Super Furry Animals: Heavenly creatures

The genre-hopping Super Furry Animals took themselves around the world to make their blissfully unconventional new album. James McNair hears about love crafts and peace tanks, pterodactyls and Creationists, and how they are not Fleetwood Mac
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Quizzed about this remark in a bar in Soho, London, a month later, Rhys is receptive but unrepentant. "It was maybe insensitive to bring it up, but that was what I genuinely felt. Everybody in this band was on the march against the war in Iraq, and I think once war was declared we all expected it to hit back home at some point. You know, we have to travel the world with a British passport, and we get turned into targets if our government declares irrational wars.

"We weren't sure whether we should play that night," Rhys continues, "but friends we knew in London who'd had close shaves with the bombs wanted to go out to the gig and have a drink. I do still hold the current administration responsible. That's my belief and I'm still angry about it."

Politics aside, anger isn't an emotion one would readily associate with Rhys. Sparkly of eye and beatific of smile, he and SFA's guitarist Huw "Bunf" Bunford seem to approach life with all the urgency of geriatric sloths. False starts and silences punctuate the pair's carefully formulated responses, and during one particularly slow-burning sentence, I notice Rhys is still wearing an artist-ID wristband from a gig eight days earlier.

"A lot of it is that we don't have stock answers," says Bunford. "Plus, we change our minds a lot."

"When we started out, we got pushed into the idea that interviews were much better if we were off our faces," offers the bearded, bushy-haired Rhys. "We got a lot of weird quotes because the journalist would be quoting some friend of ours who had been part of a two-day binge."

Today, we've met to talk about Love Kraft, the band's seventh studio album. A decade has elapsed since the Cardiff-formed quintet signed to Alan McGee's Creation label (they are now with Sony BMG), but, as the new album underlines, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Big on genre-hopping, inventive of lyric, and rammed with busy, tangential arrangements, Love Kraft bears many of SFA's established hallmarks. But while 2003's Phantom Power was mixed in the dead of winter in the concrete jungle that is London's Elephant and Castle, the new album took shape in sunny Figueres, Catalonia, and a balmy suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Bunford says that they mixed the album in South America at the behest of the record's Brazilian-born producer, Mario Caldato, the sometime Beastie Boys knob-twiddler who was also responsible for mixing Phantom Power. With recording of Love Kraft all but nailed in Spain, moreover, the temptation to "go Brazilica" while fine-tuning its songs in Rio was easier to resist.

"We had fantasies of [Brazilian bossa-nova legend] Marcos Valle doing backing vocals, and getting Rogerio Duprat [the George Martin of the Tropicalia movement] to arrange the strings," says Rhys, his words coming two or three at a time. "Ultimately, we thought it would be a bit too embarrassing."

"Yeah, we didn't want to go to Brazil and plagiarise their culture," chips in Bunford. "We're five guys from Wales who haven't seen enough sun to be able to samba legally."

With or without Rogerio Duprat, Love Kraft did seem to warrant strings. Back in Blighty, the band turned to the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan, a fellow Beach Boys aficionado and time-served SFA collaborator. Working from a band-whistled blueprint, he delivered string arrangements for six of the album's 12 songs. "He really applies his ear to your music; he's not giving you something generic," says Bunford of O'Hagan. Listening to the latter's sultry, simpatico arrangement for "Walk You Home", one would have to agree with that assessment.

"For 'Psyclone!'," expands Rhys, "I think I proposed something between 'Rock On' by David Essex and the theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Sean can pick up on any pop-culture reference and understand it completely. If I went to a regular string-arranger... I mean, I don't know where they live, but it would very problematic trying to explain myself."

"Psyclone!" serves as a good example of the inventive subject-matter of Super Furry Animal's lyrics. "Pterodactyl/ Brontosaurus/ Tyrannosaurus rex..." runs the song's roll-call of dinosaurs over clunky percussion and fat synthesiser, "...the meteorite is coming on down." Rhys says his lyrics for the song were rewritten three times, and that his first draft was more political and possibly superior. The fact that the human beings in the song arrive in a spaceship, he says, was a dig at Creationists.

"The ultimate moral of the song," he concludes, "is that when you are crossing the road, you should look right and left, but you should also look up, because you never know what's going to hit you. It's kind of an update on the Green Cross Code for the new millennium."

If "Psyclone!" is a winning flight of fantasy, even it is eclipsed by "Ohio Heat", a hook-laden, deftly modulating pop song that's crying out for single release. Based around a fictional 19th-century character of Rhys's invention, the song follows the fortunes of Welsh émigrée Salty Marine, and is sung from the perspective of her first love. "She gets pregnant and they try to hide her in a convent," says Rhys, "but then she escapes and drowns, possibly in the Ohio River, or some other river with stronger currents. I like to think it still has relevance today."

Location(s) of its creation aside, another factor that distinguishes Love Kraft from previous SFA albums is its breakdown of duties. In including songs sung by four of the band's five members, it seems to further extend the democratic modus operandi that has long seen Super Furry Animals split their songwriting royalties evenly.

Rhys: "It's chaos, actually."

Bunford: "But what is 'democracy', eh?"

Rhys: "Some things get agreed telepathically and some things are voted on. There can be a veto if people feel strongly enough."

Bunford: "We talk about stuff. A lot of bands don't do that. There's no lawyers in between."

Rhys: "Yeah, it's not Fleetwood Mac."

But what if there was an elected leader in the band - might that make their level of quality control higher still?

"It wouldn't be a band if we did that," says Rhys. "It's all about the chemistry, isn't it? This is a journey that we chose to go on together for musical and hedonistic reasons."

"There was a suggestion that we all mix a song each," chips in Bunford after another protracted tumbleweed moment. "Our manager just looked at us. I think he thought it was democracy gone mad."

Rhys says that, as the stockpile of songs for Love Kraft increased, it became apparent that those penned by drummer Dafydd Ieuan and keyboardist Cian Ciaran particularly came from the heart. The album's title was thus coined to reflect what at that stage looked likely to be a collection of love songs, but - with love of aliens and love of the road cropping up, too - a conventional batch of chansons d'amour it is not.

Arrangements-wise, surprises come thick and fast. "Found sounds" this time include that of Bunford diving into a swimming pool, the buzzing of a Brazilian electrical substation, and the sound of pool balls being caressed. As on previous SFA albums, a diversity of timbres and the deliberate use of sonic glitches conjure a mixing desk helmed by mad scientists, their decisions about what to keep or lose sometimes seeming almost arbitrary.

"Yeah, I know what you're getting at," says Rhys. "That's our way and our Achilles' heel, because we're drawn to musical excess. Take something like 'The Undefeated' from Phantom Power. I wanted to take it in a country-and-western direction, so I mixed in some pedal steel. I go for a cup of tea, and by the time I get back somebody's mixed it out. I go mental and put it back in, but when I come back from my next tea break, somebody's covered it in [swirling studio sound effect] flange."

"Sometimes it's a compromise," says Bunford, "and sometimes someone's argument is so violently persuasive that it wins the day."

Drily humorous, Rhys and Bunford are so deadpan that you are never quite sure whether or not your leg is being pulled. Some post-interview research substantiates their claim that they sold the aforementioned "peace tank" to Eagles drummer Don Henley for £9,000 ("He drives it around his ranch in California, and he's painted it back to its original military colours, which is a bit of a shame," says Rhys), but a question about the 100-strong Catalan choir that supposedly graces Love Kraft has them fessin' up.

"Actually, that's a fib," says Rhys. "It's 12 students from Cardiff that we bumped up to about 60 by overdubbing them using the computer. A 100-piece Catalan monastery choir sounds more impressive though, doesn't it?"

Quizzed further about their working holidays in the sun, Rhys and Bunford remark that they were much impressed with Catalonia's powerful landscape. Exploring the Pyrenees in a beaten-up van that "looked a bit like the Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo", they would attend fiestas in small mountain villages at the weekends, then knuckle down to recording in Figueres during the week. Naturally, they also found time to visit the city's Salvador Dali museum. "I think his work's pretty tacky, but he led an interesting life," opines Rhys. "I suppose he was the Tracey Emin of his day."

When the backdrop shifted to Rio de Janeiro, Bunford was delighted to learn that one of the recording engineers enlisted by Mario Caldato had once played football with Romario de Souza Faria, the Brazilian World Cup ace. "I got him [the engineer] to show me how to flick up the ball all in one movement," says the guitarist. "I find it's easier in flip-flops - that's the authentic beach-football way."

Our interview time almost up, we return to politics. Is the "agit-pop" label that's sometimes applied to SFA's music something they are comfortable with?

"We don't feel we have social or political responsibilities," says Rhys. "We got together for musical and hedonistic reasons. But we do have political frustrations, and sometimes they come out in our lyrics or how we present ourselves live. We're not apathetic people."

As a politicised band, were they disappointed, then, to read of original protest-song hero Bob Dylan selling his music via Starbucks?

"I don't know about disappointed, but I wasn't surprised," says Bunford.

"I suppose he's one of those rare people who can do whatever he likes and it won't affect his critical standing," says Rhys diplomatically.

Famously, of course, Super Furry Animals once had their own offer from a beverage-industry giant. But even when Coca-Cola doubled its offer to seven figures, the band declined to let the multinational use their music in a worldwide advert. This was principled stuff, certainly, but couldn't they have taken the cash and put it to a number of philanthropic uses?

"Possibly," says Rhys, "but ultimately you've got to hear your own voice on telly selling a product that you hate, you know? Obviously it would make a big difference financially, but we get to make a living making music, and that's amazing in itself. We're holding out for that Red Stripe advert in Jamaica. We could probably stomach that and live happily ever after."

'Love Kraft' is out on Sony BMG on Monday