Super Furry Animals: Dig the new breed

Super Furry Animals are a band like no other. As their sixth, and arguably finest, album is released, they talk to Steve Jelbert about success, Stalin and smart eggs
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The Independent Culture

Gruff Rhys, the mellifluous singer of Super Furry Animals, who is 33 today, could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic. His band have recently moved offices from one side of a Cardiff alleyway to the other, and plenty of strange reminders of their eventful career seem to be re-emerging unexpectedly as unpacking continues. There are champagne bottles from grateful promoters, and long-lost merchandise such as SFA crockery (thanks!), and rediscovered awards - a hideous piece of third-year metalwork recognising their contributions to Welsh music, an NME-sponsored Brat award in the shape of a solid fist giving the world the finger (how we laughed) and a curious piece of sculpture awarded to nominees for the Mercury music prize, commemorating a telecommunications company that no longer exists. ("But it means that you exist as a band. It's official," says the guitarist Huw "Bunf" Bunford.)

Next week, 10 years into their career, the Welshmen release their sixth album, the wonderful Phantom Power. As usual, hopes are high among their loyal supporters that this could be the one, the record that will finally win this ever-imaginative and eclectic band their place as a true national treasure. Effortlessly slipping between the glorious balladry of the languid "Hello Sunshine", the surprisingly aggressive rock of the disgusted "Out of Control" and the techno-inflected, epic closer "Slow Life" ("Rocks are slow life," sings Rhys, clearly in it for the long haul), it beguiles without giving up its secrets easily. In short, it's another great Super Furry Animals record, possibly the greatest yet.

Not that the band have any particular expectations for it. As Rhys points out, "The fact that we haven't had phenomenal success means that we've been able to make more records. If you have a huge hit, you have to tour arenas in every country on earth for three years, and you don't get to make records." He shrugs. "We do tour, but we've also been able to be prolific with our output. Next to our friends in Cardiff, we're incredibly lucky. We're not huge anywhere, but we've got a following. We can tour the world and have an adventure," he says, very slowly. (It has been claimed that Rhys's fabulously lugubrious tones are a consequence of his having to translate from his native tongue into English as he speaks, though apparently he is no more animated in Welsh.)

Having adventures would seem to be preferable to simply following the usual album-tour-album-tour business model. Furryworld remains a strange and wonderful place where tales abound and non-sequiturs are the natural course. A conversation with the trio is endlessly bizarre and engaging, as subjects turn from the weakening effect that Toyah Willcox's presenting a sex guide on TV had on the British male sperm count ("There's no excuse for that") to an acquaintance who lives "in a shack in the forest where he makes electric harps for a living with Elton John's brother". When the Christian Gothic dullards Evanescence are mentioned, they just can't resist the urge to yelp, "Evans? Are they Welsh?"

Of course their reputation makes them nutter magnets too. After their recent show in Bethesda, Rhys's home village in North Wales, one of their retinue was approached by members of the local "axing" team, who hoped to take their artistic lumberjackery to a wider audience. "They wanted to make objects on stage with us, to the music," says a disbelieving Rhys, for once unable to stifle his laughter.

They've even managed to offend the normally apathetic mass of American youth. "We got a drive-by after the show on the last tour in Baltimore," explains Rhys. "We got pelted with eggs, after being accosted about the 'political' nature of the show. Which wasn't very politically correct, of course. They were shouting things like, 'Fuck off back to Europe!'"

"We thought that was very clever - they knew where Britain was," adds Pryce. "They didn't go, 'Fuck off back to Mexico!'"

"It was very 1950s, a very wholesome drive-by," says Rhys. "The promoter caught one of the eggs whole. She threw it back through the open window of their car and they fled."

"They must have thought we had smart eggs," says a deadpan Pryce.

Even the friendly lunatics can go to extremes. Take the crowd at the Bethesda mini-festival. "By 4pm, 22,000 pints had been drunk; by 5pm, 30,000," says an awed Rhys.

"Someone bought a thousand cans of beer from Londis. Imagine being in the queue behind him," adds Bunf.

It's not as though they haven't had opportunities to sell out. "We turned down the Vodafone campaign with Beckham in it," says Rhys. (Cue boos all round at the mention of the well-known shirt salesman.) "When we didn't want to do it, they were confused. They said, 'Name your price', so we said £5m. They didn't get back to us."

"Sixty grand to sell out," adds Pryce, shaking his head at the memory of another advertising pitch.

"We're worth more than that," concludes Bunf. The thought of "Rings Around the World", a song about information overload, being used to promote what it berates reinforces their stance.

"From that point onwards," says Rhys, "you've lost all credibility. Anything you say is suspect. It's nice to reserve the right to be political, if at any given time you want to say something." (But they might consider an offer from the brewers of Red Stripe.)

They've been stung before. "We did the soundtrack for Actua Soccer, the inferior soccer game. We chose our team and did a list of players we wanted - Bob Marley, Che Guevara, Holgar Czukay from Can - and they lost it," says Pryce. "So they put Stalin in our team!" says an incredulous Bunf. "I ended up playing next to Stalin in midfield."

Yet they have left a mark over the past decade. The first band to release a concurrent DVD with an album, for 2001's Rings Around the World, they repeat the trick with Phantom Power, its accompanying disc featuring animations from their long-time collaborator Pete Fowler and his enigmatic cohort, one Paris Hair. Myng, from 2000, remains the most successful Welsh-language album ever ("We toured it in the US and Japan, because we're awkward bastards"), reaching the national Top 20. And who can forget the immortal "The Man Don't Give a Fuck", the only Top 30 hit to boast 53 uses of a certain curse word? Rhys even silenced the unsettingly prolix MTV presenter Zane Lowe when he appeared on the station to debut some tunes from Phantom Power.

And anyone can access their world for the price of a record. Here's to many more Furry years.

'Phantom Power' is released by Sony on Monday