Manic Street Preachers - Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore - are one of the most critically celebrated and commercially successful British bands of the past two decades. Having overcome the tragic loss of founder guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards, who disappeared in 1995 after appearing on three LPs, the group stormed to the upper end of the albums chart with 1996's Everything Must Go, and reached number one with 1998's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Since then only 2003's Lifeblood has missed the UK top five, and their tenth long-player Postcards From a Young Man debuted at three in September 2010.
Widely acclaimed in the press, the luscious orchestral swells of Postcards are a far cry from 2009's ragged and raw, Steve Albini-produced Journal for Plague Lovers, a record that featured lyrics penned exclusively by Edwards. We met Nicky and Sean to talk about the new record, which features contributions from Ian McCulloch and Duff McKagan.
Our reviewer, before he submitted his copy, told me that Postcards had him thinking primarily of your first two post-Richey releases. Fair to say there are parallels to be drawn?
Nicky: I can definitely see a parallel with Everything Must Go. It might have the commerciality of This Is My Truth, thrown in, but I don't think it's that similar sonically. This Is My Truth is a very reflective, quite soft album.
It's a lot more downbeat than I think people remember.
Nicky: It really is. The Everlasting takes about five minutes just to get going. But with this new one, there's definitely an innate comparison to be made to Everything Must Go, simply down to the orchestration and its uplifting nature, I think.
Everything Must Go was embraced by the mainstream fairly immediately. That can't be something you were anticipating?
Nicky: I think that is because we were a loved band. It's the best position to be in - when you're a real cult band, loved in the underground so to speak, and you go mainstream. You only have it once in your career, but it's the best feeling to have a foot in both camps.
It must be amazing to have not only achieved that crossover, but to have maintained it.
Sean: We did slip a little with Know Your Enemy (2001), but that was definitely a reaction to Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth.
Nicky: Yeah, that was our one self-destruct album. We had almost become too big.
It was a bit long, from what I recall.
Sean: It was uncomfortable from start to finish. Even the recording process was uncomfortable. We did a mad stint in Spain.
Nicky: We just p***ed away tons of money in search of an incarnation of the band that didn't want to be found. But as a rule, we've drifted off the radar of our own fault, and that's going to happen if you've done ten albums. The idea of constant success is highly improbable, unless you're U2 or something. You get to a point of such utter blandness, like that, that it doesn't matter anyway. I think since Send Away the Tigers (2007), the reinvigoration we've felt in the band has been like Doctor Who, like a rebranding of something culturally important.
Tigers came after a break, where you (Nicky) and James produced solo material. Was that quite important? As I guess it was the first intentional, professional break you allowed yourselves.
Nicky: It was important in the sense of learning to play the acoustic guitar, as that's helped my lyric writing. It's made my lyrics flow more. The two aspects are linked. It's always been a bit of a weird dynamic in this band, where two people write the lyrics and then hand them over to the two who write the music. So that relationship has changed a bit, and become a little more natural. Also, it made us miss the band, so the break was dually important - we missed what we'd had, and it also gave us a new spark of imagination as to what we could become again.
The productivity since then has been pretty impressive. Three albums in as many years, really.
Nicky: The juices are back! We're generally blessed that inspiration's never been a problem. We may never have turned that inspiration into something great, but you have to be self-critical and realise you've made bad records, otherwise you're kidding yourself. I can't understand why some other people can't find inspiration. You wake up every day knowing less each morning, because there's so much information. Just when you think you've cracked it, you realise that you've got to connect even more.
Even on album ten, there's mellowing of the spirit that drove you in the first place?
Nicky: I wish there was, really. It'd be much easier to be a normal human being.
But if you were there wouldn't be the vibrancy that there is on the new album, that desire, that passion that's always been there. Surely you'd fear slowing down, waking up and repeating a formula?
Nicky: That's true. The fear is always there. When we won the Godlike Genius award from the NME in 2008 - which was a big deal to us, as we'd always read NME - the next day James was in a gigantic panic: "It's all over, we're too old, we shouldn't have accepted it, we've got to get down the studio."
Sean: It is a bit reassuring when there are younger bands who are slower than you. It makes you think, maybe we haven't lost that fire that we once had. It's hard not to give into that, though, as naturally you slow down as you get older. But for us it's always been about struggle, so...
Do you hear aspects of yourselves in bands that cite you as an influence, and in turn does that inspire you? I see British Sea Power are touring with you.
Nicky:: They are, and I love them. They're a great ideas band, and I love ideas bands. It's like when Klaxons came along. It's not always just about the music - to stimulate us there needs to be something behind that. Even if it is pretentious bulls***, because I'm so bored of being sold American 'authentic'... log cabins, beards. Come on, they're all lawyers in Seattle. I do like some of that music. It's not like I'm offended by it, anyway. But this search for supposed authenticity... I think we've become authentic by literally being ourselves. There was nothing authentic about us at the start - we were quite wilfully contrived. But that has turned into our authenticity. And you can't buy that, by pretending you're The Band in 1969.
Your authenticity comes through because you've never pretended to be something you're not, you've never really jumped a bandwagon.
Nicky: In the Britpop era, we couldn't wear Fred Perry shirts and drape a Union Jack over ourselves, as it'd have been so alien. It was an exciting time, and you were swept up in it - but we were dressed up like Apocalypse Now extras, making an unholy, dark racket. I think the bands that survive are never part of a movement. Even Blur, they were a band way before Britpop.
And they've become, or perhaps they always were, an ideas band.
Nicky: Exactly. And it's the same with Radiohead. They've never rode any coattails; they've always been themselves.
Yet neither has ever won the Mercury Prize, like yourselves, although you've been shortlisted twice.
Nicky: I was really disappointed that Journal didn't get shortlisted. If you look on Metacritic, we were pretty much top of that. I don't know if that should be seen as any kind of indicator, but for Richey's lyrics alone - they could have said the music was s*** - it was the best lyrics released that year. I think it's pretty sad.
So you follow your own press?
Nicky: I'm completely addicted to everything, yeah. Nothing's ever changed with me. It's unhealthy, I think, and I'm always shoving stuff into Sean's face, and James' face. Clash magazine gave us a great review the other day, and there's no need for them to. They're a young, glossy, cool magazine, but their review was really brilliant. But we do get inspired by new bands - I was really inspired by The Libertines. I really fell in love with them.
Did they need to come back, though?
Nicky: You know what, they were really great at Reading. And let's hope that some young kids there watched them and not Blink-182 or something. At least they're romantic, nihilistic and f***ed up - that's what rock'n'roll should be. They're a fantastic disaster, as Malcolm McLaren would say. But I'm quite old-fashioned in my views. We might seem quaint, to some people; but the adrenaline rush of a rock'n'roll band still gives us a buzz.
And that buzz hasn't dissipated any, looking at your touring schedule.
Nicky: It wouldn't be enjoyable if nobody wanted us, but there's a genuine desire amongst people to see us, and that's great. For that to be around when we're on our tenth album is amazing. And we've been on the same label all this time. It's been through some name changes - it's Columbia at the moment - but we've had that continuity. There's a sense of pride that we've got the same manager, that we're the same people, on the same label.
You've worked with Dave Eringa again on the new album, with whom you've collaborated several times across your career, dating back to the early 1990s.
Nicky: There are a few he's not produced, but he's always been involved somehow. He's very good at listening to us when we say we want to sound a certain way; he can translate that idea into an end product. This album is very much a team effort, a mixture of him, us, and our engineer in Cardiff, Loz Williams.
The studio has clearly been embraced on this album. Where the predecessor was raw, all sharp edges, this has a softer heart, and no little soul.
Nicky: It's a very different kind of record. Apart from the last track, Don't Be Evil, not much of it would be suitable for Albini - we'd have actually loved to have him on that, he'd have been perfect. James has always been obsessed with Tamla Motown, and some of that comes out naturally without any of us realising it, and Ian McCulloch's vocals lend themselves to this soulfulness. It's really a celebration of the album itself. It might be naïve and idealistic, but we still think the album is a cultural art form, and one that's been sadly diminished. It was the kitchen sink - we did think, "f*** it", and throw everything at this album. What did we have to lose? If we're going to go out, the dying of the light, let's go out raging.
Does it worry you that this album can be sliced up by digital sales, the listener only choosing to buy two or three tracks?
Sean: It's baffling, depressing. We feel really deeply dissatisfied. I've gone through technology over the last 20 years, I had an iPod at an early stage, so I saw what was going to happen. But there's no way you can stop it. Even now I feel dissatisfied when you download an album and you get a little picture of what the album cover might be. You wouldn't go into the supermarket and buy a picture of an apple. Then you think: what about books? When you download one of those, for whatever machine you have, you get the whole book. When you download an album, you don't. Why are we splitting albums up? Why can't we make people buy the full albums?
Nicky: There's a brilliant book out by Nicolas Carr, called The Shallows, about how the internet is basically rewiring our brains in a medical, scientific way. It is changing our thought processes, and I suppose that's evolution. It's a new frontier, and seeing that coming perhaps we do think of this album as being our last chance to really go for it. We love the idea of one-off singles, and there are plenty of examples of great singles. Look at The Beatles, for instance. But we're too romantic, I think. It's been 20 years, us making music together, and we've known each other for 30. I don't think we could change how we do things. We'd die instead. Even the idea of physically releasing a single now seems weird to some labels. The music business is the only one where consumers today think they're entitled to something for free. It doesn't apply to food, or clothes; but they genuinely think music is for free. And then bands have to sell their songs to adverts to make money. We let the Welsh tourist board use Australia, but when we were offered quarter of a million for Design for Life, for a car advert, we turned it down.
Finally, what are your favourite albums of this year so far?
Nicky: I love the Mystery Jets album, especially the track Flash a Hungry Smile. It seems to have gone over the heads of a lot of people, which is really sad. I loved the Avi Buffalo record, and I really like Endless Boogie, which is just four blokes sounding like ZZ Top.
Sean: Well, a lot of what I have heard hasn't done it for me. I like the new Arcade Fire album.
Nicky: I'm always badgering him with new records.
Sean: I have to load up his iPod.
Nicky: I tried to get into the Ariel Pink record. It has some great songs on it, but overall it's perhaps a little too saccharine, West Coast-vibed. But I buy tons and tons of records, constantly. Even if I don't like something, I want to try to suss it out. And I like the Foals record, too, especially that single, This Orient. I think that's a genius song.