The bad conscience of Britpop, Manic Street Preachers are known for their pious pronouncements. Bassist Nicky Wire talks to Neil McCormick
'I've got a chip on both shoulders," says Nicky Wire with a gentle, self-deprecating laugh. "It is a rage, I think, a working-class rage. Sometimes I can channel it, but I never lose it. It's pathetic, really, because it's not just the big issues that upset me. Millions of tiny things can drive me insane, like not having Teletext in my hotel room. It's the height of pettiness. But it is fuel to me, creative fuel."
Wire has a reputation as the last angry man of Britpop, polemicist-in-chief for the Manic Street Preachers, the furious Welsh punks who wanted to destroy rock'n'roll but wound up playing stadiums. In person, however, Wire seems more amused than enraged.
"I just dread to think where I would put all that bile if I hadn't had an outlet," he says. "I got my degree in politics and I was gonna go in the Foreign Office. I would have been some gin-soaked alcoholic in Brussels probably, some outrageous spin doctor, the Alastair Campbell of Europe. I've never had a real job, ever. It was education, education, education. On the night of my finals, we played a concert and we've been together ever since. It's been 13 years now. That's a long time to be angry!"
The Manics have long struck me as one of the most peculiar success stories in British rock. They belong to the agit-rock tradition of the Clash and the Jam but with an aspect of arty self-consciousness and poetic introspection that stands in almost direct contradiction to the man-of-the-people stance of their precursors. And they had an added outsider aspect in the tragic figure of Richey Edwards, their anorexic, self-mutilating lyricist and guitarist who mysteriously disappeared in 1995, never to be seen again. The Manics were like the bad conscience of Britpop, yet somehow found themselves being embraced by the same mass audience who enjoyed the laddish hedonism of Oasis.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of Manic Street Preachers is released next week, a collection of B-sides, rarities and cover versions that provides a kind of alternative tour through an exceedingly strange career, epic guitar pop that encompasses high-minded political theory (Prologue to History), theatrical provocation (We Her Majesty's Prisoners), the trash aesthetics of pop culture (Judge Yourself was inspired by the Judge Dredd comics) and low-brow rock'n'roll (Chuck Berry's Rock and Roll Music is delivered at full pelt, without a hint of irony).
"When I look back, I am quite impressed by how unbelievably deluded and ambitious we have been," says Wire. "We can look like fools sometimes but it's only because we always felt we had to try harder than everyone else."
Wire ascribes their us-against-the-world attitude to growing up as a tight-knit clique in a small Welsh town. "We were all intensely close and still are," he says, acknowledging the lifelong bond between the surviving members - Wire, vocalist and guitarist James Bradfield, and drummer Sean Moore. "We have always been a bizarrely inverted, perversely moral, deeply flawed collection of people. We thought we were an army, the four of us. We had a serious 10-point manifesto written out: no girlfriends, no love songs, must wear the uniforms at all times. I think we're probably down to about two of them now. No drugs, that's still intact, we don't touch pharmaceuticals. And I guess we never really wrote a love song. Two out of 10 ain't bad!"
The Manics have the kind of past that could become a burden, having made so many outrageous pronouncements on their journey from rank outsiders to mainstream stars, but Wire seems at ease with the notion of self-contradiction, exhibiting a surprisingly keen sense of his own ridiculousness.
"We formed expecting to break up, so we've been hypocrites from the beginning really, but Richey always used to say to me hypocrisy is an essential part of everyday life. Which applied to him more than most people."
Wire looks genuinely sheepish as he contemplates his own tendency to make what he calls "idiot remarks" (which frequently involve him slagging off other rock stars or making ridiculously overblown declarations on the importance of the Manics). "I am smiling and laughing when I say half these things, but it just comes across as pious preaching. My mind is complicated. My brain just never stops. It's exhausting, for everyone else as well as me. I've just irritated people to distraction, I know. It's just the way I am. It's a good job I don't do drugs because I'd be a nightmare."
I suspect that the hard, black-and-white world of print journalism has not served Wire well, turning his fey, jokey antagonism into something cruel and pretentious. In person, he strikes me as a gentle character who doesn't take himself too seriously. Certainly his assessment of his bass playing is candid.
"I'm simple and solid now. I've had to work at it because I feel I let the others down. I would never keep time with Sean. But that's one reason I miss Richey. 'Cause I was just better than him in the badness stakes so he used to take more stick. He was truly useless. But I think James never gets enough credit for writing such beautiful tunes. Without the music, we'd be nothing. I think sometimes we can drag him down with lyrics, especially Richey's. 'Cause there's so many words in some of the songs, on stage James is left gasping for air."
The jokiness can't quite disguise the persistent air of melancholy that hangs about Wire. He constantly makes reference to Edwards, his closest childhood friend, who has been missing (widely presumed dead, probably by his own hand) for more than eight years. "I've thought about him every single day," he says. "I always wore Richey as a badge of honour. I felt he was a living art installation. Richey was braver than me, more of an artist in the classic sense. I'd get annoyed if he flicked ash in my bedroom, that was dangerous in my world."
I wonder if Richey's disappearance has created a void that lacks the resolution of a funeral. "That's a tricky one," Wire acknowledges. "We were in the studio in Wales last year and the first day the headline of the paper was 'Rock star feet found in River Severn'. They'd found this pair of trainers with bones in. Bizarrely, I knew by the make of trainers that Richey would never wear anything so bad.
"But I don't want to have any more friends. After losing your soul mate, like losing Richey, I can't be bothered. If you're going to spend that much time with someone, reading, writing, educating yourself, then you think, I'm not gonna go through that again, it's too much. I was already married anyway. I'm really close to my mum and dad and my brother. I don't need any more. I guess it's quite a cold thing."
The Manics have started work on a new studio album, which Wire jokes will reflect his ongoing state of "malaise and confusion". He tells me about a track called Fragments. "It is about picking through the history that we've grown up with, our heroes, our education, where there's always something, some tiny fragment that can kind of show the way. The whole album is going to be about fragments that can make things a tiny bit better. Little epiphanies. No kind of grand statements.
"We used to have five-year Stalinesque masterplans, but then, when Richey went missing, we just had to re-evaluate that. It was pointless, because you can just wake up the next morning and someone's gone. That is the biggest shock of all. So, all you are left with is tiny fragments, put together to make some sense of things. Everything is shit. But there are tiny things that make it worthwhile."
Manic Street Preachers play Manchester's Move Festival tomorrow and Dublin's Witnness Festival on Sunday.