SFA frontman Gruff Rhys talks about the band's album, Phantom Power.
Last updated: 28 January 2009
"The voices at the beginning are a sample of Wendy and Bonnie. There's a sense of loss in the sample: a sense of longing. I suppose it's a courting ballad with a 'been so down looks like up to me' mentality. It's easy to wallow in misery, it's the most comfortable place to be. But it's always worth trying to get out of it."
"For this I devised cartoon characters called Liberty Belle and Memory Lane, and Liberty Belle I suppose represents the bells of freedom and Memory Lane represents history's harsh lessons that Liberty Belle always forgets. Liberty Belle represents the American Dream, which is all conquering and has no fear. She's young, innocent and carefree, skipping along.
"Memory Lane is the flipside, the one that's learnt from history's harsh realities. It's sung from the perspective of a bird living almost in a parallel universe to humans, oblivious to the gravity of the games which are being played around us. I think that's how I feel a lot of the time, and a lot of other people do too."
"I listen to a lot of people like Davey Graham, a lot of British folk and bluesmen and European acoustic musicians from the 50s and 60s, and musically Golden Retriever has that kind of feel. The lyrics are a blues parody - "I met the devil at the roundabout". I tried to update blues vocabulary, because I think that one of the things that bothers me most about rock and roll music is that people keep regurgitating the same words. I try to make my own clichés, you know?
"It also coincided with passing my driving test a few years back, which had a great affect on my life. In studying for my theory test I had to absorb a lot of road sign and driving theory vocabulary, which has made its way into songs like Golden Retriever and Valet Parking."
Sex, War & Robots
"Bunf discovered the pedal steel during the recording of the last album and he's played it on Hello Sunshine and Bleed Forever. On this one we got a pedal steel player from Cardiff called John 'Catfish' Thomas for this track. There are a lot of songs on this record about broken relationships and war, and I think they go hand in hand, but always with a positive outlook to the future."
"Piccolo Snare is a song about societies torn apart by war and the waste of human life for nothing, pawns in a worthless game. A lot of the vocabulary for that song comes from the Falklands War, the Malvinas War, whatever you want to call it: 'Tumbledown' and 'Skyhawks', etcetera. It could be about any war, but that was a war I remembered from when I was a kid where people from my area were dying, as the media tried to maintain some ridiculous degree of jingoism.
"Apart from using the vocabulary it's generally a song about people's misguided belief in flags. All flags are tarnished; they were only invented so that people wouldn't shoot their own side in the war. It's a song in at least three parts. It starts off folk rock in feel, and builds up to a cosmic funk coda!"
Venus And Serena
"It's about a child, who can't communicate with his elders, growing up with two pet tortoises called Venus and Serena. But he feels that the reptiles understand. I suppose it's similar to Liberty Belle in that sense, in that in this day and age the turtle seems to take on an image of wisdom compared to the people elected to governors.
"It uses tennis vocabulary to make the point. Venus and Serena have beautiful names and they seem to have exemplary powers. I think it's about making pictures in people's minds.
"I'm trying to get into balladeering and narrative in songs, but I don't think I've perfected it by any means. You can put this one down to my struggle with narrative! After a song like Piccolo Snare you need a bit of light to make sure that people don't go out and jump off the nearest bridge. We feel we have some social responsibility to uplift people."
Father Father #1 and #2
"These were in the DADDAD tunings. I think it puts some breathing space in the album. They also help to join songs together in mood, they help to bring the album down, or build it up again and give it some kind of consistency. They were originally the bookends of the song-cycle."
"Bleed Forever is about the radiation that descended all over North Wales after Chernobyl, and the general proliferation of nuclear power stations in the area. There was a huge increase in leukaemia in children and some livestock are still not allowed to be sold on the market. There's even a Geiger counter feel to Cian's synth on this song!
"This was recorded pretty much live. Often during a live take I sing the wrong lyric, so the line about the skin care consultant ended up staying in. I suppose we didn't care necessarily if it was in tune or not just as long as it sounded human. I suppose it's about how you don't see radiation and how you don't really know if it's affecting you or not. And how it could wipe whole cultures out. Another invisible, or 'phantom', power source."
Out Of Control
"It's our most Iron Maiden song. I think Golden Retriever is pretty heavy rock as well. I think it's pre-metal, if you want to get technical. 'Ninja Jihad' sounds like a ridiculous cartoon character. They're very flippant lyrics, they just regurgitate what we see: everything seems out of control. It's like an over-dramatic theme to a current affairs programme! Again it's in DADDAD. It balances out the album - musically it wakes it up when it could fall asleep."
"When we went to Colombia in 1997 we got invited to this Marxist village, they were having this five day fiesta to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the murder of the local landowner. It's a song inspired by that, but moved to a Russian pre-Revolutionary setting! We have such a derivative chorus at the end to counterbalance lines like 'she came in smelling of cabbages'."
"The album builds up to an uplifting ending, into an euphoric climax. I think Valet Parking lifts it up a gear. It's a song I actually wrote while driving, which I wouldn't recommend to anyone if they want to keep their license. We tried to recreate a traffic jam in rural Monmouthshire we mic'd up four of our cars, and revved them in time to the track.
"It's about a road trip from Cardiff to Vilnius. It's a love song to the process, to the road. Apart from Autobahn by Kraftwerk not enough songs have been written about the glories of pan-European travel. The title is also a reference to the Brazilian songwriter Marcos Valle, who this song is dedicated to."
"It's about underdogs, and over-dogs. It's a real simple lyric. "Noise pollution solution"... It's a pop song with biblical references, and no specific issue or event in mind, although I probably wrote it when the Welsh football team were going through their worse period of results in their history. It just shows how sometimes your fantasies can come true, and now the song, apart from the title, doesn't fit at all. It's about, even at your lowest, seeing a ray of light."
"It's the most epic song on the album - it was either going to start it or finish it because it dwarfs all the other songs. It starts off with an electro cop show style intro, which we jammed on top of and Sean O'Hagan did some amazing strings. The lyrics are just regurgitating what we hear on the news, recycled, vomiting them all back. I like the idea that even the mountains have memories and that people don't forget things easily."
"Speakers and microphones work on phantom power, there's no batteries and they're not connected to the mains, and yet they work. Similarly, as a band our make up is the same as anybody else and yet we write songs and play music to people, and we have no idea why. It's a mysterious power source. I like the idea of it, a phantom power that nobody understands.
"'Phantom Power' also sounds like a sinister power source that controls the world from beyond people's comprehension. And a lot of the things that go on today seem completely illogical and I think we watch the world go by with disbelief. We seem to be living in such a heavy time. We're just absorbing all the words thrown at us from the TV and regurgitating them back.
"I suppose it's almost unavoidable that lyrics like that are coming out at this point when almost all our entertainment is based around war. Musically as a band we tend to regurgitate what we absorb from our record collections, and lyrically I suppose the same goes, the topics of conversations over the last couple of years have been based around violence more than usual. We've been put on high-paranoia alert by the media! There are a lot of songs on this record about broken relationships and war, and I think they go hand in hand. But always with a positive outlook to the future.
"Phantom Power was recorded in our own studio late at night in an office block in Cardiff. We'd erect tents in the corridors at nights to record acoustic guitars and we'd have to take them all down in the morning before other people our neighbours came to work.
"There's a dressmaker next door, an interior designers the other side, on the floor above is No.Brake, the people who do our website and have been producing the DVD, so we could work on the visuals and the sound simultaneously. Our percussionist Kris Jenkins has a studio downstairs and he was working on our remixes and the dressmaker was made some balloons for one of the films. I think the whole building was involved at some point.
"We didn't really feel any pressure to show off, we just wanted to impress ourselves. The last record was the first for our new label, and we wanted to make a completely over the top ambitious album because it might have been the only chance we'd get to make the sort of album where we could hire engineers and expensive studios for a crazy length of time. We took full advantage of it - that was our brief to ourselves.
"It was a similar approach to our first album where we were used to recording in Gorwel Owen's house. We saw Fuzzy Logic as an opportunity to spend six weeks in a residential studio with a Jacuzzi and three meals a day. I think we would have made a better sounding album back in our Gorwel Owen's house. And we did with Radiator.
"Similarly with this album we didn't feel any pressure to make a follow up to Rings Around The World production-wise, we were able to follow our own noses and experiment with engineering it ourselves. I think it's warmer; we wanted to make a more human record. The last one was made by scientists and a computer. To a certain extent there's less to talk about and more to listen to on this album."