It's a beautiful Thursday afternoon in Toronto, and James Dean Bradfield is cooped up in his hotel room, gearing up to do a solo voice/acoustic guitar gig for an industry audience. The "cut-rate preacher," as he refers to himself, is here on behalf of bandmates Nicky Wire and Sean Moore (fourth member Richey Edwards having taken off mysteriously four years ago, leaving no forwarding address).
James is affable and talkative, but he's not particularly looking forward to playing in front of media and record-biz types. "It's so fucking different," he muses, "because their judgment is just so much more harsh and cynical. They're not a paying audience, so it creates a different kind of nervousness. Almost turns into aggression sometimes. But I'm old enough to actually deal with it; it's cool."
Although Bradfield is dealing with the small crowds these days, the rest of the band will have to accompany him on a North American tour in July, several months after their latest album, This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, was released in the U.K. to great acclaim. From "preaching" with big video screens to arenas in Europe, the band will be looking to scale down on this side of the pond.
According to James, Nick prefers playing arenas "because I suppose he feels overcome with some kind of megalomania when he's got 10,000 people in front of him. He finds it quite easy to rebuff that kind of indie ethic where people are ashamed of their success and they don't know what to do with it...He likes to feel empowered by certain elements of playing to people. I'm not quite the same - I like the schizophrenic nature of knowing that we're going to play back in Europe for at least 4,000 every night, or something, but when we come over here, it could be 20 or 100 or 400 or whatever. It doesn't bother me at all. Actually, it makes me feel as if it takes a couple of years off me age."
On the phone from his home in Wales a couple of weeks before Bradfield's tour, Nicky Wire remembers with horror and amusement the band's first North American tour, opening for - wait for it - Bon Jovi in Vancouver.
"Our first gig," admits Wire, "I remember Bob Rock was there, and there were literally two people there! It's probably the worst gig we've ever done. The sound was atrocious; Richey was pissed out of his mind - we didn't stay long!"
Thankfully, the Manics have moved out from under Bon Jovi's big-haired shadow; with their new, surprisingly accessible, album, they may yet convert the masses in Canada and the U.S. For one thing, the lyrics are more straightforward than in days of yore. Claims Nicky, "My references and things that inspired me are perhaps not as complex as when Richey and I used to write together. I make no bones about that - I can't try to be something I'm not. I like to use James' voice more, and I think the lyrics are not quite as complex. He's got a lovely voice and you can hear it more."
Bradfield seems to prefer things this way as well. "It makes the songs easier to sing," he says, "and therefore also makes it much easier for people to understand what I'm singing again. Before, say in something like The Holy Bible, everything was so convulsed and compact ... A lot of people just thought I was speaking in tongues. Which is cool - that's why I like that period - I'm not criticizing it. I think the difference is [that] Nick is actually trying to say the same things but just trying to make it clearer, not only to an audience, but to himself as well. And also, there was a fair degree of nihilistic sentiment in the old songs. I think Nick is just trying to be more constructive than we used to be. I always view it as just getting better. If a band doesn't change the way it writes, it just means it's standing still, really."
The Manics don't see themselves as backing off from their heavily political stance or their emotionally charged beginnings, probably best symbolized by Richey's carving "4 Real" in deep scars into his arm before a skeptical British journalist. To the band, something like the new song "Southside Yorkshire Mass Murderer," about a disaster on a British soccer pitch, is just as effective.
"It is a song about writing a song," explains Wire, "and I don't want to get too wanky and intellectual about it, but it's a difficult thing to write a lyric about the subject I was trying to right about. A lot of people would think the lyrics would be 'Justice! Justice!' and a really fast punk song, and a typical Manics anthem, and that's not what it was meant to do. It's meant to be a pretty hopeless song, and that's the kind of dilemma in it. I think it's a beautiful piece of music above everything else, really, which I like - the fact that you kind of drift away to it while the refrain of 'Southside Yorkshire Mass Murderer' is entering your brain."
For Wire, this is the Preachers' current way of being subversive. "Now, 25 years since punk and all the rest of it, rebellion being so corporatized - apart from perhaps Nirvana, in the '90s - it's just impossible to have someone that makes a genuine impact, so I just think you have to be much cleverer about it."
It fact, sometimes the best statement is no statement at all, as marked by the Welsh band's refusal to play at the Welsh Assembly gala concert where the Queen was in attendance.
As Bradfield explains: "On our first album, there was one of the most blatantly anti-monarchy songs since [the Sex Pistols'] 'God Save the Queen.' It was a track called 'Repeat': 'Repeat after me: Fuck Queen and country.' We've always been anti-monarchy. Completely and utterly. Got nothing in common with them; hate them; despise them. Got nothing against them personally, it's just an outdated institution." Still, the Preachers decided not to bother showing up and playing the song.
"I know what would happen," says Bradfield. "It would be, like, 'Same old Manic Street Preachers, sloganeering, sound-biting, sensationalistic.' And for once, I'd rather just stand by my bed and just say, 'No, I just don't want to do it.'"
Of course, he's unable to opt out of playing promotional gigs, and the interview ends as he's whisked away to do so. Back in Blackwood, the domestically blissful Wire's interview ended with his walking his dog for the second time that day. Before he left, he did stop to ponder what would happen if Bon Jovi were to ask for an opening slot on a Manics tour.
"I don't know if they'd ever sink that low! I'm sure they're bigger than us..."
Maybe not for long.