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Brits are hooked on 'Phonics 

The light begins to fade and the music swells. The audience goes ballistic as the gleam of pop idolatry illuminates the blank stage. The stoic icons in Stereophonics slam the first chords of the night and the bass player ... disappears?

"I'm so hyped up that I forgot that I told the sound engineer during the sound check that I wanted a monitor behind me. I went on stage and I stepped back and fell straight over this monitor. ... Yeah, it was like four chords into the song, and I just fell over," says Stereophonics bassist Richard Jones of a recent performance in Scotland. Even icons endure moments of inevitable humanity.

Icons, you say? The screams of rabid fans all over Europe have indeed transformed Britain's Stereophonics into the No. 1 rock act in the U.K. and most of Europe. Throughout the market confusion of the late '90s, the Stereophonics managed to inject an infective verve into the British rock and pop charts with a steely-eyed rock crunch. Their first release, Word Gets Around, kept lit the cigarettes of canceled Brit-pop. The Phonics' second release, "Performance and Cocktails," observes the band sampling a wide array of sound and vision, incorporating caramelized riffs and seasoned vocals into a taut teen-age dream. On the eve of an overseas tour, the Stereophonics are hoping that dream has quite a wingspan.

In the coming months, the Stereophonics must stare down the evil demon of all British rock acts in their quest for an international following: the United States. "Success is always going to come hard in America," admits Jones. "A lot of U.K. bands, they tend to just try to have a cool air about them and just stare at their shoes."

To the dismay of their countrymen, the Stereophonics boast to drench their own shoes in sweat and stamina. Like a rugged and prettier version of the Soup Dragons, the Stereophonics are blessed with a sound that journalists around the world classify as "more American" than other British acts. Jones is hesitant to claim that they have a stronger chance at success because of that rep, but he openly welcomes the comparison to some of their American idols.

Touring with The Charlatans UK in this country, the Stereophonics will endure the minimization of their usual audiences by about 90 percent. But the relentless promotion of Richard Branson's V2 label for the new CD should help to expand their attraction.

Can the Stereophonics crack the ceiling of American pop conception? For that matter, can pop stars invest sweat and guts and pain into anything anymore?

The band discards their association with the Ricky Martin-like pop stables of trillion-dollar intrigue. They know that whether or not the band discovers success in the U.S. is more of a test of the diversity of American pop audiences and the endurance of mainstream rock in a fading market.

Still, no matter the nationality of their audience, after the amplifiers stop shouting, the Stereophonics, like all icons, must become human again. "We usually just try to drink ourselves to sleep, because the adrenaline is like flowing till like 4 o'clock in the morning, and the only way you can get over that is just to celebrate and have a good laugh."

Hopefully, for the Stereophonics a celebratory intoxication will come at the dawn of an epic success in pounding their music into the heads of American audiences ... without slumping over after four notes.

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