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A Re-Design For Life - Q Magazine, March 2001

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Title: A Re-Design For Life
Publication: Q Magazine
Date: March 2001
Writer: Dorian Lynskey
Photos: Spiros Politis

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How does the thinking punk-Marxist agitator deal with money, success and Brit awards? By burning down the past and returning with a gutful of fresh bile. "This is the record we should have made when we first came out," The Manic Street Preachers inform Dorian Lynskey.

Manic Street Preachers celebrated the end of the 20th century in front of a sold out Cardiff Millennium Stadium. It was a grand gesture and a testament to their stature that 60,000 people chose to spend the most hyped night out in history in their company. But if it was a triumph for the three men on stage, then it was an ambivalent one. Bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire has one abiding memory of that night.

"We played The Everlasting and I though, Fucking brilliant, we'll never have to play this again," he grins. "Maybe in Germany, because it's a bit like Wind Of Change by the Scorpions. Y'know, The Everlasting was just a giant mistake in our career but you get a lot of lighters in Denmark, which you need sometimes."

In that song's weary chorus - "In the beginning, when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine" - lay the admission that somewhere along the line Manic Street Preachers had lost their way. The album it opened, 1998's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, was simultaneously their most commercially fruitful and their most artistically barren. While dismayed hardcore fans surmised that success and money had neutered the most abrasively iconic band of the 90's, many recent converts found the tone of dejection and self-pity hard to love. Some suggested that they could never again be as excited as they were before the 1995 disappearance of their uncompromised fourth member Richey Edwards.

Inside the Millennium Stadium different factions mingled awkwardly - the mascara-eyed misfits who thrashed around to jagged, pre-fame hits like Faster and the Mondeo men who had taken 1996 album, Everything Must Go, into the mainstream. The band who trumpeted that they would sell 16 million copies of their debut album always had their sights set on mass appeal but only 1999's slick, bloodless, world tour brought home to them the cost.

So the end of a century also turned out to be the end of a certain incarnation of Manic Street Preachers. As they tore through their decade-long musical history, they were also laying to rest the complacency of the previous two years and planning a drastically different record.

"It will never be like that again," says Nicky Wire. "And perhaps that's the right thing."

After they finished playing A Design For Life, and his bandmates departed, Wire climbed down into the pit, smashing his bass against the stage again and again until it finally broke in two. It was a ritual that harked back to the Manics' outsider days and it said that, once again, everything must go.

In Studio 3 at London's Abbey Road Studios on a mild January afternoon, one year and five days later, Manic Street Preachers are putting the finishing touches to their sixth album. Vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield stalks around the console room remorselessly working his way though a packet of Marlboro Lights. Baseball-capped drummer Sean Moore sits hunched over, listening intently as amiable co-producer Dave Eringa triggers yet another airing of Baby Elian, the final song to be completed. In between fixes Sky Sports, Nicky Wire sits with pen poised over the running order.

The one remaining bone of contention is how early they can get away with placing My Guernica, a muscular, distorted rocker that, Wire concedes, "Isn't going to go down very well on the Asda racks." Moore, ever the perfectionist, thinks it sounds too rough.

"It's like the Mary Chain," defends Wire.

"Yeah," Moore harrumphs. "And look how many records they sold."

Wire grins. "Well, we're not going to sell any records anyway."

The guiding principle throughout this album's gestation has been to make it as different as possible in every respect from its predecessor, regardless of the casual fans it may lose them. While This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours sounded world-weary, their first album since each member turned 30 is wide-eyed and wired. It is also their richest, most eclectic album yet, zig-zagging through scabrous punk rock, glistening pop and - you have to admire their Chic - pure disco. Manic Street Preachers are a uniquely tight unit and their songwriting has always been symbiotic, but this time Bradfield writes his first lyric (Ocean Spray) and Wire takes his first lead vocal (Wattsville Blues). Belfast dance producer David Holmes and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields also contribute.

"We may look old but we sound young," says Wire with pride. "It's the record we should've made when we first came out. Every band says their newest album is their best, but I don't really think that. I just think it's one of the best albums of all time."

Such gloriously excessive rhetoric is just one indication that the Manics are returning to the us-against-the-world sentiments of their youth. When they blazed out of Blackwood, Gwent, in 1989, they were already a mess of contradictions: non-conformist populists who read Rimbaud, listened to Guns N'Roses and wore shirts stencilled with situationist slogans. "Never a cool band", by Sean Moore's own admission, at their best they've been defiantly unfashionable, brilliantly confrontational and splendid value for money. If these qualities have waned over the years, they are now back in force.

In keeping with their rediscovered spirit of adventure, two songs, So Why So Sad and Found That Soul, will be released as singles on the same day, simply because no major band has done that before. The global arena jaunt after This Is My Truth will not be repeated and the new songs will be debuted at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, Cuba, in front of 5000 fans who will have paid just 25 cents for the privilege. They will be the first Western band to play there - "Like Wham! in China," says Wire with glee. Predictably, demand for flights from Heathrow to Havana has rocketed since the announcement.

"All these people are ringing up like, I didn'nt like your last album but can I come to Cuba?" says an amused Bradfield. "What am I? Fucking Bradfield Travel?" The band admit that the concert is predominately symbolic, an expression of solidarity for Castro's bloody-minded communist bastion. In fact, Solidarity was a working title for the album, before they decided that it sounded too earnest. Now it will be Know Your Enemy. So who exactly is the enemy?

"The enemy for us was what we had become," says Wire. "What we had let ourselves become."

In the bar of the Marriot Hotel in London's Swiss Cottage there is a plaque with a quotation from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: "The land of my fathers? My fathers can keep it." Nicky Wire sees it and feels homesick; London gives him migraines. Wearing a T-shirt that reads I ♥ MELANCHOLY, he stays in the bar just long enough to polish off a plate of toast and jam before retreating to his room, where he spends half of his time with Q wearing enormous sunglasses and the other half dabbing at the bridge of his nose with a wet flannel. For all that, he's in good spirits. It is two weeds before Christmas.

Richey Edwards was a rotten guitarist but a remarkable lyricist and ideologue, responsible for everything else that made the Manics about more than just music. Since his disappearance, the role of strategist has fallen to Wire.

On the desk in his room is a plastic folder bulging with see-through wallets, one for each lyric, stuffed with quotations, newspaper clippings, photographs and anything else that's taken his fancy. He shows Q the closely written lyrics for The Convalescent, which he describes as his most autobiographical song yet. It's about a childhood habit he has never lost, assembling a collage of pictures on his bedroom walls., portraying personal heroes such as Picasso, Klaus Kinski and the late golfer Payne Stewart.

"In terms of icons, to get past John Lennon these days is a fucking miracle," he says. "I've always believed that if you can stimulate yourself constantly it hopefully does make you more interesting. Because the other stuff we don't do. We don't have celebrity girlfriends, we don't have drug habits, all usual stuff that people find interesting."

Around the release of This Is My Truth, Wire described himself as "a hoovering housewife" and birthed an anti-rock'n'roll public image (likes: cleaning, watching telly, staying in; dislikes: going out, foreign travel, other people) that soon bloomed into a caricature, wryly reflected in one line on The Convalescent: "Kleenex kitchen towels and Teletext TV, my favourite inventions of the 20th century."

Wire lives with Rachel, his wife since '93, in a terraced house in Wattsville, South Wales. (New song Wattsville Blues, is a retort to The Mirror, who printed a picture of the house and sneered, "Why does Nicky Wire sill live here?") He walks the dog, views every sport under the sun (except horse racing) and watches the news at least twice a day. He's inordinately proud of the compost heap in his garden. "It's like recreating life, hauling something new out of something else."

Of all the Manics, Wire remains truest to the band's origins as bedroom idealists. Songs such as The Convalescent or My Little Empire from the last album revisit the idea of constructing a cocoon, a place where you can retreat from the world while obsessively absorbing information about it. Wire himself was alienated by life in smalltown Wales (school bullies called him "Joey Deacon" and "Gaylord") and entered his twenties with the superiority complex of the intellectual outcast. But angry young men so easily turn into grumpy old ones, like one of Wire's heroes, Philip Larkin. For all his working class socialism, he has a misanthropic streak as wide as the Valleys.

"Yeah, they do contradict each other," he agrees. "What I find offensive, and Big Brother is the epitome of it, is - it might sound horrible - but a lot of ordinary people are just fucking dull. If there had been a nuclear bomb on Big Brother I wouldn't have given a shit. That's not about the general populace but that whole tabloid culture. Everyone says, [Inane whooping] It's great, it's brilliant!"

While Wire is prone to controversial statements (he once publicly wished that Michael Stipe would die of AIDS and later regretted it), he is perfectly congenial in person, disinclined to sneer or condescend. And yet, he admits without a trace of regret, he has not one friend outside the band.

"I've got my brother [poet Patrick Jones], my mum and dad, my wife and her family, but if you're talking about any actual friends, then no, "he says. "I just don't want any. The time I have at home is really precious and I want it to stay that way."

Every celebrity is expected to be great mates these days. Are you the fly in the ointment?

"Yeah, I am. I don't expect anybody to like me or be my pal. On the last album I thought, Well I won't be annoying, I'll try and be popular, and I just felt I was being very dishonest. And I know that half of what I say is rubbish but the half that's truth is a lot more important than what anybody else says."

During This Is My Truth, Wire suppressed his bile so that, while he was at his happiest, he was also at his creative worst. So, he admits, he's not as happy anymore but that's for the best. He seems relieved to be ranting again about his pet hates - Bob Geldof (he blamed Live Aid for prolonging the careers of rock dinosaurs), the Beastie Boys ("the most hypocritical band the world has ever seen") and the "braindead fucking saps" of the music world.

"One of the first lyrics was Intravenous Agnostic, which sums up the album. It's about maximum intake of reality. [Quietly] My life is based in reality, unlike most rock stars. I take a lot of interest in everything. Perhaps too much."

What did you believe when you were 18 that you wish you still believed?

"I did actually believe I could change the world. I still believe you can change people."

One of the oddest things about talking to Nicky Wire is that, at times, in full vituperative flow, he seems invulnerable while at others, dabbing his forehead with eyes closed, he looks as fragile as glass.

In the video for If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, the first single from This Is My Truth..., the band were trapped in a sci-fi pod and forced to play the song again and again until they threw up. Intentionally or not, it spoke volumes about the albums' mood of disenchantment.

The album had its highlights - If You Tolerate This was their first Number 1, and the first ever chart-topper about the Spanish Civil War - but overall it was morose and navel-gazing. In many ways it resembled 1993's disappointing Gold Against The Soul, an album which polished away their rough edges in a doomed attempt to break America. This time the plan was to become big in Europe but it was a pyrrhic victory.

"This Is My Truth was not a cataclysmic fucking disaster," says Wire sadly. "I wish it was one of those things we could write off but there's some good stuff on there. I think it's too calculated. I mean, it worked. What we set out to do did work but that doesn't necessarily mean it was right."

As Wire says, it worked. At 1999's Brit Awards, they won Best Band and Best Album, just as they had for Everything Must Go.

The first time it felt like we were outsiders coming in," Wire says. "The second time it just felt like we were insiders and we were already part of the establishment. It was a pretty hollow night."

It was at that summer's Glastonbury that Manic Street Preachers reached a turning point. In public relations terms, there was the low "Crappergate". Backstage, Billy Bragg chanced upon a row of portaloos and photographed them with a sign stuck to the door reading: These facilities are reserved exclusively for the Manic Street Preachers - Please respect that. Though Bradfield now claims the sign was stuck there maliciously (they had keys so they didn't need one) such apparent elitism became a lightning rod for anti-Manics sentiment.

Wire is still unrepentant. "All bands take drugs, we don't," he retorts. "I don't want any snorting of coke or, even worse, smoking a spliff in my toilet. If we'd done that in 1991 everybody would have though it was brilliant. The first time I went there [1994] I said I hope they build a bypass over this shithole, so that's a lot worse, really. And people loved that."

More disheartening was their headlining slot - all well-drilled efficiency, no feeling.

"Not one our greatest gigs," Bradfield concedes. "I remember watching it back during You're Tender And You're Tired, Nick was, Oh God, you're acting singing. And I was! I thought, Oh my God this is horrible. It looked like we knew everything backwards and there wasn't even the possibility of the art of falling apart."

The fight back began two months later at T In The Park when they debuted Masses Against The Classes, a full-throttle rock'n'roller that unexpectedly became their second Number 1 single the following January. Despite its title, it had nothing to do with class war and everything to do with being in the Manic Street Preachers - a sequel of sorts to the "sarcastic Valentine" of 1991's You Love Us. It was Wire's idea, as a means of clearing the decks and reclaiming their sense of purpose. One of the lyrics raged, "We're tired of giving a reason why we're the only thing left to believe in."

"Hate these things," says Sean Moore, hefting a triffid-like pot plant off the table in his hotel room. Pot plants or interviews? "Both," he smiles, with a sly, rather unnerving twist of the mouth.

Moore has always modelled himself on his first drumming idol, the unassuming Charlie Watts. While he co-writes all of the Manics' music with Bradfield, his cousin, and is the band's most calmly confident member, he offers so little of himself to the public that his role is always underrated. Paradoxically, he is so keen to be perceived as boring and ordinary that he is hugely intriguing.

"I couldn't say what goes on in Sean's mind sometimes," marvels Wire. "He'll come out with something incredibly deep and the next minute he'll be talking about the Porsche Turbo." The first time Q lays eyes on Moore he is standing in the corridor outside Wire's hotel room, clutching four stuffed Selfridges bags that, combined, are bigger than he is. He explains that the band have nominated him to buy a Christmas present for their manager. But what about the other three bags? "They're presents for myself."

According to Bradfield, Moore has always been like this. Before the Manics he was the youngest ever cornet player in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra, but got bored and sold his trumpet to buy records. Asked for his most satisfying purchase, Moore hums and hahs before deciding. "I'm never satisfied. It's an endless search for perfection." He compulsively buys gadgets but loses interest and stuffs them in the attic of his house in Bristol. Since passing his driving test in November 1999, he's bought and traded in six cars, before settling on a relatively unostentatious Porsche Carrera. He says it's not the kind of car people will see and think, "Flash bastard".

Is it the Sean Moore of cars, then? Gets the job done but doesn't make a fuss?

"Yeah," he smiles. "Very much me."

Moore married his girlfriend, a psychiatric nurse, last summer and recalls being embarrassed about being the centre of attention. His discomfort with both acclaim and company ("If I can avoid people I will") is almost a longing for invisibility.

"I write songs within the band because it's the band, not because of anything else," he shrugs. "I don't feel the need to express myself so the whole world knows how I'm feeling. I'm just one of the faceless millions like everyone else."

Manic Street Preachers started work on Know Your Enemy in November 1999 at their usual studio in Wales' Monnow Valley, but the "epicentre" of the album was the six weeks they spent in Spain last summer.

All three members agree that the experience was "idyllic". They swam, watched TV and rattled through songs at speed. Like Brits who take teabags on holiday, they shipped over 200 packs of Golden Wonder and Brannigan's crisps. The only agenda-setting decision they made in advance was to bypass the rehearsal room and go straight into the studio. Even with a self-imposed limit of five takes for each song, most were recorded in one or two.

"Bands on our kind of career path have problems writing fast songs," says Wire. "It doesn't sound like much of a concept but it's a big fucking deal."

"It was easier for us to be a bit more bloody-minded this time because we didn't want to be bored like we were towards the end of last time," says Bradfield. "At times we were talking as if we were on our death bed creatively. When we started recording the album it was a blessed relief. It was definitely the most relaxed we'd ever been with each other in our entire lives and that's saying something."

Manics albums follow a cycle of sorts. Twice now they have released an agenda-setting album followed by a compromised one, which then led to a turbulent, angry record. While Gold Against The Soul provoked '94's hugely bilious The Holy Bible, the artistic failure of This Is My Truth has inspired Know Your Enemy.

Wire talks about listening to The Holy Bible to try and capture some of Richey Edwards' lyrical "spirit of adventure". Bradfield no longer feels obliged to understand every last lyric while he's writing the music with Moore, but relies more on instinct instead. He says of The Holy Bible that Edwards was dealing with how "a left-wing sensibility turns into something a bit more dangerous when all your moral sensibilities are destroyed by the age you're living in".

To a less destructive extent, Nicky Wire has crafted a complex lyrical agenda about the "malaise" of a world in which capitalism has won but degraded so much in the process that people are disillusioned. There are tracks about post-communist Eastern Europe, Ibiza Uncovered and Elian Gonzales, the Cuban child at the centre of a custody battle in Florida last year. Sometimes, as with the title of Baby Elian, the point is made none too subtly, but at least it is always more than woolly sloganeering.

"When any band talks about politics I get acutely embarrassed," says Wire. "It's so utterly naive and just generally thick. I knew everything Naomi Klein knew about 10 years before she did. You've only got to watch Newsnight to know that."

But, of course, if the Manics didn't boast elements of naivety themselves they would be a dry bunch. Both musically and lyrically Know Your Enemy is a thrilling confrontational release which will get up people's noses and my not find its way on to many Mondeo stereos. A virtue is made of the rough edges, right down to the sleeve artwork, a painting of text on a blood-splattered white wall by Welsh artist Neale Howells. The joy of it is that their instinct for majestic pop still shines through - even My Guernica, beneath all the rage and fuzz, is a catchy little number. Most of all, and unlike This Is My Truth, it sounds necessary.

James Dean Bradfield greets Q with a bone-crunching handshake and a cup of tea. His North London flat is every inch the bachelor pad - his last long-term relationship ended 18 months ago. Books, CDs and videos dominate the sparsely furnished living room and the walls are bare, though a photograph of Joe Strummer meeting Robert DeNiro is propped up in the hall.

Bradfield rarely goes to bed before four in the morning or gets out of it before midday. Last night he spent the wee hours finishing a hefty tetralogy by Yukio Mishima, the Japanese author (and Edwards favourite) who committed suicide in 1970.

"I thought I was getting there and at the end of it I realized I didn't understand the entire fucking thing," he says, frustrated. "I was so fucked off I was up for about an hour last night thinking, Am I thick?"

Bradfield's biggest regret is that he didn't study harder at school so he feels like he's spent his adult years catching up. It would explain his discomfort with his image as a passionate, heroic singer ("for me that image means a blind rage") or the suggestion that there's anything funny about the Manics. He seems obsessed with being taken seriously.

"I don't like thinking about humour in our music," he winces. "I think it's always more in shameful retrospect than actually realizing it at the time. There's stuff off the first album where Richey was going, Go on, play as many notes as you can per second! Out-Slash Slash! You piss yourself when you listen to it now."

Bradfield is the socializing wing of the band: the only one who lives in London (albeit with weekly visits to his dad in Wales) and retains friendships with the likes of the Chemical Brothers and David Holmes. It was Bradfield who drove their decision to work with Kylie Minogue, duetted with Tom Jones on the Reload album and remixed a Massive Attack single. "I'm really glad we've got James," Wire says. "We'd be like monks otherwise. If it was just me then every fucker would just hate us."

But nagging away at Bradfield's man-about-town tendencies is the conviction that he hasn't grown up yet. More than once, he disparagingly refers to himself as "a barroom bore".

"I like talking crap disguised as some kind of Bukowskian wisdom," he says ruefully. "It sounds silly but Richey could turn drinking into a kind of lyrical dissertation. He could draw stuff out of himself when he was in that state. There's no intellectual by-product of drinking for me. It pisses me off."

There's a nervous enery to Bradfield that means whenever he's not smoking, which is rarely, he's flipping a lighter between his fingers. When he talks about the band he is far happier praising Wire's contributions than his own. "It's much easier to be in awe of lyrics than it is to be in awe of somebody who's written a tune."

When the band st

arted, Bradfield tried writing an anti-fascist song called Jackboot Johnny, and still cringes at the memory. The haunting Ocean Spray, a collaboration with Wire, is his first attempt at lyric-writing since, inspired by the death of his mother from cancer in the autumn of 1999.

"It was the first time I felt I could actually write a lyric and it wouldn't be crass," he says quietly.

"Some people dedicate a park bench or they plant a tree. I write a song. It's just about watching somebody die. When people are in hospital they're told to drink a lot of cranberry juice because of infections and my mum would say, Go and get us some Ocean Spray cranberry juice. There is an indelible strength in the human spirit if you can convince yourself that Ocean Spray will go towards keeping you alive. Besides the pure horror of it all there are certain things that do make you want to carry on."

In September 1998 BBC2 screened a Close-Up documentary on the band's history. Inevitably, the hub of the story was the disappearance of Richey Edwards who walked out of London's Embassy Hotel on 1 February 1995 and was never seen again.

"I thought it was an absolute pile of shit," Wire snorts. "It was 45 minutes of drudgery and it doesn't really come across that we had a lot of humour, a lot of love, dare I say it, a lot of tenderness. It just came through that Richey was five years of fucking mental illness - he wasn't human or real. And it wasn't like that."

"He was almost being given a Jim Morrison makeover," Bradfield agrees. "Nobody really saw there was a political agenda in that album [The Holy Bible]. Not all songs are about Richey sitting in a flat with a bottle of vodka deciding whether to go for the razor blade or have another bottle of beer."

Since Edwards vanished, the band have had to reclaim him as a friend rather than a martyr. There were songs about him on Everything Must Go (No Surface All Feeling) and This Is My Truth (Nobody Loved You) but none on this album, although Wire and Bradfield concede that people are bound to assume there are. His memory, however, has informed the spirit of Know Your Enemy.

"I can always spot the songs he would like, and I can definitely spot the ones he wouldn't like," says Bradfield. "He'd like this album much more than This Is My Truth."

To the outsider, there is still a sense that the band find Edwards, for all his flaws, a hard act to follow. Many of the youthful qualities they are reviving are Edwards'.

"To be honest, it's more to do with the fact that he lived it as well," says Wire. "I'm the first to admit that I don't push the limits like Richey did in his lifestyle. I couldn't read a book, smoke, drink, take drugs and everything else for 24 hours a day, which sometimes Richey would do."

How does it feel now that you've recorded as many albums without him as you did with him?

"It's almost like you've got to sit down and think about it," says Wire, his expression hard to read behind sunglasses. "I lose track of how many years he's been missing. [Quietly] It really is a long time. It does just make you feel... it's hard to explain. It's not like someone who's passed away who you can think of in a different context. Being selfish about it, at least if you knew it was final perhaps all the grief would come out, because I'm not sure it has really, which is a bit frightening."

The only time Manic Street Preachers thought seriously about calling it a day was in the aftermath of Edwards' disappearance. Despite their intense closeness there is a sense that the end is, if not nigh, then in sight.

"We definitely wanted to approach the album from the point of view that it would be good enough to be our last," says Bradfield. "You think about getting older, definitely. If you're six albums down the line you're closer to the end than you are to the beginning unless you're Queen or the Stones or U2. Is it healthy for a band like us to be around forever? I'm not sure."

The band talk about ending with dignity intact. None of them, however, seems to have any ambitions to be anything other than a Manic Street Preachers.

"When the band's over I won't do anything except paint and potter about," says Wire without a shadow of doubt. "Anything else would be too bad for my health."

A while ago, the Manics talked about releasing a compilation of B-sides and calling it No Encores, No Adverts, No Fanclubs. As they promised at the start, they have never performed an encore in Britain, never licensed a song to a TV advert and never had an official fanclub. Mind you, as Bradfield notes, "we said we'd sell 16 million records and we still haven't got close to that either."

They haven't, and maybe they never will, but few bands aim so high that even their failures are fascinating. Fewer still become icons but remain vital after six albums. Enjoy them while they're still around.