Ahead of the release of Manic Street Preachers 13th album 'Resistance is Futile', we spoke about dresses, Cardiff and, um, crisps.
Growing up in South Wales in the 90s, it was impossible to avoid Manic Street Preachers. When you shoot out of the womb you’re basically handed a copy of Generation Terrorists and the lyric sheet to “Design For Life”. A pointedly working-class voice for anyone who has ever felt alienated, bored and/or depressed, the Manics have always taken politics and pop culture and whipped them up into something exciting. They’re a band of contrasts that simultaneously flatten any perceived notions of hierarchy. They’ve referenced Marilyn Monroe and Marxism, quoted Sylvia Plath and collaborated with Kylie Minogue. “If Blackwood was a museum it’d be full of rubble and shit,” they famously said of their valleys hometown, but they also perform in front of a Welsh flag persistently tacked to the amps.
They are drawn to love and hate, hope and despair. In the valleys, the weather changes seemingly by the minute. Clouds tear across tapestries of green fields and create a ripple effect of sun and shadow. If you survey things from a high point you’ll see some parts sunk in moody darkness and others drowned in light. You can be stood outside, dry and warm, and watch rain hammering down a mile away, or vice versa. Manic Street Preachers’ music has, to me, always felt a lot like that.
But everyone has a poetic opinion about the Manics – one of the most famous bands in Britain – don’t they. Is there a question that bassist Nicky Wire – a man who has been interviewed precisely one billion times – has not been asked, or answered anyway apropos of nothing? No there is not. So, when it came to interviewing him in the run up to the Manics’ 13th album Resistance is Futile (themes include “memory and loss; forgotten history; confused reality and art as a hiding place and inspiration”), what we thought we’d do is sit down in his West London hotel room and have a nice chat about stationery.
Noisey: Hey, Nicky. Here’s a fun fact about me: I love hotels!
Nicky Wire: Me too! They’re the one great pleasure I waste money on. I don’t drive, I don’t wear jewellery, I don’t wear watches. But I don’t mind spending a bit on a hotel.
Do you do much writing in them?
Loads! I’d say travelling and in hotels is where I get most stuff done. I think it’s the shut off, the dislocation. It’s a nice feeling. I never get it when people say there’s a blandness to hotels like it’s a bad thing. In fact, I love the blandness! Whenever someone says ‘it’s a great boutique hotel with a great lobby’ I know it’s not for me. I don’t want to hang about in the lobby, I want to get in my room and think and put the TV on.
Same. I also really enjoy all the novelty aspects of it, like the tiny marmalades and the packets of sugar.
When I go home my kids think it’s Christmas because I take tons of stuff back. Like, I’ll store that jam now [points to condiments on the table] and take them with me. I have boxes of hotel stationary from all around the world. which I actually find inspirational. The paper’s really good because it starts off with Trusthouse Forte or Ibis and as the stars rise the quality of the paper rises... [laughs] Hotel paper is a dying art.
If you could curate your ideal hotel room what would it look like?
I like a big bed, and it’s essential to have a big desk. I don’t actually need that much to feel creative.
Does it help if you have less clutter?
No, my wife would call me a hoarder. I don’t think I am at all, but compared to her I think I am. My bedroom / study back home, where I tend to finish all my writing, is surrounded by CDs, art, books etc and lots of polaroids.
Was it that way when you were younger as well? You’ve mentioned before that early Manics stuff was super influenced by obsessive teen culture.
Indeed it was! The bedroom wall, the mural, was the inspiration. Back then, anyway. We were bedroom boys. From Béatrice Dalle to Philip Larkin – those were the pictures on my wall, and I’m so glad we grew up in a generation where those were the people on our wall. We were lucky, though. Growing up, there was a real Cold War state of mind. You were either for something or against something. Nothing overlapped. There were certain tribes, whether you were a goth or a punk or a mod. Everything was simpler. So, I’m thankful for that. It’s really confusing for young kids now. I’ve got young kids, it’s too much for them to take in.
Can you tell me a bit about what growing up around the Blackwood area was like for you?
The more I grew up the more I realised just how lucky I was to have great parents. People have such hard upbringings. The main building block of everything was me and my brother growing up in a home that wasn’t flushed with money or anything, but there was food and security, and there was love and warmth. My mum hasn’t been well for the last year or so, so I’ve been going back more and all those memories of living there are extremely vivid. And there’s very few bad ones. Some people might think it was a small place and attitudes might have been perrocial and stuff like that, but for me growing up there I always felt like the world was my oyster anyway.
Do your parents still live in the house you grew up in?
They do, yeah. When I get up there I do sometimes think to myself that if I ended up living with my parents all my life I wouldn’t have been that unhappy [laughs]. Having chips every day…
You could definitely do worse.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to so many amazing places, but I can always get something out of everywhere I go. I’ve written songs from the best hotel in the world in South Korea, to just being in the Radisson in Glasgow and writing “It’s Not War” heavily drunk. It makes no difference, really. I mean I’ve only moved to Newport [laughs], I’ve hardly left my roots!
How come you’ve never moved from South Wales?
I sort of half lived in London for six months to a year, on and off, and if I’m being honest with you I just find there’s too much to do and I end up doing less. There’s a lot of, ‘I should be doing that’, ‘I should be going there’... and then I do nothing. I feel paralyzed by choice! That’s something me and Richey used to talk about a lot, the idea of too much choice. I love visiting London, and we’ve had some magical times here recording, writing, everything – but Wales has always been the place for me. It does keep me very grounded. It’s impossible to have an ego walking around Newport town centre.
This is the longest gap you’ve taken between albums right?
Yeah, we got kicked out of our studio by the neverending urban crawl of Cardiff. That’s our second studio now that’s been compulsory bulldozed.
Luxury flats! What else?
Ah yes, of course.
It’s the London disease, it’s spreading around the country. So yeah, we bought a place outside of Newport and converted that. I think we were a bit burned out after Rewind the Film and Futurology, though. Certainly I was, in terms of theories and lyrics and concepts. There were also responsibilities, kids, ageing parents, family. Obviously we did Everything Must Go and an anniversary tour and stuff, but it’s been a long time since we rock and rolled.
How are you feeling about rock and rolling once more?
A mixture of high anxiety, fear, and a bit of excitement? It used to be more balanced towards excitement but now there’s a lot of fear involved [laughs].
The title is quite pessimistic. Would you say you’re feeling pessimistic about things at the moment?
It’s more confusion, really, and dignified defeat. I just can’t navigate myself through the digital hysteria and political insanity of the current times. I’d be lying if I said I felt that absolutism of my youth now, because everything overlaps. That’s the idea of the samurai warrior [on the cover] being an analogy for us – everyone else has their iPhones and we’ve still got our guitars.
Is that what it feels like?
It does a bit. When your kids start to know more than you, you’re fucked! All of us have that same idea of when relevance disappears and we don’t want to try and hide that.
Some of the themes on the album draw from the past and things you’re influenced by. There’s a song about Dylan and Caitlin Thomas’ relationship, for example, which was fiery to say the least. What made you want to write about that?
It’s certainly not nostalgia, it’s just the idea that we’ve lost certain things forever. Cultural icons, institutions – it’s just been fucking decimated. Dylan Thomas might not have been able to make the impact today that he once did. Their relationship, the endless love and hate... that’s just something we’ve always been drawn to as a band, let’s face it. I wanted to write outside myself, too. I’m not particularly into writing characters or stories but a lot of the songs on the album are like mini-tributes to stop me moaning, really – “Vivian”, “Dylan & Caitlin”, “International Blue” and “Liverpool Revisited”.
There’s a sense of preservation there for you, then.
We’ve always been obsessed with connections, as a band, both between ourselves and between culture in general. Even though some things have gone, they do leave an indelible scar. But you kinda have to make sure those scars survive otherwise they’re fucking gone forever. I’ve always thought that’s the duty of our band: to write about things better than we are.
If you could live in any fictional universe what fictional universe would you live in?
I’m more than happy to be rooted in the shit reality of my life. I have very little expectation out of situations so long as there’s no bad stuff going on as a base camp, I’m quite happy with that. Sean [Moore, drums] has got massively into walking this last three years though. He’s walked up Machu Picchu and Patagonia and he’s going to Nepal, so his alternate universe I think would be that. Again, he’s on his own [laughs]. Maybe mine would just be stuck in a hotel in Tokyo, staring out with a pen and paper, for eternity. That would be alright.
Big question coming up: what’s your favourite snack?
I have to say there’s not a day that goes by in my life where I don’t have a packet of crisps. I absolutely adore crisps.
What is your favourite crisp?
When you can get them, Golden Wonder still have that synthetic, chemical taste that burns your tongue. I’m not wild on artisan crisps. They’re all too hard and bust my fillings. A good McCoys ridge cut still does the trick, or a jumbo packet of Walkers prawn cocktail. I hate “low calorie” crisps. It’s because there’s only five crisps in the packet. It’s nothing to do with the fucking crisps.
One of the best things about going on holiday is investigating the crisp scene.
Oh yes! Ireland used to have some good ones called Tayto’s and they did a fantastic salt and vinegar. Bovril crisps and Oxo crisps are also great, they used to sell them in Blackwood cinema. [Wistful sigh] I genuinely love crisps.
What’s something you’ve done that you’d never do again?
I’m not one of those people who says they have no regrets. I talked a lot of shit when I was very young, and I regret a lot of that. Also, wearing yellow eyeliner. As a rule I’m quite happy with my make-up over the years but it really didn’t work for me, I don’t know why I did that. The see-through dress at Reading Festival… I pulled it off but that could’ve gone wrong. When Kylie [Minogue] was in the dressing room with us in particular, I wish I had more on.
Has anyone you’ve ever said anything disparaging about ever come up to you and gone “what was all that about”?
No but there’s been some very awkward moments, and I feel very sorry for James and Sean because they’re stuck with it! There was a time when we couldn’t do a festival without being slightly cold shouldered on a grand scale, and it was just down to me and Richey. The mad thing is I really liked a lot of those people, but we were so off the leash. We were basically taking our bedroom conversations out to the wider world without thinking anyone would read it. Having said that, I remember being at an awards show when Liam Gallagher called us cunts, and we just laughed and thought it was really funny, and James shouted something back. There was actually very little malice. It was a slightly more naive era where everyone was slagging each other off, and there was less fallout because there was no social media. There would only be something in the NME, maybe. That’s what I like to convince myself. But it is the reason I could never go into politics. Imagine the shit they’d drag up on Question Time! I’d be there in full flow and someone would say “didn’t you say this in 1993?” And I’m dead.
Did you ever consider going into politics?
In my mind I did, but I don’t think it would’ve ever worked out. I wouldn’t have minded being a speech writer or something like that, or like Josh Lyman in The West Wing.
Is that the sort of thing you had in mind to do when you studied it at uni?
I’d like to say so, but I was winging it. I’d done well at the A Levels and just ended up doing politics. I was really interested, obviously, and still am, but I was convinced the band was going to make it at that point. I don’t know why. We were very deluded. I remember the night before an exam on public administration, which was so dry and boring, we supported The Levellers in Salisbury Art Centre. Awful, awful gig. I got back that night at about 3am, had a cold shower, and thought, ‘I’ve got to write about civil service in a few hours’. That’s when I thought, ‘Nah, it’s not for me’.
When was the first time you put makeup on?
I started putting eyeliner on when I was around 14/15, going to discos. The initial inspiration for that was Phil Daniels in Quadrophenia, who obviously isn’t that associated with eyeliner, but at the end of the film he’s wearing eyeliner and tears are streaming down his face... That was before I got into heavy makeup through New York Dolls and stuff like that.
What did you like about it?
I always thought it made my eyes look bigger. It makes me look better. Still does! I love leaving makeup on, too. The best face you can ever have is the day after, when you leave it on and it’s all caked in there. There’s something magical about it. It just fits into your face better. I tried to get this across to my daughter but she’s not having it.
I like the idea of you giving your daughter makeup tips.
She’s pilfered a lot of my Urban Decay stuff!
Are there certain women you look up to for makeup or style inspiration?
Dress-wise, definitely. Karen O I absolutely love, everything she chucked on! Paula Radcliffe’s long socks. I’m obsessed with long socks. When I did partake in skirts, there used to be a Japanese brand called Super Lovers in Covent Garden and I always used to get brilliant socks from there. I was wandering around when I had a couple of free hours yesterday, and men’s clothes are so shit. I walk past shops like ‘why can’t they make something like that for men’! Women’s clothes are infinitely more desirable. And my body is quite feminine, my legs and my hips in particular, as my dad always reminds me. You walk into men’s clothes shops and your heart sags. The dullness of them!
Do you have any favourite items?
The best dress I ever had was from the shop in the Hotel Nacional in Havana, when we played a gig there. It was this white dress, almost like a tennis dress, but it fitted me perfectly. I absolutely adored it. There’s loads of pictures of me in it. I gave it away as a prize for a competition with Jo Whiley for Radio 1, but it got lost in the post and the winner never got it.
That’s really tragic.
I love that random nature of a shop, something just popping up. I also had a beautiful floral print dress from Dorothy Perkins once. I love floral print, unfortunately with age I’ve had to reign myself in. I need something more elasticated. I will still spend money on clothes if I think something’s really individual and exciting, I’ve got this amazing Vivienne Westwood boilersuit, which I only wear for special occasions, but I’m quite happy buying something for a tenner in Peacocks.
You’ve gone through many “looks” as a band. Have you kept many of your old outfits?
Yeah! I’ve got a lovely archive of stuff. I was going through it recently because we might be doing an exhibition in Cardiff. I remember when we had The Holy Bible era, just being able to go to army stores and buy all that military regalia and feeling like it was so us against the world. Defined within a uniform, if you like – and James’ sailor suit and stuff. That was really fucking cheap. They used to love us in the army and navy stores, especially the one in Cardiff. They’d be like ‘Oh, here you are, we’ve got some new camo in…’
When you were younger was it purely ‘I like this thing so I’m going to wear it’ or was there an element of trying to antagonise people?
Nah, I just wanted to look nice. That’s why I’d nick stuff off my mum, a nice blouse or something. I actually always thought I looked better in something like that than just in a Nike jacket. Although I had my slight ‘football casual’ phase, which was quite exciting for a while, but very expensive. I’ve always tried to go with whatever I feel comfortable in and whatever I feel I look like. Whatever anyone else thinks is by the by. A gig for me, now, is the one time I go out,. Getting on stage and dressing up has always been a part of it – and a nice one, too. Just sitting there in the mirror, doing your makeup, and wearing something that you feel good in. It’s just like all those days sat with my mum in front of her dresser putting hairspray on and talking about the nice things in life. But I think James and Sean slightly resented me making them do it for a year or two! ‘Can’t you put that blouse on, James, just once! Can’t you make an effort!’ They were much more comfortable with The Holy Bible [laughs].