They're putting their money where their mouths are

Super Furry Animals' fourth album, Mwng, took two weeks and £6,000 to make. Why didn't they get round to making a record in their native tongue sooner?
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The scene is the stuff of picture postcards. There is a long, gravelly drive and a gleaming lake where otters make frequent appearances. The huge lawn in front of the house is surrounded by thick woodland and fields ablaze with oil-seed rape.

It is an exquisite setting that is disrupted by five fully grown men careering across the grass in motor-driven wheelchairs. We are at a recording studio in the Monnow Valley, just outside Monmouth, where the Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals have already started work on their fifth album. They are, it appears, easily distracted. They hired the wheelchairs a few days ago, but won't tell us why. Someone mumbles something about a video; their PR looks rather worried.

We are here to discuss the band's fourth album, Mwng (which rhymes with lung and is Welsh for "mane"), a collection of songs sung in Welsh. The album cost £6,000 (as opposed to the usual six-figure sum) and took only two weeks to make. Gruff Rhys, the band's singer, says he is proud of the album, though he is steeling himself for ridicule. He thinks it will be an achievement if they sell more than 15,000 copies. In reality, it will probably sell many more than that.

Mwng may be the band's most elliptical work so far, but it's also their best. Stripped of the bleeps and squelches that usually frequent Super Furrys albums, it has an understated and pleasingly raw feel. It is light years away from last year's upbeat and relentlessly optimistic Guerrilla album. Even if you haven't the faintest idea what he is singing about (the band have posted a translation on the internet), Rhys reveals a greater emotional range than before. Is this because he is more comfortable singing in his first language?

"Maybe. The most difficult album for me was Fuzzy Logic [their first album] because I didn't know how to sing in English. I had no idea what to do with my voice. I didn't know which accent was my English accent - I was convinced I sounded American."

The band first met in Cardiff. Rhys and drummer Daffyd Ieuan were playing in a Welsh-language band called Ffa Coffi Pawb. After recruiting keyboardist Cian Ciaran, bassist Guto Pryce and guitarist Huw Bunford, they evolved into Super Furry Animals and signed to the now-defunct Creation Records in 1995, on the condition that they could release songs in Welsh and have St David's Day off.

With three critically acclaimed albums - Fuzzy Logic, Radiator and last year's Guerrilla - the band have often flirted with chart success. In the eyes of their fans, though, they are far from the mainstream. Mwng is certainly a bold and serious statement from a band best known for blowing up 40-foot teddy bears on stage and dressing up as gorillas. "By singing in Welsh, I'm not trying to score political points," assures Rhys. "The reason we got into a band together was because of our love of music. If the album is politicised, it is only because of the precarious nature of the language".

Rhys, who grew up in a Welsh-speaking area in north-west Wales, started learning English around the age of five but rarely used it until his late teens; a far cry from the situation at the turn of the century, when Welsh was still banned from schools in Wales. "My grandfather made a point of speaking Welsh when he was a kid and got beaten every day for it." Rhys's father, who died recently, took up the crusade and tirelessly campaigned for the Welsh language. Now Rhys feels it's his turn.

"The language has virtually been stamped out," he explains. "A hundred and twenty years ago, most of Newport was Welsh-speaking. Probably less than 5 per cent is now. Did you know that the Welsh language has no official status in Wales? There is certain provision made for it, but there's no comprehensive Welsh Language Act. When companies start bilingual campaigns, it has usually come not through government directives but from Welsh-speaking people. Banks were forced into operating bilingually here because people started supergluing their cash machines."

Over the years, Super Furry Animals have released Welsh songs sporadically, but this is their first fully formed Welsh album. So why did they wait until now?

"People seemed curious about our Welsh songs," says Rhys. "In a way, we were very unhelpful in the first place by singing in English. Everyone in the band speaks Welsh first, so it makes sense for us to do this." Rhys also believes that the band have been suffering from an identity problem in their own country. "I think a lot of people initially saw us as airheads. They assumed we were unaware of our language and were only interested in making money and becoming celebrities. But we've never really been interested in celebrity, other than as a means of making the records of our dreams."

There is a danger that Mwng could be viewed as a snub to other Welsh bands singing in English. But Rhys is careful to point out that the band are not taking any moral high ground.

"I happen to be in a band who speak Welsh. The fact that most bands in Wales don't speak Welsh is a result of history. We happen to have an option but it doesn't make us any Welsher. We don't want to make it to the detriment of the majority of Welsh people who speak English. English is more of a part of Welsh culture than Welsh is. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing is irrelevant."

As far as the music industry is concerned, Wales has existed for approximately five years. With the rise of Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Cool Cymru succeeded Cool Britannia, and Wales became the new focus for record companys' talent-spotters. But there has never been a definable Welsh sound, and Super Furry Animals have little in common with their compatriots, eschewing stadium-style rock in favour of something a little more...

"Please don't say quirky," pleads Rhys. "I think my most hated description of us is 'quirky'."

Subversive, then? "Mmmm."

Super Furry Animals are perhaps victims of their own febrile imaginations. Last year, they were declared by the music press as being at the vanguard of a bizarre new genre called "nu-psychedelia". This is the same band who bought a fully operational tank and took it to every festival they played in 1996. But they are resistant to the prevailing notion that they are eccentric or drug-addled (other most-hated words include "off-kilter" and "wacky").

"There's all kinds of things that we've done that, to us, seem normal," insists Rhys. "We don't want to suppress our desire to make things more interesting in some vain attempt at coolness. I hate all those concepts of style and taste."

But you've got to admit that Mwng, by comparison, is a pretty straight album. "So far, we've pushed our ideas as far as possible and taken technology as far as we know how. I think perhaps we all wanted to make something a bit simpler, just to reassure ourselves that we could."

'Mwng' is out on Placid Casual on Monday. For further information and translations, go to www.mwng.co.uk

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