It's been eight months since The Maker met the Manic Street Preachers, and they haven't cheered up in that time. On the eve of a national tour, a new single, and an even darker direction in their music, they talk to David Bennun about misery, despair, addiction, the past, the future, and why they can't consider themselves a success.
Richey JAmes does not think of himself as an alcoholic.
"I'm the sort of person who wakes up in the morning and needs to pour a bottle down my throat."
What is Richey so desperate to escape from?
"I am paranoid about not being able to sleep. And if by about eight o'clock at night I haven't had a drink I get massive panic attacks and I'll be awake all night, and that's my biggest nightmare. I can't stomach that thought. That's why I drink. It's a very simple choice. I know that until one in the afternoon I'm going to be shaky and have cold sweats. By six o'clock I feel good, but by eight it starts coming round again, the thought of not sleeping. And that's when I start drinking."
What distinguishes Richey from an alcoholic?
"That's someone who wakes up and needs a drink straight away. My need is more functional. By about midday, I need a drink to stabilise me, but I've got to drive the group to rehearsal, so I can't have that drink. But on tour, I drink all day, just so I don't have to think about going onstage.
"That's why, as a live band, we f*** up so many times."
Whatever is bothering Sean Moore, it alarms even his fellow Manics. Eight months ago, he informed The Maker that "everything is crap". Today, he won't stay long enough to say even this much. A miniature thundercloud hovers over his head. He trundles from the photo studio, a tiny, gloomy Dalek in a carapace overcoat, not to return.
"That," apologises Nicky Wire, "is the first time anything has happened like that. Ever."
James Dean Bradfield watches Sean's departure. "I'm related to him," he murmurs to himself. "I hope it's not congenital."
Nicky Wire is no happier. "Last year, the things that made the biggest impression on us were going to Dachau, the site of the concentration camp, and to Hiroshima. The human capability to inflict pain on its own race. That's what we would like to write about."
Last year also saw the death of the Manics' manager, Philip Hall, of cancer, at a cruelly early age. This was a loss that extended far beyond business matters, as Richey explains.
"He had a big impact on our lives. He was the first person that ever believed in our music, the first to respond to all the stupidly long letters we would send out to anyone we could think of. He said, 'I'll come and see you do a gig in London.' We said we couldn't get a gig in London. So he drove down to see us rehearse in a crappy schoolroom.
"Before we had a record deal, he'd only recently been married, and he told us, 'You've got no money, you can live with us.' We stayed with him for a year in Shepherd's Bush, sleeping in two spare bedrooms, the kitchen and the lounge."
It is now 1994, and the Manics don't like it any better.
Nicky and Richey still live in the virtual world of their Blackwood bedrooms, surrounded by books, newspapers, records, videos. They remain media junkies, dosing themselves with a culture they depend on and despise. They rarely go out. They feel hollow. They feel defeated. They feel low.
They feel like failures.
The pair talk softly. Their voices never vary from that quiet and conversational tone. Their dialogue is a gentle, bitter stream.
They relish their melancholy as a connoisseur would a fine wine.
"That's been the truth since we were 15 years old," confesses Nicky. "All I can remember is being melancholy. I've never said I was desperately unhappy. The truly unhappy people of this world are usually the ones who end up suicidal or living on the streets."
What does your depression stem from?
"It's just our natural mood," Richey offers. "We've always been like that. Where we come from, there's a natural melancholy in the air. Everybody, ever since you could comprehend it, felt pretty much defeated. You've got the ruins of heavy industry all around you, you see your parents' generation all out of work, nothing to do, being forced into the indignity of going on courses of relevance. Like a 50-year-old miner, worked in a pit all his life, there's not much joy for him to go and learn how to type. It's just pointless. And that is all around us, ever since we were born."
Then why do you still live there?
"I just want to deal with reality," replies Nicky. "I want to write about the things that go on around me."
But what goes on around Nicky is not, by his own admission, life in Blackwood; he and Richey long ago chose to isolate themselves from even that. Instead, they occupy their minds with the rivers of printed words and moving images that feed into their homes. They monitor Britain as if they were in distant orbit around it.
And it's not a hopeful picture.
By far and away the largest counter-culture in the country is that loose amalgam known as crusty; a withdrawal posing as rebellion, rejecting the society that fuels it, ignoring the enemies that beset it. You might as well rebel against the weather by standing in the rain.
This is one reason why, in that little corner of popular culture illuminated by the music press, the Manics are both essential and unique. Who else among our regular interviewees will cast an educated, disdainful and intelligent eye on our concerns? We must make do either with fashionably idiotic opinions along the lines of, "there's no point in voting, all politicians are just the same"; or with people who believe that an anti-fascist standpoint confers some kind of virtue upon them. Jesus, even John Major takes an anti-fascist standpoint.
Richey talks about author Primo Levi, whose poem, 'Song Of Those Who Died In Vain', adorns the Gold Against The Soul LP like a black flower. Levi survived the Holocaust, only to have his suicide prove, many years later, that he had done no such thing.
"He dedicated himself to documenting what he saw. And yet within a few decades, you've got books being written, saying the Holocaust was a lie, which are getting some kind of academic credence now. And that is really, really offensive. And dangerous."
"When the universities justify theories like that," adds Nicky, "that's when history can be really tarnished. Not when some thick bastard wins a council election. But the more books in libraries, the more historical fact which gets washed away, the more dangerous it becomes.
"It's the same thing with political correctness; it wants to destroy words, rid language of them."
How is it that, with the pair's intelligence, with so much passing before their eyes to enervate them, so little does?
Books, films, newspapers, television — a life comprised of these must be one of constant, vicarious discovery. The morbid, mordant grip of a series like Cracker. The British arrival of carnage maestro John Woo. The rattletrap prose of Camille Paglia, careering along the byways or academe, knocking prissy pedestrians into ditches (even when she writes nonsense, at least it's enlivening nonsense). We, the enemies of political correctness (those who oppose it for its repression, rigidity and denial of the obvious, rather than the knee-jerk bigots who'd hate it even if it was correct), have had a good time of it lately. Isn't any of this worth getting excited about?
"It's just," sighs Nicky, "that it wears off so quickly. I can't deny that there's moments — when we're practising, or watching Linford Christie win the 100 metres, or I'm reading a new book — that still give me an initial rush. It's just that we're so limited, in a way, because being in the band occupies most of our thoughts."
"I know some people, a lot younger than me, who get excited when they discover a new author, or a new band. But we've exhausted all those possibilities."
That's a prodigious claim. But the Manics are a prodigious band. Their career is a microcosm of rock'n'roll mythology: from lippy, small-town young guns ready to take on the world, to world-weary cynics, jaded, depressed, disillusioned, drunken or downright dependent, inside of three years.
Nicky agrees. "We grew up very early. By the time I was 16, I'd read and studied the complete works of Philip Larkin, Shakespeare, all the beat generation, every film. I find it unbelievable, the intensity of us as people and as a band. You get bands these days, they're 30 years old, and they've just discovered Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Everything we discovered, from Betty Blue to Malcolm Lowry, was no big deal. Everything came fast to us. And like you say, we are a microcosm. We get bored so easily that we put into three years everything that took The Rolling Stones 20. It's just the way we are; we are modern people."
Why after these three years, do the Manics feel like failures?
"We always dealt in the dilemma of being in a band," says Nicky. "Success — what we consider success — and art, and how to mix them. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be commercially successful, because we wanted to reach people's minds. But then we realised that becoming that is the most difficult process of all. We're not satisfied with being small.
"Any other band in our position would be completely happy. We've had ten consecutive Top 30 singles. We've been on Top Of The Pops five times in just over a year. We've had two gold albums, sell-out tours of Japan and Europe. We still outsell critically acclaimed British bands by five to one in many cases. It's just that we're always going to strive for more.
"Most genius is popular," he reckons. "And that's especially true of music. There are so many people who say things like, 'I'm the next Brian Wilson', or, 'We write songs as good as the Kinks'. We feel we haven't got the right to say that until other people judge us on those terms. That's the dilemma we face up to and most bands don't.
"Whatever we've achieved," he muses, "we never see it as any kind of achievement."
Take a chronological look at the titles of the Manics' singles, and you can chart the change from spite to gloom: 'Motown Junk','You Love Us', 'Repeat', 'Love's Sweet Exile' and 'Little Baby Nothing' give way to 'Motorcycle Emptiness', 'From Despair To Where', 'Roses In The Hospital', 'La Tristessa Durera', and now, 'Life Becoming A Landslide'. The snarl of defiance becomes a howl of desolation; the revelling in adolescence, a refusal of the burden of adulthood.
Now Nicky and Richey, as the band's lyric writers, are seeking to head into even bleaker territory. But Dachau and Hiroshima are no longer places. They are unreachable ideas. The first a slow agony of incomprehensible vileness, the second a massive, murderous instant. They can be detailed, but not described. The human mind cannot absorb what happened there. To do so is death. Primo Levi knew this, for 40 years a walking shell, a man whose body neglected to die with him.
These horrors are even further beyond the grasp of pop music than most other art forms, but, as Nicky has said, they have set the pair to thinking.
"It's a period of readjustment for us as people and as a band." Nicky sips at his orange juice. "We've reached some sort of conclusion in our career, and the question is, what next? And what we want to do next is very dark and very depressing."
"When we write lyrics," Richey tells me, "sometimes we'll come up with something that we think is really good, and works really well with James' melody. And I hate having the thought in the back of my head, that we can't possibly print this in a lyric sheet, because people will misunderstand it."
"On the next album," Nicky promises, "there will be nothing left out. Whether we get crucified or not. There's new songs about snuff movies, and if you write about that you've got to go into some kind of graphic detail. And I know what people are going to say," predicts Richey, "that it's cheap. Look at American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. It was completely misunderstood by the media. And they probably knew why they were doing it, but they just chose to ignore it. When I read it, I didn't find it cheap at all. I found it frightening, and very moralistic.
"Henry Miller said: 'At the edge of eternity is torture, in our mind's never-ending ambition to damage itself.' That's what we would like to write about."
That's quite an ambition.
But as anyone who knows the Manics can tell you, they've never lacked for ambition.