The Manic Street Preachers on meeting Castro, losing faith in politics and why Europe is a "unified art movement"
Some bands wear their influences on their sleeve; the Manic Street Preachers paper walls with them. When you climb the stairs to the living room of the trio's Faster Studios in central Cardiff, you're greeted by a vast photographic collage of their inspirations: Ian Curtis and Tony Hancock, Miles Davis and Malcolm Tucker, Fela Kuti and Norman Mailer, and so on, in a visual representation of magpie curiosity. The studio is named after their megalomaniacal 1994 single that declared, "I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer./I spat out Plath and Pinter."
"This jumble of quotes is ingrained in my head," says the bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, offering me a pallid brew he not unfairly describes as the worst cup of tea in history. "I don't even know what I'm nicking most of the time because there's just a mass of shit in there." He has a mind like a filing cabinet from which he compulsively plucks quotations (Nietzsche, Stockhausen, Rodchenko), not to flaunt his erudition but because, you suspect, he prefers their formulations to his own: "We've always been honest that the things we're trying to pass on are better than what we can do as a band." A current favourite, from the American photographer William Eggleston, is particularly apt: "I'm at war with the obvious."
Wire, the singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, the drummer Sean Moore and the chief strategist, Richey Edwards, started out in 1988, ablaze with the belief that they could and should inhale as much of the world as possible and breathe it into pop songs, combining intellectual rigour with "rock'n'roll folly". Like all great bands, they believed they were necessary.
When Edwards ("a poet who can't play guitar", in the words of the 1998 song "Prologue to History") disappeared in 1995, they might have been finished. Instead, they became Britain's second-biggest band after Oasis, with songs such as "A Design for Life", a magnificently graceful hymn to working-class culture and socialist values.
Their first number-one single, "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next", saluted those who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war; last year, to Wire's delight, they performed it on The X Factor in New Zealand. Their second, "The Masses Against the Classes", opened with the voice of Noam Chomsky and became Britain's first new chart-topper of the 21st century.
Now, all aged 45, the Manics are enjoying an Indian summer of creativity with two albums in quick succession: last year's Rewind the Film (acoustic, introspective, profoundly Welsh) and Futurology (dynamic, extrovert, Europhile), released this month. The band has rejuvenated itself by letting go of the desire for hit singles and arena shows. "It was extremely liberating but quite depressing," says Wire, who speaks in long, sighing cadences punctuated with flashes of ire. "We can do whatever we want but, let's face it, it's not going to be as big as it was. We had to realise that or become something of an embarrassment."
Bradfield talks to me separately in the studio, his feet resting on a mixing desk. He is more sociable than Wire, less prone to melancholy and self-criticism. "Nick is 3D," he says. "He thinks about the past, present and future all the time. I don't think like that. If I think about the past, I get depressed. If I think about the future, I get lost."
The young Manic Street Preachers were unreasonably, delusionally ambitious. Bradfield remembers listening to Wire and Edwards during the band's first interviews and thinking, "I haven't met those people before. They're nerveless." They accepted no limits to what they could achieve - mass communication, a huge stage from which to rain down ideas and provocations. Their 1992 single "Motorcycle Emptiness" was a situationist rock anthem that declared, "Your joys are counterfeit." They were genuinely surprised that it didn't make them as big as Guns N' Roses.
It has become a cliche to bemoan the dearth of politically engaged young bands and Bradfield skirts the subject for fear of sounding like a grumpy old man. He says he doesn't know how it feels to be young and discontented in 2014, when Labour is the party that invaded Iraq and let the City run riot and: "Centrist politics have won, utterly." The circumstances that created the Manics no longer exist. Nor, thinks Wire, does a certain kind of angry, razor-brained, working-class voice. "From John Lydon onwards, it was always there, pulsing through the culture, and it's not at the moment. It probably won't come back and there's nothing we can do about it."
The Manics grew up in Blackwood, the South Wales Valleys town that was the launchpad for the 1839 Chartist uprising. They were teenagers during the miners' strike, which inspired Wire's first lyric, "Aftermath", and a recent one, "30-Year War". "The marches were going straight past my door," Bradfield remembers. "If you live in the provinces, you only see where you live through the naked eye - it's never on TV and suddenly you're seeing it on the News at Ten but for all the wrong reasons. That makes an indelible scar."
They were raised as "classic Labour"; the title of the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours came from Nye Bevan. They turned down a role in the Olympics closing ceremony because they couldn't bring themselves to perform in front of the royal family. Their estrangement from Labour has come as a shock. "I'll always hate Ukip," spits Bradfield. "I'll always hate the Tory party. The only problem now is that I hate Labour, too. The sea's washed over the sand. There's not one thing you can hang your hat on any more."
"I actually feel bad about myself because I am disenchanted with politics," Wire says. "I hate the idea that there's no one left to vote for. I don't feel anyone represents me. They certainly don't represent the people I care about. When the left abdicates its duty to the people it should be representing, that vacuum is always filled by the right. I think the Labour Party is so distanced from its core vote. It's just become a giant think tank. You can't get any sicker ironies than Tony Blair being a peace envoy and the banks being nationalised - too sick to bear." He continues, "It's not how I want to feel. I'm not Russell Brand. I don't feel a part of any of it, really - unless I actually stood myself. If there was a presidential system in Wales, I'd probably stand." The campaign would be quite something.
Notwithstanding appearances at a few benefit concerts, the Manics have never been activists. They are perhaps too stubborn and too inquiring to sign up to a cause. Their suspicion of liberal shibboleths has sometimes led them down some contrarian paths. They have released songs advancing the logic of the death penalty (Edwards's "Archives of Pain"), criticising the Dalai Lama ("Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children") and extending sympathy to a reviled president ("The Love of Richard Nixon"). Of the last of these, Bradfield says with a wince, "I loved writing that lyric and then I heard it played on the radio and thought: oh, no. Curiosity is a nice thing but sometimes it should stay on the bookshelf."
Another idea that perhaps should have stayed on the shelf was their concert in Havana in 2001, referenced on Futurology's "The Next Jet to Leave Moscow". They believed it was possible to maintain an ambivalent stance on Cuba but once they met Fidel Castro ("trapped in that Forrest Gump moment for ever", says Bradfield), they were out of their depth. "It's when I realised we'd overstepped the mark of politics and music," Wire says. "The press conference was 100 hardcore journalists telling me I was wrong for being there. The idea was about the underdog, it was about romance, but that was all blown away." For all their knowledge (Wire studied political history), the Manics operate best in the space between facts and ideologies, expressing better than any band the emotional dimension of political engagement: hope, elation, disillusionment, defeat. Bradfield says, "We don't sit around going: right, what's the new policy initiative today?"
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible, the Manics' punishing masterwork about man's inhumanity to man, and they're considering playing the whole album in December to commemorate their last shows as a four-piece. It's moving to hear them talk about Richey Edwards, whom they consider the band's cleverest, bravest, most entertaining member. To them, he is never the popular cliche of doomed youth, tortured by depression, alcoholism and anorexia, but a glamorous intellectual superhero, dauntless in his pursuit of truth, even if some of his final lyrics were "pirouettes into the abyss", too bleak for Bradfield to set to music.
Wire says that the new album is less about Europe as a political entity than "a unified art movement". He loves the serendipities that arise when you cram so much of the world into your art. After a recent show in Bologna, he realised that a nearby landmark had featured on one of the band's record sleeves 20 years ago. "It's like a secret Manics history unfolding in front of you," he says, smiling, "the stuff you can't google."
Not all the coincidences are uplifting. Futurology's cinematic punk-funk centrepiece is called "Dreaming a City (Hughesovka)" - Hughesovka being the original name of a Ukrainian city founded by the 19th-century Welsh industrialist John Hughes. After the album was finished, Hughesovka was in the headlines under its current name: Donetsk.
"That upset me," says Bradfield. He had read Colin Thomas's biography of Hughes and was moved by the sense of initial idealism, "that glowing ember in somebody's head or heart. And then what happens? He becomes a brutal industrialist. It's the same old story. A dream that becomes success but then the wheels come off." He had read the book hoping for a happier ending, in which the dream remained pure. "I so want that story to be there and I'm so disappointed when it never is."