We've had five years of "calculated" music, platinum albums, stadium gigs and ear plugs. Now the Manic Street Preachers are finally returning to their roots...
In 10 years' time any book of quotations worth its salt will begin with an already famous exchange between the Manic Street Preachers and Fidel Castro. On Saturday February 17, backstage at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, during the band's groundbreaking and headline-hogging trip to Cuba, the trio found themselves in conversation with the country's revolutionary leader. Through an interpreter, frontman James Dean Bradfield suggested that, if Castro were planning to stay and watch the band's performance that night, he might care to wear ear plugs, cos these rock 'n' roll gigs can get pretty loud.
"Don't you worry," replied Fidel, "you could never be louder than war." This is a great quote, but it's not the full story. The next day, on a visit to the Central Cuban city of Santa Clara - the resting place of Che Guevara's ashes - the Manic Street Preachers once again found themselves in conversation with Fidel Castro. "He said, 'Remember last night when you said I should wear ear plugs, and I said that there was no way that you could ever be louder than war?'," smiles James Dean Bradfield, recalling the story. And we were like, 'Yeah?'. 'Well,' he said, 'you were louder than war'."
Two and a half weeks later and the Manic Street Preachers are about to play the near-as-dammit hottest gig of the year in their near-as-dammit hometown of Cardiff. The setting is the Coal Exchange, a glorious old venue which, with its dark, wooden walls and its over-hanging balcony, gives the appearance of a venerable old debating chamber.
It's one minute before nine and, although not too full - the Coal Exchange could comfortably hold more than the 600 people who were allowed tickets for tonight's show - the temperature inside is hot enough to braise steak. AC1DC's 'Back In Black' is grinding its way through the PA system as two lights on either side of the stage gently flicker to life. Tonight's set is being broadcast live on Radio 1 and the lights illuminate signs which read 'Radio 1: Live Transmission'. It's an excellent way to announce your presence, and the Cardiff Coal Exchange, collectively, enjoys a nervous breakdown.
It's not difficult to see why. Screaming straight into their recent Top 10 single 'Found That Soul', pausing for a moment to enjoy the audience's adulation (we love them, after all) the Manic Street Preachers then slide into 'Motorcycle Emptiness', and every doubt you ever had about the band, latent or otherwise, suddenly seems foolish and misguided.
If anyone needed reminding of quite how excellent a rock band the Manic Street Preachers are then the Cardiff Coal Exchange is just the place for your refresher course. The songs - 'Australia', 'A Design For Life', 'Kevin Carter, 'If You Tolerate This...', 'Motown Junk' - are as driven and iconic as the band have ever played them, with the intimacy of the Coal Exchange lending itself to the proximity of the group's talent. Tonight, the Manic Street Preachers play like a band who are being chased by fire.
And then there's the look.
"Do I look more like a woman than Anne Robinson, or what?" asks Nicky Wire during one pause for breath. The bassist is wearing blue eye shadow, a spangly baseball cap, a fluffy jogging top - with the words 'Love Rock' Methadone pretty: tacky Wire, plastered across the back - a tennis skirt, pop socks and coda Coal Exchange, March 2001 Puma trainers. The question is asked in response to Robinson's incautious remarks on the TV programme 'Room 101', where she wondered aloud what the point of the Welsh might be (compared to what, Anne? Game show presenters?) and said she would like to dump the entire country in the sea. Tonight, Wire responds by quoting a line from Jim Royle ('The Royle Family'):
"Watchdog? I'm watching a bloody dog!"
James Dean Bradfield smiles as Wire says this. Then it's on to the next song; his voice - recently praised by both Tom Jones and Fidel Castro - powerfully arcing its way through the years and through the octaves, his guitar chopping out chords that could remove tattoos and lead solos that sound like electricity on the loose and looking for trouble. It is a great gig.
"Despite everything," says Nicky Wire, 24 hours before the gig, "we have always been a rock band."
Still, the feature you're reading now is the first time Kerrang! has been granted an audience with the Manic Street. Preachers for more than five years. Back then the band were a four-piece just about to release their angry, awkward, energised third record, 'The Holy Bible'. 'The Holy Bible' was the album which made it up to a fan-base that may or may not have been disappointed and disillusioned by 'Gold Against The Soul', the Manic Street Preachers' all-too-polished second album.
"It wasn't that we made a conscious, definite decision not to talk to you: says Wire, lounging on a sofa in a Marriott Hotel suite in the centre of Cardiff. "It's just that I think we felt embarrassed..? (here Wire stops himself, lifts his sunglasses from his head and scrunches his face to find the right word) "- No, not embarrassed, I think it was just incongruous. Our music on the last two albums wasn't really all that rock. It seemed incongruous, to have us in a magazine on the same page as Pantera." Despite this, my conversations with Chairman Wire and James Dean Bradfield - the pair were interviewed separately on the day before their Cardiff gig - are littered with references to rock, metal and punk. Nicky Wire cites Axl itose as an example of a good, urban political lyricist and 'God Save The Queen' as the political song to beat. He also has a Hanoi Rocks T-shirt hanging from a chair in his hotelsuite. a gift from a recent visit to Helsinki. James Dean Bradfield wonders aloud why Marilyn Manson doesn't receive more credit as a lyricist.
Then there's ‘Know Your Enemy’, the Manic Street Preachers‘ triumphant and energised sixth album. released this week. Much has been made of how 'Know Your Enemy' is a reaction to the clogged success of the band's last album. 1998's This Is My ‘ltuth. Tell Me Yours'.
'I think one of the things we've learned over the past few years is that when your ambitions are fulfilled that they're not as good as they might be.’ says Wire. Between 'This is My Truth...'and its predecessor,'Everything Must Go', the Manic Street Preachers ratcheted up four million album sales. “But I think we’ve got that monkey of! our back, the idea that we always had to sell all these records I know we haven't sold 16 million (the Manics claimed at the time that their 'Generatlon Terrorists' debut
would sell l6-million copies) but we have ended up selling a lot of records. And now I think we’ve done that side of it. We've had the NumberOnes. We've done that. And now perhaps we‘ve found our voice again."
And how, ’Know Your Enemy'is tight compelling and varied, where 'This Is My Truth...’ was, although often beautiful, perhaps a little too knowing and, in places, a touch too obvious.
'The last album, even though it worked. it was just too calculated." is Wire‘s opinion now. "'Know Your Enemy’, really sums it up. We just wanted to please ourselves first and everybody else second. Whether that be the fans or the record company or whatever. We just wanted to please ourselves and I think we've done that.‘
James Dean Bradfield welcomes me into the room, shakes my hand, and then, for a man in his position, does something highly unusual: he makes a cup of tea. This is unusual because singers in multi-million selling rock bands usually have people to make the tea for them, people who scuttle around getting this, getting that, making sure everyone is happy. (Although in Bradﬁeld’s case, this might not be a bad thing, because his tea is horrible) As he stands next to the kettle, Bradfleld chats about this and that - football, films. rugby... whatever. Out of the window, Cardiff‘s impressive Millennium Stadium - the venue for the Manics' last gig In town, in front of 60.000 people, on
New Year‘s Eve in 1999 - towers in the view.
The last time the Manic Street Preachers spoke to Kerrang they were a four piece. Now they're a three-piece. Without wishing to dwell on the subject - actually having a terrible feeling it my stomach even bringing it up - it would be remiss if we didn‘t at least catch to on the difference between then and now. And the disappearance of Richey Edwards.
"The strangest time we ever played without him was when we did our first gig. which was supporting ‘The Stone Roses at Wembley Arena,” recalls Bradlield, in response to the question of whether it's strange playing a hometown gig without their missing fourth member. "But playing here is no more unusual than playing anywhere else. To be honest. we spent so much time focusing on the inevitability of us having to depend on each other - after The Stone Roses gig — that it doesn't really rear its head too much in our lives."
Bradfield says that it's during mundane moments that the three of them would remember Edwards - while riding on the tour bus perhaps, or watching a film. He also says that,
with the geatest respect, it wasn't musically that they missed Richey - "he gave great quote and I gave great solo. is how he used to tell it“, recalls Bradfield - but visually and dynamically; he and Wire moving bad and forth either side with James Dean
Bradfield out front "doing my earnest bit'.
I ask James, perhaps unfairly, to speculate on what Richey Edwards might think of the Manic Street Preachers today.
"I think on the last album there were definitely songs that he wouldn't have wanted to play," is the opinion. “But on this album I can see lots of songs that he would have actually loved. Definitely. There are only two songs on the album that I‘m not actually sure he would have liked. One of those is ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer' because he didn't step into that Chic disco world that I did when I was younger at all. The other song is..."
He takes a pull on his ever present Marlboro Light cigarette and thinks...
"Well, the other song I don’t care to tell you about.’
Do you think you‘ll see him again?
"My gut reaction is no."
Because he's dead?
"I never think he’s dead." says Bradfield. 'But there has never been one positive clue as to what ever happened to him since the day he went missing, there‘s not one positive clue as to where he went, or what he did. So I have to assume that he‘s gone somewhere that’s better for him and somewhere where he‘s much better off. But for him to come back would probably unravel it all, so I have to assume that I'll never see him again."
Nicky Wire says that the Manic Street Preachers played Cuba because it was something to tell the kids about in 20 years time. Wire - a friendly, courteous type whose quotes sound a lot less outrageous when he says them out loud than they appear on the printed page - sits on a hotel sofa in flannel shorts fidgeting constantly. Intelligent (even if he does say so himself), Wire is probably aware of the irony of talking about Cuban socialism in an American-owned chain hotel in Cardiff, Wales. Away from the thrill of the band's visit to Havana - "Everything else seems like an anti-climax now", he says - Wire might be sussed to the deeply compromised nature of Castro's revolution. As it is, he believes Cuban society has got it "about so per cent right".
As a piece of rock ‘n' roll symbolism, though, the Manic: in Havana is tough to beat. For all its flaws. Cuba has withstood American intimidation and embargoes - they're actually sanctions and blockades. but let‘s not quibble - for more than 40 years, a David and Goliath scenario that chimes with anyone sympathetic to the plight of the underdog or the rebel. And, lest we forget, Cubans have a higher life expectancy than Americans and a higher literacy rate than the British. Oh, and Havana's infant mortality rate is superior to that of urban Washington DC.
“Castro's big themes were that everybody has a home, everybody has education and everybody has health," says Wire. “Some of the housing isn't great, but there are no homeless people on the streets of Havana. Yesm he has sacrificed certain human rights for that. But, you know, America has the worst human rights record on earth. What
if the UN had been around 200 years ago when they wiped out their own indigenous race?”
How the Manic Street Preachers' visit to Cubamight affect their relationship with the United States provides perhaps the most audacious afterglow of the whole visit. After all. the American authorities tend to view dalliances with their Atlantic neighbour as an almost personal grievance. And in some parts of the United States - most notably Miami - the hatred for the Cuban regime in general and Castro in particular smoulders with a poisonous intensity that could well have led to the death of President Kennedy.
'I don't know if ‘Know Your Enemy' will even get released there, because of the Cuban thing," says Wire. of his own band's prospects. “Our passports might get turned away. that would be fantastic is if we turned up for an American tour and the authorities wouldn't let us in because of the Cuban visas in them. I think that would sum up the whole ideology perfectly."
Have you ever thought how you might feel if the Manic's 'broke' America?
"I think it would be hugely empowering is the bassist's response. "We'd be like Sinead
O’Connor when she ripped up a picture of the Pope on 'Letterman' (O'Connor was subsequently booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert). I‘d enjoy it but I don't think it will ever happen. If it did it would he a chance to fuck-up on a gand scale."
Fucking up - on a scale gand or otherwise - is something the Manic Street Preachers
have delighted in front the very outset. Whether it be supporting Bon Jovi at the Milton Keynes Bowl, and managing to outrage both the indie and the metal sectors of their audience in the process: whether it be (rightly) refuslng to play for the Queen at the State opening of the Welsh Assembly In Cardiff in 1999: or whether it be alienating an as yet untapped American 'market' by publicly cosying up the US's most notorious bogeyman. Fidel Castro.
Or maybe it's with 'Know Your Enemy', an album that is far more demanding, varied and
volatile than its two predecessors. Both James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire - despite holding occasionally differing views as to the quality of the band‘s last album, and the natue of the sins committed in the name of 'success' - are aware of the possibility to shake some fans loose with 'Know Your Enemy'. Wire, for one, seems even to delight in the prospect.
"I know we‘re not going to he as popular on this record." he says. "We all know that. I don't think any band maintains commercial success over three or four albums. So rather than go through that humiliation we realised we'd force it ourselves Because walking offstage in Cardiff in front of 60,000 people at the Millennium gig, well, you‘re just never going to top that. And the Castro thing is just a completely different side to
it. That’s 4-5.000 people in Havana, and it's just as satisfying. But in terms of scale, I don't think we’ll ever be what we were."
The upside to this, of course. is ‘Know Your Enemy’: a harder, stronger. better album than before.
“Well, that's the other thing," believes Wire. “I think some fans that went off us might rejoin the fold. I think we’ll lose some fans, but some fans that might have gone off us - because they didn‘t like our new songs or because we‘d gotten too popular or wherever - might come back to us with this album.’
Take a listen. He might mean you.