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Artist 'n' Artist: Nicky Wire - Drowned In Sound, 15th June 2009

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Title: Artist 'n' Artist: Nicky Wire
Publication: Drowned In Sound
Date: Monday 15th June - Friday 19th June 2009
Writer: Catherine Anne Davies

CAD: So, I was looking at the credits on the new album, and you credited Richey as “Richard James Edwards”. I wondered whether that was a conscious decision to credit the person, rather than the myth?

NW: I think so... I think the whole process has been about that - trying to place him as a writer...and as a kind of “critic” of culture, and a disseminator of the truth, so yeah. It’s not kinda rock and roll mythology...

CAD: So, getting away from this ridiculous rock’n’roll myth...

NW: Yeah... but I mean, it’s not ridiculous, because I grew up falling for rock’n’roll myths. You know, when I was 16 I loved all that stuff, so I can understand why people are attracted to it. But there are many memories that go before that... and way beyond that, just of him as a person... making music... going to Swansea University... it doesn’t get any more normal than that.

CAD: No, people forget about that side of things don’t they...? Thinking about 'normality' then, the first line on the record is “the more I see / the less I scream” - did you find yourselves becoming inoculated to the subject matter as you went through the process of turning the lyrics into songs?

NW: We did... we treated it very academically. There was a sense of distance...

CAD: I imagine you have to do that as a survival mechanism almost?

NW: Yeah, I think, you know even with The Holy Bible there was a sense of that. I remember saying at the time - the worst thing I could ever do would be to try and copy Richey because I can’t go to the places he goes, it’s not my mental state. I don’t feel like that that - it would have been such fakery to pretend I did. So, we did treat these lyrics with as much respect, and academic discipline as we could. I think when we finished the record and sat back, there was a far bit of emotional baggage...

CAD: And were you worried at all about how the hardcore [fans] would react?

NW: [Laughs] I’m always fucking worried about that! That depends on what clothes I’m wearing or what pair of trainers... let alone doing Richey’s album! Like I said in other interviews, it did come from James, this album. I know he’s looked at the lyrics over the last few years - I know he’s dipped in, and he finally came to the point where he really wanted to [use them], and he felt it was the right thing to do. It was a relief. That sounds weird. But the fact that James said it and that he was going to compose so much of the music, that reinforced that it was the right thing to do.

CAD: Does it frustrate you at all that so much attention has been focused on the lyrics, when it’s also such fantastic album, musically speaking?

NW: No, it doesn’t really. With The Holy Bible, maybe, there might have been a bit of that because it was a different beast back then, but we did this album in mind to try and place him up there with the greats, for his lyrics. The music would always just come afterwards. I do think musically it’s great, but I’m just really happy that... what’s that website, Metacritic? Which collates everything? I think the rating we got on there was 83%, which means “Universally Adored”

CAD: Do you pay attention to all of that then...?!

NW: To critics, yes. I read every fucking tawdry good/bad thing...

CAD: When you wrote the album, did you write very much in mind knowing that you were going to be recording with Steve Albini? It seems to me maybe you were placing these restrictions on yourselves as some kind of an artistic strategy?

NW: Yeah. And it did feel like that. That there had to be certain parameters that were inbuilt. I think I pushed the idea of making The Holy Bible: part two, too much at the start... that was me having to have symmetry. Those parameters, those disciplines... similar to the Holy Bible. We were going to do it ourselves, in Cardiff, in a shitty studio, and I was going to be something of a bystander lyrically cos Richey’s writing is... was... so amazing back then. It felt like we were almost being a backing band at times... which was actually really nice. Somehow felt less pressure than having to write a massive hit record.

CAD: That’s also something writers do sometimes... they go to restricted forms, writing sestinas, or using some kind of poetic form where you have strict parameters, and you’re pushed somewhere by these restrictions.

NW: Yeah. It’s exciting and bizarrely [it] makes it easier. That classic thing of giving yourself too many options, you just become confused. I mean, you’ve only got to look at our back catalogue... to see that sometimes that’s what happens! [laughs]. I think Richey’s lyrics undoubtedly pushed us to places that mine can’t. If you look at them, they’re jagged... they’re staccato... they are... people say it’s poetry, but I see it as analysis, as "analytical news" almost.

CAD: Well, when I looked at the notebooks... they’re very much placed as lyrics - there’s a bridge, there’s a chorus. It’s not like he’s trying to write a sonnet!

NW: Yeah. Some of the fans think that the fact that we edited a little bit... is a heinous crime. But some of it like ‘Jackie Collins...’ was written like that; ‘Virginia State...’ is pretty much verbatim – he did write them as lyrics. Whenever we wrote, we always edited each other - I’d edit his; he edited mine. James would edit both of ours.

CAD: So it’s just people picking up on a process that's always been part of the way you work?

NW: That’s totally true. That’s why we didn’t feel there was anything odd about it, or wrong because it’s always been.... I mean, even with ‘Design for Life’, in my case, it’s two pages long... and James cut it down to about fucking eight lines... Y’know I’m not complaining!

CAD: You talked about how you started thinking about [the new record] as The Holy Bible: part two, but in the end it seems there is much more of a softness... there’s much more resignation to the record. Was that part of a concerted effort to be less angular or do you think it’s a product of you having written these much more “pop” records in the interim? – I mean "pop" in a good way!

NW: Yeah, I know what you mean – but it was all down to James being fiercely, er... I think we started off like with maybe 'All Is Vanity' which I think could maybe fit on The Holy Bible and then a couple of others and I think James just said to me, "Look, I know what you mean about The Holy Bible, but we’ve got to let the lyrics guide us." So, whatever song came up... I mean obviously I wrote the music to ‘William’s Last Words’, which is - it’s fey, and indie... [laughs]

CAD: But it’s a really majestic song though – you wouldn’t call it depressing - it’s got an uplifting, bittersweet feel, a sepia colour to it.

NW: Bittersweet is a good word. There’s a sense of calm and serenity. The Holy Bible is all about disgust and hatred but these lyrics... although they have bleak conclusions. I’m not pretending everything is wonderful - but there is a calmness to them. It feels like Richey’s been through this cataclysmic process, of dissecting everything, and the conclusions he’s come up with, although bleak, they do seem rational.

CAD: In that sense, does it piss you off that you’re presented as this unrelentingly miserable band when you’ve got so much humour here? 'Me and Stephen Hawking' and ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ both made me laugh! You seem to have this really wry sense of humour as a band that often gets overlooked.

NW: I think Manics fans have always got that. Someone said this record was like porn for Manics fans – you’ve got Jackie Collins, Stephen Hawking... it did have that sense of ridiculousness that we’ve always had, and some people, like you said... we’ve always been categorized as po-faced. It’s kind of idiocy, really. The clothes we’ve worn and the stupidity of the things we’ve said. Jon Savage [England’s Dreaming author] used to call The Sex Pistols "the fabulous disaster", and we always really liked that idea... the sense of disaster. A slight insanity to the process.

CAD: And how did the reaction to the Jenny Saville cover affect you? [see YouTube below] Did that frustrate you in terms of the misreading of the image or do you still enjoy the capacity to shock ?

NW: I was just amazed that it did shock people... I was truly stunned. When I first brought the picture in to the band, they agreed it was perfect. It’s innocent, it’s androgynous, those beautiful eyes, blah-de-blah. It was a beautiful image. Then we showed it to someone, and they said, “Doesn’t it look like a child who’s been beaten up?” Jenny [Saville] came to the gig last night, and I was talking to her in this very spot for a couple of hours. I was just really relieved that she just thought it was great. She didn’t think we tried to use it as publicity. She gave us the painting for free... When people ask us, “what do you think Richey would have thought of the album?” and you just can’t tell really but the one thing we know for certain is he would have loved the cover! If nothing else [laughs].

CAD: James [Dean Bradfield] mentioned that before recording the album he started listening to Simple Minds as a kind of talismanic gesture! Do you have any other strange rituals, before you record or write, or play shows?

NW: I always put my make-up on [laughs]. I used to do it in the hotel, and it became such a rush, and I’d get such odd looks coming out the hotel, but my ritual is that kind of calmness. That, and Champagne with two sugarlumps. James and Sean really don’t fucking say anything. They’re pretty miserable...!

CAD: What about when you were recording? Did you have any anxiety about recreating a similar feeling in terms of attempting The Holy Bible: part two?

NW: I think Steve Albini really made us feel up there. I mean that in a good way. We’ve never met him, and he didn’t really care about us. I really liked him and we loved working with him. But he’s not like “oh, make that song like ‘Design for Life’, or that song like ‘Faster’”. He doesn’t really know any of your work – he doesn’t care.

CAD: He sees himself very much as an engineer doesn’t he ? He doesn’t want to be called a producer...

NW: Yeah, he just records. And for that reason, it was difficult... but that’s like you said earlier, about those parameters – we wanted it to be like that. I think, because we were writing songs for a 27-year-old’s lyrics... that did give us an energy that has long since departed [laughs] a kind of crazed [energy]. You can hear it in ‘...Stephen Hawking’, with the gaps and the power and the rush... like I said to you earlier, you can’t force that. If we tried to force that, it’d be embarrassing, but somehow we lost some inhibitions, I think.

CAD: Do you feel you’re not the same band now that you were back then? As we discussed before, you’ve ended up somehow inadvertently educating a lot of your fans. Was that something that you were hugely conscious of at the time and is it something you still feel a certain responsibility for?

NW: It was to do with two books, really; England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage, and Lipstick Traces, by Greil Marcus [the latter lending its title to a Manics compilation]. Lipstick Traces; I re-read it every year, and there’s so much in it I don’t understand, but you probably know it better than me... It’s like an alternative encyclopaedia to culture. Even with some of it, when you think “That’s just a load of bollocks...” it doesn’t matter. That pretension and the knowledge can be a really good thing.

CAD: So, is it still an integral part of your manifesto, to introduce your fans to films and books?

NW: I get so much off them! Whether it’s clothes, whether it’s skirts and make-up.

CAD: I love your T-shirt... where d’you get that? [Nicky is sporting a lovely tshirt depicting a doll gagged and bound]

NW: It’s just something I bought...

CAD: She is ‘Gagged by Hollywood’!

NW: It’s a two-way enterprise now, as we grown older, and our fans have grown up with us, I do think we feed off each other. It is nice, sometimes, like on Send Away The Tigers... it’s a relief to be a big glamorous old fashioned rock band making a big fucking anthemic record... but it’s not a good thing to be like that all the time. people aren’t like that all the time, it’s not a good thing to be that intense all the time.

CAD: Even the most intense people have their sitting in front of the TV, in front of The Wire, days...

NW: Yeah... unfortunately Richey lost that ability to switch off. It’s one of the saddest things of all, when all of those things we’d talked about growing up, be it sport, be it films, be it books, he kind of... it’s gone, because his mind had accelerated to such a level that I just didn’t... I couldn’t keep up with him [becomes quieter, sadder]. I wanted to talk about the rugby, and he’d just lost all interest in it. Which I understood, I didn’t push it, but it was really sad –

CAD: It must have felt like losing a certain part of the person...

NW: It did... it did feel like that, yeah. You could tell he was aware of it, as well, he knew it. he was almost too full-on. He wasn’t annoying us or anything knew if it got boring. Like “it’s two o’clock in the morning! I don’t want to talk about Balzac!” You know...

CAD: Do you think it has something to do with an inability to engage in human relationships, in a way that the rest of the band were quite successful in doing? I guess you can only...

NW: You can only conjecture... there’s an element of that. It’s impossible to tell. When you read some of his writing, it certainly seems like he had problems with relationships. But in real life he did have lots of friends and people he liked. It's hard to tell...

CAD: There’s that comment you made, about him taking the piss out of you at Uni, when you broke up with a girl...

NW: He absolutely destroyed me! He wrote a big fucking sign up on the board, “You’ve been dumped!” [laughs]

CAD: Moving on to talk about the lyrics. I’m really interested in the process that the writing took. Obviously it’s a little different from when you were sharing lyrical duties or when you’ve been writing on your own.Were there any lyrics more than others that resisted being turned into songs, or were they the ones that you abandoned from the folder?

NW: It was a pretty natural process the actual folder. A lot of them were so short they were unusable. They were like haikus – they are like four lines. Some of them were just so impenetrable, I said to James, they just don’t work as music. Like I said, That’s just the way it’s always been. We didn’t feel bad about that... it’s not worth just putting a shit piece of music to a lyric. Do you know what I mean? Maybe someday we should print them all in a book; that might be a relief. Since it came out, it’s felt like a much more heavy burden releasing it than making it.

CAD: Do you think the fact that both you and James had made solo records in the interim period, did that give you a different “window” on taking these lyrics?

NW: It did for me. Well, I wrote ‘William’s Last Words’, and ‘Marlon JD’, and the verse of ‘She Bathed Herself [in Bleach]’, and the chorus of ‘Peeled Apples’. For me, that was quite a prolific musical contribution...! And definitely, the fact that I learned the acoustic guitar again, for the solo stuff, made me feel like I could be a really pale imitation of George Harrison, and come up with one or two classics per album... I think that would just be a perfect scenario!

CAD: Watch this space...!

NW: I guess the starter was ‘Your Love Alone...’ because I wrote half the music for that. I never let James forget that either.

CAD: Does he feel like you’re intruding on his turf a bit? Does he get territorial – "stay off my patch"!

NW: Nah, I think he really likes it, until I start winding him up! "Those three chords. 'Your Love Alone...' - they saved our career!"...

CAD: I guess again it’s that’s a fresh perspective. You’ve been doing the same role for so long...

NW: Yes, but the more I look back on the band. If you strip everything away, even the songs away - it’s just a pretty bizarre and remarkable story, isn’t it?

CAD: In another interview, you said “Richey wasn’t looking for an Ivor Novello [Award], he wanted a Pulitzer Prize.” Did you see that as your job then – turning literature into lyrics? Or do you disregard this High Art / Low Art dichotomy?

NW: I also said in that interview, I love the idea of Richey’s ambition. It goes back to ‘Faster’ – “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer...” – the insane ambition of his intellect. That’s what I meant about the Pulitzer Prize. He was taking lyric writing really seriously, he reached the apex of creativity with this record. For me, After this, he would have started writing novels, would have been the logical conclusion. He could still have written lyrics, still been in the band but he would definitely have started writing... serious fiction

CAD: But yet the lyrics seem so fully formed as lyrics (bridge, chorus etc.)...?

NW: Yes. We loved writing lyrics we loved being in the band. But the artform of the lyric was to be elevated to something much more than people perceived it as... just like Morrissey did when we’re growing up. That’s where we are now...that’s kind of gone no-one else seems to care as much about the words as we do.

CAD: You‘ve always placed these excerpts of film dialogue in between the songs. I’m really interested in how you perceive the relationship between film and the lyrics, why did you use The Machinist for 'Peeled Apples'? [the opening sample is Christian Bale’s character, saying “You know so little about me. I might turn into a werewolf or something...”]

NW: well, obviously, Richey never saw The Machinist, but with the things on there, we thought either he did like it, or he would have liked it. The Virgin Suicides... in ‘Doors Closing Slowly’. He never saw the film but he loved the book so it seemed to fit. With The Machinist... he would have liked the film... I think he would have loved Christian Bale. He’s the only person who could play Richey in a film

CAD: Oooh - any plans for a film?!!

NW: No... but I think [Christian Bale] would do it justice. His ability to morph into things.

CAD: Did you see the Anton Corbijn film, Control? What did you think of that?

NW: I had conflicted feelings. I think he did a good job, but Manchester didn’t look like that in the 70s...

CAD: Like an Athena poster...

NW: In terms of the personal side of [the film] it’s hard to criticize it. But the film on us would undoubtedly be fucking awful – loads of Welsh people in it going [adopts hilariously exaggerated Welsh accent] “But Ian lad...!”

CAD: You could get Rhys Ifans in there...

NW: Oh No... But The Machinist, that seemed to fit. The insomnia – Richey was suffering from insomnia, too. It seemed to fit – that little bit of menace. But it’s the implication of [attempts a Christian Bale impersonation] “If you were expecting another Send Away the Tigers, then, this is a different kind of beast”

CAD: Oh! I see...like the beginning of that Panic At The Disco album... a kind of prologue.

NW: It did seem like the beast had changed it’s clothes on this record: It’s like a little warning.

CAD: I gather you’ve got quite a liking for The Horrors? They remixed a track for the JFPL EP [which is out this week] - what is it about them as a band that appeals to you so much?

NW: I think it's two things. One; that they were ridiculed at the start, which I can really relate to... and the kind of glamour side - the makeup and the hair. But second; they turned completely in on themselves, like we did with The Holy Bible and just said, “Fuck it, we have to do this on our terms” and by turning inside on themselves, they made a wonderful record. I like the first album, for its garish Cramps-iness, but I think this album is just really... [lost for words] there’s only one time in your career you can really do that. You can just block out everything except yourselves and your own taste in music and lyrics and whatever. I think that's what they did.

CAD: Well, it's quite difficult now with the press so obsessed with "new" bands. Once you've done one album you're considered to be over in most cases, aren't you?

NW: Yes!

CAD: There’s no room for coverage of bands on their second record, beyond the next big thing.

NW: From Generation Terrorists to Everything Must Go is actually only four years. It took us four albums to sell millions of records, and we’re lucky in that we became such a cult band that we were... viable.

CAD: Do you think if you were starting out now, that you’d be a different band? Because you took such a long time, getting this kind of manifesto togeth..

NW: Yes...

CAD: ...and there was a climate for you to be able to grow up in public as it were.

NW: I think it would be really difficult for us now. I do. Partly because we weren’t prepared – Sean and James aside – musically. We didn’t even play ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ for six months after we recorded it. Me and Richey didn’t even learn it...

CAD: I read something about that... nowadays James would be able to get a loop station and do it all himself!

NW: Yeah...! It’s interesting to think, what with the Internet, would Richey have been into [this or] that... because the [first] album’s pre-digital. Richey had a typewriter – he never had a mobile phone, even. It seems like such a different world...

CAD: It’s hard for me to imagine what that would have been like.

NW: Well Sean... Sean’s always the first with technology. He had computers, and he was one of the first people to have a mobile phone – he had a satellite phone. But Richey never ever had one. To garner as much knowledge as he did - I mean, he didn’t even have satellite TV. That first line [on the new album], “the more I see, the less I scream”, I’m thinking: fuck, what would he think now. You didn't actually see that much then - the saturation now is just so great.

CAD: In that respect, music is consumed so much through the internet now, where as for you, the journalists were so much more important, almost as translators of what you were doing as well as disseminators. Has the rise of the internet changed your relationship with the Press and have you still kept those relationships with those writers?

NW: We have. I’m still kind of old fashioned. I still really admire journalists. I think they can fill in the gaps the band can’t themselves. I’m still overwhelmed when there’s a good review; when it’s written well. When there’s a bad review – and I know it’s correct – I still take it in, on some level. We’ve never been “All journalists are cunts...” In the modern age, to be blunt, there are more random people, who are much more spiteful than journalists... Do you know what I mean, in terms of the Internet?

CAD: Indeed. Reading back on old Manics interviews there were some fantastic writers, like Taylor Parkes...

NW: I think he went mad...

CAD: ...a fabulous writer; and Simon Price [Manics biographer]...

NW: He moved to Brighton... [both laugh]

CAD: He’s getting married tomorrow apparently.

NW: He is! No, he was thinking of cancelling it to come here! [much laughter]

CAD: I was surprised he wasn’t having it here - have the reception backstage, wedding in the Roundhouse! Do you feel that you owe quite a lot to writers like him?

NW: Yeah...!?! To tonnes of people – to Keith Cameron, and James Brown, who did fanzines that James [Dean Bradfield] used to buy and then wrote pieces on us. To Stuart Bailey, who gave us our first review, for ‘Motown Junk’. There’s still people out there, like Connor from the NME, and Hamish.

CAD: I saw him Twittering last night, at the gig. He always Twitters after each song, and you just think – Watch the gig!

NW: I know, but that’s okay. I think... when you’re really engaged with culture, then you still think music’s that important... [Distant wailing of JDB warming up] Sounds like I'm going to have to go to soundcheck.

CAD: A few more quick questions then... Is that the sound of someone turning pages on the beginning of 'Journal For Plague Lovers'

NW: It is. It’s actually me, turning the pages of Idris Davies’ Gwalia Deserta.

CAD: I knew I’d never get to find that out unless I asked you!

NW: I read somewhere, on the Internet, it’s someone turning the pages of the holy bible. Thee Holy Bible... but No, it felt like a nice kind of bookish thing, being in a library.

CAD: I love little touches like that. That’s what’s different about you as a band, that you plant these things for people to find. If they want to find them, they are there...

NW: I always want to do that, but James gets kind of frustrated with me, saying, “If a song’s not good enough...” but I think when it’s all placed together, you can add them in. Even the Richard Burton thing from ‘Ready from Drowning’, which is from The Medusa Touch is one of my favourite things we’ve ever done. It gives clues to a... different universe.

CAD: It’s what you set out to do when you start a band... creating this other world?

NW: Well we thought so but we just didn’t find many compatriots along the way...

CAD: So, you’re playing 'Don’t Look Back'-style, tonight, all the way through. Would you ever go back to some of the other records and do that?

NW: No. When we’re finished and we need the money...! But No, it’s just the sign, really, that you don’t matter – that you’ve become nostalgic.

CAD: So, have you thought what happens next? Or are you just focusing on the album?

NW: Of course, but James has already screamed at me to Shut Up about it. I wrote the Mission Statement for the next record: Heavy Metal / Tamla [Motown]! James said "Why the fuck... don't start going on about that..." and I wrote "Van Halen playing with The Supremes".

CAD: You’ve always had that Spector-ish quality. Maybe you should get Amy Winehouse down...

NW: Duffy... but No, we have actually written a song for Shirley Bassey. That's going to be good.

CAD: Well, thank you so much – have a great show tonight

NW: You going to be there?

CAD: Yes. I don’t know if I’m going to be down the front...!