Simon Price talks to the inner voice of Wales's top rock band, the Manic Street Preachers, about the ghost from the past and the possibility of disappearing in the future.
It's Tuesday, so it must be Stockholm. We're halfway through the Manic Street Preachers' whistle-stop promotional tour of Scandinavia, but from the bland interior of Nicky Wire's hotel room, he could be anywhere. And he's hating it.
"I find it almost impossible to think anywhere else but at home," he says. "You sometimes get some thinking time in hotel rooms, but it's always interrupted by business."
For more than a year - the longest break the Blackwood band have ever taken from the spotlight - Wire had become accustomed to being plain old Nick Jones, reclaiming his privacy and retreating behind the front door of his terraced Wattsville home with his wife and his dog.
It's all over now. The bass player is public property. He's Nicky Wire again.
"That's the one thing I don't deserve."
"If you're the sort of person who turns up to every premiere," pleads the reclusive bassist, "then it's fair dinkum, but I never do that."
"Even in Wales, I get invited to all the parties but I never go. I leave all that to James (Dean Bradfield, the band's singer, guitarist and socialite)."
"It's just as well we have one social animal in the band."
Less than a month ago, I'd seen Wire more energised and enthused than in years.
The Manic had just taken the remarkable step of launching their new album Know Your Enemy at the Karl Marx theatre, Havana (attended by none other than Fidel Castro himself), making the Manics the first major western rock act to play the communist republic.
It was intended as a strong statement against the creeping Americanisation of the world, and a gesture of solidarity with the resilience and defiance (two qualities with which the Manics can identify) of the Cuban people in the face of the US blockade.
The trip met with mixed reactions back home, including criticism from cynics who dismissed it as a publicity stunt.
But now the fall-out has settled, how satisfied is Wire with the results? "Everything is a big anti-climax now. Straight afterwards, James said 'It's all downhill from here'. And he was right."
Perhaps so, but it must be gratifying to be in a position - as multiple Brit-winning, platinum-selling millionaires - where you can decide to embark on such an ambitious (even insane) venture'?
"Yeah, but you still have to have the ideas in the first place. I read the guy from Gay Dad saying 'We had all these ideas. but the record company wouldn't let us.'"
"But like what? Having a funny logo? Was that it? You've got to push yourself that bit further."
This is a realisation which first struck Wire on the morning of January 1, 2000, once the hangovers had cleared from the previous
night's Manic Millennium concert at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
It had been a triumphant. magical, unforgettable night, but one haunting image wouldn't leave him alone: the sight of an ocean of 60,000 cigarette lighters being waved - some with irony, most without - during The Everlasting, the stadium rock epic which opened 1998's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours album.
Whatever the Manics had set out to achieve in the beginning (when they were winning, when their smiles were genuine), this, surely. wasn't it.
For a start, Wire vowed that they would never play that song again.
The warning signs had been there for a while. I remember a particular moment, seeing the band on Top Of The Pops in just-going-down-the-shops clothing, ambling through the poor single You Stole The Sun From My Heart on autopilot, and sensing that they didn't want to be there any more.
"When you reach contentment in life, it's difficult to express anything. It had just got boring. It's like when a political party finally achieves power, they often forget what they wanted to do with it."
"And I've always said I'm a one-man political party if a very dysfunctional one, the Arthur Scargill of rock. I'm wittering away to myself over in the comer, and no-one's listening."
The era of awards ceremonies and platinum discs served its purpose, however. "We'd achieved what we wanted to, in that we can go to, you know, Helsinki, and play to 10.000 people. but without compromising."
"We're too intelligent for that. Now we've made an album to back it up. The last album was more a shrug of the shoulders. this one is a clenched fist."
Know Your Enemy, the band's sixth and possibly final album, is the band's most overtly political record since 1994's The Holy Bible, the album mainly written by the band's troubled lyricist/guitarist Richey Edwards, who vanished without trace six months after its release.
Shortly before the Cuba gig, the 6th anniversary of Edwards's still-unsolved disappearance came and went. Do such dates matter to Wire?
"Well. the press always pick out these things. But it's like the old football cliché, you take every day as it comes."
Even so, whenever this subject matter is raised, his voice instantly starts to waver ever so slightly. "It's just the consequence of someone you grew up with not being around any more. someone you really like. We don't think of it in terms of the band losing a
great thing, it's more the personal level that counts."
This time next year, Edwards will legally be declared dead. "That's meaningless to us. It's all just legal shenanigans. It's so random. Why is it seven years?"
Of The Holy Bible. Edwards's masterpiece, Wire says. "That record was quite politically incorrect and provocative. Richey was advocating capital punishment. And on this one we've got a song called Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children." Neither will it starve them. I point out, but the aim is to stir debate.
"I'm saying things I don't even necessarily 100 per cent believe. but still need to be said."
Wire knows only too well that every new record the Manics make without Edwards will be judged by the standards of those made with him.
He admits that Edwards is always there as "a little voice in the back of my head", and he knows which songs he would and would not have approved of.
I wonder if Edwards's absence has allowed Wire the freedom to find his own lyrical voice.
"No, because I think my own voice was always there. I wrote most of La Tristesse Durera, all of Roses In The Hospital."
Has he ever written something he knew Edwards wouldn't have liked, but gone ahead anyway?
"Well. it's not like that exactly, but in the same way that I could never have written 4st 71bs (Edwards's harrowing first-hand diary of anorexia on The Holy Bible) Richey could never have written A Design For Life."
In an affectionate, humorous way. Wire even hints at a sort of constructive rivalry with his absent friend.
"There's a song on the new The called album The Convalescent which has more words than anything Richey ever wrote.
"Quite often Richey would throw in references he didn't really understand, but no-one dared question him."
"But this song, it's like TS Eliot. There's a reference to be deciphered in every line. I've finally beaten the bastard!"
Although This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the band's first with no input from Edwards whatsoever, was their biggest
seller, it disappointed many with its musical gentleness and lyrical solipsism.
This did not go unnoticed.
The Manics, more than any other band of their stature, are engaged in an ongoing dialogue, not just with the press but with their fans.
"We try to read voraciously anything that's written about us, whether in the press, fanzines , anything."
"We've never had a fan club, but we treat our fans with much more respect than any other band."
"This Is My Truth was internalised, and a lot Of the fans got it, they understood that in its own way."
"My Little Empire was as scary as 4st 7lbs. And If You Tolerate This - no-one else would ever rhyme 'pacifist' with 'tourist' and take it to number one."
The first sign that the Manics were waking from their slumber came a year ago with Masses Against The Classes, another number one single and their most ferocious-sounding record since the Edwards era.
After that the Manics went underground.
So what has Wire been doing for the past year? "Apart from time spent in the studio. I've mostly just been thinking. Just being and re-evaluating everything about the band. dissecting our last 10 years. and taking the best bits.
"It's not that the other two (Bradfield and his cousin, drummer Sean Moore) don't care, but I'm the student of the
band, that's my role."
And what did his studies teach him?
"I've loosened up. I've been learning how to make mistakes again."
He's also taken the time to research his chosen subject matters, which include rock's fashionable infatuation with the Dalai Lama, the kidnapping of Cuban infant Elian Gonzales, and legendary black American singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson.
"Leaving aside the political rock chic side of things, social history is actually still what I find interesting, it's sad to say. It's a legacy of my university days, I've never stopped being interested in that."
"For this album. I used a folder like that (he mimes a pile a foot high) of paintings and articles."
"You have to do your homework. When I hear people like Brian Molko saying that putting a mohican on Winston Churchill is a great political statement, I'm embarrassed. That's what happens when you put 'alternative' bands on a pedestal when they don't actually know what they're talking about."
"I was watching that John Lennon tribute on Channel 4 with all the usual idiots. John Lennon soaked up so much culture, Mao and Cubist art, everything. Now, what do bands soak up? John Lennon."
"That's the trouble with our country: all surface."
He's on a roll now, gleefully defaming everyone from the Gallaghers to Placebo to Dido, with barely a kind word for any of his peers (bar Marilyn Manson, who earns a line on the new album to the effect that "Brian Warner has a tasty little ass").
This is the vituperative Wire we know and love.
In order to cram in so much material, Wire has had to undergo a major re-think in his lyrical approach.
"The last record was almost designed to make James's voice sound good. Because he has got a beautiful voice, but sometimes the lyrics haven't made it easy for him."
"But this time I was listening to Yes (another celebrated Holy Bible track), and I realised that when James is out of breath and he can't fit all the words in, it's often when we're at our best. "
"It's like you said in your book, 'The Manics are about too much', and that's what we're doing here."
"It's sensory overload, pummelling your senses."
"We haven't hidden our intelligence this time."
And you'd hidden it before? "Maybe edited it."
Almost as insane an idea as the Cuba trip was the band's decision to release two comeback singles on the same day (the mellifluous, Beach Boys-esque So Why So Sad and the harder-edged, Stooges-like Found That Soul), which no major band had done before.
press - and perhaps, secretly, the band - assumed they would chart at No 1 and No 2, and the only real debate was in which order they would enter.
However, in reality, they clocked in at a slightly embarrassing No 8 and 9, outsold not only by a freak hit from Shaggy, but also by a couple of lesser new entries (Ricky Martin with Christina Aguilera, Nelly Furtado), and even a handful of stale old hits which had been knocking around the charts for weeks (Atomic Kitten, Outkast, Wheatus and Samantha Mumba).
How does Wire feel? Humiliated?
"Relieved, to be honest. If we'd released it as one double-A sided single, it would probably have gone to No.3 or something, which would have been even worse."
"It's like, the last time we played Cardiff, we played to 60,000 people. This time (the Coal Exchange last week) it's 600. That probably shows where we are now."
Wire suspects that the band are in the process of shedding a lot of the casual fans, the cigarette lighter wavers, the fabled Mondeo Man, and he seems less than concerned about it. "I don't think Mondeo Man got So Why So Sad or Found That Soul."
Still, at least the album should be a No.1, I muse, "I don't even know about that. We'll probably sell more abroad than we do here: to most people outside Britain, this is our third album."
"Dido is selling 100,000 a week, so she'll probably beat us. Anyway." he grins. "a bit of failure is goof for the soul."
Ever since Edwards's departure, the imminent demise of the Manics has been a popular rumour in music circles. At last, there may be some truth in it.
James Dean Bradfield has publicly suggested that will be one greatest hits album, one last studio album, and that's it.
Wire isn't even certain that they'll last that long. "This could be it. I won 't rule anything in or out. We're not
even planning anything beyond the greatest hits. I think that will be quite a breeze, no sense of pressure."
It's hard to imagine Bradfield, and to a lesser extent Moore, not being involved in music in some form or other. But what does Wire plan for his retirement?
"I love the idea of disappearing," he says, somewhat surprisingly in the circumstances.
"The JD Salinger thing. Or when Captain Beefheart went off into the desert to do paintings, really good ones too. I love the idea of total vaporisation. "
Not yet, though. Not when there's an album this good to talk about.
"I've been telling people this isn't just our best album ever," Wire smiles, "it's one of the best albums ever."
Know Your Enemy (the title is "partly a Red Indian thing my dad found. I pick up things from all over the place", and the enemy? "Us! What we'd done in the past") is as bold a departure musically as lyrically.
As well as echos of the indie bands they listened to in their '80s youth (Joy Division, New Order, REM, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Sonic Youth), there's the shimmering white funk of Miss Europa Disco Dancer (a summer smash waiting to happen) and, on five tracks, all manner Of sonic spanners thrown into the works by techno wizard David Holmes.
On one track, Wattsville Blues, Wire even gets his very first attempt at singing (more of a Fall-style rant. in all honesty).
On another, Ocean Spray, Bradfield writes his first lyric for the band, inspired by the loss Of his mother to cancer.
"I wrote verse two," says Wire. "and Sean comes in with the trumpet solo, that's his little tribute."
"James's mum was a wonderful woman." It seems that loosening up. in every sense, is the key.
"We realised that last time, not the songs, but the Way we'd treated them, was too clinical."
"So there were no rehearsals, it was quite an experiment, quite an adventure."
"Three of the songs, His Last Painting, Intravenous Agnostic and Let Robeson Sing, were done in two takes.
"The whole point," says the man who hasn't visibly aged in 10 years, "is to make a band who look old, sound young."
He's doing what we pay him for.
He's Nicky Wire again.