As album art goes, it’s quite arresting. The cover photo of "Soft Machine," the Stateside debut of Sweden’s dance-pop trio Teddybears, features a slip-and-thigh-high-clad model crawling on all fours, her face obscured by a giant papier-mache fangs-baring grizzly. And if you think that’s something, says bandleader Joakim "Jocke" Ahlund, wait’ll you get a load of his kooky combo in concert. (The band plays San Francisco’s Popscene on April 5.)
"We actually wear the bear heads onstage," says the guitarist, who commissioned eight of the fuzzy noggins from Ingmar Bergman’s chief propmaster/puppeteer, Arne Hogsannder. "We only did three to begin with, but they’re very fragile and break very easily. But it’s gruesomely hot wearing them in tiny clubs, and when you start sweating, the papier mache starts melting. So there are still some technical things we need to iron out with the heads. But they do the job — they look cute but scary, and that’s their whole purpose."
The concept goes back to 1991, when Ahlund’s grindcore group Skull reconfigured as the softer Teddybears.
"We didn’t want to show our own faces, since we thought they were pretty boring," he says. He discovered Hogsannder’s work in Stockholm’s National T.V. House, an ursine costume from a "Magic Flute" production, and knew he had to have more — even though each bear would take two months to construct.
Now, the masks have become so popular with fans — and band member girlfriends — Ahlund says "people are willing to do pretty much anything to be allowed to wear a head, even for a couple of minutes. It’s kind of a surreal experience, looking at the world from inside one of those heads."
The music, which features a different vocalist on almost every track, is an odd universe in itself. "Soft Machine" runs the stylistic gamut from techno-pop ("Different Sound," sung by Malte) to rock/reggae ("Cobrastyle," with Mad Cobra, heard in everything from "Entourage" to Heineken ads), and New Wave (the Neneh-Cherry-helmed "Yours to Keep").
Teddybears’ most notorious cut is "Punkrocker," a collaboration with proto-punk Iggy Pop, employed in a recent Cadillac TV campaign. A couple of spins through this crazy-quilt of an album, and giant bears start making perfect aesthetic sense.
Ahlund, his brother Klas and Patrik Arve are basedin Apmammam, a multimedia studio that means ‘Ape mother’ in Swedish. From there, the lads oversee all things TB, plus countless side projects such as rock videos, television commercials, production work (Klas is overseeing Eagle-Eye Cherry’s latest) and spinoff bands such as Big Bird.
"We’re just always recording things, and we don’t always know beforehand what it’s gonna turn out to be," says Jocke, 36, who does double-duty with scruffy alt-rockers the Caesars.
Is Ahlund aware that his CD cover mirrors a kinky sex cult whose members are known as furries? Yes, yes, he sighs. "And there’s this one pretty cool film on the Internet with a dude who’s wearing a whole bear suit, downing bottles of vodka and having gay sex. But it’s not one of us."
With a bear head on, how do we know? Good point, he says. "To be honest, the only thing for sure is that it’s not me in that suit. But it could be Klas or Patrik!"
Where: Popscene, 330 Ritch St., San Francisco
When: 10 p.m., April 5
Tickets: $10 to $12