It should have been great. Supporting Oasis in the US. But the Gallaghers' squabbles also meant that the Manic Street Preachers had to fly home too. But now they're back Stateside and chilling out in LA with Keith Cameron. Click click click: Kevin Cummins
When LA Woman and her Man come out to play, they do so in conspicuously consumptive style at places like this. The air of the Whiskey Bar in West Hollywood's Sunset Marquis Hotel hangs heavy with the odour of money swiftly earned and carelessly spent. Oblivious to the swing of times pendulum, these designer-wrapped beautiful young things crash through their drinks, safe in the knowledge that the next fast buck will be along any second.
And here he is. Striding Into the lobby, a tall-ish bald-pated chap does a swift recce of its occupants. Hastily glazing over the frankly out-of-place bunch in the right-hand corner, from where he's sure he on overhear discourse concerning the merits of some of England's more notorious football teams as well as the result of a rugby match involving Wales, he spots his intended companions and strides over, to be greeted with raucous high-fives from the lads and extravagant hugs from the lasses. To be truthful, his looks are bland, distinguished only by the aura of extreme wealth and the fact that he looks the spit of the man who gained instant infamy by cuckolding the Duke Of York. "Johnny! Over here Johnny!"
It can't be.
It is!" James Dean Bradfield splutters into his Jameson's and Coke. its fucking Johnny Bryan!"
Mr Toejo Rising himself! In the shuddersome flesh! James imparts this startling information to the remainder of the Whiskey's Manic Street Preachers enclave. Bearing In mind this group embraces the Manics' manager, their entire road crew and NME, it is only a matter of time before a sing-song is convened in honour of the man who merely by nuzzling a royal foot conveyed substantial euphemistic qualities upon the phrase 'financial adviser...
"Toes out for the lads! Toe, out for the lads! Geeeeet yer toes out for the lads!' Amid much embarrassed tutting, Fergie's paramour eventually, and wisely, decides to acknowledge the acclaim. for such grace under pressure, he earns a fusillade of derision from the Manic base camp. Cackling at the fine late-night sport. Bradfield throws a few boxing shapes at his guitar technician, the legendary Deptford John, before slinging a drink-impaired left lab which catches the solidly-bash Milwall fan rather too firmly on the chin. Deptford John doesn't blink, but James is mortified.
"Christ I'll get a doing tomorrow for that. Haven't touched a drop for ages, now I'm falling off the wagon spectacularly hard. See what America does to you?"
So saying, he wobbles happily into the bracing Los Angeles night.
The last time they graced New World soil, America did the Manic Street Preachers in notorious style. Their sole previous headline visit has gone down in music industry legend as possibly the most self-destructive career move ever perpetrated by a British band In the US. A show at LA's Whiskey A-Go-Go was more memorable for its pillow-fight than any of the heroically-thrown shapes one might have expected from the band whose declared intention to sell more copies of their debut album than Guns 'N' Roses' 'Appetite For Destruction' then split was, at least theoretically, still in place. By common consent this gig was merely "average", but as good as proceedings got. Richey James and Nicky Wire hadn't even bothered to learn 'Motorcycle Emptiness, their custom-built Sunset Boulevard cruisemobile anthem for doomed youth.
"It was just abusive, non-musical," remembers Nicky. "Totally and utterly nonsensical to Americans. Made us realise that to break America is just about the hardest thing to do, especially if you're a British band. When we started we did want to conquer the world, but that was just a young boys' dream. The myth of complete arrogance, of thinking that you are the greatest band In the world. Which you only get one time in your life, usually when you're young, before you realise what It takes."
"The record company never even released 'Motorcycle Emptiness' over here, they didn't want it on the album 'cos they said it was too AOR! So our dreams were shattered straight away, 'cos that was our universal song. If anything could do it, that could."
"It was all shattered for us on the first album," agrees James. "Put your head on the pillow and actually dream that you can do everything you set out to achieve."
A simultaneous sigh and shrug. "That was four-and.a-half years ago."
Now, the Manics' musical topography has, of course, been altered irrevocably, first by the still unresolved disappearance of Richey James, and subsequently by a long-anticipated but elusive commercial breakthrough.
Ninety-six has been the year of perhaps the most bittersweet comeback in rock history. Realigned as a trio, the Manics eased themselves back into the public domain as gently as they thought sensible: low-key one-offs at the Hacienda and Sound City before a tour in May. then mid-afternoon slots at the T In The Park and Phoenix festivals, as well as becoming the officially sanctioned Oasis support on the Mancunians' ever-escalating spiral of celebrity.
Gone was the scattershot polemical vigour on which their celebrity at home was substantially based, as were the coordinated stage outfits. They dressed down, smart but casual, the one-time attention-craving media sluts apparently attempting to deflect the feverish attention away from their tragedy and its consequences, and on to that which had occasionally seemed the most incidental thing about the Manics: the music.
'A Design For Life', their first post=Richey release, entered the charts at Number Two, and its parent album. 'Everything Must Go', revealed a group of hitherto under-acclaimed talent, entirety at ease with the technical and emotional imperatives of their art. With their lavishly-orchestrated melancholy and a central preoccupation with how to find positivity in the face of sadness — concerns which predated Richey's disappearance — the Manics struck a popular chord. The album has just achieved platinum status in the UK and the forthcoming tour is a complete, 40,000 ticket-worth sell out.
When I woke up rim Sunday and realised 'A Design For Life' was Number Two I felt the most relaxed I've been for a year and three months; says James. "Didn't jump up and down or anything. I just completely relaxed, watched sport on telly. It was gorgeous."
Faced with the bizarre task of reintroducing themselves to a public that either remembered them as a substantially different group or not at all, the Manic Street Preachers navigated barely imaginable pressures with huge amounts of dignity.
But how? And how do they feel now, sat on hardly Manic-friendly foreign soil,contemplating the next two days' itinerary: a live appearance and signing session at LA's Virgin Megastore then a gig the following evening at the renowned Troubadour club (capacity: not many)? It was as support to Oasis that the Manics set off for their second visit to America last month. It was, say James and Nicky, eating lunch by the Sunset Marquis pool, possibly the most opportune engagement they could have secured. Onstage at eight, play for 45 minutes, then enjoy watching Oasis every night. Minimal pressure combined with not insubstantial reward. Along the way they had scheduled tome small club dates of their own.
Yet the wheels were to come off in spectacular fashion on September 11, when Noel Gallagher walked out on his band and on to a Concorde flight back to London. The Manics' plans were kiboshed. On Friday the 13th, they too flew home. The following weekend they returned to play their previously arranged gigs in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Far from feeling irked, they now profess complete admiration for Noel's action and admit feelings of solidarity with the Gallagher brothers' refusal to be dictated to by the arranged might of
America's music establishment.
I don't blame him for doing it at all," says Nicky, it isn't like Oasis cancelled their tour and ruined our schedule. I think its brilliant that they did it Good luck to 'em. I just find them amazingly pleasant people. The first gig they did after Liam came back, Detroit I think, was the best gig I've ever seen in my life. And the MTV thing was brilliant. I thought they out-fronted everyone."
"It did stir my emotion quite a bit, and it does make you feel a little too much of a Brit," he smiles, a touch ashamed. "But I can't help that, I always see music in terms of a sporting contest. Especially at the MTV Awards when the biggest cheer of the evening was for Van Halen reforming onstage. Unbelievable! David Lee Roth had trousers pulled up to here!"
"He looked like Steve Ovett!" adds James, coughing on his spicy tuna salad concoction.
"But It's quite glamorous being associated with such a mad tour," Nicky decides. "People not turning up, people disappearing. Its good that it wasn't us for a change. We were dead normal, professional, didn't say a word."
It's fair to say that the American perception of the Manics is at odds with their exalted position back home. The principal reason this second visit comes hardly hot on the heels of the first is that their US record company didn't want them back. Their second album, 'Gold Against The Soul', received the most grudging release, while their third, The Holy Bible, didn't come out here at all. The band were preparing to play their first substantial US tour when Richey disappeared. Their fans are few, though keen and knowledgeable. The Virgin in-store sees a long line of nervous kids waiting to get sleeves signed and pictures taken. Likewise the gig at the Troubadour witnesses an audience reaction best described as politely enthusiastic. James and Nicky profess no expectations for potential advancement here whatsoever.
James: "It feels like such a ridiculous position for a band to be in - fourth album and their first proper tour of America. It would be ludicrous to aspire to anything, it would seem like we were tempting fate to be just glorious failures again."
Nicky: "We're caught in between markets. We're not pop, we're not metal - our rockisms have always been a bit too synthetic for tastes here - and we're not alternative enough. Sometimes the prospect of selling records over here depresses me more 'cos of the thought of coming back here more."
Today is Nicky Wire's wedding anniversary. While many would see little problem in sitting by a swimming pool with one of his best mates on a balmy Californian afternoon surrounded by palm trees and attentive waiters bringing food and drinks for which one is not paying, for obvious reasons he wishes he were back home in Wales. A teetotal, non-smoking eschewer of traditional hoary on-the-road pastimes, he's hardly built to tour in the first place.
"Even James isn't as good as he used to be now he's cut down on the drinking. That's the only thing that makes touring worthwhile, drinking and smoking and the rest."
James quit smoking five weeks ago. It was affecting this 3hrs 10 mins marathon runner's attempts to run off the weight he put on after a prodigious period of alcohol intake during the nerve-wracking run-up to the release of 'A Design For Life'.
"At least a third of my body must have been made of alcohol at that point. I just didn't feel confident You'd go home to see your mam and she'd go 'James! I never thought you'd have a weight problem! Look at your dad: And my dad's there, 55 years old, smokes 40 a day, drinks and he's completely fit and hard. My auntie comes in and goes, 'Oooh, you fat little blob!"
He laughs at the memory. "It was nice, I suppose. It becomes a much more hallucinatory thing when you're treading the boards and you think something's gonna happen and you'll explode. It's harder to kid yourself when you're not pissed out of your skull all the time. For all this grim picture we're painting, we've actually held it together pretty well."
Nicky: "I still think touring's one of the worst things you can do. I'd much rather be at home now watching the Welsh rugby match tonight. I'm just not into experience, really. The TV drives me absolutely insane here. TV is such an integral part of my life and when you go abroad there's nothing you can watch!"
James: "I used to have that Barfly mentality, it made it worthwhile
travelling all this way to have almost Zen-like insights by meeting a stranger at a bar and having a good old yap. But even I've gone off that romanticism."
Nicky: "I mean, Seattle was great, and I'm glad I've been to Seattle, but if I'd never gone it wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest."
James hoots. "Good answer!"
"I had more fun going to Torquay for a week."
"That was like what Richey once said, what was it?"
"Oh yeah," laughs Nicky. 'We could never fail 'cos we knew we were failures anyway. Haha! The classic politician's answer!"
So whither those Bukowski vibes, James?
"For a while I believed I was imbued with mythical Richard Burton-esque characteristics," he says, with an admirable lack of embarrassment.
"Crystallising your spine with alcohol," Nicky offers.
"Yeah, I thought I was a bon viveur cavalier. But I've realised it's just childish. Having said that I'll probably be pissed out of my mind in 12 hours' time! I only get disillusioned now when I don't feel we're getting across to people when we're playing, and that bleeds into everything else for me. It's indicative of us, we've probably got (adopts Artie Fufkin tones) 'our best shot at America ever' and we're being really depressive about it!"
"I feel much more comfortable in Europe now," decides Nicky. "There's just a general air that people have a bit of intelligence and a bit of humour. Even Germans have some sense of humour compared to this lot. So I do feel really comfortable in Europe. Not happy," he smiles that smile again, "but comfortable."
The Sunset 8 Motel is one of LA's less esteemed flop-houses. For $38 a night you get a bed, a vile little shower and bed linen with the approximate texture of bauxite.
James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire have no inclination to stay the night, but even their brief occupation of Room 17 for the purposes of the NME photo-shoot has thrown the proprietors into paroxysms of anxiety. While their PR, Terri Hall, parts with extra cash to gain some peace and quiet, Nicky lies on the floor clutching his stomach and gazing sadly at the hardcore porn film unfolding fuzzily on the TV screen. In a moment he will accept the offer of a nutritious Snickers bar, only to carefully nibble away all the chocolate then throw the gooey core into the bin.
"I've been eating Snickers bars all my life, but now I'm so bloody paranoid about dying from eating the peanuts."
Hates touring. Loves nothing better than to sit at home and watch telly, do the garden or go and watch Matthew Maynard bat for Glamorgan– an activity he documented on his brilliant personal manifesto 'Mr Carbohydrate'. He endures a TV interview before the Troubadour gig and a standard buttock-clenching record company meet-and greet afterwards with an air of sad resignation. The question is begged fairly and squarely: why is Nicky Wire in a band?
"For me, it's expression," he says, sat on his hotel bed as the TV hums inconsequentially in the background. "It used to be through image and nastiness, as well as the lyrics, but now it's just probably through the lyrics. I love listening to music, but... I just get bored! I get utterly bored sometimes being in a band, totally and utterly f—ing bored out of my skull. I don't know how people can actually enjoy playing onstage in terms of playing. I still say the best five minutes ever of us being in a band was the last gig with Richey at the Astoria when we smashed everything up. That's the most enjoyment I've ever had onstage. It says something about myself."
Doesn't this lead you to doubt your long-term future as a band?
"Oh yeah. We don't have a long-term future. The perfect situation for us would be like REM, recording loads of albums and not touring for years. Even though I do still enjoy doing gigs when we're actually onstage, I wouldn't miss it. Especially without Richey. It's the one thing that's incomprehensible. Recording's not a problem. We still are incredibly arrogant, we still think we're the best band in the world, we still think we write the best songs. But without the visual, iconoclastic weight of Richey, as well as just missing him, it's just not right."
Has 1996 been a hard year?
"It has. Doing all those festivals for a start. But it's what people want, isn't it? They want well-played, good, sensibly dressed songs. So I've convinced myself it's a kind of tactic to get in a position where perhaps the bigger we get it might be easier to subvert. Maybe then we'll dress up again and I'll strip again like I did in Thailand. If I've still got the guts to do it. That's the kind of plateau I've reached in my head, thinking, 'just go through with it then see if I've got the guts to reclaim our past'. I have nightmares about some of the things I've said and done, and it's much easier since I've just got a little.., sweeter."
How does that make you feel?
"Bitter. I feel really bitter. But I've got this thing inside me, 'I will return'. The best thing about the album is it transcends everything we've ever done. We transcended our environment, our situation concerning Richey, our state of mind, everything. We did it. A lot of bands can't do that."
For such an apparently self-sufficient group, it comes as a surprise to find the Manics enduringly and passionately moved by notions of competition with their peers. After admitting from the first moment he heard Blur's 'The Universal' he was "really fucked off" because he wasn't sure whether it or 'A Design For Life' was better, James now reckons he's more or less given up worrying about such matters. Nicky, however, positively thrives on setting up mental duels with whoever else is up there at the time.
"I like Damon 'cos I find him intellectually stimulating. I think now we've got the upper hand. They've been forced into justifying themselves. It's a very public school thing, they lost the war so they try to make out that they didn't by doing weird art. I think it's good that Blur exist. And Oasis I genuinely like, it's just so natural. The first week Richey went missing, or rather the first month, I just couldn't stop playing 'Live Forever' and 'Slide Away'. That melancholia with an uplifting nature was what I wanted to get across on the album, that there is a vague kind of hope through sadness. It's an incredible cliché but those two songs helped me through something. And hadn't felt like that since I was 18. I think Oasis are just in a different stratosphere anyway. We're not in competition with them. They are the best. But everyone else I feel intense rivalry with.
"And the thrill of it isn't stardom. It's not all down to ego, 'cos I lost a lot of ego a long time ago. The thrill is that we're going to be playing to all these people on the tour. just the fact that you think, 'I could do something tonight that might change someone's life."
And that from the man who declared that "cynicism's the only thing that keeps me sane" is quite an admission. Surely, after so much hurt, this is why the Manic Street Preachers are still with us today. It's about the closest they can come to expunging the feelings of powerlessness that otherwise inform their situation from every aspect.
"I'm sure it is," says Nicky. "I'm sure it must be. I'm not bitter about Richey at all, 'cos whatever he's done it's made him happy. I'm angry for his parents, 'cos it's worse for them and I feel sorry. Here we are, bigger than ever, still the same people but it's obviously not the same. It's the worst situation, we can't do anything about it. If we do, if we try, then it might seem so forced and horrible. Your jaw eventually aches and your mind aches just thinking about it."
Nicky mentions some of the lyrics Richey left, stuff he very much doubts they'll use in anyway, except possibly publish in book form. He says there's some "spine-tingling stuff there. He's not drug-addled or drink-addled, he's very disciplined and clean. I still think he's an amazing lyricist. There's one line, 'I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina,' - a classic Richey image. I still admire him, he's still... a bit of a hero. As I think I was to him early on."
He's still your mate, isn't he?
James states that he's reconciled himself to the fact that the Manics can't be the same again. "That's what people don't realise - how can I put myself in competition with Richey when he was one of my best mates. I'm not gonna go, 'We're gonna be better than ever'. You don't compete with your friends on that level."
So where have we left the Manic Street Preachers this time? Away from the abyss? High on a plain, skyline stretching endlessly beyond? Or near a peak, tantalisingly close to something just beyond their reach? Take a look...
Sean is unwinding after the Troubadour gig, musing aloud that they should make this an every-four-years event, just like the World Cup. "Maybe Wales might actually qualify next time," he laughs.
James is bounding up to his room to fetch a half-full/half-empty bottle of Black Bush and some cans of Pepsi. He's left the wagon way behind him.
And Nicky's in the loo, whistling his favourite song from the new Boo Radleys album. He emerges, smiling his loveliest I've-got-a-signed-cricket-bat-from-Matthew-Maynard-waiting-for-me-at-home smile. "It's like the boy Martin (Carr, of The Boo Radleys) says," he waves. "Everything Is Sorrow'."
The really funny thing is, his record's just been playlisted by LA's "world famous" KROQ. He'll be back here in six weeks.