Manic Street Preachers are back with a new album that longs for their glory days but also features plenty of their firebrand attitude. Bass player and "polemic idiot" Nicky Wire talks to Alan Corr
It is Arthur’s Day, or "Arthur’s Alcoholiday" if you prefer, and in an upstairs corridor of Dublin’s Morrison Hotel, Nicky Wire is surveying the scene. Music hacks are slumped in sullen repose, PR types do the perma-smile twirl, and Wire and his lifelong friend and band mate James Dean Bradfield both have the slightly bemused but polite expressions of maturing rock stars who have seen it all before.
Dressed in a powder pink suit jacket, skinny white jeans and grey suede Puma, a look that perhaps only he among forty something pop stars could carry off with grace, Wire cracks another grin and slips his shades on as the sun streams through the windows.
The Welsh heroes have just released their 11th album Rewind The Film and it is a thing of rapture, anger and resolve which we will come to in a moment. First, considering the day that’s in it, there is the pressing matter of Christy Moore and that song, the one which mentions The Manics in the verse and attempted to pee in Ireland's collective pint.
Wire, Bradfield and taciturn drummer Sean Moore have just returned from a trip to Australia and New Zealand where they played several shows to tie in with the British and Irish Lions rugby tour and they’ve waltzed straight into a storm in a pint glass over the people’s poet and his views over the whole Guinness shindig.
The Manics don’t do irony so I don’t bother asking Wire if there has always been an boozy terrace anthem element to their music. His views on the anti-Arthur’s Day are considered and reasonable.
"First and foremost, Arthur’s Day is just about being invited to do something that we really enjoyed doing the first time,” he says. “It was quite scary going in to a pub and playing for people who weren’t interested in you. Being in a successful rock'n'roll band you can get into a comfort zone which I don’t deny - it is nice to see people at our shows that love you. The first time we did Arthur’s Day is was just blokes in shirts walking straight past us more interested in the drinking."
So The Manics are back. Energetic, intellectual beanpole Wire, solemn guitar hero Bradfield, and taciturn drummer Moore still burn with wilful but glorious contradictions, scissor-kicking passion, and an unshakeable belief in the sanctity of classic rock'n'roll.
They are now the longest-signed act to Columbia Records and Wire is the first to admit that perhaps they aren't quite kicking against the pricks like they used to. Rewind the Film could be The Manics most reflective and sad album yet. It’s won comparisons with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and it switches from tenderness to venom with reflections on mortality, and Thatcherism and takes inspiration from Skids/Big Country’s late singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson, Werner Herzog, Welsh poet RS Thomas, Gore Vidal, Talking Heads and John Lennon.
Not quite the Mumfords so. Swooping horn sections give some of the new songs a real swing and the title track, and recent single, is a thing of great grace and beauty. It captures a real sense of twilight contentment as Bradfield trades verses with pre-rock 'n' roll crooner Richard Hawley but the big question is - who was funnier in the studio, Wire or the redoubtable Hawley?
"Hahaha. Well I can tell you the funniest of all was Ian McCulloch. He did impressions for three hours - David Bowie, Stan Boardman, you name it. All the classics but Hawley is much funnier than I am. He is the most sarcastic, bitter, nasty...he’s like Steve Albini with grace. He played with us in London last night and he really is extraordinary. He and James really are cut from the same cloth. Biker dad, Teds, and there is a sense of malevolence but great humanity as well."
Rewind The Film is the Manics first album since the death of Margaret Thatcher and they touch on her toxic legacy on the epic album track 30 Year War, a wonderfully splenetic explosion of class rage that rails against "the endless parade of Old Etonian scum". However, Wire and his band mates did not rush out to tramp the dirt down while listening to Stand Down Margaret or Margaret on The Guillotine or any other of a huge number of anti-Maggie songs from the eighties.
"My first reaction when I heard the news was bland nothingness to be honest. She was dead to me a long, long time ago, the minute she actually destroyed where I f***ing live in Wales, that was it. Unfortunately we still live with the remnants of her legacy in certain parts of the country. I’m just really proud that when that awful Meryl Streep film came out it was just the south of England that watched it. Nobody in the north or Wales watched it."
So does Wire think we live in a post-political society? “Well not so much post-political. It's post...impossible because I think it is almost impossible to take a side anymore. We all know too much, we all know the f***ing answers really...I’m not sure if it’s just about the age I am now but I don’t think anyone has the urge or the will to engage anymore unless you can solve a problem with an app.“
The Manics "Last Gang in Town" self-mythology will continue. They just enjoy it too much. Wire laughs. "Well we were the one band who wrote the myth and lived it out. Most bands do it the other way round - live it, die and then have a great book written about them. I think we’ve stopped living it really."
"You can’t do it when you’ve got to take the kids to school the next day but one minute you’re on Strictly Come Dancing wearing a big leopard print coat and the next day you’re taking the kids to school. It gets harder to navigate that delusion."
Would James be of a similar resolve? "I think it’s a bit different for James and Sean. They’re always seen themselves as musicians whereas I, even though I am a musician now, see myself and Ritchie as, well, something for the great good, something that defies category really - two kind of polemic idiots which we don’t have any more and I miss that kind of thing."
At the same time they recorded Rewind The Film at home in their own studio and at Hansa studios in Berlin, The Manics also made a second album, due in a few months, which they say is a Krautrock-influenced affair. “Our next album is very akin to that early European feel,” says Wire. "The next record is a lot of really early Simple Minds, Themes From Great Cities."
Wire casts his mind back, way back, to the band’s very first gigs in Ireland in 1991 when they supported great lost Irish band Whipping Boy in Dublin’s Charlie’s Bar and played a thinly-attended gig in Sir Henry’s in Cork.
"I have very vivid memories of those gigs. I ended up in hospital because I totally wrecked my ankle and it blew up like a balloon. I remember the Sunday dinner we had in Blooms Hotel. Rewind The Film is not so much nostalgic. It’s more kind of wishing that we could do it all again but knowing we can’t.
"I think our album Postcards From a Young Man is more come on! One more shot! With this album it’s impossible sad and inescapable. Having said that, growing up I really got a lot out of misery in records whether it was Leonard Cohen or Morrissey but I don’t know if people want that these days. You Irish specialise in it, it’s brilliant!"
Ireland "get" The Manics, right? “Yes, yes - commercially and artistically. I remember we did a gig in Cork Opera House in 1998 and halfway through the gig I saw this huge banner unfurl like at an Italian football match that said 'Manic Street Preachers will always matter.' I was blown away. I remember forgetting what song I was playing..."