Super Furry Wednesday

Super Furry Animals with Four Tet

10/2/2002, Metro, Chicago

These days, we all have technology on the brain. Cell phones have become platforms to support a PDA, digital camera, and microwave oven. Game consoles like PS2 or Xbox have so completely interpreted the contours of realism, it can be difficult to discern the human athlete from his electronic doppelganger. And unlike just a few years ago, the laptop computer in everyday life – at the coffeeshop, in a park, running MP3s through a car stereo – is no longer an anomaly. Similarly, the technology required to sequence, mix, re-assemble, and broadcast electronic music is no longer relegated to the studio. Mobilized technology has afforded bedroom electronic geniuses everywhere the opportunity to connect with their audience in a live setting, without sacrificing any of the technical requirements needed to create their music. In short, they’re allowed to be rock stars.

Opening for Super Furry Animals at Chicago’s Metro on Wednesday night was one such IT rocker, Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden). Surrounded by SFA’s mountain of amplifiers, stacks of guitars, and no less than three banks of electronics and keyboards was a simple card table upon which rested the tools of Four Tet’s trade: two laptop computers jury-rigged into an effects unit and mixer. After a musical vamp that morphed between spooky downtempo and David Essex’ “Rock On,” out walked Four Tet in a green Paul Frank T-shirt. Hunched over his gear, Tet let his fingers do the talking for the next 45 minutes. Vaguely hip-hop drum loops washed over by a tide of gentle noise, washes of beeps and clicks, and a solid bottom end, like a microchip with an Entwhistle fetish. And all along, the quickly-building crowd nodded their heads and grooved right along with Four Tet and Julius on his shirt. No one batted an eye at the prospect of an opening act who’s equipment would fit nicely in an overhead compartment. Like seemingly every corner in our lives, live music has been touched by technology, so much so that Four Tet’s laptop experiments are now viewed as just another form of music. However, he did help his case by emphasizing beats and groove over dots and loops. Too often, electronic artists of this sort don’t let the crowd in. Their squiggles and touch-screen dynamics don’t extend beyond the front end of the stage monitors. Last night, Four Tet’s vibrant opening set primed the crowd well for SFA, while showcasing the validity of artists in his genre. And the crowd was happy to except a musician employing keyboard clicks instead of guitar licks.

By the end of Four Tet’s set, Metro was at capacity with vaguely similar-looking Super Furry Animals fans. The look: shaven head, rectangular eyeglasses, VW keys, and conversations about who’s hard drive is bigger. Onstage, techs tuned enough guitars for a Glenn Branca orchestra piece as an enormous video screen played colorful animation and exploding fractals. Eventually, out came SFA, and lead vocalist Gruff Rhys strapped on his first guitar of the seemingly endless array of instruments he and lead guitarist Huw Bunford would play throughout the evening. And as the first notes rang out, the video display chugged along, perfectly in sync with the music. Goofy, modernistic animation, computerized explosions, left-wing religious protest, and a few nods to Terry Gilliam’s whimsical genius – the images only added fuel to the swirling trance quality of SFA’s reformulated pop music. Never a group to rely on one influence or sound, Super Furry Animals have, since their 1996 debut, employed elements of techno, punk, brit-pop, and the informed rock sound of fellow Welshmen the Manic Street Preachers to create a sound and feel that is distinctly their own. Live, it doesn’t matter of much of Rhys’ lyrics are in his native Welsh; the collective sound created by the five musicians on stage is one that envelops the audience. The multimedia display certainly helps with this, as does SFA’s touring sound system, which features surround sound. In the back of the club, behind the backs of the grooving fans on Metro’s first floor, were two banks of monitors. At certain points of the show, SFA’s sound would begin to travel in a circular motion, starting in the onstage monitors, travelling to the right, around the club, to eventually find its way back to the stage. The effect was really incredible, and it’s surprising that more groups don’t attempt the same setup. Sure, it’s a little Pink Floyd-ish. But when it works, why not?

It’s easy to establish a genre of “New Psychedelia” when describing groups like Super Furry Animals, The Flaming Lips, The Beta Band, Modest Mouse, Olivia Tremor Control, or Grandaddy. Many of these groups share influences, and an affinity for genre-hopping, often inside the space of one song. (On Wednesday night, SFA’s Rhys would often change guitars mid-song – sometimes twice!) Each of these bands are distinctly their own, with an approach to pop music irreverency that’s almost unclassifiable. But they do share an interest in combining technology and music in innovative ways. Both Modest Mouse and Flaming Lips appeared with Cake and De La Soul at this Summer’s Endless Sunshine tour; the Lips utilized a synced-up video display similar to SFA’s in their set. Besides accentuating their performance with heavy doses of electronics and sampling, as well as the surround sound and video display, Super Furry Animals released their latest record (Rings Around The World) with an accompanying DVD featuring videos for each track. Onstage Wednesday night, both Rhys and Bunford occasionally traded their guitars for their electronics rigs, deepening the bed of samples and electronic hum laid down by fulltime keyboards and electronics guru Cian Ciaran. While it was difficult at times to discern what was live and what was Memorex, SFA made its integration of technology and tradition work by playing three or four songs midset that were as raw punk rock as anything fired off by your average Stooges tribute band. Hal finally opened the pod bay doors, and inside there was a new version of rock and roll, as much laptop as moptop.


6 thoughts on “Super Furry Wednesday”

  1. Yeah, SFA is a fuckin great ‘ band, all right – would love to see them live!

    Everyone should run right out and get ‘Rings Around The World’. It’s a seriously trippy-good cd.

  2. Highly recommended is the Rings Around The World DVD. Recorded in Dolby 5.1 surround with videos (each made by different artists) for each song, a remix of each song and some cool treats to boot. Of course this will only play on DVD player, but I paid only 4 more dollars for this than the cd! The surround sound is indeed Pink Floydesque, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

  3. Good article, Johnny! I witnessed something similar a few weeks ago — James McNew from Yo La Tengo did a set as the band Dump. He plays alone with a laptop-sampler thing, something that could be very gadget-y. But the techno aspect didn’t turn him into an effects maniac. He just played pretty, heartfelt, YLT-ish songs about love that had neat, poppy endings. It was lovely. So it was him and a computer – faintly weird but like you say, if it works, why not?

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