AfterDark Talks with Super Furry Animals' Cian Ciaran

This coming Friday in Cardiff marks the comeback of arguably one of its most revered exports – as 90’s psych-indie kings Super Furry Animals grace the Cardiff University Great Hall on May 1st.

With a sell-out crowd awaiting the return of the Welsh rock icons, not an ounce of the huge sense of anticipation is lost over SFA member/synth maestro Cian Ciarán. Yet he shrugs off any nerves in his imitable laid-back, unassuming manner.

As if returning to duties as the synth wizard of SFA for their first UK tour in six years wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he has many other things to keep him occupied – he is currently touring with his new band Zefur Wolves (with his partner Estelle Ios among the line-up) in promotion of their self-titled debut album released earlier this month, and a solo album coinciding with the general election is set for release this summer.

In addition to that, he splits his spare time running Strangetown Records, the Cardiff record label founded by himself and his brother/fellow SFI alumni Dafydd Ieuan, with artists including his partner Estelle’s band Baby Queens and The Earth among its roster.

Luckily, AfterDark’s Dean Hodge managed to catch Cian on one of his rare breaks at his house in Cardiff – which he spends watching his beloved Manchester City beating West Brom, and during halftime catching up with the Wales vs Italy Six Nations game.

In between watching the footie, Cian talks about the impending SFA comeback, the trip to California that inspired Zefur Wolves’ debut album, working with his partner Estelle Ios, how SFA first got signed and the moment when they decided to spend ten grand on an army tank!

DEAN: This May marks your long-awaited comeback gigs in Cardiff with Super Furry Animals. How are you feeling in the lead-up to it?

CIAN: The general response has been brilliant. Even though we haven’t played as our SFA incarnation for a while, we’ve all still been in close contact so we’ve never really been away. But we’ve been talking about returning as Super Furry Animals on-and-off for months, and now that we’re doing it it’s great to see the excitement and anticipation bubbling out there. The shows have sold really well so the pressure’s on to deliver.

DEAN: Considering this is SFA’s first tour in six years and so much has happened with you since then, does it feel a little strange returning to the stage with SFA?

CIAN: Perhaps one element of it that is strange is going through most of our older material which I admit I haven’t heard in years.

Prior to discussing our setlists for the shows, I listened to four of our albums – the first time I’ve probably listened to any of them in nearly a decade! Whenever I’ve finished an album, I tend to never listen to it again because I’ve already heard it a thousand times when recording and mixing it.

It felt a bit like going back to school doing your homework in a way. It was great to go back to some of our old material and each track brought with it a lot of great memories.

DEAN: Alongside SFA’s comeback, you’re on the road with your other band Zefur Wolves. Can you expand on the origins of the band?

CIAN: Estelle Ios and our guitarist Zirian Tahirili really started the whole idea for Zefur Wolves. We had to put the live aspect on hold when he went off to Canada for a long period. Eventually, we reunited and after having recorded the album, we brought bassist Trystan Palfrey and drummer Danny Wall on board to complete the line-up .

They all bring their influences to the table and we’ve already begun planning the next album which I’m really excited about. We’re looking to go back into the studio after the summer and festival season and explore some new ideas.

DEAN: Zefur Wolves released their eponymous debut album this month. How did you find the recording process for the album?

CIAN: Most of the songs are written by Estelle. She began writing the majority of them years ago, but she’s never had the opportunity to envisage or execute them.

We went away for a while to California where we finished writing and recording the demos for the album. The place we stayed was very much a retreat from the rest of the world – no Internet, no mobile phone, no television. All we had was a radio and vinyl record player, but no records only so we could listen to our friends’ record collection. We could simply switch off, unplug and focus on writing the album. Eventually, we came home and finished recording it in the Stangetown Records studio in Cardiff.

DEAN: How much did your experience in California seep into the lyrical content of the album?

CIAN: We met and became friends with a lady over there called Rosario, and she was telling us about how she first crossed the border into America when she was sixteen. Her exact dialogue in Spanish ended up forming the centre point of the second track on the album Sin Fronteras (No Borders).

We also attended Pomo Indian ceremonies and learned a lot about their culture. It was poignant for us to see how much they’re fighting to keep their culture alive in the modern world. It’s those type of experiences you learn to cherish, and it’s an opportunity not many people get which we’re lucky to have.

DEAN: Where can fans see Zefur Wolves perform later this year?

CIAN: We’re slowly adding more dates as we’re going on. Merthyr Rising is the next show on May 30th and then on to Bangor on June 5th. Both Zefur Wolves and Super Furry Animals will be playing Green Man Festival between August 20th-23rd.

DEAN: What was it like making the Zefur Wolves album with your partner?

CIAN: I like to think we have a mutual respect for each other’s creative inputs. Estelle has such a broad knowledge and love of music, and a clear vision of what she wants. She certainly listens to music more than I do, so I always learn a lot from her.

It was great that we had our own ideas for the album, and were able to combine and channel them in a way that ultimately made the album as real to our vision as we could want it to be. It’s great to have worked with her, and to get to tour the album with her and the rest of the band.

DEAN: You also have a solo album coming out soon. Can you give more details of that?

CIAN: It’s set for release in July, and is a protest album coinciding with the general election. I’ve collaborated with a number of different artists, many of them poets and spoken word artists who haven’t put their words to music before. The tracks were written in the build-up to the general election, but I think they’ll be just as relevant post-election too.

DEAN: Outside of performing, you co-run the Cardiff label Strangetown Records – along with your brother and SFA drummer Dafydd Ieuan. How did the label first come about? 

CIAN: It was originally just a studio that myself and Daf set up for ourselves about a decade ago. From there we’d record our own projects as well as some SFA B-sides. When SFA took a break, rather than waiting for other labels to reply if they want to put out the tunes we’d been producing from the studio, we simply decided to set up our own label as an outlet for ourselves.

As we began to work with more bands over the last few years, we’ve been able to further develop the studio with more equipment. We’re not really a label completely in the ‘business’ sense – Strangetown is more a ‘label of love’.

DEAN: One of the Strangetown stablemates is Estelle’s band Baby Queens. What is it like to work with them, and can you tell me more about the debut album which is in the pipeline?

CIAN: The bulk of the songs Baby Queens have recorded so far have stemmed from just jamming and bouncing ideas off from each other. My role in the recording process is as a soundboard to offer them my opinion on how I think their ideas should sound. They then lay the instruments and vocals down, and it’s basically a continued two-way process until we get the desired effect.

We started work on the album a few months back. We’re hoping to have a single out by early summer, and then the full album out in autumn.

DEAN: Drawing on your thoughts on the Welsh music scene, from SFA’s beginnings in the 1990’s to today, how much do you think it has evolved?

CIAN: In terms of how hard it is to get yourself heard as an artist/band, the scene today isn’t that different to the one SFA started out in. Because it’s a smaller scene in Wales, the artists here maybe have to work that bit harder to get themselves noticed.

Perhaps what has changed is how easy it is to access music with all the technology out there, so it’s easier for artists to record music themselves and self-release it, rather than have to wait for a record deal first.

Then there’s initiatives like BBC Horizons Cymru which are nudging artists in the right direction, although it’s up to the artists themselves to make the most of it. There’s no formula to getting noticed or signed. It just depends on being in the right place at the right time.

DEAN: How did you come to getting signed with Creation, and what was it like to work with them?

CIAN: We were gigging in London towards the end of 1995 and were eventually approached by Alan McGee from Creation. Someone said that he thought the set was great but he wanted us to play in English. We were actually playing in English – he just couldn’t understand our accent!

We had a very healthy relationship with Creation. They gave us free reign to do our own thing and didn’t interfere much in the creative process. But they were very creative in how we could spend our money and promote ourselves.

DEAN: One of my favourite stories of SFA is when you were given £10,000 to spend on promotional posters. Instead you spent it all on a tank, painted it blue, added a soundsystem and took it around festivals!

It worked brilliantly in that it gained even more promotion for the band than a few posters would have. When did the band first come up with the idea?

CIAN: Honestly, those days are a bit hazy to me now, but from what I remember the conversation about it took place one night in some pub in London which seems pretty accurate.

John Andrews from Creation, who was in charge of our marketing, met up with us there to discuss promoting our next single at the time If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You, and said we had ten grand on which to spend on posters.

Dafydd Ieuan (SFA drummer) said we could buy a tank for the same amount of money. We ended up going up to Nottingham and bought one from this arms dealer for ten grand, which we intended to sell back for about eight grand. Then we painted it, added this soundsystem to it and installed a DJ booth inside it.

It ended up being the best money we spent, because even today the tank is still often talked about. You certainly wouldn’t remember a poster campaign in the same way.

Super Furry Animals commence their first UK tour in six years tomorrow in Gloucester Guildhall (Apr 28th)before returning to Cardiff this weekend from Fri 1st- Mon 3rd May at Cardiff University’s Great Hall.

The 15th anniversary deluxe reissue of Mwng is released this Fri 1st May and is available to pre-order, while the eponymous debut album by Zefur Wolves is available to buy now.

By Dean Hodge

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