Furry Tale of New York

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Take Melody Maker out to New York with three of CREATION RECORDS’ brightest new bands — 3 COLOURS RED, SUPER FURRY ANIMALS and HEAVY STEREO. Here’s what happened

NEW YORK STORIES

IT’S SOLD out. Super Furry Animals are on in five minutes and we can’t get in.

The guest list queue contains various American industry VIPs, half the Camden bratpack, myself, snapper Steve Gullick and Creation PR Andy Saunders. It’s raining. Andy’s getting agitated. I mean, we’ve only travelled across the Atlantic to see this, Andy is only the bands’ sole UK representative and is therefore a more important person than a Very Important Person. The security are having none of it. Andy’s getting even more agitated. “Right,” he says. “That’s it. I’m gonna start shouting.”

Andy is not a man to mess with. Andy is Chelsea and everything that implies. Bit of flash, lots of menace. Andy tells tales of the Chelsea Headhunters and equally notorious organised soccer hooligans West Ham’s Inner City Firm as casual chat. Handy, is Andy. He heads for the front of the queue. Super Furry Animals are on in four minutes. Two seconds later he’s back.

“There’s no way I’m gonna mess with those guys,” he sighs. “They’re twice the size of me!”

Andy may be handy. But he’s not stupid.

Super Furry Animals are on in two minutes. What the f*** are we gonna do?

Suddenly there’s a screech of tyres as Heavy Stereo draw up. Someone — I suspect it may be Andy — has a brainwave. We have two choices: miss the gig, or attempt the greatest subterfuge since a brain-dead B-movie journeyman acted the part of the President of America. F*** it, we have one choice. So it is that seconds later, we’re all trudging into the venue trying to look cool and rock star-like under the least cool and rock star-like circumstances it’s possible to imagine. We’re each clutching bass drum pedals and amplifier cases. We are Heavy Stereo.

“Band members only,” grimaces Security.

I remember my schoolday triangle solos and pray for my life.

Super Furry Animals are on.

WELCOME TO America, land of the free lunch, where the rigmarole of meet-and-greets, endless tours and crazy commercialism can make or break a band. Or both. Fail — like T Rex or The Jam, say — and you may never recover from the mauling. Succeed — like The Clash or even Radiohead, say — and you may never recover either, losing your soul, your sanity and the very idea of why you started out in the first place. It’s no coincidence that Oasis’ recent epic blowout occurred after too many throws of laughing Uncle Sam’s cruelly-laden dice.

Thirty minutes in New York is enough to have you strutting around like a gunfighter in an absurd effort to match the Apple’s infamous “cool”. Here, people have a gaunt, debauched expression, the result of permanently chewing gum, impersonating Lou Reed, and stamping hundreds of Marlboros hard into the pavement. Thirty dates in a Transit Van is enough to send anyone mad.

Then there’s the dizzying spectacle of the USA itself, excess all areas, a neon capitalist jungle which can make you question all you’ve done and everything you believe in. What will its effect be on a principled, idealist band like Super Furry Animals? Perhaps it’s just as well they’re only here for one date, a chance to see whether their visionary Welsh-grown rock can translate as well in America as it has in the UK, where Fuzzy Logic is surely album of the year. For labelmates Heavy Stereo, meanwhile, this is a chance to escape some unfair recent UK press hounding, and for punky rock hopefuls 3 Colours Red, New York is just another whistlestop on their own rollercoaster ride since signing to Creation.

Everybody has their own tales of New York. Heavy Stereo went to a Smashing Pumpkins party and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Bjork and Helena Christensen. Singer Gem saw Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer coming out of Les Miserables, while me and Andy Saunders share tales of cabbies’ road rage and Super Furries’ Gruff describes his mood as “deliriously happy”, despite not sleeping properly for days.

3 Colours Red singer Pete Vuckovic, meanwhile, has a very particular problem.

“I’m sick of looking at my knob,” he complains.

Pardon?

“The toilets in the hotel are lined with mirrors,” he expands. “So you can’t have a piss without looking at your knob. Hundreds of knobs. In fact, if there’s two or three people in there at once you don’t even know whose knob you’re staring at.”

He looks exasperated.

“F*** it,” the singer concludes. “I’m surrounded by knobs.”

OhmyGod.

Playing the tiny Mercury Lounge is hardly the most auspicious start to conquering the biggest market in the world, but the gig is a marked success, especially for Heavy Stereo who confound everybody except the US promoter who billed them as the headliners by going down a storm. As everybody heads off to a nearby bar for a right old piss-up, the Stereos’ Gem is rightly ecstatic, claiming that playing in New York was like, “An out-of-body experience. Seein’ me own film, man. So weird, they’re like this [he mimics cool, impassive New York attitude] for an hour, then they’re like this.

He mimics crazed, Beatlemania-type facial contortions.

“But is it real?” he asks, pointedly. “They don’t care, do they? But then again, one guy had every single we’ve ever done. Even we haven’t got all our own records.”

“A lot of people said, ‘Your band rocks‘,” grins a breathless Chris McCormack, 3CR’s shit-hot () Geordie guitarist, a better Paul Simenon than Paul Simenon. “We got offered a Converse sponsorship there and then. Which is OK. I mean, I wear ’em, so it’ll save me 30 quid! But we don’t want to be seen like Menswear. They got hyped to f*** and now they’re paying for it. No one will take them seriously.”

“We like our stars to be a bit elusive,” says Pete, conspiratorially, then promptly buggers off, leaving me chatting to this Utter, Utter Maniac clutching two bottles of lager in each hand, all his.

“You’re here to interview Super Furry Animals?” asks the big man. “They’re a bunch of WANKERS.”

It turns out this is Marnie, Super Furries’ tour manager. Ah, the normal, organised one… double ohmyGod!

COMMUNISTS. DRUG DEALERS, GOATS…

THERE WERE two immediate questions surrounding Super Furry Animals prior to the gig. The first — whether the Furries’ bonkers, brilliant visions and weird-out concoctions of crazed, repetitive riffs, techno undercurrents and barmy, subversive reference points will translate to the US — was partly answered. Well, almost, kinda. The gig went well, although the Americans present did seem confused, which may well prove a metaphor for their career. The second is, why the f*** was SFA vocalist wandering around Times Square wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and smoking a cigar like a bonkers insurrectionary vision of Fidel Castro and Groucho Marx at the photo session earlier?

There are certain things you don’t do in America, and paying homage to two Cuban revolutionaries is definitely one of them. Jesus. There were GIs in the Square. You could see them twitching nervously, programmed to destroy any red devil, trigger fingers quivering beside alarmingly large thighs. Why, Gruff, why?

“Aw, it was just to wind up a few right-wing Americans,” he shrugs.

The Animal succeeded. He could’ve got us killed.

“We’re not a political band as such,” he tells me. “But we do come from a pretty political place.”

Ah, Wales, home of many a political firebrand. Aneurin Bevan, Neil Kinnock…

“Not Wales, particularly,” corrects Gruff, sat in a chair made of fluffy pink panthers in the Paramount Hotel playroom, a Super Furry Animal among some super furry animals (look, I’m not making this up). “Our part of Wales. Cos I speak a language [Breton] that’s not recognised officially. That’s a paranoid state to get into. But there were two million speakers in the Sixties and now there are only 2,000 under-16s studying it. We used to listen to Anhrefn [Welsh punk band] talking about politics, and we’ve only just started talking about politics. Wales should be taught about Breton in the same way the North East should be taught about the Jarrow marches, not just about f***ing Churchill and Pearl Harbour. Same over here. Che Guevara wasn’t a saint but he is a hero. And there’s lots to admire about Cuba.”

Keep the voice down, would you?

“In Wales, people would have voted for Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock,” says Guto (Pryce, bassist, who looks exactly like Bunf, guitarist), perched on a throne of fluffy yellow Tweety-Pies. “It’s traditionally left-wing, and then there was the miners’ strike. Surveillance. Fighting with the police. The lies told about Scargill paying off his mortgage with union funds and collaborating with the KGB. Arthur’s had a bad press, but he was proved right. There are now no miners in South Wales.”

“We’re not a protest group but our song ‘The Man Don’t Give A F’ is a vague political comment on injustice,” says Gruff, his slow, measured tones giving him extra authority.

“And,” adds Guto, “‘Fuzzy Birds’, where we wire our hamster to power our house, is a classic example of Marxist theory.”

America is going to love Super Furry Animals.

SEEING AS though at this rate there’s a fair chance that next time the Super Furries visit America they’ll be doing so in manacles and chains, it seems like a good idea to do some sight-seeing. Gruff suggests the Statue Of Liberty, symbolising as it does freedom, justice, idealism, etc. Very appropriate, although the more lily-livered among us do balk slightly at the journey to get to its island base, aboard a battered old boat that looks like it last saw service in World War 2.

“I knew America would be hard,” understates Gruff, aboard the Staten Island ferry, en route to the Statue. “But we’re prepared to put the work in. It’s interesting that journalists from Spain and the New York Times come over to cover Welsh bands. But it doesn’t mean anything.

“We’re not under any pretension that we’re taking over the world,” he adds, looking quizzically at the ferry’s captain who has his jacket tucked inside his trousers and is grinning strangely. “But again, we listen to a lot of American stuff, space rock groups like Fuschia [eh?], Lintim Karl [double eh?], Beck and New York techno, so I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t get into it.”

Your reference points are very — well, I was going to say Welsh, but they’re not even that. They’re just Super Furry… Hamsters. Village idiots. “Hanging out with Howard Marks and the man from Sparks.” Howard Marks is an international drug dealer and Sparks may be Americans but they’re virtually unheard of in the USA.

“Yeah,” ponders Gruff. “And Scott Walker’s American, but he’s never had any of his records released in America. That’s crazy.”

“That also explains why I couldn’t find any,” moans Guto.

Also in America they expect you to play the game. I mean, Che Guevara T-shirts… You’ve got a drug dealer on the cover of your album!

“But he spent a large part of his life in the USA,” says Guto.

He pauses.

“Admittedly, most of it was in a penitentiary.”

Changing the subject, I ask Gruff if he’s had any problems because of his accent.

“I have difficulty in London,” he grins, clutching a bottle of (yes) Welsh mineral water from a shop near the hotel. “But here they’re used to strange languages, they’re not shocked by your accent. Has anybody else noticed the strong smell of alcohol and puke on this boat?”

I had, actually. Er, what if Super Furries became suddenly massive in America, like Nirvana, say? Would that excite you or would you find it frightening?

“It’d be interesting to try out” muses the Super, still smelling the air. “You couldn’t go back, no. But you don’t have to shoot yourself. Someone like Norman Greenbaum [remember ‘Spirit In The Sky’?] went into goat farming. He realised pop was not for him, so he made cheese.”

So if you tire of all this you’ll go off to make cheese?!

“Not necessarily,” he insists. “Captain Beefheart retired to the desert. But we’ve no intention of stopping. Touring the States, we’ll get to hear loads of new music, Japan too. It’s like a quest, seeing what they can give us. Our reference points will change. I should start writing now.”

Suddenly, a rosy-cheeked, grinning Captain Hogwash sends the ferry crashing against Manhattan docks, sending tourists and a shocked singer hurtling deckwards. If they can survive America, Super Furry Animals, like all three bands, will have come a long way.

PINKOS, PUNKS, PISTOLS…

DESPITE their name, 3 Colours Red aren’t communists, homosexuals or traffic light attendants, but an energetic, emotional Clash/Ruts-y trio who Alan McGee recently called “the third best live band in Britain” in the now infamous Sex Pistols ad. He would say that, wouldn’t he? But with their tattoos, riffs and echoes of The Wildhearts and the Pistols, 3CR seem an odd band for Creation to have signed. Perhaps, with Pete’s obsessive love of Nick Drake and The Verve, they’re just an odd band.

Pete is the one with the wry, subtle grin and sunglasses worn on head, LA babe-style. The thoughtful one. Chris is the punk. Impulsive. Speedy. They describe their music as “heavy punk” — hunk! And, oddly, they write songs via the post.

“He was living in Birmingham and I was in South Shields,” explains Chris. “We collaborated on songs by posting cassettes for two months before we even met.”

Wee-ird. And then there’s The Sex Pistols connection.

“Glen Matlock heard our tape and came down to rehearsals in London,” grins Chris, excitedly. “We did ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘Anarchy In The UK’.”

Wot? You played Pistols songs with a Pistol?

“Yeah. Pete was singin’. F***in’ excellent it was. Basically, Never Mind The Bollocks was the reason I started to play guitar. And Glen’s been a big supporter. Got us a gig at Finsbury. We met Paul and Steve Jones, who was exactly like I thought he would be. A big fat rogue.”

OK, you sound like The Clash, you’ve played with the Pistols, you like Nick Drake… any other surprises?

“We love Abba,” smiles Pete.

And their producer is Terry Thomas, and they’re not saying whether he is or isn’t the “dead great English eccentric comic genius”!

I give up.

STICKS, STONES, STEREO…

GEM DOES the interview striding up and down the sidewalk, anywhere to please. Gem, I discover while spending a few days around him, is basically A Good Bloke. A Very Good Bloke. The sort of bloke who doesn’t take badly to Difficult Questions. And, let’s face it, Difficult Questions have to be asked. Aside from a glowing review in MM, Heavy Stereo’s debut album Deja Voodoo hasn’t just been slaughtered, it has been hanged, disemboweled, quartered and sent off for use as petfood.

“Well, you either love us or you hate us, and if you hate us, fair enough!” states Gem, fairly enough. “We’re not a critics’ band. The whole idea of Heavy Stereo was to wind people up who are up their arse about music! But some critics who do get us, get us massively. It is about playing a record at four in the afternoon and literally levitating. It’s not about slitting your wrists. It does bug me when people think they’re big enough to slag it down. My head’s bigger than theirs, man.”

The Stereo stand accused of decidedly retro reference points — Chinese burns, Smiler badges. Chopper bikes…

“I have a lot of fun when I’m writing these lyrics. I’d never put Chopper bikes in a song,” he snaps, mildly bugged. “Bangers and mash is borderline! But why the f*** not? I’m singin’ ‘Ooh la la, which way we facing?’ And people are goin’, ‘It’s a bit like Rod Stewart’! Like I’m not allowed to do that! But that’s the plot, the wind-up. If we were from New York, we’d be The Beastie Boys, cos The Beasties are into Seventies cops. Those are their reference points.

“Are we accused of being retro in the same breath as Kula Shaker?” he splurts, infuriated. “Cast, are they retro? It’s a strange term and it’s becoming stranger every week.’Retro’ is retro. We’ve had 40 years of rock’n’roll. Also, it’s the end of the millennium and we’re all human. There’s gotta be a bit of that Friday night feeling.”

…of being journeymen, too many times around the block…

“I have a Past. I did me first gig when I was eight! Cos I ‘ad a guitar, singin’ ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ at school. This is my life. It’s not my career.”

…and, funnily enough…

“We’ve been called careerists, yeah. If I was a careerist, I wouldn’t be in Heavy Stereo. Have I changed in the last year? I’m getting very protective. Cos I care. I’m not the sort of person to go up and chin people.

“The drummer from Big Star came to our gig, and we’re probably the only band on Creation who don’t really know Big Star, cos they’re so reverential. And he said, ‘After 15 seconds, I knew. You’re the best band I’ve seen in five years.’ And he wants us to cover a Big Star track. It’s nice when people get it. It’s meant to be good fun.”

You might love or hate this band, but you’ve got to admire the way Gem talks it. And that live show was grrreat.

THATCHER, ACID, MENTAL CASES…

I HAVE A theory that Margaret Thatcher saved British rock.

The gist of it is this. Thatcher puts everybody on the dole. Now, on the dole, you have time on your hands to listen to all sorts of music, stuff you’d never have got around to in normal circumstances. You also have time to form a band, and day after day to plot and dream. But more importantly, a time on the dole alters your perspective, your viewpoint, your mindset more radically than any LSD trip. It’s no coincidence that Super Furries, Heavy Stereo and 3 Colours Red — like Happy Mondays, The Verve and The Stone Roses before them — have all spent long periods unemployed. For all the f***ing awful hardship and alienation, it does provide fertile conditions for the greatest rock music.

“I wouldn’t give Thatcher credit for that,” admonishes Guto. “But I know what you mean.”

“When I was first unemployed and leaving home at 17, I didn’t know how to live,” remembers Gruffy. “We wouldn’t eat for days on end, not because we were skint but because we couldn’t be bothered.”

I notice in Super Furries’ lyrics a particular obsession with household objects. Do lyrics like that arise from spending years staring at four walls?

“I dunno,” ponders Gruff. “Things like daytime television can affect you, you know. The banality of it all.”

Heavy Stereo’s Gem has also written of, “The caffeine glow of daytime television” while 3CR’s ‘Hollywood’ (which you may have heard on the recent MM tape) is about, “Being skint…”

All three bands have taken different things from their time at Thatcher’s pleasure. For Pete, it was a source of drive.

“I spent years tellin’ people I was gonna do this or that,” he remembers. “It turns you into a frustrated little twat. I had four-in-the-morning moments, panicking, suicidal. But now I’m glad we could be on the dole. Now they’ve got the Workfare thing going and bands who could be rehearsing are gonna be cleaning the streets.”

While on the dole, you can experiment. Don’t have to get up in the morning? Come this way.

“We were all between 18 and 21 when acid house came along,” remembers Gruff. “Probably the most important period of your life. Was Ecstasy important? Not necessarily… but the music was. Socially, it brought the band together.”

You’ve been influence by techno, though. I noticed at the gig a certain grinding, teeth-gnashing repetitive groove. And come on, ‘Something For The Weekend’ is an E song, isn’t it?

“There’s loads of bands picking up on a certain tradition of rock’n’roll,” he deflects. “And we’re just trying like f*** to avoid it. Listening to early Seventies music, punk. Sixties pop, obviously being open to hip hop and techno, but without…”

He pauses.

“We don’t wanna sound like Jesus Jones! It’s a crossover thing, but we’d prefer to make it subtle. Obviously it’s quite delirious, paranoid.”

Another pause.

“I’m not denying we’ve dabbled.”

“We know plenty of people who’ve lost it on acid, totally flipped,” Gruffy adds, inserting a measure of responsibility. “You’ve got to be aware of that. Like, Cian [SFA keyboardist] went to see The Orb in Manchester a few years ago with some mates, and now he’s the only one who hasn’t needed psychiatric treatment in an institution.”

F***

“A few years ago, everything went mad. It went crazy. I don’t think it’s like that any more, certainly not for us. You can’t keep that up. You have to step back. We’re more in control.”

Step back! Talking to Gruffy as I do repeatedly, I’m amazed by his awareness and the acute way he can analyse music. Most bands talk about “the feeling”. Not Gruffy. He’s the finest analyst this side of Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter. He talks about assimilation, technology, jamming as shamanistic power, making “ambitious” records, not necessarily coinciding with commercial ambitions. And just as Lou Reed wrote about New York, Gruffy is close to creating his own rock vocabulary, not just because of his odd reference points but also by singing English words in a Welsh accent, his language adopts a weird whimsical tone in the tradition of solo Colin Newman, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno… A natural experimentalism.

“I’ve never heard Colin Newman, but I’ve heard Wire,” admits Gruff. “Wyatt, Eno… I like them a lot, but it gets on my nerves sometimes, cos it’s so affected, y’know. When we were recording the album, it was the first time I’d sung in English, so I was trying out different accents. There are loads of accents on the album! Some of them, like ‘Gathering Moss’, are quite strange. I’m gradually getting more in control.”

Ah, that term “in control” again. Which may explain why Super Furry Animals retire to their hotel with a small bag of grass while Heavy Stereo and 3 Colours Red attend a Bluetones party held by notorious NY groupies The Rock Chicks, replete with girls, booze, and, er, everything else that you might think of in your wildest rock’n’roll dreams. It’s still going on, probably. Me and Steve Gullick were there — in the wrong room. Just call us sad c***s.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK

A MIGHTY storm brews up as we head for the airport which seems to suit everyone’s damp mood. Maybe it’s just the hangovers, but everyone seems a bit sad to be leaving. I ask what the bands feel they’ve achieved. What will they take home?

“Shitloads of clothes,” deadpans Guto.

“Another chapter for me diary when I’m old,” laughs 3CR’s Chris.

And Gem?

“It’s been a clean slate coming here,” he smiles, “and the gig represented what we are. Probably our best ever gig. So I’m going home happy.”

“I’ve got a stiff neck from looking up,” moans Gruff.

“The future?” he muses. “It’s funny, cos by writing a song about Howard Marks, we got to meet him, hang out with him. He DJ’d in our tank at Reading. Coming here, the sky’s the limit, really. Maybe I’ll start writing about Brian Wilson, or US rebels. Red Indian chiefs. Maybe, next time, I’ll be taken to meet the leader of the Zapatista rebels in Mexico, led through the forest by armed guards.”

Oh Jesus.

Airport!

© Dave SimpsonMelody Maker, 28 September 1996

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