Interviews / Stefania Ianne

INTERVIEW: Cian Ciarán of Super Furry Animals and Zefur Wolves, May 2015

©2015 Stefania Ianne – All rights reserved. Twitter @stillarte

In May 2015, following two sold-out dates at the Brixton Academy in London, I had a chance to speak with Super Furry Animals’ keyboardist Cian Ciarán on behalf of Italian independent music magazine Rumore. I was given the wrong time for the interview, but Cian kindly took my call anyway somewhere along the beautiful Welsh coast. We started an enthralling conversation touching upon the 20th anniversary of the band and Mwng’s (their Welsh language classic release) 15th anniversary. We also discussed the dominance of the English language in music and of Anglo-American culture in world politics, Cian’s political commitment and his solo production, while seagulls were screaming in the background. Here’s the full original transcription.

Super Furry Animals, Brixton Academy May 2015

Super Furry Animals, Brixton Academy May 2015

SI: It’s amazing that you are now celebrating your 20th anniversary as a band, already.
CC: I know!

SI: If you were to explain in a few words who Super Furry Animals are to somebody who has never listened to the band, what would you say? How did it all come together?
CC: We are a band who likes melody, you know, we like playing in the studio… We really don’t get bogged down with trends, or with what is in vogue or in fashion. We like melody, we’re fans of music of all genres and eras that is apparent in the music we create. We do what we feel like doing at a given time.

SI: You follow your mood…
CC: Aye, and I think that all those influences become lost in the finished music we create, because there are so many of them. So, I’d like to think that it becomes more psychedelic, a kind of mishmash of different styles, anything from techno to film music, to West coast, Beach Boys, beat music from the early sixties, you know…

SI: Obviously there are many people involved in the creative process. Trying to get everything together into your music must be quite a feat!
CC: True.

SI: Would you say that you have the same enthusiasm and drive as when you started?
CC: Definitely! I mean, we have not played for 6 years but the music each individual has been outputting has been non-stop, you know? It is not a question of running out of ideas or losing the love for music. The excitement of going into the studio and creating new sounds and new songs it’s as exciting to me as when I first started when I was 13.

SI: Excellent news for your fans!
CC: And it doesn’t feel like it is going to end any time soon. I mean, I just brought a new album out under the name Zefur Wolves [his other band], plus we’ve got plans for a few projects until the end of the year, and we will be playing a few festivals…

SI: Regarding live performances, do you have any plans to play in Italy or not?
CC: We don’t know yet! We’d like to, we haven’t been there for years…

SI: That’s why I’m asking.
CC: It’s been too long. I think the last time I was in Italy I went to see Wales play football…

SI: We certainly hope to see you again in Italy soon. Let’s go back to music. I also wanted to congratulate you on the re-release of Mwng. I’m not sure if I am pronouncing it correctly, Welsh is not my strong point…
CC: Yes, very well!

SI: Again a big anniversary, 15 years since the first limited edition release. How did it all come about? The idea of an album in Welsh, I mean. I understand that this is how it all started, in Welsh and that you switched to writing in English to widen your fan base. Is that correct?
CC: Yes, kind of. Wales is like a bilingual country. Writing in English is as natural for me as Welsh language music, but we started writing in English to broaden our horizons and to try and make a living out of making music. So when we reverted to writing an album in Welsh it was a natural thing, it was like going back to what we normally did.

SI: The reason I am asking is because this is quite a relevant problem to so many bands from all over the world, I mean the dominance of the English language. There are so many bands that have switched to English to try and make it in the music business. In your experience, is this dictated by record labels or not?
CC: I know some labels do. Maybe it is also a problem of perception by people… I mean, the world is dominated by the American market, the American pop market, which by default uses the English language, and the UK has a strong history of traditional, popular Western music; so between the two they’ve dominated the world’s music industry, to an extent. So, when you see on TV that everyone sings in English, there might be some pressure for artists. At the end of the day, when you make music you want your music to be heard by as many people as possible, not for the fame, not for the money: you just want to share it. So, if singing in English means that you get to widen your audience and hopefully, as a result of that, you get to travel the world and you get to try and make a living by doing what you love, then you sing in English. It’s a shame, I don’t think people need to sing in English, it doesn’t make it any better; just because the lyrics are in English it doesn’t make the music any more valid. I’ve listened to Italian music and French music, Spanish, German, European, Japanese, South American… I’d like to think that I still get the vibe even if I don’t fully understand what the lyrics are about. Like with ‘Je T’Aime’, I don’t understand French but I knew what they were singing about in that song, or with Ennio Morricone, I can’t remember the title now… was it California something…? I can’t remember now, I love that because it is basically a pop song, you know?

SI: Absolutely! Also, even when understanding English, you might not necessarily understand what the lyrics in English are all about, it might be lost in the music…
CC: Yes, for me music comes first, it always has done. If I like the music then I pay attention to the lyrics, not the other way around. If don’t like the music, I’ll switch off before I even hear a word, but if there are the two, when you have a marriage of the two, it can be a very powerful thing.

SI: I know what you mean, I am very interested in the linguistic side of music.
CC: Well, language itself has a certain rhythm and a certain way you deliver. The sound of vowels and consonants changes and doesn’t have the same rhythm and sound that complement the music, and that becomes a factor when you are writing lyrics, I think. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you have to reinvent the lyrics to convey the same emotion or the same message and sometimes lyrically it might be different or, rather, the literal lyrics might be different but the message remains the same.

SI: I was wondering whether the SFA writing in Welsh is a different band compared to the SFA writing in English? Does Welsh reflect a more intimate side of Super Furry Animals?
CC: Possibly. Gruff [Rhys] wrote all the lyrics for Mwng and the majority of the music, and it was presented to the rest of the band by Gruff. It’s been said in previous interviews, it’s been documented that it is quite a personal record in certain respects. Everyone is different. When I’m writing, the music comes to me first, the lyrics come after. It is not very often that the lyrics will dictate the music. I don’t know whether the language we speak would necessarily dictate the music, because music itself is an international language. I did try to translate a song that I wrote about a town called Martina Franca, Italy. It was in English and I tried to translate it into Italian but it didn’t work [he laughs] so it never happened.

SI: Translating is hard work! I would like to check with you about the decision to make the re-release of Mwng coincide with World’s Labour Day. Unfortunately, I do not understand the Welsh lyrics, but is it because some of the content is political or is it because of the current political circumstances? It is a very important political moment in the UK.
CC: Yes, a bit of both. I think it is an act of solidarity. Wales has a very strong history of workers’ rights struggle during the Industrial Revolution: a lot of workers’ rights, equal pay, working conditions, a lot of those battles were fought during the eighteenth century, the red flag was born in a town called Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Wales has always been a battle ground, I guess. So with that being in our psyche, I guess that it was kind of in solidarity as it is always a battle in this present social climate, not only in the UK but globally with the threat of corporations etc. It’s not just a UK problem.

SI: Going back to Mwng, would you say it was a tribute to your country, to Wales?
CC: No, in the sense that it wasn’t anything contrived. Like I said, it was something that we’ve done naturally when we were growing up. The idea of the album itself was born out of the fact that we had enough Welsh songs that we thought it was worthy of an album and that would make an album coherently so that we would not have the token Welsh song on an English album or something. It was not a tribute, it was just a natural chain of events that led to the recording of the album.

SI: It just felt like the right time and the right place to be, I guess.
CC: Yes, exactly.

SI: And what about musically? I was at your concert at the Brixton Academy on Saturday [9/05/2015] and I felt like the ghost of Syd Barrett was in the room. During the Mwng recordings, were you influenced by Syd Barrett at all?
CC: Yes, he’d be there amongst many others. There’s too many to list, really.

SI: I thoroughly enjoyed your concert on Saturday night. You had some wild light effects. It really felt in tune with the music being played. I’ve read that you have found a way of transforming feedback into people in the projections behind you. Can you elucidate on the concept? I must say the result was amazing.
CC: We like to immerse people in a visual and sonic onslaught so that people can feel like they have been to a show. Plus, we are not the most animated musicians on stage, we are quite static, so we kind of try and make up for it with the projections. I think by and large a lot of it was born from the rave culture we grew up with going to clubs. You know, there was no band and it was all about the lights and the sound and being engrossed in the music and in the moment. I think that was a contributing factor.

SI: I see that you still close your gigs with ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’. It felt like a cathartic process for you – the musicians on stage – and the audience. I understand that this particular track is very politically charged. Is the message still the same as when you wrote it?
CC: Oh yeah.

SI Is it still relevant? Has anything changed?
CC: A lot has changed but not for the better. If anything, it has got worse. I think it is as relevant as ever. It is quite depressing when you start listing all the things going on around us. So it is a message that needs to be said over and over again so that people actually wake up and realise what’s going on around them. I don’t mean that in a patronising way. We all know what’s happening, but if there is a way that we can come together as a collective voice, in a ‘Power to the people!’ kind of way, it’s better. Like the water in Bolivia, for example: when the government tried to privatise spring water, which was the last straw, the locals just revolted and pushed them out, they said ‘enough is enough!’, you know? So that’s a great example of people’s power, standing up for themselves, not giving in to the man.

SI: I absolutely agree with what you are saying and I suppose the next logical question is: should entertainers be politically involved? I know you are personally very committed. I suppose that if the person has a message to convey then the stage allows you to involve as many people as possible.
CC: Yes… it’s a tough one, because, I mean, you don’t get into music in order to get… you don’t start a band to be a politician, do you? You start a band because you love making music and certain people are more involved in politics than others in all walks of life. Being on a stage doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to. I can’t speak for the rest of the band, but if I feel like I have something I want to say and I have a stage or a platform to say it from, which would make people think or ask questions or bring attention to something I think is relevant or needs attention, then I almost feel like a duty to do so, you know, a moral duty. But then it is a fine line between preaching and really asking the questions: is this what we want? Is this fair? Is this right? How can they get away with this? These are the questions that should be asked time and time again.

SI: I think that it is a very important function of artists. I’ve always been more interested in entertainers, musicians or anybody that has a message to convey behind the aesthetic façade. Following from what you have just said, I would like to ask you about your solo projects. I see that the release of your new solo album Hero, Leader, God [2015, Strangetown Records. Title inspired by the work of artist Alexander Kosolapov], was very much connected to the political agenda in the UK during the past months. Would you describe yourself as a protest songwriter?
CC: Hmmm no. I think I’ve found myself in that position over the past 2 to 3 years. The first solo record was in 2005 and it was all electronica. Then the first traditional songwriting output, if you like, was in 2011 under my own name and that was all love songs; then in 2013 I brought out a protest album and that was more of a global political outcry based on my own experiences in the UK; the latest one with Zefur Wolves has a political message as well. I guess it goes back to what I was saying earlier: if I feel I need to say something then I could probably do a better job of doing justice to the cause by giving my time and trying to do it through the form of music rather than mumbling on a soap box, because I am not a public speaker, I’m not very articulate, I find it easier doing it through the form of music. Likewise, with this latest album Hero, Leader, God hopefully I have brought on board artists, poets and rappers who are better equipped lyrically than myself to get the message across or to ask the questions that I think need to be asked. Like I said, I didn’t get into music to be a politician. I still like making music, I still like the idea that it is entertainment and I still hope that people will enjoy the music for music’s sake, as well. It is an escape for us all, you know.

SI: Yes, it is needed as well, but you know, we have a brain…
CC: Exactly that. I’d like to think that people can get both sides of the music, a bit of escapism but, at the end of the day, coming away asking questions as well. It is like with Bill Hicks, the comedian, you know, he’d go in, he’d make you laugh for an hour, but you’d leave saying: he made me think there for half an hour. So, there you go.

Stefania’s review with some photos of the Brixton Academy gig can be found here:

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