"I imagine we'll be on quite early," says Nicky Wire simply, explaining how the Manic Street Preachers will most likely be fourth on the bill of five UK bands that may tour the US together this fall. "There's a few bands who will kind of be the crowd-pullers, but we're quite happy to do that, actually."
It's a sign of the changing time that this humble, one-of-the-guys attitude comes from the same Nicky who, along with James Dean Bradfield (guitar/vocals) and Sean Moore (drums) once dismissed all the other 'guys' of his generation as lacking ambition, style, and merit - the same Nicky who distanced the Manics from any music 'scene' throughout the 90's - mixing make-up with socialism at the height of grunge, going anarcho-metal during Britpop, embracing strings when everyone was discovering lo-fi, and, this year, playing to Castro in Cuba while the rest of the world waits for him to die. They've always been a band apart.
Their new record Know Your Enemy comes to us not so much as a comet, but as a massive earthquake from within. An alarmingly diverse record that Nicky describes as "a compilation of our career," it stirs many old memories from their abrasive history while sounding as vital as ever, plumbing new emotional depths with the gorgeous gloom of songs like "Epicentre" and "His Last Painting." Speaking to PCP over the phone from Wales in a lilting voice accented with soft 'reallys' and 'actuallys', bassist and main lyricist Nicky discusses the Manics' past, present, and future.
POP CULTURE PRESS: Usually groups come out guns blazing, but after about five years lose that initial spark. How do you stay hungry and keep from becoming complacent?
NICKY WIRE: I just think it's through the desire to learn. There's more and more avenues to experience. We've travelled more, you come across more books, more pieces of art, more music. It's almost too much to take in. For us particularly, too many things we want to do, too much we want to say… and too afraid to make mistakes. And really, you can't get anywhere unless you make a lot of mistakes. There are certain times when there's almost a euphoria when singles go high in the charts and your album goes platinum and all that kind of stuff, but it still doesn't really fill the gap. We never feel complete. And I think on this record especially you can feel that sense of cultural overload. There's so much 'reference,' if you like, that it's really hard as a band to try and look at a clear path to the future when you're just constantly reminded of the past.
There has always been an almost paralysing sense of being at an emotional dead-end in your music. How are you able to break through this and create?
I think there's two ways you can go with it. I think the paralysis can be almost overwhelming, and that is when you kind of stop creating. I think the best way to go is to get to that point and try to turn it into something more positive, like anger, really, or disgust. There have been times in our career when we perhaps haven't gotten over that hurdle of paralysis. I think now we've learned how to channel it, but it's still there, definitely. Every bit of news you watch is death, destruction, everything. The economy is going, inflation is on the way - it's just this constant bombardment of fear that you haven't got control over your life. It's wrong. You can change your life if you have the strength.
Do you ever struggle with self-confidence and self-doubt, and how do you work through those times?
I think one of the reasons people like us, actually, is that we've made a lot of mistakes and we've always appeared very human, and I think that's quite endearing in a band. But I think you just shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes, really, and that goes along with confidence. 'Suffering is good for the soul,' we used to say to each other when we were young [laughs].
At the heart of Know Your Enemy, especially on "Freedom of Speech," is a sense that real rebellion lies not in sloganeering, but in a difficult personal crusade. Has our generation had it too easy?
"Freedom of Speech" especially is a very self-critical song. It's not just a song about society. I include myself. Sometimes people miss the point with us. They think we're quite preachy, but first and foremost we're examining ourselves. But I really wanted to say something that would annoy people and make them think because it's too easy to say that freedom just lies in democracy. Sometimes democracies can be the biggest tyrants of all.
"Let Robeson Sing" is unusually straightforward in sentiment.
Hokey, really, for us.
What is the Paul Robeson - Wales connection?
There's quite a big connection. He did a film called Proud Valley which is based on the miners in South Wales, and he was due to come over here to perform at the Welshire Eisteddfod, which is like a celebration of culture and singing and stuff. It was when he had his passport withdrawn by the American government, so he actually sang down a telephone. He sang the Welsh National Anthem down a telephone to the Eisteddfod miners, and I've got a CD of this, which is one of the most amazing, spine-tingling things I've ever heard.
You're extraordinarily well read and articulate about politics. In school, what teachers or classes particularly inspired or influenced you?
I was very lucky with and English teacher in school, you know, just when I was probably 14 or 15 and just started off with Shakespeare and George Orwell, finding out little snippets, you know, through music as well. And then as soon as I got into The Smiths and Morrissey, especially, that opened the whole Oscar Wilde side to it.
Kafka once wrote, "A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us."
Yeah. That's brilliant, isn't it? If only all books were that!
Did your family discuss politics together at the Dinner table?
Not really. It wasn't like The Ice Storm or anything [laughs]. It was more about sports, really. We just grew up in a time where Mrs. Thatcher was just such a horrible person that Wales was very politicised because everyone hated her so much. She stood for something, and… we stood for something else.
"We Are All Bourgeois Now" marks your second McCarthy cover. What is your affinity with them?
It's something we love talking about. We came from a very indie background. There's a little record shop in Cardiff called Spillers, the oldest record shop in Wales. That was our lifeline to the world. I think it was about 1986-'87, and that particular McCarthy album I Am A Wallet was a bit like our The Clash because it was our age, with a different kind of music, but it really summed up how we were living. It was the ultimate kind of rejection of Thatcherism and egos and money and everything else, and it's never left us. We could do a cover of a whole album of McCarthy because I think their lyrics still say a lot about Britain. We never shook off that kind of greed, the Gordon Gecko stuff that 'greed is healthy.' We've never really shaken it off, and I still think that particular album sums it up perfectly.
Even though you once cited the Futurist Manifesto or 'regard all arts critics as useless and dangerous,' does a bad review ever hurt you?
Oh, yeah, definitely. You know, we're still fragile human beings. If you're really committed to what you're doing, then it leaves you open to a lot of criticism. We weren't ironic or jokey. We meant everything we tried to do, and people just kind of laughed at that. But I think journalism doesn't really stand for much. I think there's so much pressure. Everything's become so tabloid that it's pretty irrelevant now. The respect factor has broken down, which is sad 'cause NME is an institution that should be cherished, really. But I think it's getting more and more like a tabloid.
It was sad to see Melody Maker and NME merge.
Yes! Exactly. It was really, really sad. No matter how bad Melody Maker had become, it's always good to have an alternative in the market, and there's no alternative now. Select was really good in terms of kind of American underground music as well, you know. It's just all disappearing so fast. If you said to me when we started ten years ago that we'd be where we are now, I would never have believed you, in terms of the kind of media.
Has there been any continued communication between you and Castro since your Havana gig?
We did send Fenders, basses, Strats, and Telecasters and loads of strings, quite a lot of compressors and things. But we don't tell anyone about it. It's just something we wanted to do privately. You know, they have a real problem getting strings and pack drums, and they're very resourceful for what they use. It's amazing what they do too. Half the thing with Cuba is just; you got to give it a chance. It's the one place on earth I've been, which is like nowhere else. That's one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. I could have been going on Mars. I mean, 50% of it is not something you feel comfortable with, but 50% of it is something to be admired and certainly some things are to be learned there.
Are there any songs in your back catalogue that you feel have gone underrated or under recognised?
One of our greatest ever regrets is that the first time we toured America and the record company never released "Motorcycle Emptiness." For us, that was the most key song we wrote. The American record company didn't even want it on the album. I just couldn't believe it. When we recorded that album, that's the song we thought was going to bring us international stardom. It still represents the myth… of freedom. It was probably one of the most disastrous tours of all time. It's not America's fault, it's just that we weren't prepared for it. We were extremely young at the time. We didn't really care about playing. We just wanted confrontation. It worked. No one's wanted us back since!
How much have you thought about assembling your Greatest Hits package?
It's something I've thought about a lot, really. For once, perhaps, it'll be for us a kind of celebration. It'll be quite nostalgic and romantic and lots of thoughts about the past and Richey and stuff and it'll be perhaps less kind of heavy. We do re-examine our history and our future constantly 'cause we know each other so well, not just musicians thrown together. That's what's kept us going. I think if we hadn't known each other, then we probably would have given up a long time ago. That's what gets you through.