"A lot of people are embarrassed by the Nineties," Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers says.
“But I look back at 96/97 – we’d done Everything Must Go, Massive Attack were making great albums, Blur had made Beetlebum and Song 2, Radiohead had made The Bends, which is brilliant – bands that were really big but were pushing the boundaries too.
“And I look back with some kind of pride, just to have been part of that.” Every article about the Manic Street Preachers usually begins in the past.
They are one of the most popular, and critically acclaimed, bands in modern Britain, and have an incident-packed history that mirrors the often unpredictable journey of their music.
The Manics emerged in the early Nineties as an arrogant, mouthy four-piece who, nevertheless, had an intelligent foundation.
Performing in balaclavas, antagonising the music Press and delighting an audience who needed a new musical champion, they were a compelling yet savvy group of artistic nihilists.
While it was easy to think that the Manics would burn out as a result of their initial blinding flash, debut album Generation Terrorists proved they had sonic clout.
Songs such as Motorcycle Emptiness, Love’s Sweet Exile and Stay Beautiful showed a musical sophistication that proved they were about more than superficial looks and manufactured headlines.
While it was a noisy calling card of a record, their punky beginning was reigned in by the more considered Gold Against the Soul.
Then came The Holy Bible.
A slab of noise and self-pity, centred around the troubled personality of guitarist Richey Edwards who, more often than not, mimed on stage.
It won critical acclaim, and is still recognised as a high point for the band, but had little in the way of commercial success.
Then Edwards disappeared – the band’s main spokesman and spiritual, if not quite musical, heart, he went missing in 1995.
At first it was seen as a publicity stunt, or a stunt of some sort, by the enigmatic Edwards – whose car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge, a well-known suicide spot.
But the days he was missing turned into weeks, months and years with no clues as to his whereabouts.
The case has never quite been closed.
Inevitably, more than 12 years after his disappearance, the band still get asked questions about Edwards.
And yet, despite being a hugely successful three-piece, they are often framed in terms of their missing fourth member.
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, a song on their latest album, seems to be about him.
“It’s a complicated lyric,” bassist Nicky said.
“What it’s trying to say on one level is that any single element is never enough for a country to survive."
“You can’t solely have religion, or love, or democracy. We need all these elements for any country to be coherent."
“It is also about people and specifically, suicide,” he added.
“There are just too many people I’ve known who have killed themselves."
“I guess people will assume it is about Richey too. He was in a successful band, he could have had a nice girlfriend if he wanted, and we all loved him. But it wasn’t enough."
“Whether its suicide or not, obviously, we don’t know."
“There’s a line in there: ‘I could have seen for miles and miles/ I could’ve shown you how to smile/ I could’ve shown you how to cry’ it’s just that feeling of regret.
“Could someone have done more?”
Yet the band, who continue to put 25 per cent of their earnings into an account for Edwards, had to move on.
In 1996 they released Everything Must Go – it marked their elevation into British music’s premier league.
After years of railing against the establishment, it began to look as if the Manics were very much part of it – a stadium act with a social consciousness.
Their 2001 release This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours was another hit, but it’s follow-up, Know Your Enemy, began to show inconsistencies in style.
And 2004’s Lifeblood fell out of the charts after two disappointing weeks.
The critical response to both records lukewarm was at best.
“I think criticism is a good thing,” Nicky said.
“I know we’ve made bad records and absolutely brilliant records.
“The Stones without Their Satanic Majesties Request just wouldn’t be as good – it’s an intrinsic part of their story.
“It’s the same with us. Our career’s always been hugely disparate. Sometimes we sell millions of records and sometimes none.
“Our greatest hits [Forever Delayed] sold a million then Lifeblood barely did 200,000.
“The Holy Bible sold nothing, Everything Must Go did loads, This Is My Truth was our biggest-ever seller.
“So, although the forthcoming tour’s sold really well, we don’t really know where we are with our latest record.
“And that always helps us because it gives us a fierce reality check. If you’re Coldplay, Oasis or U2 it must be easy to fall into the trap of always doing the same thing because it is a really nice lifestyle when you get to that point,” he said.
Such a seemingly blase attitude towards shifting units isn’t reflective of this band, however – they do care about selling records.
“When we don’t, we make Lifeblood and The Holy Bible,” Nicky said.
“If this band had formed recently I don’t think we’d be around now. These days, unless you do it on your first or second album, you’re finished.
“If you look at us, Radiohead and Blur, we were all close to being dropped.
“We did alright on our first album, but The Holy Bible, there must have been a point there when the record label said, ‘One of the boys has disappeared. James is constantly drinking. And they’re not selling any records. Why are we keeping ‘em?’ But then they heard A Design For Life.”
The Manic Street Preachers returned earlier this year with Send Away The Tigers, a record which was seen as a return to the band’s harder-edged sound.
“I just realised that being angry was a good thing,” Nicky said.
“As long as I could control it, make it less nihilistic than my solo album [I Killed The Zeitgeist]. It gave me an opportunity to embrace nihilism in all its beauty.
“I thought if I could just take all those elements and be less afraid of having some really important words.
“Because you do get scared, when everything around you is so on the surface and light. Every alternative band on The Brits this year was so identikit. Nothing is shocking. The ridiculous things The Manics used to say, like Richey saying, ‘We’ll always hate Slowdive [an inoffensive indie band from the early Nineties] more than Hitler’. If you said that now – we couldn’t say that now. It’s symptomatic of the times.”
As with any Manics Album, there is a certain amount of thought put into the title: “Send Away The Tigers is a phrase the late comedian Tony Hancock used whenever he started drinking,” Nicky said.
“I saw a parallel between that line and the animals being released from the zoo in Baghdad when the Allies invaded. A misguided idea of liberation. Also that idea of being haunted by a wrong decision.
“With Hancock it was sacking his writers and moving to Australia. And, if it weren’t for the Iraq war – in historical terms, not mine – Tony Blair would be seen as a decent Prime Minister.
“Now his life is utterly ruined. On a smaller scale, certain things I’ve said which have been stupid and inane, they’re what I’m gonna be remembered for.”
This is a band who struggle with their own sense of honesty – sometimes it’s too much for their own good, but it’s never far from compelling.
Unguarded comments in interviews have often made enemies, with Nicky being the chief instigator, wishing death on REM frontman Michael Stipe, and verbally attacking musical luminaries such as Morrissey and the Beastie Boys.
The new record marks a return to the big rock sounds of the 1990s, another link to the band’s past, and another reason why they’re talking about their days of chart domination.
“I’d been reading a lot about Pete Townsend after doing Quadrophenia, and how he realised that he’d lost touch with what Who fans loved about The Who,” Nicky said.
“We’ve been through a process of destroying what we are. And all great bands do that, but ever since Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth we’ve been trying to reduce ourselves to a pile of rubble.
“Just because you become fearful of what you’ve become – if you’re intelligent and have a brain.
“People forget we started off as an indie band on Heavenly records and did do self-financed stuff. So we reacted to what we’d become. 2001’s Know Your Enemy album was self-indulgent and lazy with scattered moments of brilliance – our Marlon Brando period.
“And our last album, 2004’s Lifeblood – I mean, if you listen to Love Of Richard Nixon it just sounds nothing like Manic Street Preachers. It sounds like the Pet Shop Boys on steroids, which I thought was quite a good thing,” Nicky said.
“We achieved a coldness we wanted to achieve.”
While it may be unfair to label the 1990s as their creative peak – to do so suggest that they’ll never achieve such lofty heights again – the Manics know that bands have to evolve and keep striving to move forward.
“Send Away The Tigers isn’t a high concept album, but the theory behind it is important,” Nicky said.
“We’ve written about 30 songs for this album, and we’ve been fiercely editing this time because in the past we’d perhaps put too much on some of our albums.
“Everyone deserves their self-indulgent moment. But every artist became obsessed in the Nineties with long, self-indulgent albums. These are the best ten songs.
“Its short 38 minutes. When we started this album it was the three of us, in a rehearsal room, making a right old racket. Sometimes you have to learn from your own past. We just blasted Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction in the studio and James remembered that he could play every single song on that album.
“We just felt liberated.”
The Manics are still standing against the idea of what a modern British band should be – at odds with the current music scene rather than seeing themselves as a part of it.
“The whole indie ethic in Britain is just vile,” Nicky said. “The jeans, the haircuts…I’d rather my daughter becomes a Goth. Get into My Chemical Romance and Marilyn Manson – have one period of your life when you’re just an idiot.
“At least 50 per cent of our committed fans are still freaks, and I think a lot of those people are still attuned to our sensibility. The demographic of our audience is pretty odd, and we are trying to get a new generation of fans.”