"Under New Labour Britain Became A Giant Call Centre Really" - Drowned In Sound, 22nd September 2010
by Dom Gourlay September 22nd, 2010
As the bass player and often controversial mouthpiece of the Manic Street Preachers, Nicky Wire needs little by way of an introduction. Never one to mince his words or hold back an opinion, his band's tenth studio album, Postcards From A Young Man hits the shops this week, and even though the Manics are now entering their twenty-fifth year, their relevance among today's quite malevolent, hedonistic musical fare is perhaps more important than at any point this past decade.
Since the disappearance of lyricist/guitarist Richey Edwards in 1995, Wire has held the responsibility of main lyricist, writing some of the band's biggest hit singles in the process. Having achieved something of a critical rebirth last year with Journal For Plague Lovers, a record constructed out of lyrical observations left behind by Edwards, Postcards... is seen by the band as being their last major attempt at conquering the commercial market, Wire calling it "one last shot at mass communication".
DiS is waiting patiently for the amiable bassist to finish what seems like a never ending photo shoot, in some ways just grateful to be granted an audience with an artist often labelled - and quite unfairly if today is anything to go by - difficult and unapproachable. Forty or so minutes later, having broached such subjects as the band's continued longevity, New Labour and their disdain for the trade union movement, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and Ben Myers' new book about their erstwhile guitarist 'Richard', we're quite honoured to have spent such a memorable afternoon in the presence of one of the few recording artists of the 21st Century with something interesting to say.
DiS: Postcards From A Young Man is your tenth album. How many more records do you see the Manic Street Preachers making? Nicky Wire: It does feel like this record is our last shot at mass communication. Mainly because the industry we grew up in and the fine art of making an album is teetering on the edge. I'm convinced we'll always make music and soundtracks to films no one will ever see, and we want to outdo The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs so if there is another record it will be kind of beyond sprawling! Postcards... does feel like the one where we've thought to ourselves "Fuck it! Let's just throw everything we can at this".
DiS: Musically it represents a drastic change from your last album, Journal For Plague Lovers. Was this something you all agreed on? Nicky: As the band's residing pop theorist I always thought this was going to be the way with this record. We were at Exit Festival in Serbia having a great time and I'd been listening to Van Halen's cover of 'Pretty Woman' and I thought to myself if we could do something like that in the style of The Supremes with James' (Dean Bradfield) guitar but as a classic rock sound in the vein of Abbey Road through to Pacific Ocean Blue and then add the melody of Abba on top with a nineties production sheen akin to Everything Must Go, we wouldn't go far wrong. After that we started writing, and pretty much everything leant itself to that theory.
DiS: It's interesting you say that as parts of Postcards From A Young Man remind me of Generation Terrorists, certainly 'Auto-Intoxication' and 'I Think I've Found It', which is very similar in structure to 'Little Baby Nothing'. In some ways, it actually sounds like an amalgam of the best bits of your back catalogue, The Holy Bible excepted. Nicky: That's what we were saying earlier. Sometimes it seems like there are two versions of the band. The Holy Bible/Journal For Plague Lovers version, there's obviously not much of that on this record, but there is a sense of naivety and glamour associated with Generation Terrorists here. At the time, we just thought the most subversive thing we could do was to be completely mainstream as we were living in a musical world of fucking Chapterhouse to the point where I'd question why we exist! Then with Everything Must Go, although we kind of rode the coat tails of Britpop it was totally the opposite to what bands like Sleeper were doing. We've always managed to keep something quite pure. I think we've become authentic at being the Manics, and it's not a fake authenticity because it's riddled with contrivance but that's become our way of being authentic.
DiS: I'd agree with that in so much as you've outlasted so many different musical trends and fashions, not to mention personal tragedy around the band. Do you see yourselves as being the last great survivors, almost? Nicky: I guess with the exception of Radiohead, and I'm not quite sure if they do exist any more as a band or a business model, there's no one else still around from when we started operating at the same level as us. I mean, even Suede have reformed now and got back on the nostalgia circuit. It's quite staggering!
DiS: Going back to what you just said about bands like Chapterhouse and Sleeper, I remember you once saying in an interview many years ago that Slowdive were "worse than Hitler". Is that a view you still hold today? Nicky: It was one of Richey's brilliant quotes back in the day. I bow down to his wit and his wisdom at times like that because it was just a way of quite harshly making a point! I do feel the same rage today. We're in the middle of the greatest economic recession we've ever witnessed and there are no guitar bands whatsoever who seem able to engage with that.
DiS: Sadly that seems to be the case. Listening to songs like 'The Descent (Pages 1 & 2) off Postcards... with lyrics like "Will my kingdom just disappear and fade away?" and then on 'Golden Platitudes' ("Oh what a mess we've made") it feels like you're questioning yourselves and society in general. Nicky: Nothing depresses me more that rock and roll bands of this generation have nothing to say. The urban/metropolitan/grime scene appears to have a bit of reality in what it says, but in our field it's just desperate. What are Two Door Cinema Club singing about? It's beyond my comprehension. There's so much to be inspired by at the moment in either a passionate or negative way, and I do believe rock and roll when we started was about nihilism and romance, narcissism and politics, yet all those things play no part in it any more. Since The Libertines really it's become all about the music, which doesn't half get boring.
DiS: It's difficult to comprehend, as you'd think the current political climate would be a catalyst for new bands to form and emerge. Nicky: I totally agree with you. Even the track 'All We Make Is Entertainment' off the new record was initially inspired by the selling off of Cadburys. It sounds quite mundane, but there's a theme running through Postcards... in that the only industry we ended up nationalising were the banks, and bearing in mind after thirteen years of a Labour government thinking about all the industries we could have saved - we were always told "You cannot subsidize, the city will decide" by various financial institutions and the minute the banks go tits up they go running to the tax payer and all become subsidized!
DiS: Just going off track slightly but staying with the previous Labour government, what's your view on the fact they had thirteen years to overturn the anti-trade union legislation administered by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government beforehand yet failed to do so? As a regional representative and activist for Unite it makes my blood boil! Nicky: I totally understand your point of view and I think it's actually such a broad stroke as well. It's the whole thing not just the trade union laws. OK, so they did spend money on health and education and minimum wages. There's no disputing their initial surge but every bit of money was funded by simply letting the city run riot! There is no manufacturing base left. It seems really old fashioned to say this but the reason Germany is coming out of the recession so quickly is because they still make brilliant things. And again, quoting 'All We Make Is Entertainment', whether that be chocolate or cars, they'll always tell you they cannot step in because of European Laws. If that's the case, what happened with the fucking banks then? Where was European Law then in terms of subsidizing? It's a deep and scarred betrayal by Labour. They thought they could fob the working classes off with free wi-fi and Costa coffee and that would somehow get them out of poverty and wanting a job. Under New Labour, Britain became a giant call centre really...
DiS: It's a crying shame and I think we're going to suffer even more so as a result for the next four to five years. Nicky: Unfortunately, yes.
DiS: I saw your recent comeback gig at Hammersmith Working Men's Club and noticed that you only played four Postcards... songs in the set. Was this due to a lack of confidence in playing the new material live at that stage? Nicky: To be honest, it was purely because of that. The four songs we played are the only ones we'd learned properly! The promotional work on this album has been quite overwhelming and we know from past experience that when you are actually wanted, you have got a chance. It's pointless pretending otherwise. There've been other times around the release of some of our previous records where no one has wanted to talk to us. I guess with us labelling it "one last shot..." we've got to try and justify that to people, although I'm sure anyone at Hammersmith Working Men's Club that evening purely to hear the new songs would say we'd failed! We've got a week lined up at the end of September where we're going to rehearse our entire back catalogue and hopefully learn the new album at the same time.
DiS: It must be quite surreal in a way that the Manic Street Preachers are still deemed relevant, even eighteen years on from your first album? Nicky: I really think that no one's ever replaced us. In some ways when someone replaces you you have to take that on the chin. You then become a museum band and make a nice living off your past, but the fact we've still got the same rage and the same anger after all these years...I think you can hear it on the record, even people who are not fans of the band hear Postcards From A Young Man and think "God, at least they still put the effort in!" We really wanted to overpower the record with melody. Every string part and every choir has to have a point; it's not just padding that doesn't mean anything, it's got resonance. I see it as a very classically composed seventies-style record and every part has to work.
DiS: There are several high profile collaborations on the record. How did you end up working with the likes of Ian McCulloch, Duff McKagan and John Cale and what did they bring to the songs? Nicky: When I said to you about throwing everything at it we possibly could we also thought let's just take a punt on people we really admire and see if they'll collaborate with us on the record. As you know, we've got a good tradition of duets. To have a roll call of Shirley Bassey, Nina Persson, Kylie Minogue and Traci Lords is pretty impressive! The major thing with Ian McCulloch was that James, Sean (Moore) and Richey saw his first ever gig as Electrafixion at Bristol Colston Hall in 1994, and I guess when you're younger you sort of feel you are never going to be as old as the person you're watching, and then he's in our studio singing one of our songs! Then you realise he's eight years older than us, which is nothing really. It was hard to equate being a kid and him being an idol, and he really dug something out of the soul for the vocal on 'Some Kind Of Nothingness'. It was pretty magical just watching him. He sang for seven or eight hours just because he wanted to get it right. He wanted it to be like 'To Sir With Love', and I just said to him it could replace 'The Yo Yo Man' on Ocean Rain and then it would be the most perfect album ever! With Duff, Guns'n'Roses are still crucial to us. They were very uncredible - it's not as if anyone else was in love with that band in 1990 but to have Duff call us back and say he'd get his old rig together that he worked with on Appetite For Destruction was pretty special to say the least. We're fanboys at the end of the day, while John Cale just happens to be the coolest musician ever to come out of our home country. I have to say the man's a genius. I've never met anyone who can turn his hand to anything whether it be Stockhausen, Patti Smith or pure pop and make it sound so God damn perfect.
DiS: Just going back to Guns'n'Roses, did you get to see any of the recent shows with Axl Rose and the new line-up? Nicky: I've got to be honest with you that for me it wasn't really Guns'n'Roses. I can take some reformations if they have three original members or even 50% if you had Slash and Duff but watching a bunch of session musicians and Axl and calling it Guns'n'Roses is maybe just taking it a stretch too far. And he didn't half pick some donkeys to back him! It's a bit like when Iggy Pop had that terrible phase in the mid-1980s and picked these awful session players in bad leather jackets to back him until he rediscovered his mojo. The only thing I will say, and I guess it's not ideal for punters, is that at least there was a real sense of unpredictability and danger about the whole thing. There's no one else who's filled that void.
DiS: You sing lead vocals on 'The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever'. Is this something you now purposely endeavour to contribute to every album, having done so on at least one song with each record since Know Your Enemy? Nicky: If there's a fragile enough song then I tend to end up singing it - it's kind of like the Graham Coxon role in our band I guess! The slacker-esque, Dinosaur Jr style growl that is always on the point of going out of tune! I think this is probably the best vocal I've ever done. James did try and sing it but when we played it back it almost sounded too...well sung! It was his decision to persuade me to sing 'The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever' and we sort of had this imagination of The June Brides being played by 1970s Rolling Stones so the mixture of indie fragility with cowbells and James' best Keith Richards impersonation worked well.
DiS: The cover artwork for Postcards... features a photo of the actor, Tim Roth. How did that come about and is he a fan of the band? Nicky: The album is infused with a certain kind of nostalgia and I think most people have already picked up on that. We're not pretending to have made a groundbreaking dubstep record or anything. It's not meant to be a celebration of the past but just our way of trying to point out certain things that the current generation tends to miss out on, almost like a tactile world that was so fulfilling. Going back to the polaroid photo of Tim Roth on the cover, I'm a polaroid obsessive and he's the sole reason James did drama at college. He used to have a skinhead to try and look like the character he played in 'Made In Britain'. James was always a big fan of those late eighties/early nineties grim BBC dramas - 'King Of The Ghetto' was another one he really loved - and at the time Tim Roth and Gary Oldman were the leading lights of this kind of thing.
DiS: It would be quite interesting seeing James playing a bit part in the original version of 'The Firm' with Gary Oldman... Nicky: That would be fucking brilliant, make my day it would! I'm going to tell him that. It's the greatest ever piece of drama that's been made about football hooligan culture. It's weird really, because we're namechecking these people who've worked on the album or appeared on the cover - Michael Sheen's in the video as well - yet we really don't have any showbiz pals whatsoever! We don't live in that kind of world. We just generally asked people because they kind of fitted in with the record and because we genuinely admire them. It's less a collaboration and more a case of us thinking they can bring something amazing to a song we've written, if that makes sense.
DiS: Staying with the football theme, as a Spurs fan, how far do you think they will progress in this season's Champions League and do you see them sustaining their position in the top four of the Premiership? Nicky: I think it's going to be one of those seasons where we achieve one or the other. I can honestly see us getting as far as the quarter finals of the Champions League but I fear our Premier League form may suffer as a result. I'd be happy getting beyond the group stages in Europe and finishing mid-table in our domestic league to be honest. A midweek game at White Hart Lane, whether it be in the League, Europe or otherwise is one of the few great traditions of English football still going. It does feel like I'm watching Tottenham v Ajax in 1980 or something.
DiS: What about Gareth Bale? Do you think he could be the future of Welsh football? Nicky: I think he is, although to be honest I think we've got an amazing crop of young players and if they can get it together the future looks healthy all round. I mean there's Aaron Ramsey who's still recovering from that terrible injury and we can do without Simon Davies retiring just when he's playing out of his skin for Fulham and Ryan Giggs has offered to come back and oversee the development as well. Potentially we have the makings of a really good side, it's just trying to make it all work together. James Collins is playing really well at the minute, and the lad who plays up your way Chris Gunter looks an excellent prospect too. I think John Toshack has done a good job bringing them all through but maybe it is time now for someone else to come in and take it to the next level. I think with international management you just need a figurehead as there's so little time actually spent working with the players. If there is an Ian Rush, Giggs, Gary Speed or Chris Coleman out there with boundless enthusiasm and a dose of national pride, this Welsh squad could really go places.
DiS: Moving onto Ben Myers forthcoming book about Richey Edwards, entitled 'Richard'. Have you read it and if so, what are your thoughts on it? Nicky: I just feel it's better if I don't see it. It's a free country and it's not going to ruin our lives and in a pure fictional sense it may well have its worth. It's just the presumption that the writer kind of knew someone when to be honest I don't know...maybe I'm the one that didn't know Richey really well? To be honest I haven't even got the balls to say I knew him, because you know, he disappeared one day, and just the portrayal...I don't know, it's like 'Sid And Nancy'. Gary Oldman is great as Sid Vicious but the bloke who played John Lydon is the same bloke who played 'Scully' (Andrew Schofield) in the 1980s Channel 4 series and his portrayal is awful. It's our greatest fear as a band really if someone were to make a film about the band, that James is portrayed as a working class thug, I'm walking around in high heels and a dress all the time and Sean's just twiddling on a trumpet, but as for the book, I think we'll just leave it be.
DiS: I know at the time of Journal For Plague Lovers you talked about finally doing justice to Richey's words. Do you see that record as bringing closure to that period of the band's history now? Nicky: We don't see it in such straightforward psychological terms. A lot of people are naturally saying that and I can understand it but there's never gonna be any closure by the look of it, and I don't even know if I want there to be if I'm being honest with you. The theory behind it all was to try and be Richey's backing band in a way that we were framing him as a great writer. The pressure behind it was to articulate the music in the same way as the words, because his lyrics are just phenomenal. Why he didn't get a Mercury nomination just for the fucking words I have no idea. Not even on selfish terms, because we have been nominated in the past for Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, but just as a way of recognition for him, really.
DiS: You're going out on tour next month with British Sea Power as main support. Are you fans of their music and was that the main reason for hooking up with them? Nicky: The main reason we asked them was that I think they're a great ideas band. There's such a lack of that at the moment. It's probably the same reason I liked Klaxons when they first came out because it was rammed full of ideas. Sometimes it's not just the fucking music, there's got to be more to life. British Sea Power are the sort of band hat would do a gig down a mine on a day off, and I really admire their voracity. It's not an easy path they've chosen. They could have just played it simple, and that's not to say I don't think they also write some amazing songs because they do, but there's just something about them which I love them for yet can't quite pin down. Maybe it's the BSP/MSP thing?!?
DiS: I think the other similarity between you and British Sea Power is that they also sing from the heart and live and breathe their lyrics. Nicky: Definitely. You know, more than anything I am a music fan, and I want to fall in love with bands again, I genuinely do. I fell in love with The Libertines, and the Mystery Jets new record, I'm absolutely devouring it. The first two tracks on the Avi Buffalo record are breathtaking. We are music obsessives, and until someone comes along who are better than us I guess we'll still be around.
DiS: Are there any of your records which in hindsight you wish had been recorded differently? Nicky: Yeah definitely. We're our own fiercest critics and over the course of ten albums you're never going to get everything right. If you can get beyond 50% I think you're doing really well, and I can never understand for instance why we didn't put 'Prologue To History' on This Is My Truth.... It's our best ever b-side and it would have worked so much better on that record than say, 'Be Natural'. Lifeblood I think has three or four killer songs but it's just too cold and too precise. It doesn't really sound like us. Know Your Enemy I think has got at least eight brilliant tracks but it's too scattershot to make any sort of sense.
DiS: I actually think Know Your Enemy is a better record than many critics give it credit for, and if it weren't for the fact it's maybe five or six tracks too long, think it would be looked upon much more favourably than it has been. Nicky: There's elements of it I really adore like 'Intravenous Agnostic', which I think is fucking brilliant! Then there's 'The Year Of Purification', which to me is the best impersonation of REM I've ever heard! 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children' is another favourite. I love the lyrics, I love the title. There's five tracks on there which in hindsight maybe could have been better or not there at all. I don't know, maybe that bit was a cop out on our behalf? It wasn't long enough to be a sprawling masterpiece, yet at the same time wasn't short enough to be concise, and good. It still sold half a million copies so if you gave me that tomorrow with Postcards From A Young Man I'll be very happy!
DiS: Finally, what would you say in your opinion was THE definitive Manic Street Preachers record? Nicky: I think it differs for different people. Undoubtedly The Holy Bible is in many respects, and I'm completely happy with that because I think it's a genuine piece of art. On a personal level, Everything Must Go is pretty untouchable because it's a distillation of all of us, whether it be Sean's trumpet, James' songwriting and string arrangements, Richey's lyrics on 'Kevin Carter' and 'The Girl Who Wanted To Be God', and then my social history with 'A Design For Life' and 'Everything Must Go'. I do have a real soft spot for Send Away The Tigers too because it didn't feel like we were a band just before that. We were on the verge of nothingness and to dig that out of ourselves made us fall in love with music again.
Manic Street Preachers head out on an extensive UK tour from Wednesday 29th September. For a full list of dates visit their MySpace.
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