The care bear boys

Welsh heroes Super Furry Animals like a laugh while they're performing. Their latest joke is a pair of 50ft blow-up bears.
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The small town of Bethesda, on the northern fringe of Snowdonia, is not a location the guidebooks tend to dwell on. But this particular Friday night the main street crackles with static electricity. Moves are afoot to get a lottery grant to establish an arts centre in a disused chapel, but while awaiting largesse, costs still have to be paid, and to this end local heroes Super Furry Animals are playing an under-eighteens benefit gig in the Ogwen hall.

While orange plastic seats resound with the thud of trainered teen feet and the air comes alive with a frenzy of arm-waving, two policemen call at the back of the building. Nothing bad has happened, it's just that they went to the local school with lead singer and main songwriter Gruff Rhys, and they want to have a word with him. On stage, some brand new back-projections (Brazilian footballers and Tales of the Unexpected- style flame action) have taken the visual pressure off the band and they relax into a new dynamism around the hub of Gruff's off-kilter charisma. A bit of Brian Eno here, a bit of Brian Wilson there and a whole lot of shaking in the barn.

The mood afterwards is suitably elated. "It was like being The Beatles," observes drummer Daffyd Ieuean, who, along with keyboard player Cian Ciaran, comes from Anglesey, some 15 miles away. So what was it like growing up here? "It was very normal and accepted to play an instrument," Gruff remembers, "More so than to play sport even. The quarry had the longest strike in history at the turn of the century. I guess there were so many singers and musicians here because people had a lot of spare time. Which," he smiles grimly, "they still do.''

What were the particular circumstances of his own musical education? "I came from a very Welsh-centric background,'' Gruff explains. "Anything Welsh was OK, and anything not Welsh was terrible. I heard The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat for the first time when I was 13 and it made a huge impression on me. Listening to `The Gift', which John Cale does the spoken word on, I thought this was my Welsh rock heritage. From then on anything that remotely came from New York I thought was Welsh - Lou Reed was from the Rhondda and the New York Dolls were from Swansea.'' Dafydd rolls his eyes - "You'd think the name might have tipped you off.''

The band's next gig is in front of a frenzied audience of two and a half thousand in a marquee pitched on the junior playing field of Bangor Rugby Club. Super Furry Animals outsell all other bands in this part of the country, including Creation label-mates Oasis. Together with the previous weekend's big gig in Cardiff (home to bassist Guto Pryce and guitarist Huw "Bunf" Bunford) this show embodies a symbolic unification of North and South Wales. "It's a practical thing, really,'' Gruff explains. "There are no proper roads between the two, so to travel from one end of the country to the other you have to go through England. It's very political: divide and conquer and all that. We're a Tito-ist band," he continues, somewhat bewilderingly. "The Welsh language community is a minority in Wales and we play to people all over Wales and forcibly integrate them," he smiles, feigning ignorance of the sort of trouble that analysing Welsh nationalist politics in terms of the former Yugoslavia is liable to get him into. So Gwent is like Croatia then? Gruff's answer is drowned out by a chorus of disapproval from his more prudent bandmates: "No, for God's sake, don't say that!" Cultural politics is no laughing matter in these parts. Last year a local TV station accused Super Furry Animals - along with fellow bilingual Welsh bands Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Catatonia - of "killing the language". As vehemently as he refutes this assessment, Gruff doesn't seem to resent it. "Because of our background, everything we do takes on a political dimension, and we have to take responsibility for it. For example, my brother thinks we should only sing in Welsh. Having to be able to justify yourself that close to home does kind of change things,'' he pauses, "but it's good to have to be articulate."

As well as their music, which inhabits a realm of zest and inventiveness that the bulk of their Britpop peer group will never even visit, it's their intelligence that gives Super Furry Animals an edge over the competition. This quality is as likely to express itself in frivolity as high seriousness. "You know the way everyone sits around tables talking and coming up with daft ideas?" Gruff smiles. "Well, we're just going through the Spinal Tap rock manual and doing it our way.'' The band are currently touring around two 50ft-high inflatable bears modelled on the cartoon from the cover of their forthcoming album, Radiator. In 1996 they bought a tank, painted it blue, and took it round last summer's festivals with a blaring techno sound system. The tank has now been sold to Don Henley of The Eagles. "He collects tanks and ours turned out to be a breed he didn't have," says Gruff phlegmatically. How did he find out about it? "We advertised in Tank World.''

That Super Furry Animals are alive to possibility is one of their biggest assets. Having toured just within Wales for many years in previous less outward-looking incarnations, as well as doing time on the European punk and minority language circuits, they are not about to let the opportunities opened up by suddenly being in pop's medium-big league pass them by.

The rationale behind last year's fizzy debut album, Fuzzy Logic, was, Huw explains, "to make a pop album with strings and brass in a big studio because then we can listen to it in 10 years' time and think `wow'." Second time around, Super Furry Animals wanted to make a more complex, stronger- sounding record, which meant locking themselves up in a studio in Anglesey for 13 weeks. The subject matter on Radiator reflects the intensity of the resulting creative process. "Placid Casual", for example, concerns the immortal Valentine Strasser, who lead a revolution in Sierra Leone at the tender age of 26 and then made McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" the national anthem, while the last-but-one single, "Hermann Loves Pauline", was a tender analysis of the relationship between Einstein's parents. It certainly makes a change from the tear-up-an-old-Beatles-lyric- sheet-throw-it-in-the-air-and-see-what-comes-down school of lyric-writing. "We try not to sing about things that have been thought about before," Gruff explains. "If it's been done well, there's no point."

While Britain's heritage rockers deal only in emotions and facts previously mediated through other songs, Super Furry Animals run the entire gamut of human experience - well, at least that part of it that can be read about in books bought at 24-hour service stations. And that's one reason why at the Bangor gig the band are accompanied by the eerie keening sound of authentic teenage lust. Now Super Furry Animals are not exactly child- frighteners, but they aren't The Backstreet Boys either. Has Gruff - the modest focus of the bulk of the attention - taken any measures to stop himself being recognised? A pause... "I've stopped wearing orange coats"

Super Furry Animals take their inflatable bears to the Reading Festival on 23 Aug. `Radiator' is out on 25 Aug on Creation