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"I'm Almost Embarrassed At My Age To Be As Angry As I Am" - NME, 18th September, 2010

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Title: "I'm Almost Embarrassed At My Age To Be As Angry As I Am"
Publication: NME
Date: Saturday 18th September, 2010
Writer: Barry Nicolson
Photos: Dean Chalkey

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Nicky Wire wants to see a new band with the passion and intensity as his own Manic Street Preachers. He gives Barry Nicolson his firebrand manifesto to save rock'n'roll...

Nicky Wire is 41, the reluctant owner of one bad back, two dodgy knees and a temperamental liver that recently forced him to quit drinking champagne. These afflictions he cheerfully describes to NME as, "The toll of rock'n'roll".

And Nicky Wire would know all about that. After 10 albums and 20 years together, Manic Street Preachers would recoil at the notion of themselves as national treasures - national terrors feels somehow more appropriate - but if anyone deserves a knighthood for service to the cause it's them. That they would gleefully run the Queen through with her own sword is just one more argument for.

Few bands would survive the disappearance of their chief lyricist, let alone stage one of rock'n'roll's greatest second acts in its aftermath. Fewer still would travel to Cuba for a sit-down meeting with Fidel Castro. And when it comes to UK Number One singles about the Spanish Civil War, they are quite literally in a category of one. By this point in their career, it should be all lifetime achievement awards and preaching to converted. But when NME arrives an the west London studio where our interview with Nicky is scheduled to take place, we find a man who is "almost embarrassed at my age to be as angry as I am".

What's he got to be angry about? Well, he wasn't exactly thrilled by his recent skim through Ben Myers' forthcoming novel from Richey's perspective. But mostly, he's pissed off about what's become of rock'n'roll.

He describes 'Postcards From A Young Man', the Manics' new album, as "rage against the dying of the light, still believing in the notion - however stupid it may sound - of the rock'n'roll band. We wanted to show people that they're missing out on an artform we think is very important."

He freely admits that this album "is about trying to communicate with as many people as we can", usually through the medium of sensory orchestral bombardment. It's probably - no, definitely - their most unapologetically populist effort since 1996's 'Everything Must Go', an album that feels epic and significant, that's had every fibre of their beings thrown into it.

"The 10th album thing felt like a milestone," Wire explains. "Most bands on their 10th album, even if they're huge, aren't really relevant. In terms of trying to infiltrate the mainstream, this feels like our last chance. I mean, I'm sure we'll still make records after this, but I can't see us going for it again like we have with this one."

Wire went for it with such intensity that he literally ground a tooth out of his head fretting over the musical arrangement of one track ('Some Kind Of Nothingness, since you ask), but the final result was undeniably worth it. He makes a few cryptic allusions during our interview about eras ending, last shots being taken. If that's the case then Postcards From A Young Man is a triumphant cap on the band's late-career renaissance that began in 2007 with 'Send Away The Tigers'.

"We lost our way a little around the time of 'Know Your Enemy' and 'Lifeblood'," Nicky reckons. "It goes back to the release of 'The Masses Against The Classes'. We'd just played to 65,000 people at the Millenium Stadium [in Cardiff on New Year's Eve 1999]. 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' had sold three million. We were in a 'What do we do now?' moment. I didn't give James and Sean much lyrical ammunition on 'Lifeblood', I was quite disappointed with my words on there."

But those are the peaks and troughs that make the Manics' narrative such a compelling one. It was what made the sight of them taking home the Godlike Genius statuette at the 2008 Shockwaves NME Awards that bit more special, knowing that they'd been written off and subsequently resurrected. And with 'Postcards From A Young Man', they've made an album that reminds us why we still need them, 20 years on.

Despite all that, his greatest hope for rock'n'roll is discovering the band "that puts us out of our misery, who are so great that we eventually become redundant. It'll be sad, of course, but ultimately it will be a good thing."

That band are nowhere to be seen right now, and Nicky Wire - a self-described 'pop theorist' - has a few ideas about why. Brace yourself indie rockers. You're in for a rough couple of pages.

"Once I get going," he warns us, I can be more Peter Mandelson than Nicky Wire..."

How To Save Rock 'N' Roll by Nicky Wire

1. Admit that something has gone seriously wrong
Consider this your intervention. Take a look around and be honest with yourself: is there a single, solitary new band out there who burns with the white-hot magnesium intensity of 'Generation Terrorists' era Manics? A band that you could believe in, that you can rely on, who are as integral a part of your day-to-day existance as drawing breath? There's no shortage of good music being made in the world, but where are the intelligent, outspoken, chaotic and self-destructive rock'n'roll stars?

"In all honesty," said Nicky, "I do not think anybody has replaced us. The last band I could believe in, for all their raggedness, was The Libertines. they were more than just a band, they were a lifestyle, a mythology. I didn't really want them to reform for my own sentimental reasons, but I can understand why they did it, and I really hope they come up with a brilliant record. But The Libertines were a long time ago, and I don't think there's anyone who's stepped up since. When I see bands like The Drums being fawned over, it makes me feel ill. There is literally no soul in that band. They've taken nothing from the depth or poetry or amazing lyrics of Ian Curtis, they've just taken his kooky dance. The whole generation is attired in American Apparel, there's no individualism anymore?"

So how can we go back there?

"I'm not sure we can. I lie in my bed and think to myself, 'There has to be a Kurt Cobain out there, there has to be a John Lennon out there, someone who's eloquent and fucked up, someone who's brilliant and intelligent. Someone like Richey. But we've been waiting a long time..."

2. Treat music like currency
And as with any currency, when you flood the market, you only serve to devalue it.

Music is everywhere these days. We can literally pull it out of thin air, downloading it on to our mobile phones from invisible vacillating soundclouds at the press of a button. It's also easier to write, record and distribute than ever before. But is this aural carpet-bombing a positive development?

"This idea that "THERE'S MORE MUSIC THAN EVER!', what does that even fucking mean? All it means is that there's shit being produced on a mass level. The democratisation of music is unhealthy. It's made rock'n'roll the soundtrack to the digital frenzy of skimming information. There's so much music out there - and don't get me wrong, lots of it is good - but it just isn't connecting in quiet the same way as when I was growing up. You can see that in audiences at gigs. Music has become another item. It;s become itemised. And it really is so much more important than that."

3. Remember: rock'n'roll is not a gap year
"That's what it's become. It's become an option - should I go to work in Top Shop, or should I be in a band for a bit? There's been a massive infiltration, not just of the middle classes, but pf the upper classes, too. The idea that you can learn rock'n'roll in some kind of school, it just appals me. It's the absolute opposite of what rock'n'roll is.

The question of class is an undeniably touchy one. Nobody is saying that great music can only issue forth from sinkhole estates and social stagnation, but historically...well, it's always been the case. Today's generation of bands lack the hunger to transcend, because they're pretty comfortable to begin with.

"Class is still really important to me," says Nicky. "In the early days, because we were working class and from Wales, it took a hell of a lot to convince people that we were intelligent. If you were from Middle England and you'd been to a polytechnic, people thought you were really clever. But we had to state it over and over. Even today, we've still got a chip on our shoulder, a desire to prove ourselves."

4. Music is a competition
"The middle class conceit that's infiltrated music and that you hear all the time is, 'Music's not like sport, it's not a race, you shouldn't be competitive...Of course you fucking should! Do you think McCartney and Lennon weren't competitive? Or Blur and Oasis? Or The Clash and the Pistols? When bands get on, it's just fucking horrible. We've been sold this lie, this bohemian fucking lie, that music is just endless artistic expression. Gore Vidal said that it's not enough to succeed, others must fail. Nothing sums me up more than that. I just still feel this insatiable desire. It's incredibly destructive: I shouldn't feel like that in my forties with two kids, but it's in my DNA."

5. Now is not the time for escapism
We've got climate change, Afghanistan, Tories in power, Islamic terrorism and economic meltdown. In America, society is so polarised that half the population believe their president is a communist intent on steering them towards the New World Order. These are the sort of dire societal straits that rock'n'roll should thrive in, but nobody seems willing to talk about any of it.

According to Nicky, "I find it astounding that this is the first generation who, in the midst of utter economic desolation, finds a complete inability to write about it. Whether it's the Specials with Ghost Town, or the Pistols further back, I can't think of another time when we've had a recession and there's been literally no music reflecting it. In fact, we've become utterly escapist, with pop and dance having such a resurgence. It's almost as though we can no longer face up to our own surroundings."

6. Don't follow false prophets
In the post-Obama era, you can't blame the British electorate for wanting a hopey-changey avatar of their very own, but the Cleggmania was a moment in time this country will spend the next five years paying for, and we - let alone our rock'n'roll bands - should be very pissed off. Nicky, for one, is apoplectic.

"Surely, as a young person, you must look at Nick Clegg and think: 'I want to write a song about this cunt? He's the most facile, empty shell of a man and he's actually given the Tories his sheen of niceness. Is there anything worse? I can't think of anything. Surely there must be kids who recognise that? I actually thought about voting Lib Dem, but he put me off too much. Simon Hughes and Vince Cable, I like, but Clegg reminded me of David Brent, like a third-rate motivational speaker. I don't know if I've ever seen a politician more interested in getting his hands on power. And when he lectures us on social fucking mobility from his Winchester fucking college private school, it just makes me fucking sick."

7. Do not be afraid to have the balls to take control
"Music has lost its stomach for rebellion. I can understand the general disillusionment with political parties, because New Labour pissed on its own class in a lot of ways. But I can't understand the notion that you can't, or shouldn't, be a critic of them. Bands need to be aware of the surroundings they're living in. They've had 10 years of economic growth and the virtuality of the internet, and it's just fucked them up."

But what do you make of Wyclef Jean's failed bid to be President of Haiti? Should musicians ever take it to the opposite extreme and cross the aisle from talking about politics to actually participate in it?

"I thought it showed an unbelievable amount of bravery for him to even try that. I can't think of a harder job in the fucking world. I can't see him doing that - with all the baggage that comes with it - for a publicity stunt. Even I'm not that cynical. I wouldn't have the balls to do that in fucking Wales, let alone a country like Haiti, which has so much potential but is also in such deep, deep trouble. People can say what they like about it, but I think he did it from the heart. It's not like throwing a charity record together; it's a truly impossible job."

8. Ridicule is nothing to be scare of
"That's the mantra we started off with, and I think it's really important. I used to go to school with daffodils hanging out my back pocket because I saw Morrissey doing it on Top Of The Pops . That aspect of fandom is gone now, and it'll take a really exotic and brilliant rock star for it to come back.

"Right now, however, we've this endless cavalcade of bands selling us fake Americana, the idea that you've got to wear fucking awful clothes, have lots of facial hair, and live in a log cabin in fucking Montana - the clichéd view of the songwriter. Because I dress like a woman and wear loads of makeup, but have a degree in politics and love football and rugby, I don't fit into any of the boxes of that classic songwriting lineage from Bob Dylan onwards, and therefore don't get taken so seriously. And I'm fine with that. I don't want it. When you start describing yourselves as 'artists' instead of a band, you're in trouble".

9. The internet can break as well as make you
Wire's views on illegal downloading are well documented and, it's fair to say, somewhat unpopular. But that doesn't change his convictions about it.

"Music is such an easy thing to steal nowadays. I think Andy Falkous of Future Of The Left put it best. He said that most of the time he lives life like a communist, and the band barely functions on a financial level. And the idea of someone stealing something he's put his entire endeavour into just destroys him. The worst thing is when bands who have made millions and are comfortable in their own studios or whatever - much like us, I won't deny it - say you shouldn't worry it: they should try being 20 again and without any stream of income. The only way to make money is to sell yourself to advertising. When I was growing up, the Holy Grail was to get on the cover of NME and Melody Maker at the same time. Now, the ultimate wish of any band is to get the latest iPod advert - how sad is that?"

10. Regret nothing
What, we wonder, might the young Manic Street Preachers make of their fortysomething selves these days? Wouldn't you see yourselves as sacred cows waiting to be torn down?

"Oh, around the 'Lifeblood' period in 2004, they would've hated us. Bad haircuts, bad jackets. But I think, as rock classicists, we would've fallen back in love after 'Send Away The Tigers. We'd become sloppy about everything, from the music to the artwork, and we decided to take massive control again. Our young selves would've appreciated that ".

But you were the band who wanted to sell 20 million copies of your debut album, burn down the government and split up...

"And I don't feel embarrassed about any of those things I said in the past. I feel embarrassed for Sean and James because they had to go along with it. I don't think they ever thought we were going to split up after one album! I still don't feel like an elder statesman. Among other bands, there's always been a slight reticence towards us. But if you make too many friends in rock'n'roll, it gets you nowhere..."