Manic Street Preachers' new album is entitled Resistance Is Futile, but from politics to privacy, the band aren’t accepting things lying down.
Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield are seated in the latter’s hotel room in Marylebone, central London, ostensibly promoting the Manic Street Preachers’ forthcoming 14th album, Resistance Is Futile, but instead talking about the possibility of Manic Street Preachers splitting up. Wire says he finds the prospect “terrifying”, which is understandable: they have been in the band for 31 years – they formed at secondary school in Blackwood in south Wales – and neither of them seems to know what else they might do. “I can’t go and teach at the Cardiff Institute of Music, you know,” smiles Bradfield. “My first lecture on how to make it in the music business: ‘Piss everybody off, dress like your mum and learn how to play on the job.’ ‘Er...can we have a new lecturer, please?’”
Nevertheless, they say, splitting up is a thought that has occurred to both of them in the four years since they last released an album, a trying period during which Wire’s elderly parents fell ill, his mother gravely so, and their Cardiff studio, Faster, was closed after the building that housed it was earmarked for redevelopment and demolished – its closure made the local news in Wales. The process of building a new one, Bradfield protests, turned him into “a low-rent version of what’s-his-fucking-name from Grand Designs”. “He would ring me up and go: ‘I’ve got a bit of bad news – steel prices have gone up,” sighs Wire, with the unmistakable air of a man who didn’t join a band in order to discuss supporting joists.
To most observers, the Manics seem to have spent the past decade in the kind of creative Indian summer that has eluded most of their peers. They enjoyed their commercial zenith in the late 90s, when, as Wire disbelievingly points out, they were so big that a single such as The Masses Against the Classes, which opens with a sample of Noam Chomsky and ends with a quotation from Albert Camus’ book The Rebel, could knock Westlife’s Seasons in the Sun off No 1. If they have never recaptured that high point, the past 10 years have still come replete with gold albums, arena tours and critical acclaim. That last record, Futurology, in particular was widely hailed as one of the best records the band has made. But Bradfield says he has found himself wondering if the Manics still had an audience – an odd thing to worry about given the size of the venues they still play, but as he says, the band were always “fucking obsessed with a desire to be huge”.
Wire says he has been beset by doubts, not just about their relevance, but the relevance of rock music in general. From the start, at least part of the point of Manic Street Preachers was, as Wire once beautifully put it, “to give clues to a more rewarding life”, to use rock music as a means by which you could transmit ideas about books and films and politics. The journalist Stuart Maconie recalled faxing them, early on in their career, a standard set of questions for a weekly NME Q&A called Material World, and receiving in response a set of “apposite, brilliantly chosen quotations from a whole range of cultural figures – Mao, Philip Larkin, Marilyn Monroe, George Best, Flaubert, Andy Warhol, Heidegger”. But in a world of social media, rock music is clearly no longer the main conduit of youth culture.
“It’s dictated by role models, icons, whatever you want to call them,” Wire says. “Music used to be the leader in terms of that, everything about the way we looked growing up was about searching out how to look like those kind of people. Now they’re getting it from avenues that I can’t comprehend why they’d want to.” He sighs. “The emptiness of it. Actually, I feel a certain sense of pity, because I think our youth was so definite and tangible and exciting and full of space to dream and magic and all those kind of ephemeral things. Whereas now, it’s just ratcheted at you at such a fucking speed. And we all know, because we’ve all got kids, and you try to kind of...not influence them, but pass on things that made your life magical, and they just seem completely fucking irrelevant. It’s not nostalgia, that’s a key thing; it’s actually things just disappearing. It’s like the NME closing, that was the worst thing about it: it’s just another nail, telling you music is less relevant.” Nevertheless, he says, “the one thing I know for certain, in this world of absolute doubt and uncertainty, is that when the three of us get in the studio, there is still a magic there”.
Hence they didn’t split up, and while Resistance Is Futile certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing the band’s doubts – they are there in everything from its title to its cover photo, featuring “one of the last samurai warriors – someone who knows his time is over thanks to the coming of the gun” – it arrives filled with brashly anthemic songs that deal in what Wire calls “ecstatic miserablism...effervescent melancholy”.
He says he feels “drained of intellectual stamina...That’s why I don’t think anyone should be in charge of a political party at 75 or something, because at 50, I’m fucking struggling.” He also claims he was incapable of the effort that went into researching Futurology’s theme of “connecting Europe through art movements, like an antidote to politics” – during which he became so “obsessed with things like [Futurist poet] Mayakovsky and Malevich’s Black Square” that the rest of the band “didn’t know what I was fucking on about”. But Resistance Is Futile’s songs are as lyrically rich as ever. They variously touch on the doomed, booze-sodden marriage of Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara, the “seismic cultural gap” revealed by the death of David Bowie (“I don’t think there’s ever going to be anybody to replace him: that self-made, that extravagant, intellectual, playful, funny, gorgeous, best hair ever, best clothes ever – how can that happen again from a working-class background in Brixton?”), the paintings of Yves Klein and the story of Vivian Maier, the Chicago nanny who had a double-life as a street photographer, quietly taking 150,000 photos of US cities and society that were only discovered, to vast acclaim, after her death.
The latter’s story keys into another of Wire’s obsessions about the internet era: that nothing is ever truly secret, that everyone’s lives are constantly documented and held up to public scrutiny. “One of the greatest things Francis Bacon ever said was that you self-realised,” he says. “There was a period of five years in his life, literally no one knows what the fuck he did. He destroyed everything he painted, there were rumours he was an interior decorator, he was in Berlin...Just no one knows what went on for that period, and that can never happen again, that self-realisation where you really form yourself through isolation and scarcity and ideas. I actually feel sorry for the generations coming after us, because of that. How can you do it? Everything is there, laid out for you to be embarrassed by when you’re older, without realising. All our embarrassing songs that we wrote when we were 15, you know, thank fuck no one heard them. So there’s humiliation, as well, that idea of one false step...If you look back at me and Richey at the start, fuck me, we’d have been killed today. I dread to think what I would have put James and Sean through, because some of the interviews are just...there’s so much talk, and it’s only by the end that we talk any sense. But that was the process, wasn’t it, of just going through all that stuff.”
There is also a considerable amount of fretting about politics, which seems faintly surprising: given the band’s past political allegiances to Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, I had assumed they would be quite gung-ho for Jeremy Corbyn, but apparently not. “I’m coming around to him a lot more, but not gung-ho, no,” says Bradfield. “I’m not one of those people that goes on about the liberal elite in London, but I don’t think he understands what makes the working classes tick outside of London and that is just hardcore industries. We’ve operated at our optimum as people when jobs give us meaning, and in the post-industrial hinterlands, he doesn’t understand that. I remember somebody at a meeting down in south Wales, an old guy, ex-miner, wanted his son to have a proper, real, blue-collar job, and he was saying: ‘What do you expect us to do, Mr Corbyn, make fucking love spoons out of hemp?’ I don’t think Jezza gets it, I don’t think he connects with people on that level, which is part of the reason we’re having political problems in Wales.”
Wire says he’s “completely baffled by my own political vacuum” since Brexit: “A lot of it’s just about political intelligence, the frustration where I think we grew up in a time when there was a lot of political intelligence on both sides, to be honest. Now...there’s never any answers, it’s just statement after statement of opposing vitriol, you know, which I just...I just can’t see a middle way at the moment.”
And Bradfield and Wire go off on a lengthy tangent about politics: they talk, as much to each other as to me, about Tony Benn’s notion of the EU as “a gentleman’s club for millionaires” and how the remain campaign failed because it didn’t make enough of the EU’s failings and the need to reform it, whether or not the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is “an old-school totalitarian communist” (this, I should point out, is a phrase Wire uses with approval, rather than censure), and the proposed 2016 closure of the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot. They don’t, it has to be said, sound much like an irrelevant band stuck for things to say.
“There is a sense of a massive fun and excitement being in our band,” says Wire. “Every record we’ve made recently, whether you like them or not, they’ve all been convincing. It’s still full of vitality. You can’t really fake that. We have to be completely committed to this.” He smiles. “At our age, if you’re not, then it’s fucking over.