An unassuming red brick building tucked away in a courtyard at the back of Cardiff Central Station, across the road from Brains Brewery, hides away another iconic Welsh institution.
The bars on the door of Manic Street Preachers' Faster Studios HQ hints that this is no ordinary building, which is fitting because this is no ordinary band.
The security measures are more than necessary given the thousands of pounds worth of musical equipment and priceless mementos of the band's incredible career that are contained within this most fascinating of rock 'n' roll hideaways.
After more than a decade, the band – leaseholders of the studios - are leaving their home following their landlord giving notice that they are selling the courtyard to make way for a housing development.
It is with a heavy heart that they leave for a new home on the outskirts of Newport, vacating a property that has had something of a talismanic effect on the group, overseeing their regenesis as one of the UK's greatest rock bands.
It's also arguable that it is their home, which they dub their clubhouse, that has kept them together and been the catalyst for the stunning breadth and diversity of their creative output.
“It might have been harder to carry on,” agrees Manics' frontman James Dean Bradfield, glasses perched on his nose, examining an exhaustive list of everything recorded at the studio.
“When you look at the scope of what we have achieved at Faster you can come to that conclusion.”
First using the studio to record Fear Of Motion, a B-side to their Let Robeson single in 2001 with long-time collaborator Greg Haver, Bradfield reels off a Manics' Faster-recorded discography – the impressive canon of work that constitutes the second (or is that third?) coming of the band.
“That B side was followed up by a cold, ethereal and disconnected album – Lifeblood. Then it was Nick's raw blood solo album I Killed The Zeitgeist, followed by my solo record (The Great Western).
“Next was our comeback record Send Away The Tigers, which made us big around Europe again. Then it was Journal For Plague Lovers which was a completely different project – taking Richey's lyrics and turning them into a record/
“This was followed by Postcards From A Young Man – our last shot at mass communication.
“Then it was Rewind The Film and Futurology – recording two albums at the same time, which were stylistically almost diametrically opposed.
“If you go through that list and look at the scope of things we've tried to do to, having a base to consolidate those skewed ambitions stylistically has helped us achieve those aims.
“We couldn't have done that by hiring a rehearsal room and thinking 'right we've got to watch the clock, let's get down to it, let's see if we can come up with something'. The best thing about this place is that you're not clock watching or feeling pressure to come up with something.
“If you look at the changing landscape of the music industry, and the way people consume music, combined with us getting older, and all having families - throw all those things into the mix and it's hard to see how the band could have stayed so productive and as focused without this place.”
The studio has a rich history. It was previously owned by Cardiff soul star Tony Etoria who had a UK chart hit in 1977 with I Can Prove It and promptly ploughed his royalties into opening Famous Studios in the '80s. When Tony sold up it landed in the hands of Rockfield producer Paul Durrant in the guise of Stir Studios, until the Manics took over the lease in 2005.
The studio, in its various guises, has played host to a disparate rollcall of rock 'n' roll acts from The Spice Girls' Mel C to Mary Hopkin and The Automatic who recorded their hit Monster at the studio, Super Furry Animals who used it for their Welsh language Mwn album and Cardiff noiseniks Future of The Left who recorded their Welsh Music Prize-winning album Plot Against Common Sense there with in-house producer Loz Williams.
“I didn’t know the place existed before I came here to record the Let Robeson Sing b-side and I quickly fell in love with it,” says the singer.
It was when recording demos for Lifeblood at the studio, that the thought of having their own base first cropped up.
“We liked demoing in Cardiff,” says Bradfield. “We didn’t like to go away to demo. By then Nick had started his family, Sean had had his family and I was down here to see my dad a lot and was living between Cardiff and London.
“The studio was perfect and the leylines felt good. The location is just over the road from Soundspace where we recorded The Holy Bible with (producer) Alex Silva and it’s a brilliant studio. It’s so close to town but somehow hidden away from the city.”
When the band heard that Paul Durrant was looking to sell, the Manics took on the lease – including the distinctive '70s analogue mixing desk which came from Rockfield Studios.
“By that time we’d recorded two solo albums here, did all the demos for Lifeblood here. We’d rehearsed here, it worked, we loved it, we thought let’s go for it.”
Moving in when recording Send Away The Tigers in 2005, the studio gave the band – James, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore a new lease of life, both personally and professionally.
“In a boring sense it saves you money in the long run,” points out Bradfield. “Taking on a place initially seems like a flash thing to do but you can do all your demoing, all your recording, all your mixing if you want, all your rehearsing – you can do everything.
“The added bonus is that it become a club house. It's harder to be in a rock 'n' roll band when the rock 'n' roll fades away, when you've all got families and your priorities change.
“And that's been the case with us for a long time. To actually have a place that you gravitate to, where you socialise, argue with each other about sport, music or films – to have someone criticise your choice of sandwich, all goes towards the esprit de corps of being in a band.
“Otherwise it becomes quite a disconnected experience where you come from your family homes, you meet on a bus or you meet in a far flung rehearsal place or you meet on a video set. Having a clubhouse allows that essence of what being in a band is, which is just hanging out with each other sometimes.
“Bands start out with people hanging out with each other, shooting the breeze, taking the piss out of each other, talking about stuff, making plans, going over the past realising what you've done wrong, talking about what's going on in you life.”
Like any great clubhouse the Manics have created something fast approaching a youth club for adults.
Their upstairs lounge has a kitchen, toilets, a TV, and is decorated with the ephemera of a life lived large in the rock 'n' roll headlines.
There is a signed British Lions and Gareth Bale Real Madrid shirt, underlining their love of sport, their Brit Awards are on display on a shelf while posters and pictures from their eventful backpages line the walls.
Also looming large is a photographic collage detailing the band's heroes and inspirations – with a £50 prize on offer if you can name all of them. You won't.
A store room opened up for inspection reveals priceless possessions such as the beaten up guitar of lost Manic Richey Edwards, and an equally valuable heirloom in the shape of the Telecaster copy Nicky Wire played at their very first gig at the Railway Inn in Crumlin, 30 years ago.
Littering the floor are boxes, evidence of their impending move, which is only weeks away when I visit, but will be completed when you read this.
When asked if they will be holding a farewell party, Bradfield laughs and says they might celebrate by watching the one programme that whatever they are doing prompts them to down tools and congregate on the lounge settee.
“We'll probably have an emotional last viewing of Countdown,” he says. “It's the programme we all watch together.”
Whether this is because the band were once the subject of the Countdown conundrum – 'Manic Street Preachers are said to be this'. Answer – Anthemic – I'm unsure, but they appear to take it seriously.
“It can get quite competitive. Nick and Sean are very good, although it's usually me and Sean vying for the conundrum, but I'm terrible at numbers. I'm virtually innumerate.”
When they do leave Faster Studios for the last time, it's clear this unique studio will be written into Manics' folklore - and it's also clear the band will miss the place.
“It's hard to make a bad record here,” says Bradfield. “It's such a great space that's why it's heart wrenching to leave.”
THE FASTER STUDIOS DESK
The desk was originally at Rockfield Studios in the 70s. We've tried to figure out the records that have been recorded using it. So far we know that two Simple Minds albums were recorded on it - Empires and Dance and Sons and Fascination I believe.
We know that Farewell To Kings by Rush was definitely done on it, which sealed the deal for Nick when we moved in because he's super mega Rush fan.
We've also established a small part of Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded using it.And what is amazing for me is that Heaven Up Here by Echo and the Bunnymen was recorded using it - one of the best British albums of all time.
We were all massive Bunnymen fans. Me, Sean and Richey went to see them at The Colston Hall in Bristol in 1984.
We waited for them outside the stage door and I've got a picture that Sean took of Ian McCulloch signing something for me.
Then of course Ian McCulloch came to Faster to record Some Kind Of Nothingness for the Postcards From A Young Man album, which was bizarre in itself.
The day got even more bizarre because Mac does like a tipple in the studio. I've never seen someone drink so much brandy and smoke so many Marlboro Reds and still be able to sing. It was unbelievable.
When he first got in front of the microphone he didn't stop doing David Bowie impressions for 10 minutes. He was pretty good as well. Then we went out and drank beer until midnight.
If you had told the young me waiting outside the Bunnymen gig in the '80s that years later Ian McCulloch would come to our studio to record a duet with me on the mixing desk used to record Heaven Up Here and I would then listen to him to doing David Bowie impressions I of course would not have believed you.The upsetting thing about the desk is that a guy called Otto, who was the main maintenance guy at Rockfield, sadly died. I think he was from Austria and Germany and he spoke with a thick Germanic accent. If we had a problem with the desk he would come down to fix it. He knew all the secrets of the desk. He could see what he'd fixed in 1977, 1981 or 1995. Luckily, we're now in touch with the guy who designed the desk.
A really good space is essential to making good music. And sometimes you need brilliant old organic desks with things that break down in them – like valves and copper wiring that was sourced from Eastern Europe. They all go towards making the music sound as good as it did in the 70s. Sometimes those things do matter.
It's a brilliant desk. It's certainly got some pedigree. For us there are definitely ghosts in that desk.