As they gear up to play Belfast, Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers tells Edwin Gilson how 18 years after their band member disappeared, the power of his lyrics still lives on
Ask a long-lived band about their relevancy in the modern age and they'll generally respond in two contrasting ways - incredibly defensively or with a shrug of the shoulders. It's refreshing then to hear Nicky Wire, bassist of 27-year-old Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers, confront the issue with unflinching honesty.
"I do worry about it," he admits, "because if you're not relevant then you fade away and wither. Usually though, even when we've been hated we've been relevant. We're still always panicky about it though, because we love communicating with people and when you lose that then it's really all over for you. It's frightening, and it hurts, to realise that you're playing to the same fans as you always have."
Perhaps in a bid to combat his fears head on, the Manics are releasing two hugely different albums over the next six months or so - the "bucolic, acoustic, dare I say pensive" Rewind the Film, due out in a few weeks and another "very European, very nasty" record slated for release around February 2014.
Wire (44) reveals it was never the band's intention to make two albums, more that he, James Dean Bradfield (vocals, guitar) and Sean Moore (drums) gradually realised their work was simply too eclectic to be contained within one record.
If this approach is typical of the Manics' idiosyncratic output throughout the years, such diversity does not always come easily. My interview with Wire interrupts a "difficult" rehearsal at the band's Cardiff studio. The electric guitars and synths have been stashed away in order for the Manics to practice acoustically ahead of their unplugged Guinness Arthur's Day gig on September 26 at an as-yet undisclosed pub location somewhere in Ireland (although they'll also be playing in their amped-up format at Belfast's Ulster Hall on September 21).
"Playing a stripped-down set like this is something we've actually never done," remarks Wire. "We played Arthur's Day a few years ago (in 2010). We played electrically, but the random nature of the gig came as a bit of a shock to the system! After being institutionalised in a band for so long, that shook things up a bit. Anyone who's seen us over the last 20 years knows our show is pretty much straight-up loud rock and roll, so we're having to restrain ourselves a bit for this year's event. We're not really known for being subtle, sensitive types of men!"
What the Manics have always been renowned for is their cutting-edge lyrics and their desire to voice an opinion on the pressing political and social matters of the day. Wire won't be drawn on whether he'd ever consider penning a tune about the current coalition government but one track on Rewind the Film, entitled The 30 Year War, is about a certain former leader who had a damaging impact on the bassist's hometown of Blackwood, in the South Wales Valleys.
"It's about the philosophy of Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism, and the glee with which it destroyed certain parts of where I grew up," says Wire.
"I guess the song is just a big 'Back off' to rampant capitalism. On the whole we just write about what we're interested in, be it politics, art, sport, you name it. I mean I did a degree in politics so it would be a bit cheap of me not to write about it, wouldn't it? It's just a hard subject for the band to avoid, really."
As Wire points out, the Manics are an "anti-fascist, socialist band", so it must have been dismaying for them to see one of their best-known songs, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, get an airing at an English Defence League rally recently. "It was just so ludicrous I feel like I don't need to say anything! What's the phrase...shooting yourself in the foot, perhaps? I think the song does all the work for us on that front; it's about Welsh miners going to fight fascists."
Wire is reluctant to discuss the matter further, and indeed it seems he has enough to worry about already with the forthcoming release of Rewind the Film. In keeping with his concerns over his band's relevancy Wire concedes that, for a musician in the 21st century, knowing where you stand can be a struggle.
"Well, things have totally changed since we started out," he reflects. "That's why, at this stage, there's a certain amount of panic upon releasing the album - panic, fear and, of course, excitement. It's so different now. Music is all so instantly reachable within a second; you just chuck it online and see what happens. There's a lot less structure than there used to be, but there you go. It's all about trying to keep up with the digital age!"
Once Rewind the Film has been released, though, Wire and co should be able to relax, as it's shaping up to be another bold step forward for the band. Wire claims that the album is also reminiscent of former glories; by sheer coincidence Rewind the Film will arrive almost exactly 15 years since the masterful Manics album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and, apparently, it sounds a bit like the 1998 record too.
"Rewind the Film contains that same reflective feeling as This Is My Truth," ponders Wire. "It's definitely got that same sense of place." Over the years the Manics have collaborated with a number of female guest vocalists, including Kylie Minogue, Nina Persson from The Cardigans and even former porn star Traci Lords and this time round it's no different, as British songstresses Lucy Rose and Cate Le Bon lend their charming tones to the cause.
"Sometimes James just gets a bit bored of his own voice," laughs Wire. "We wanted that element of subtlety and sensitivity that those two provided. Duets add a certain glamour too, which you need when you've been in a band for as long as we have."
This last comment seemingly prompts Wire to reflect on the early stages of the Manics' career, the "exhilarating" time before that fateful day in February 1995 when primary lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared, never to be seen again.
"Playing as a four-piece at that time was the best feeling ever. We've made better albums and played better gigs since then, but we'll never be able to relive the intensity of those years."
Despite being questioned on the issue of Edwards in almost every interview since the tragedy, Wire is only too willing to offer up a few emotive words about his old pal.
"Sometimes it can feel like every time we play, it's a tribute to him," said the bassist. "His words are all that are left; as a band member and a brother. They deserve to be shared because they're brilliant and he was brilliant. It's never been the same since the days when he was in the band."
Wire admits that some songs from the Manic's back catalogue, like 1992 hit Motorcycle Emptiness, "are really hard to play now, because you have to be in the right state of mind to really mean it".
He adds: "Some of the songs are faster and all about teen angst and we really can't fake the emotion because our fans immediately know if we do. So it can be challenging. A lot of our songs, though, are just timeless Manics numbers that can fit into any situation."
The bassist declares, with pride, that "a lot of our older fans are bringing their children to our shows now; they've grown up as Manics obsessives and now their kids are going down the same path".
For the moment then, with two intriguing new albums and a string of live shows on the way, it seems Wire's fears about relevancy are utterly unfounded. Towards the end of our chat he even comes to realise this himself: "New generations are still buying our records, which is very encouraging."
Then and now, the Manics' finest work...
Generation Terrorists, 1991 Before the release of their debut album, the Manics declared it would be the "greatest rock album ever". Featuring heavily politicised lyrics, upon its release The Quietus remarked: "If you're trying to bulldoze the shiny edifice of western pop culture, you can't do it tastefully or with subtlety...the album had to be overdone".
Holy Bible, 1994 The band's third album was written as guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards struggled with severe depression and alcohol abuse. The main lyrical theme of the album is human suffering on a wider scale, but some commentators have speculated the content also reflects Edwards' mental state.
Everything Must Go, 1996 The first album the Manics released after Edwards' disappearance, it moved away from the minimalism displayed on Holy Bible towards a more rounded, full sound, featuring strings and synths.
Journal for Plague Lovers, 2009 Released a year after Edwards was pronounced dead, it features numerous lyrics written by the guitarist before his disappearance. Several tracks refer to Edwards' numerous hospital experiences.
Postcards From a Young Man, 2010 Intended as "one last shot at mass communication", the record features a gospel choir and an unlikely cameo from ex-Guns 'n' Roses bassist Duff McKagan. Speaking about the album, Nicky Wire remarked: "We're not 18, but even at 40 the rage is still there."