. We also had to get in all these videos from around the world. I was given 10 grand to get the entire record remixed, which we did somehow. There was so much going on, juggling so many pieces, with a new label and a new bunch of relationships on top of that. I think the band were just excited by the possibilities that were suddenly open to them, that they could pretty much try any idea they wanted. I give full credit to Rob Stringer for making the funds available, and for having a band that really embraced that money and didn’t just waste it—they put it into everything they’ve ever wanted to do, which went way beyond music. I mean, we had Lars von Trier make a bloody video; that still blows my mind. They were always so full of passion and enthusiasm for what they did, it was just amazing to be around.”
Rhys reflects on the experience with a similarly fond, if somewhat more measured, sense of wonder. “It was an extremely interesting process for us to do,” he says. “A very enjoyable record. There was very little tension in the band; it was a good time.” Of the album itself: “The pace was slower than our previous records, and I don’t know if it was the strongest set of songs. Maybe a record like Guerrilla was more immediate, whereas Rings is more serious. Maybe, it’s more melancholy, a bit more drab. But it represents a time for the band. At the time I think we were just working instinctively and trying to take full advantage of a highly unusual situation we were in—because we thought maybe we’d get dropped within a year. It was pretty magical and flawed and fun.”