Should the measure of a truly great band he gauged by the immediacy of their cartoon factor, then the Manic Street Preachers were legends from the outset, in the same sketchy, black and white, Ralph Steadman dimension as The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, Nirvana and The Smiths. If the Manics have, through the hell of life, become the cartoon caper that has long ceased to be funny, they remain, deep down, the blueprint for a million translucently wasted youths.
Nicky Wire: "I hate summer."
Sean Moore: "I remember one summer years ago, me and James just closed the curtains every day and didn't go out at all. We stayed in. We watched Wimbledon and played records until the sun went down."
"And then we still stayed in."
Nicky: "I hate late nights. I hate when it's still light at ten o'clock. I'm sure I get the reverse of the seasonal disorder; I can't fucking stand it and just wish it was dark at six o'clock."
Sean: "Dark and pissing down."
Nick: "Much prefer that. So no-one can come and visit."
Sean: "I hate visitors. I can't stand visitors."
Nick: "We've made no friends since we've been in a band."
Sean: "The only friend I've got is Nick. He's the only person who ever rings up. Can't count James 'cos he's family."
Nick: "Apart from Martin (Hall, manager) and Psycho, my old mate from college, that's it. And I'm quite happy with that!"
Sean: "Quite happy, yeah!"
No wonder, then, Nicky is hooting, "We need James!" and cackling at their dearth of joie de vivre, the quality he and Sean feel James alone brings to the most self-contained rock'n'roll band in the world. Nick still lives in the Welsh valleys with wife Rachel ("There's a definite Howard Hughes factor to my life, a Kleenex protocol"), Sean on the outskirts of Bristol with Rhian, his girlfriend of 14 years ("I'm obsessed with everything being parallel. Parallel and in its place"), whereas James is now a free-wheelin' London home- owner.
"We kind of vicariously live through James," nods Nick, still flopped against a sofa in his management offices, legs loped across the entire floor, "with his drinking and his Londonness and his Soho Houseness. Not that he'd ever be seduced by all that. He's far too scuzzy, always in the 7-11 getting some warmed-up terrible hot dog..."
The day James Dean Bradfield moved into his new flat in St John's Wood, west London, he hadn't shaved for four weeks, had a cigarette behind his ear, wore a dodgy old 'Wales' top and the builders inside asked him if he'd come to do the doors. Earlier that day he'd been accused by a shopkeeper of mugging somebody in the street and had his credit card confiscated simply because of his appearance. The other night, he went to the "private drinking place" he'd been given membership of by Martin as a Christmas present and, having forgotten his card, was asked to verify the card's colour when "James Dean Bradfield" failed fame's open sesame litmus test (where "Martin Hall" succeeded).
"If you've got greasy skin, don't shave and stink of smoke then you are pretty scuzzy," guffaws James two days later in the same office. "Nick and Sean don't live vicariously through me at all, they wouldn't touch me with a bargepole."
James is generally "very, very confident and happy at the moment", beyond nerves into "excitement" about the release of 'This is My Truth Tell Me Yours' which provides, for him, as well as questions, "some answers, maybe for the first time." He's had a girlfriend "for a long wee while now, with a tiny little fracture in between, but it's been really good for me."
How's this affected your soul?
(Mortified, head down) "It doesn't affect anything to do with the band whatsoever." Seemingly the most embittered Manic in the initial 18 months after Richey's disappearance - fans were distressed by his "he could never be our friend again" comments - he's reached a new level of acceptance.
"It's taken a while to reach that level of calm," he nods. "But there's no anger, no resentment, no bitterness, no fear. I know what I feel and they're all good, warm feelings. I've no complex in me about Richey whatsoever." We talk about how he got there, about how the hell any human spirit's supposed to ‘come to terms' with probably never seeing their best friend again.
"There's a very, very, very, very, very simple, very simple answer," says James, brightly, leaping on to a sofa in what is definitely relief at the question. "I've still got two other best friends in the band. Y'know? You can't substitute the memory of somebody else for the on- going lives of two people that still matter to you. And not just Nick and Sean. Martin as well. Rob (Stringer, who signed the Manics to Sony). Terri (Hall, publicist and widow of Philip). I feel it's the most important part of Richey now. If he did what he did, then I feel as if his urge to do what he did should be complete to a certain degree. Nick, Sean, Martin, Rob, Terri - that's the important thing now. And I didn't have to go to a fucking psychoanalyst to figure that out. I never have done, by the way."
James reckons NME is a mithering old wobbly-eyed Fraser off Dad’s Army with trench soul concerning it’s ‘doomed!’ assessment of our current – alleged – pop culture crisis.
"’OK computer’ and ‘Urban Hymns’ are two of British music’s healthiest achievements ever," he snorts. "Two bands who completely made the album they wanted and then sold more albums each than Michael Jackson in this country alone. Surely that's what we're all in it for."
He doesn't particularly worry that the young spunkiness is missing, either. He feels that "people just don't want to be pushed at the moment." Nick feels The Revolution's in a two- year incubation period and "may come from America this time". In the last 18 months, James has produced Northern Uproar:
"'Rollercoaster' was a brilliant indie single! People who wouldn't give them credit were pussies probably picked on by their PE teachers at school..." and has also co-written with Kylie Minogue. "Seeing the commercial result, I probably failed her," he puffs of their 'Some Kind Of Bliss' collaboration. "That's the only thing I'm upset about. I loved her voice, really got on with her; end of the day I'm embarrassed that I failed her." These days he's listening to Jeff Buckley, old rap stuff, Super Furry Animals, Badfinger and Mogwai: "But it's the first time ever I haven't got a favourite band."
Nick says he could live without music now, but you couldn't. "I couldn't, no," he ponders. "But Nick listens to music as much as I do. He listens to the soppiest indie records I know sometimes. I'm not telling you which ones! Oh, y'know, old Green On Red stuff, old Wedding Present stuff..."
Eh? The Manics used to devote whole interviews to how bollocks The Wedding Present were in the "we hate Slowdive more than Hitler" days!
"Well, he's constantly making up compilation tapes: the Bodines, Big Brain, really old Primal Scream stuff..." Christ Almighty. Nicky Wire in 'Indie-Schmindie Sad Fan Shocker After All These Years' sensation! "Ah, but then there'll be 'All Night Long' by Rainbow, UFO, Rush, where the bass and the guitarist have this war (air guitar aloft), 'Nnnngnnngnngnn!', loads of stuff. He's a full-on pretty metal boy. He's lying, again."
You're not indie-shmindie, incidentally, considering the guitar-sitar clanging away on new song 'Tsunami' in a Buddhist fashion. Got God or something, have you?
"Naaaah," blithers James. "I believe in the Devil but I don't believe in God."
Oh, really? "Oh no. (Looks aggrieved, addresses the floor) Why did I say that? Yes. I do believe in the Devil. As a force. Fuck, why did I say that? I can't believe I slipped up there..."
You don't believe one can't exist without the other?
"Fallacy. Nonsense. We could be God and that's the eternal struggle. Nick's theory is America is the Devil's joke, the Devil's fly catcher."
So... er, you believe evil is the strongest force and life is borne out of evil with the purpose of transcendence into good?
"No, I believe evil is borne out of…general fault-lines in human nature. Humans just can’t be satisfied by good for life. No. No!" And James Dean Bradfield bounds off the sofa, quite literally runs out the door shouting, "No!" and guffaws, beserkly: "I’m not getting into this any fucking more! No fucking way!" Funny little fellow.
Some things Nicky Wire loves. Super Furry Animals: "Gruff’s the best lyricist around by miles, they’re the one band I think are setting new targets." The lyrics of Richard Ashcroft: 'Underrated, beautiful lines. And anyone who's as thin as that at his age... good luck to 'im!' Also 'having the paper delivered. Reading the paper. Having the milk delivered. Taking the dog for a walk. Playing darts in my bedroom.'
Plus the on-going devotion of The Fans, with special mention to the ones who send sports biographies, dresses and filters for Hoover bags: "it doesn't fill my ego but it gives me immense warmth. You don't have to write what everybody else writes in order to connect. "
This Septernber the BBC, as part of its Close-Up arts series. will screen a 50-minute Manic Street Preachers documentary, the first television documentary made with the band's permission and with their personal involvement (also featuring Cerys Matthews and Neil Kinnock). After The Brits, the band were swamped with requests Concluding The South Bank Show). They decided the BBC would have a good angle. 'rather than 'here's the new album". They’ve no control over the final result
"It was very hard work," says Nick. "They were in our houses. I even gave them some of my private video collection of the band. We just wanted it to be good."
You didn't mind flirting with the arts establishment?
"Don't know about that," muses Nick. "If it was just about the album it would be just Free TV, but there's certain things we wanted to set the record straight about, like throwing Richey's lyrics in the river and burning his lyrics, how he supposedly lived with his grandparents from the age of eight because his mother and father didn't want him, and all that bollocks which is just not true. Whether it'll come out like that I don't know, but it gave us a chance to say it, the humane things. They did interviews in Sean and James' bunk-beds in James' mother's, back home where they used to sit and yak and play."
Does this indicate a new level of respect you've gained?
"Not at all," he says, firmly. '"People made documentaries without us anyway. The only thing is, it was really draining. Afterwards I did feel like, 'I wish I hadn't done it'. How much more of yourself can you give away before you're left with fuck-all? I do get that feeling sometimes, of, 'What more is there to say?"
Sean: 'There's not much left, really, is there? To say. I don't feel like I've got much left to say.' Unintentional dramatic pause. 'Not that I said much anyway!'
Some things Nicky Wire hates. The Dr John tribute album: 'If Dr John was playing across the road from me I would not go and see him. If I wanted to hear the blues, I'd listen to Liam Gallagher singing. At the end of the day, Britpop was exciting and euphoric but the arse end was always gonna be little boys growing up wanting to be proper musicians and discover their roots."
Chumbawamba: "The worst group in history that has ever been created. (begins shouting) If you're going to wear a skirt at least make an effort to look like a woman! You can't just put a fucking bit of rag on and look like an ugly bloke at a stag night! Put it this way, if Richey was here and someone said: 'Chumbawamba are trying to be like you', he'd probably cut his whole forearm off on the spot!"
The Independent and Creation Records: "I get letters from them all the time saying (whiny voice): 'Please sign this petition to legalise cannabis.’ Because we’re radical. It really annoys me that people associate it with left-wing radicalism. That's not gonna cure all the ills of the world, is it?! That's not gonna sort out the NHS! Sort out unemployment!"
London alfresco cafe society: "Drinkin' 100 percent car fumes! I’d just go in my back garden with a flask and sit there if I wanted to be 'continental'."
David Seaman: "Lard-arse."
Where Nicky Wire is as unique a human being as it's possible to find in life, never mind rock'n'roll, he feels, 'There are loads of girls who are just like me.' A lifelong dress-wearer and crusader against 'macho bullshit', he's finally written a song about it, 'Born A Girl', first played at a gig before Reading last year, after which a girl wrote in a fanzine: "I love Nick but how could he be so condescending as to say that it's easier to be a woman?" He was, naturally, 'upset'. It's a song James is fully expecting to be heckled over.
"If I get, 'What a fucking poofter' who fucking cares?" He curses. "Obviously I'm famous for not being androgynous like Nick and Richey were, so because I'm singing someone else's emotions and ideals I have to describe it to people, like (addressing small child): "No, he's not gay, no he's not a Madam Jo-Jo TV, but he feels there's no description for him." I think these are Nick's purest thoughts, complete, unabashed... not courage, that's too pugnacious, but just... there's no shame. Whatsoever. He loves wearin' dresses, he prefers women's clothes and he says at the end of the day his favourite person in the world is his mother, because she's the most pure, beautiful and sensitive person he's ever known."
Some things Nicky Wire regrets: the video for 'She Is Suffering': "Absolute shite beyond belief."
Most of 'Gold Against The Soul, The Michael Stipe Comment. (Lest we forget, the stage of Kilburn National Ballroom, Christmas, 1992: 'in this season of goodwill let's hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury.)
"It didn't come out the way I wanted it to. I just wanted to demystify the whole rock'n'roll... experience. David Bowie was going down on one knee saying the lord's Prayer (at the Freddie Mercury Tribute AIDS Charity Concert)... I dunno, everyone had had these decadent lives but now you must behave yourselves... and with Philip having cancer, it was just all a big fuck-up. A disastrous moment in history. It's Philip's fault, he told me to do it: 'Go on, Wire: say it!' The mad bastard..."
There is an atmosphere surrounding the gentle man called Nicky Wire which can only be described as sad, beyond any notion of the musical phenomenon known as Manics Melancholia. As if there could be anything else: losing two of your closest friends by your mid-20s doesn't make you suddenly 'deep' or 'profound' or anything other than, ultimately, sad because it's just wrong. Nicky's life has been 'inexorably influenced by Richey and Philip' and he says this while talking about the empathy he feels for the tormented Second World War veterans and how "being fucking tortured for five years is going to have an influence. The war veterans have an absolute right to behave the way they do where their lives have been completely ruined."
Famed for his verbal confrontation, he prefers the sound of silence.
"I spend half my life in silence," he says. "Solitude and silence. I think solitude and silence are probably the two most important things to keep me sane."
When Nicky talks about the Manics, it's often in the past tense. "We might have reached our peak," he's says. "Who knows? It's just nice that we got to that peak without anything helping us, really, a natural phenomenon. We could be back to playing the I 00 Club with this record. But we've satisfied ourselves". At one point he ventures, plainly: "I've done my bit with music. There's a lot of other things I've never seen." At which point NME sticks a spoon in its eye all the better to thwart a Manics -free vision of the future where the past is ignored and is buried forever under an everlasting avalanche of Back To The Planet posters.
"But I do like playing!" he beams, thankfully. "Sometimes I'll even get that Pete Townshend thing, where you feel you could fly. I'll always throw my bass around, lift up my skirt, and there's always something to rant about. But now it's like a boxer at his peak: he knows when to go for the solar plexus, he doesn't need to jab around for hours and hours. We're still relevant, still valid, we're just humble. Success has given us humility. Well... everything's given us humility."
One of the most gratifying repercussions of that success is post-'A Design For Life' sales of 110,000 for 'Generation Terrorists', 75,000 for 'Gold Against The Soul' and 62,000 for 'The Holy Bible'.
"I think that's fantastic," glows Nick. "People have been genuinely enthused by it all. Especially for 'Holy Bible', ‘cos it never sold any, really, except for 1,000 weirdos buying it every year, like a Joy Division record."
"I want to stay as big as we are," muses James, "as long as we're never cowards, intellectually or artistically. We've been inept sometimes, never quite walked it like we talked it, but we were never cowards." James even sees optimism in the bleakest of their new songs, 'South Yorkshire Mass Murderer', their staggeringly fragile lament to the Hillsborough abomination.
"South Yorkshire', I feel, is completely and utterly a release," he beams. "A massive achievement. Nick's the first commentator to brush away the words 'manslaughter' or 'act of God' and replace it with 'murder'. And if we do it then other people will listen. I feel complete and utter unbridled triumph. (Begins cackling) But we've got such a good flipside to our existence, talking about what we talk about and then we'll still play 'You Love Us' or 'Stay Beautiful'... So it's like, 'Oh yeah! They're that band that play 'You love Us' and that 'fuck off!' song and that drinking song'... and we'd never shy away from that, the entertainment part of it all."
Have you been the most important reference point of the 1990s?
"No," says James, immediately. "But I think we've got the most interesting chapter in the reference book. Being the most important reference point means you've got to be able to define everything by your own work and I don't think that's happened with us. Pains me to say it but it's true. The people who strive to be are usually the ones who are not. Unfortunately. (Lights another tab) Thanks for asking that question, I feel totally depressed now."
Sorry about that.
"Heheheh. I think I'll get over it."
What's the worst thing that could happen to the Manic Street Preachers now? That they become just another rock band?
"Yeah, I think it is," says Nick.
"I don't think we will, though, to be honest," adds Sean, "in my heart of hearts."
"Because we're not like that as people," decides Nick, "and we won't be around that long... heheheh. As long as we don't get too pally with other people we'll be OK. On the American tour we chatted to Liam - fantastic onstage and all the rest of it - but that's where it ends."
And so it is that the Manic Street Preachers look genuinely bamboozled by the implication they've now ascended on winged chariots into the celestial marbled plaza of the so-called Britrock Aristocracy.
"No," says Sean, "because we can still walk down the street and not be recognised."
"No," says James. "Richard Ashcroft, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Thorn Yorke, Liam Gallagher, they're entities. We don't get that kind of hassle."
"No," says Nicky, determinedly, "because it's about what you do, the way you live your life, and that's why the album's called 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours'."
"Put it this way," adds Sean. "I can't wait for the German radio announcer having to say: 'This is Manic Street Preachers, from the album 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours', the new single 'if You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next'."
"Schweinhund!" lilts Nicky, Germanly. "But, yeah, it's about your point of view. And this is my point of view, the way I exist. It's not necessarily the right one, but it's a valid one. At the end of the day our biggest record now has "libraries gave us power" as the first line which is just as, if not more, radical than, 'I am an architect / They call me a butcher'.' He says it doesn't make him angry that no-one thinks about trying to change the world any more, that he's out there, all on his own.
"Yeah, I know that," says Nicky Wire and ascends slowly to his feet, announcing an imminent 'slash'. Twenty-nine years of age, 6ft 3 ins of philosophical grace, still the most dogmatic pop politician of our times and in 1998, the year of the dwindled return, the only one we've got that counts:
"But it's the 'Lipstick Traces' thing - all you can do is leave clues throughout history towards something better. Towards progress.'