A thirty-year career is impressive by any stretch of the imagination; in the music industry, it’s nothing short of an eternity. When the Manic Street Preachers released debut Generation Terrorists in 1992, the Welsh rock band from Blackwood, Caerphilly, said they were going to release the biggest album in the world, selling 16 million copies, then quit. It was of course, the brash talk of rock star youth. Three decades on and countless accolades later, the band have just released their thirteenth studio album, Resistance is Futile.
Catching up with Nicky Wire just ahead of the album’s release, he tells me he is in a reflective mood about their longevity. “It’s a mixture of talent, obviously, a desire for creativity and expression, but a lot of it is just sheer fucking dedication to the cause of the Manic Street Preachers.” At the start, he says, the ‘talking-up’ and big egos were needed; being from a small Welsh town, he explains, meant they had to work extra-hard to break into the music industry.
“At the start, we had to be larger-than-life. I was reflecting and I remember thinking, we could never have been like a Joy Division band, an ultra-cool, miserablist band [laughs]. Even if we felt like that, it was never going to be enough for us. We were quite cartoonish at the start…the kind of conclusion I’ve reached is that [it takes] a lot of dedication…it’s so easy just to fall out with people, or get lazy, or just blame someone else. We’re a very realistic band as well: I think that is what has kept us going.”
Their combination of determined working class intellectualism and social justice has spoken to three separate decades of fans. Navigating feelings of cultural and social alienation, despair and apathy, they have always been fiercely incongruous, unafraid of stylistic experimentation and often doing exactly the opposite of what people expect. Perhaps most significantly, they survived the despair of losing band member Richey Edwards who disappeared without trace in February 1995; 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers poignantly consisted entirely of lyrics left behind by Edwards.
After their last album Futurology was released, there was talk of it being their last. “I think that was from me, in particular,” Wire explains. “You know at that point my mum got really ill. Rewind the Film and Futurology was such a strange little period because they’re so opposite to each other musically and lyrically. One is confessional and stark, and the other is brimming with ideals and European art movements. It just kind of drained us of direction, really, because they were very high concept and there’s only so many times you can do that.”
Their latest album, Resistance is Futile, is a love-letter to art and inspiration. Instead of the intensity of the high art of their last expansive album, Futurology and the staggeringly confessional Rewind the Film, their latest focuses on people and places that have inspired them, such as the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin and the photographer Vivien Maier. The city of Liverpool too, provided further muse.
“With something like Rewind the Film, it was so ultra-confessional for a Manics record that I think actually sometimes the best form of flattery we can do now is to show what’s illuminated our lives with some kind of joy and expression, and how interesting those different pathways have been to us. It felt a bit easier and a bit of a joy to write for me.”
“Definitely a theme I would say is that it is a celebration of other people or with something like ‘Liverpool Revisited’, it is about the defiance of a city itself.” Dedicated to the city and the victims of the Hillsborough football tragedy, it’s anthemic style is reminiscent of their Everything Must Go era. Wire wrote the song whilst wandering around Liverpool with his Polaroid camera before the band were due to play the Echo arena the same evening. It was on the day the high court ruled in favour of the victim’s families after years of fighting the British establishment. It was a topic the band had also addressed in 1998 on ‘South Yorkshire Mass Murderer.’
As well as Everything Must Go era Manics, sounds from across the bands long career are represented on their latest in a kind of apt celebratory amalgamation of sorts. “It did feel like quite a pick n’ mix sort of record where sort of every era could be represented - apart from maybe The Holy Bible era,” he begins.
“There’s still quite a Bowie hangover in there in some of the tracks, like In Eternity, in particular, and Hold Me Like Heaven. There’s stuff like ‘International Blue’ which could almost be on Generation Terrorists and ‘People Give In’ which could be off Everything Must Go. ‘The Left Behind’ too; it’s such an off-kilter record that it could be on Know Your Enemy or something. I think once we got over the idea that it was going to be ‘less-concept’, I think everything started blooming really.”
The four years between albums have been difficult for the band; as well as family illness, the studio the Manics have recorded at was demolished. Previous anniversary tours of Everything Must Go and The Holy Bible also took a toll. Writing, Wire says, was difficult. He was initially concerned that a lack of a clear thematic link would prove detrimental for the record; instead, it became the record’s strength.
“I feel like up until ‘International Blue’ I was a little bit negative because it just didn’t feel like it was going to gel…we’d done a session with ‘Distant Colours’ and ‘Dylan and Caitlin’ as well as ‘The Left Behind’ and we just sort of forgot about them really. We did a few other tracks and then everything made sense. From ‘International Blue’ to ‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’, songs were just piling up then. We worked really intensely for four weeks and then it was all done.”
“This [album] was a tough slog until all of a sudden, everything started glistening. Sometimes that’s happened before where you just think it’s never going to happen but you just know in the back of your head that there’s lots of good stuff there. And then just that bit of magic dust is sprinkled over it and just everything becomes full of technicolour rather than grey.”
Politics is again high on the Manics agenda still, although not in a way perhaps seen on a previous Manics album. Whilst celebration of art and inspiration is one key theme, so too is apathy with the current political landscape. “James [Dean Bradfield] wrote the lyrics for ‘Distant Colours’ and he wrote the song as well,” Wire explains. “It’s definitely about [political] disillusionment with all sides. Just the endless kind of opposition towards each other and the lack of that sort of classic Labour post-Clement Attlee consensus that we grew up with, really. And mixed in with it, the endless kind of digital nightmare we live in.”
“There’s just that constant argument and trying to belittle anyone’s idea - from both sides, to be honest, everyone’s just trying to win tiny battles all the time just through Twitter and stuff. It’s actually really bad for politics because you end up with just a massive hole in the middle that nobody is ever going to fill.”
It’s a few days following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Wire points to one song on the album, ‘Broken Algorithms’ and the dystopia he sees in social media, explaining that he fears the heads of technology companies even more than politicians at times. “It all [goes] back to ‘Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ from Postcards from a Young Man,” Wire says, a song from the Manics past which helped him to write ‘Broken Algorithms.’
“The way the tech companies present themselves as some kind of soft, lovely, libertarian, freedom-loving people. They just travel around the world, avoiding tax, stealing your data, stealing your personality - which is, at last, finally coming out. They are the ultimate capitalist destroyers of life. And yet somehow people think they are this lively soft version of liberty. It finally seems to be breaking though; they’re a million times worse than politicians.”
The title of ‘Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ seems especially prophetic now in light of the song title which was taken from Cocaine Nights, a novel by J.G. Ballard. In the novel, Ballard wrote: “a billion balconies facing the sun; still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies. But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community? A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator.”
The predatory nature of the social media giants, Wire says, is nefarious. “It is a total 1984 [situation] with the ‘be-too-busy’ looking at those screens to realise what’s going on. I never post on Facebook; I’ve never used Facebook in my life. Twitter - I’ve done the band’s one a couple of times just because I vaguely try and keep it interesting. I find it increasingly difficult to live a normal life - I don’t do online banking, I still pay with cash. You get penalised for not engaging with it really. And it’s all because they want to track you, they want your information!”
“It’s very dystopian, which again, the tech companies are very happy with that because then everyone seeks solace in their products and this bullshit idea of communities and bringing people together, all that stuff. You run to them for comfort and they’re more than happy to do that because it just means more money for them.”
The Manics formed in 1986; an EP, New Art Riot was released in 1990 prior to their debut two years later. Wire reminisces how exciting it was as a young band to appear in the music press. With the recent demise of NME’s print edition, Wire again blames “tech companies” and social media, not least for how they have drained revenues for print publications. He’s not envious, he tells me, of bands trying to find their way in the current milieu.
“I do really feel sorry for young bands, well, young people full stop trying to find a way through the endless algorithmic. And all the people in charge are always the people who have the worst taste in music. All those people in charge of tech companies - they’ve got no idea about music and that’s why we’re swamped with such shit music.”
“I’m sure we would’ve found a way somehow, but I’m just so grateful that we were in the era that we were, when the idea of doing interviews and photos was just really exciting. We wanted to meet the journalists and the photographers as much as any band - they were the people we’d grown up reading. Having your photo taken by Pennie Smith and you could talk about The Clash, Kevin Cummins or Joy Division. Chatting to journalists you really admired - Steven Wells. It was just a joy and an intellectual battle, in a good way. You’d have six pages of loads of words to get to a conclusion in an interview.”
With fewer printed music publications, Wire says it’s harder to seek out new music amidst hundreds of weekly releases. He still loves finding new music though and Sean [Moore], he says, brings lots of new music into the studio for inspiration and enjoyment.
“It’s such a false economy out there. There’s always loads of good music - I still love music, whether it’s the new Sunflower Bean record which I’m totally addicted to at the moment, or St Vincent or Wolf Alice. But I’m still waiting for…you know, it’s been a long time since anyone has just made me want to be in a band. Not probably since The Libertines really, where I just felt like ‘God: I wouldn’t mind wearing that jacket, being in that band!”
“Sean’s really into a band called Once In A Lifetime, which are mad proggy but mixed with loads of harmonies. Sean listens to a lot more music than me, to be honest. He likes Warm Digits a lot as well and he’s just always listening to stuff. Never intensely, but just more for joy. I just sort of fall in love with a band as a rule whereas he just enjoys music more.’
“For the last week, all I’ve played is the track ‘Twentytwo’ on that [Sunflower Beam] album. That just lifts me to a different place. I watched them live on something - I think Sean had put them on YouTube and oh my god, just as a three piece it was so brave and she’s such a great bass player. That’s another thing I love - I love women bass players. Melissa Auf der Maur, Tina Weymouth and now Sunflower Bean. They’re just fucking amazing, women bass players, and they always hold it low! [Laughs]”
For Wire, female artists are leading the way in music and art, yet he is frustrated at how slow equality still is in the industry. “You feel like it’s going to happen because all the female artists are just so good,” he says, talking about equality before taking a long sigh. “This glass ceiling is still there stopping [them] breaking through. I’m so fucking…deeply confused about so many things - why so many things are not more popular and that…I still have those moments now where you just think, ‘why aren’t people thinking this is just the greatest thing ever?’
“Most of the poetry I like is by women, most of the bands I like at the moment are female. The clothes I like are definitely made for women. It’s one of those things I despise the most about modern life. Men’s clothes: they’re just so fucking horrible, boring and shit. The one thing I’m incredibly jealous about women is the ability, at least, to buy some interesting clothes!”
The Manics have recently worked with Catherine Anne Davies, aka The Anchoress, on a number of occasions; on their latest, they duet together on the ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ inspired ‘Dylan and Caitlin.’ “Catherine is someone we have admired from afar for a while just in terms of her own music and record. When we came to write ‘Dylan and Caitlin’ - which was definitely written as a duet, the two sides of the story - she was the first person we thought of.”
“Catherine had played with us in Cornwall at the Eden Sessions and had done ‘Little Baby Nothing’ with us as well as the Q Awards. I think it was around the time of the Q Awards that James finally plucked up the courage to ask her and she was more than happy to do it. It just worked out so beautifully and is up there with ‘Your Love Alone’ as a duet that works so well.”
Both the Manics and The Anchoress are also appearing at this year’s Robert Smith curated Meltdown festival, “the stuff of dreams” as Wire puts it. “We’re trying to work out something a bit special for the Meltdown thing - whether it’s just a couple of Cure songs, or maybe we’ll ask Sir Robert to play with us or something. We’re just going through learning so many songs at the moment my brain in particular is a little bit fried,” Wire says, laughing.
The band are also set to support their heroes Guns N’ Roses on tour this year. “Two very different things. Guns N’ Roses and then I had an email off Robert Smith as well. So that was a good week!” Wire’s enthusiasm for performing live seems renewed; tour preparations are going well and the band are exploring some rarities for their forthcoming gigs.
“It’s just actually fitting into a set that kind of works and is coherent,” Wire laughs, explaining how the process works. “Especially with Holy Bible or Journal for Plague Lovers, they’re such ‘state of mind’ records, they don’t really sit that particularly well next door to ‘You Stole the Sun’ or something, if you know what I mean. It’s really difficult to navigate.”
“We are doing some very odd ones like ‘Forever Delayed’ - the track from the compilation - ‘Horse Under Starlight’ and some pretty obscure B-sides; we’ve been doing some strange things. We’ve been practising ‘There by the Grace of God’ as well, which we’ve only ever done at the O2 when we did all the singles. We very rarely do that. It’s sounding quite mysterious, nice and gentle.”
Towards the end of the interview, we’re back where we started: reflecting on the bands career. One of the things Wire says he is particularly proud of is the fact they can still attract new fans as well as excite their established ones.
“The new generation thing is so important because it gives [us] life as well, you know because naturally younger people have more energy [laughs]. They come to gigs and it does add something that is so hard to get. I don’t know what alternative we provide, whether it’s just stimulation or energy or what, but I think there’s people always searching.”
“It only takes one look at a video or one look at a picture of us - even if it’s old or new - or hearing a track on the radio - I think it can set you off then delving into our history. What I loved growing up was getting into The White Album aged 16 and just being blown away when all I looked up to before then was ‘Love Me Do’ and stuff like; all of a sudden you get Revolver and The White Album and you’re just transported into a different universe.”
“The fact that we’ve sustained that universe with ourselves and our fans, that they actually still get excited about a new record. It’s a pretty fucking hard thing to do that, when you’re on your thirteenth album.”
The striking art-work for the album, Wire says, is something he also “loved.” Depicting a Samurai warrior, Wire says “as soon as I saw that picture the sadness in the eyes - it was just perfect. I’m so glad we manged to pull it off.” The image, he adds, is a perfect metaphor for the album and the Manic Street Preachers.
“Art is a bit of a hiding place at the moment. It does give you a shield against this dystopia around us. You have to turn that shield into a bit of a weapon and if you can, then you’re on the right way…There are different elements to put into [an album], but it’s still that special moment between the three of us which is the most crucial moment. We can tell if we’re exciting each other and if that doesn’t exist, then it’s all over.”