Apocalypse now

As tempests and flying pests invade New York,a Welsh rock band plays on.

TOMORROW, HURRICANE FLOYD arrives on the East Coast, but for tonight the only catastrophe New Yorkers have to fret over is St. Louis encephalitis, a nasty disease carried by the frisky mosquitoes currently careening through the five boroughs. Mayor Rudy G. has dispatched fleets of insecticide-spraying helicopters and trucks while the entire Atlantic seaboard braces for gale-force winds and lashing rain.

Super Furry Animals

ARO.space, Friday, October 1

Onstage at the Bowery Ballroom in lower Manhattan, however, it's business as usual. The Welsh band Super Furry Animals is soundchecking for its show later this evening as part of the CMJ music conference. Once the guest horn trio irons out the blare, SFA frontman Gruff Rhys is free to discuss extreme weather phenomena and other signs of the coming apocalypse.

"We're going from city to city . . . following the latest disaster," says Rhys in a manner that's thoughtful, jet-lagged, shy, and stoned all at once. The guitarist's lacunar conversational style and vowel-exorcising Welsh accent require extreme focus from the listener, especially amid the clatter of preconcert commerce and the thudding sound of a bass player checking his levels with the soporific riff from "Dazed and Confused."

A typical Rhys narrative goes something like this: "We went to Colombia once . . . and we met up with Andrew Loog Oldham . . . who used to manage the Stones in the '60s. . . . We had a plan to . . . break America from the south . . . starting in the Welsh language-speaking areas of Patagonia . . . in Argentina . . . where I have some family . . . but that fell through. . . . But we don't want to break America . . . we want to keep it whole. . . . "

It's not as though the lanky guitarist and his bandmates—drummer Dafydd Ielian, keyboard player Cian Ciaran, bassist Guto Pryce, and guitarist Huw Bunford—are new to this whole interview thing. In Britain, they regularly grace the covers of NME and Melody Maker, which have obsessively covered their every step since proclaiming them the Next Big Thing in 1996, upon the release of their debut, Fuzzy Logic. Three years later, the backlash hasn't yet begun. "We've had a full easy ride," Rhys confirms.

THE SUPER FURRIES' climb to what Rhys calls "Spinal Tap-style" status in the UK began in 1993, when the five friends got together to play their own techno. Over the next couple of years, they morphed into a rock band, but their songs remain steeped in the aura—if not the exact sound—of electronic music. Their fantastic new record, Guerrilla (Flydaddy), opens with a looped sample from a Young MC song.

But back to the weather. The first single from Guerrilla is the shimmering, horn-and-steel-drum, calypso/lounge-rock rhapsody "Northern Lites," which muses on El Ni�"a monsoon and a fire all in one." Then there's the goofy couplet "We ride tornadoes/We eat tomatoes" on the careening free-for-all "Do or Die," and the quicksand that threatens to engulf Rhys on "The Turning Tide," a bit of delicate whimsy arranged by Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas.

"We just write about the world as we see it," Rhys says, "and that involves watching the weather . . . on TV . . . in the safety . . . of our safe European homes. . . ." What about the second single, the uncharacteristic ballad "Fire in My Heart"? Were they trying to prove to all those people who've labeled them "psychedelic" and "irreverent" that they could play it straight? Rhys looks as if the wooden bench under his bottom has just sprung a thousand nails. "I've got all kinds of hang-ups with that song," he explains to the tabletop. "The name initially was 'Heartburn,' which gives it a twist, y'know . . . because . . . I think . . . it's a pretty dumb song, really. . . . I think it's a pretty bad choice for a single. . . . But we're a volatile band . . . and I think that's how bands should be. . . . I mean, we formed a band because we're good friends, and not because . . . we believe . . . exactly the same thing . . . or . . . like exactly the same music. . . . I think it's pretty false . . . if you have bands where everyone . . . claims to be focused on one thing."

Rhys compares these bands to political parties, which he abhors. SFA has a history of making its members' pacifist and leftist political views known, if not through music, then actions. The most notorious exploit involved driving a military tank painted the colors of their local football team (blue and yellow), blaring techno, through a crowd of thousands at the Reading Festival. Rhys explains that this stunt was a protest against a British law banning sound systems, plus "We thought it was a good idea . . . to decommission a violent vehicle."

He goes on to explain that he and his bandmates feel a certain sense of obligation: After all, they get to traverse the globe performing for adoring crowds, which gives them the kind of power that your average voter doesn't have. This means supporting Welsh nationalism, despite the fact that Rhys sings in English and proclaims himself entirely disinterested in Welsh traditional music. "We have got a lot of flak for using English . . . but . . . we can play around the world . . . and increase the profile of the Welsh language . . . even if we use the English language. . . . We don't want to sort of consciously make 'Welsh music.' . . . When we use language . . . it's just because that's what we are . . . and it's not a tokenistic gesture."

It just so happens that SFA have recorded an all-Welsh record, Mwng ("mane") due next year along with an all-instrumental album.

Tonight, though, Rhys is more worried about rocking the masses than he is about release schedules, hurricanes, or mosquito repellent. His anxiety is unfounded; the Super Furries' set is tremendous, drawing the crowd (which includes Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher) to rapturous applause. Their music is so powerful it doesn't need giant creature costumes or cartoon backdrops, SFA's favored onstage accoutrements. Tomorrow, the storm's gonna hit, the locusts might even descend. But tonight, it's all about five guys from Wales.

 
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