It's Domestic Manic, Domestic Manic and Pub-Resident Crippling-Self-Doubt Manic! Q spends five months with the Manic Street Preachers to find pop's Ragged Trousered Philanthropists on the cusp of - gulp! - a lasting career in music. "We're always nervous.' they tell Stuart Maconie.
Unlike Zoe, Chris, Noel, Jayne Middlemiss's microlight instructor (probably) and the other Mt. Rushmore faces of thrusting New Britain, the Manic Street Preachers still await an invite to Number 10 for Twiglets and glad-handing. Old Labour; Old Manics?
"I don't think we're Old Labour," muses bassist Nicky Wire. "More Classic Labour. The outspoken sexiness of Bevan, Skinner and Livingstone. We're more John Prescott dm Peter Mandelson. Libraries gave us power.. not the Internet." Drummer Sean Moore reckons the Manic Street Preachers are "still a bit too clever for some people".
This is a little like calling the Solway Firth "a bit damp". They emerged in a flurry of eyeliner, The Clash and Philip Larkin at the beginning of the decade, and throughout their various phases - the glam Situationism of Generation Terrorists, the stadium pop of Gold Against The Soul, the lacerating hatred and disgust of the Holy Bible and the exultant Everything Must Go - they've consumed ideas like lesser bands guzzle snakebite. Through the trauma of manager Philip Halls death from cancer in 1993 and guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards's disappearance in 1995, they have kept faith with the notion that a pop group can be A Design For Life, not just about cigarettes and alcohol but about the nobility of everyday life, the dignity of labour.. not to mention sex, poetry and outrage.
In short, Blair's spin doctors might do well to keep the Manics at arms-length. Water-chucking anarchists called Danbert (but actually named Nigel) are easier dealt with. If the Manic Street Preachers did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. As they did themselves. In a bedroom in Blackwood, Gwent when Candy Flip still held sway.
Monnow Valley Farmhouse Studios nestles in an isolated corner of Monmouthshire, miles from a railway halt, all quiet copses and the sluggish River Monnow. The late Rob Collins, organist with The Charlatans (who always insisted on recording at Monnow Valley) would fish here for barbel, whilst not far down the road is The Big Pit: once the largest coal mine in Europe, now a theme museum. Q visits in April, 1998, towards the end of the recording of the Manic Street Preachers' latest album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. In the console room, Nicky Wire sits on the settee and, casually as a man filling in his pools coupon, has another go at the drily funky baseline to Nobody Loved You. "Should we try it from the top?" asks co-producer Dave Eringa. "No, let's try it from the start'" admonishes Wire. Sparring of this sort between the affable Eringa, keyboard player during Gold Against The Soul days and newly returned to the fold, continues for most of the session. "Don't come the record producer just because there's a journalist here," chides Wire.
It's tempting to delineate the three Manics according to tastes. James Dean Bradfield smokes, is single, enjoys a pint and a Scotch, has a Nottingham Forest season ticket and is terrified that his record collection will get burgled. Sean Moore fills his Bristol home with state of the art gadgets. Though he can't drive, he advises Q knowledgeably for some time on the purchasing of cars and, astonishingly, provides brochures from his suitcase. "Get one with plenty of boot space." Why? "In case you buy a lot of stuff in Dixons one afternoon" " He may well be the only person in Britain to own a Digital Video Disc Walkman. Nicholas "Nicky Wire" Jones is a sport obsessive and possessor of an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything from boxers' weights to cricket averages. His much-celebrated domestic bliss (he turned up to the 1997 Brits in a T-shirt that declared "I Love Hoovering") revolves around wife Rachel, a home that backs on to a Welsh hillside, Radio 5 Live and all three Sky Sports Channels. As we repair to the TV for Embassy World Championship Snooker, Wire profiles every player expertly. "Jimmy White won't miss this," says Eringa just as the Whirlwind fluffs a simple red. "Trust you to completely fucking Murray Walker it," rejoins Wire scornfully.
In the courtyard at Monnow Valley we stand out in the spring rain whilst James enjoys a fag. Notorious haters of flying, they tell a story about the time a plane they were travelling in nearly crashed over the Urals. Wire reveals that he has written at least four lyrics during flights "at the bottom of my pit of misery". Returning indoors, they add some overdubs to My Little Empire, perhaps the bleakest moment on the album. As befits friends who have nurtured to glory a suburban dream fashioned through hours of listening to London Calling, watching Rumblefish and consuming a heady mix of music magazines and confessional poetry, then taken a detour to hell, they have arrived at a quietly intense intimacy.
Are three heads, in some senses at least, better than four?
Nicky Wire: We only notice Richey's absence on stage. It doesn't feel a huge loss when we're writing or recording. Maybe we're a bit nicer to each other, a bit closer.
But Richey was the leader, wasn't be?
Wire: Richey's room used to be the hub. He'd be in the corner doing notes or collages or whatever and getting wrecked at the end of the night. Now it's mine.
James Bradfield: It's become easier to have consensus. That would have been hard the way Richey was going...
Sean Moore: It had become this tragic, grotesque downward spiral. Hard to understand where he was coming from. He'd got pretty confused.
What would Manic Street Preachers records sound like if Richey had stuck around?
Wire: In the music he was into and his artistic stance, he'd gone way beyond just being a lyricist in his mind. He wanted to go much further than The Holy Bible. He left a note on one of his lyrics saying, "Idea for concept album. Screamadelica meets Pantera'"
Bradfield: If you think The Holy Bible was gratuitous and hard-going, imagine what The New Testament would have been like. I probably would have enjoyed the challenge but it would have been a dead end ultimately. The bottom line is they'd have been rubbish records.
Wire: We'd have reached a compromise situation where we'd do a track for Richey here and there.
Are you worried about how people will react to the new album?
Wire: After the commercial disaster of The Holy Bible, there was nothing to build on and nothing to lose. Particularly after Richey disappeared. I remember saying that if everything Must Go sold 100,000 and we got a gold disc and played a few festivals I'd be happy. Now everyone's going to be much more analytical. On the surface, we're not as sexy as we were when we wore combat gear and Richey was here. But it's all still there. It's all on the record.
Are you still angry?
Wire: We're less nihilistic and more constructive and that comes with age. Richey is a good example of the fact that anger is pretty poor sustenance long term. But even on the first album, we had Motorcycle Emptiness. We've always been artists (laughs).
Bradfield: But if that album hadn't had Repeat on it wouldn't have been half the record it is. If a young band came along like we used to be... intense and angry like that, I'd think they were fucking brilliant! The trouble is that angry music now means that horrible fast punk rubbish thanks to the Americans.
Have you been stung by people comparing your new, gentler sound with Foreigner?
Bradfield: If someone said that to my face then I would have to walk away, because otherwise I would hit them. I'd want to beat the fuck out of them. I can handle criticism but I can't handle thickness
Can pop stars still be heroes?
Bradfield: Hero is a very teenage word, heroic is a very grown-up word. It's harder to be heroic, I think. But I do think pop stars can be shining heroes. Liam Gallagher wears a suit of armour as far as I'm concerned and Richard Ashcroft, too.
Did you ever think about changing the band name?
Bradfield: The punkiness of the manic, that down-at-heel angriness, seems a bit daft now. We did try and change the name once, very early on. Here was a band who sounded like The Clash on a bad night, we're wearing skinny white jeans in the middle of Madchester and we're called the Manic Street Preachers. Are we taking this a little too far? In the end, we couldn't think of anything better.
Does it get more difficult to sing "We destroy rock'n'roll' at the end of Motown Junk?
Bradfield: I'm not embarrassed. I think we did in a way. We superseded a lot of bad rock'n'roll with something better.
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours has not been the easiest of records to make. It has taken the band longer than they predicted and it doesn't have the urgency of the previous two. It didn't, you're tempted to reflect, have quite the same overwhelming need to exist.
"I don't know if you noticed," confides Bradfield, "but that's about the most tense we've ever been in the studio. We were a bit burned out and it was the last session and at that point we all wanted to kill Dave."
What it is, is a craftier record: subtler, more accessible and less arrogant all at the same time. There are pop culture- friendly references to Carlito's Way and Jimmy McGovern where it was once all Nietzsche and Sartre. There are big, bold statements like "If I can shoot rabbits then I can shoot fascists" rather than, to pluck an example out of the air, "Vulture stalked white piped lie forever" (Kevin Carter). This is also the Manic Street Preachers' "Welshest" album yet. Its title is an exhortation from firebrand socialist Aneurin Bevan. The record bears a quote from the curmudgeonly Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, who approved of Welsh nationalists burning English-owned holiday homes. "What is the life of one English person compared to the death of an entire nation?" he asked. One song, Ready For Drowning - in its cries of "Deny its history! " - addresses the suppression of Welsh nationhood.
Can anyone who's not Welsh understand you completely?
Wire: I think the provinces, the North of England, have a lot in common with us. In Manchester every one goes to Rhyl anyway. We're all oiks and savages according to the Home Counties. Wales for most of the south-eastern English media is just a convenient size comparison. Rainforests that burn down are always "the size of Wales". '
'What's being Welsh all about then?
Wire: Ours is a particular brand of Welshness. It's an urban and rural valleys culture which is quite industrial. And there's definitely a strain in the Welsh temperament that often ends up with them leaving the country or drinking themselves to death. Richey was an example of it...
Bradfield: Wales never leaves Welsh artists. But you have to be wary of romanticism. Wales is a much more complex and divided place than some people think. It isn't this glowing ember of close-knit communities. There's animosity there too. Some North and West Walians resent us talking about Welshness because we can't speak Welsh.
Is it about feeling hard done by?
Moore: Failure's got a lot to do with it. There's almost too much realism in the Welsh culture. The Irish would probably have a dance about it.
Wire: The Irish all went off to North America and became folk heroes. The Welsh went to Patagonia, this bleak, barren place and half of them died in the first year.
Have you ever joined a fan club?
Bradfield: I tried to join The Waterboys one.
Why don't you have a fan club?
Wire: They're shit. New Order have never had one and I remember thinking that was cool. We've got fifty unofficial Web sites but we don't encourage the worst bits of fan worship. Our fans are fantastic, though. They sent bandages when my back was bad.
But you don't relate to them?
Bradfield: We hate that over-friendly thing bands have -that "Oh, we're just like you. We're nothing special. Anyone can do it" attitude. Anyone can't do it. Only we can do this.
James, when you last spoke to Q, in early 1997, you said "None of us think Richey's dead anyway". Is that still the case?
Bradfield: I never think he's dead. If it's true, you feel like there's got to be a body - sorry to be blunt about it but it's true. It's too easy to imagine that he's not dead, that there's been a rebirth of sorts. I've always been in love with rock'n’roll mythology, and I know I'm over-imaginative, but the scenario in my head is very vivid indeed.
James Dean Bradfield hasn't had A drink for the duration of his fortnight's stay in Monnow Valley. But today he has energetically essayed a new vocal to Nobody Loved You - the lines "It's unreal now you're gone/But at least you belong" seeming to lead, once again, back to Richey Edwards - and he deserves libation. Bradfield takes little persuading to sample the fleshpots of Monmouth, and keyboardist Nick Naysmith, now a semi-permanent member, tags along. Nicky Wire's lecture is housewifely: "Two pints. Then you're coming back, right?" We are reminded that Richey Edwards's last institutional stay was partly due to increasingly uncontrollable alcoholism. We fetch up in a pub where, curiously, signed pictures of Geordie and Showaddywaddy's old plectrums adorn the walls. It clearly fancies itself as something of a rock hostelry, though the clientele fail to recognise one of Britain's foremost rock musicians. The conversation centres around Nick Drake, a Bradfield enthusiasm, and Nick Naysmith's previous musical fife as a member of Red Lipstique (they had an '8Os single called Drac's Back). We drink whisky and Babycham in memory of the Manics' youthful fondness for the defiantly un-macho champagne perry.
"That's my main memory of the Manics' time on our floor," says Terri Hall, Manics publicist and widow of manager Philip, "Babycham in the fridge and four totally different-sized pairs of white Levi's in the washing machine."
When we return, a little unsteady, Moore is in his dressing gown still watching White versus Hendry and Wire, listening to playbacks with Eringa, is trying hard to be annoyed. "What time do you call this? You said two pints. Blokes and pubs, eh?"
The lipstick and eyeliner's been binned. Are you just geezers now?
Wire: I have a lot of traditional male traits, most obviously my love of sport. But as a kid, I was very close to my mother so I think I acquired a real fascination and kinship with the female side. I would always rather stay in and piss around with make-up in front of the mirror than go down the pub. I still try Rachel's dresses on and stuff like that even though they're miles too small for me. All that is part of who I am. My nickname was Shirley at school.
James, are you the most 'male'?
Bradfield: I've always been very traditional. Traditionally masculine. But I hope not sleazy. Not when I'm sober anyway. I've been less than perfect. I've slipped into it. Quite often actually when I first moved to London.
Do the others set impossible standards?
Bradfield: Yes, they do. They nag me all the time about my drinking. Nick will check my pupils. If they're dilated he'll know I've been drinking.
Does lad culture generally revolt you, Sean?
Moore: It's about being decent, behaving properly. The cult of laddishness is just an excuse to not change your socks and feel proud.
As a band, do you stand alone?
Wire: Not many bands have been influenced by us. And no band ever says we're their favourite band. I like that.
Are you happy, James?
Bradfield: I'm nervous. I'm happy with the trinkets that come with being a successful band - that gives you something, obviously. But the overwhelming emotion I feel is nervousness.
What exactly are you scared of?
Bradfield: Everything. At the moment I'm nervous for the new record. But if that went well, then I'd expect something good to be followed by something bad. I got terrible at one point. Just before A Design For Life came out I was touching wood about thirty times a day.
In the console room at Monnow Valley, we hear much of the new record. By now it has been almost a year in gestation, having begun in Mike Hedges's Chateau De La Rouge Motte studios in the South of France. Producer Hedges has been on the scene since Bradfield heard his work on The Sound Of McAlmont And Butler album. Certainly no-one does Spector as spectacularly, nor Motown as massive: talents he lent to Everything Must Go, Texas's White On Blonde and, for those who care to cast their minds back to 1982, Wah!s shattering The Story Of The Blues.
"I was drawn to the devotion of the fan base," recalls Hedges. "They weren't at that point a massive-selling band but their fans were so passionate. At first, the idea of them was a little daunting, their reputation goes before them, but you realise soon that they're extremely dedicated to what they do and know what they want."
This is the first time anyone outside the group structure has heard the record and they admit to feeling nervous. James Bradfield puts the DAT into the machine and the first sounds are the bold, baroque keyboard intro to Ready For Drowning. Later he seeks out the Glenn Campbell-ish Black Dog On My Shoulder and the chilling My Little Empire ("My ideology/Is dead-and gone/Almost forgotten"). Even in such distinguished company, one track is immediately jaw-dropping. SYMM stands for South Yorkshire Mass Murderer, a title even the Manics thought unpalatably strong, and concerns the Hillsborough tragedy. Musically rich and desolate simultaneously, it confirms that whilst the Manics' musical vocabulary grows with each release, essential concerns remain.
Is class the most important thing about the Manic Street Preachers?
Wire: I think you have to be working class to write SYMM, and to understand football and its real importance in working class cultures. But class is now more subliminal in the music. After A Design For Life I don't want to write too specifically about it again because that record crystallises every thought I've ever had about class - history, physicality, everything.
Can wealthy members of a successful rock group be properly working class?
Wire: Class is something you can't get rid of no matter how you try. It's inherent, inescapable. You can't buy yourself up a class but you can't buy a working class background either. Success doesn't change those fundamentals. When Damon Albarn tried his best to become working class, he couldn't do it. The classless society is a myth. It doesn't exist and I'm very glad that it doesn't. I feel a bit sorry for the middle classes. Their Eves seem so soulless. I'd always rather have normal food at home than eat in a posh restaurant. And I'd never complain in a restaurant about the food even if it was the worse meal I'd ever tasted.
Is that the central rock'n'roll dilemma: how can you strive to escape yet retain your identity?
Wire: When Richard Burton bought the biggest diamond in the world for Elizabeth Taylor, I thought that was very Welsh and very working class and I kind of like that. I always travel first class on the train because I always wanted to and the conductor still says to Sean and I, "Do you realise this is first class?" So Sean gets his expensive lap- top and new mobile out. Working class people are always out to better themselves whether it's going to university or drug dealing.
Decency's a weird old thing for a pop group to bang on about.
Wire: Pathetic, isn't it? Richey's old thing about not being late for interviews and washing every morning. I wish we could lose it sometimes because it seems so earnest. As SYMM says, it's unfashionable to believe in principles. I want to sing about the silent majority. Not rock stars but people who get on with life in factories and doing the washing up and gardening and feel utterly crushed by it. Black Dog On My Shoulder on the new album is an attempt to write about depression from a totally non-rock perspective since it's much more common amongst housewives than it is among rich rock stars.
How have the sales of Everything Must Go changed your life?
Bradfield: I don't drink Bells, I drink Jameson. When I buy a record, I'll buy the CD and the vinyl if I can. When I buy a book I'll buy the hard- back instead of the paperback.
Is there a danger of boring people to death with righteousness?
Bradfield: I'm very wary of passion and sincerity as seen in rock. I always think of Tim Booth reaching out and touching people. There's nothing that I can possibly convey in that way. Nothing I can give of myself Eke that. The Holy Bible is a record full of confusion and emptiness and nihilism. Even on the new record, My Little Empire is a cold song, about not caring or knowing about anything beyond your own four walls.
So are you sincere, or cynical?
Wire: We are sincere but we're aware that it's a fine line between that and The Joshua Tree. I know a lot of musicians think I'm the vainest most arrogant fucker in the world and they're right. On stage, I care more about holding my bass the right way than what I play.
Does this job suit you?
Bradfield: It suits me. I think being in the studio's like summer camp.
Wire: It's the travelling I despise. And I resent giving so much of myself. I feel like those Indians who felt their soul was being stolen with every picture.
Is the band indestructible now? Will you know if it stops working?
Bradfield: Me and Nick have a sixth sense about things. We'd know when it was over. Also, Nick's just shown me some new lyrics and, as ever, I'm shocked by how good they are. The end of the band simply does not compute.
August in London, the mercury rising. James fields 30 foreign phone interviews in one day, politely telling each one that, no, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next is not specifically about the Belgian paedophile scandal and that no, it hasn't been that hard learning Richey's guitar solos. Sean hides in his room with The Shawshank Redemption on the DVD, Nick cases his Gilbert's Syndrome back disorder in the hotel pool. Spring in Monnow Valley seems a distant memory. The Manic Street Preachers confess to a certain apprehension as they come back to follow up their greatest triumph to date.
"I don't think people looked for the finer details last time," says Bradfield. "There was just this head- rush of elation that we'd carried on. There'll be more scrutiny this time."
"It sounds nasty," laughs Nicky Wire, "but that's one reason why I miss Richey so much. He'd always turn up with cigarette holes in his arms looking like an alien and that would take some of the pressure off. There's no room for glorious failures now."
On September 23, BBC2 airs a documentary in the Close Up season to coincide with the new album's release. After recent TV promotional puffs for U2, Paul McCartney and Oasis, it's to be hoped that this does critical and analytical justice to the Manic Street Preachers. But the likelihood, faced with the reality of Manics present - hoovering, retreat from the world, merely great music - and Manics past - ie Richey - is that director Mike Connolly will concentrate on the latter.
"We haven't seen it yet," admits Wire. "'Course it's only a matter of time before some film-maker does the Richey biopic. An Agatha Christie-type mystery. John Hurt as Richey, Leonardo Di Caprio as Sean... no-one tall enough to play me."
"I'll he the simple diamond geezer," guesses Bradfield, "Richey'll be in the corner cutting himself and I'll be going, Don't think too much, man. Let's just go and have a pint."
"And it'll end up in Goa. Sunset. And Richey busking, smiling, happy."