Arguably the most powerful rock band of the modern era, the Manic Street Preachers have continued to evolve and look to the future. However, their latest album, Journal For Plague Lovers, uses the lyrics of their ex-rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards, who mysteriously disappeared on February 1, 1995. In this candid interview, Manics vocalist James Dean Bradfield and bassist Nicky Wire discuss their new album and the responsibility they felt toward the words left behind by their long lost friend.
The lyrics for Journal For Plague Lovers were written by former member Richey Edwards who vanished in 1995. Where were the lyrics for the last 14 years? Why do you release them now?
NICKY WIRE: He left a big binder about three or four weeks before he disappeared. He left me a big binder, and did a photo copy for Sean and James as well. The binder's just been in the cupboard in my bedroom ever since. There's lots of artwork, there's lots of collages, there's lots of paintings and ideas for lyrics as well. They've always been there, the last time they surfaced were with tracks like 'Kevin Carter', and 'Elvis Impersonator' and 'Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky'. But we thought it felt like the right time, as all the words are so brilliant and so unusual, you don't hear words like this in modern day rock or pop. It just felt like the right time, dark music for dark times.
Which memories do the lyrics arouse? After all, the late Richey wasn't too good, he was depressive and anorexic.
NW: I think we could distance ourselves from the actual memories of the time and just treat it as an art project. We were just trying to write music to, and interpret these wonderful words Richey had left to us. I guess we'd been a bit scared to use them over the past 14 years, if I'm being honest, but I think coming on the back of Send Away The Tigers, which was such a re-birth for us and such a success, it just felt like the right time to use them.
Which image of Richey Edwards dominates your memory of him?
JAMES BRADFIELD: Probably my memories of him, if you're asking about the sort of person he was until he disappeared, I think he was resolved to everything he believed or disbelieved, regardless of what subsequently happened. He was the sort of person who actually made his own choices and I think he'd come round to being quite serene about things. But you know, saying things like, "We only want to keep our good memories of him", I think that's something we sorted out in our own minds a long time ago. I don't think actually using those songs or his lyrics on this record actually changes any of that because this is actually part of some of those good memories as he actually chose to give us these lyrics very shortly before he disappeared. It's kind of an honour that at least he made the decision to bestow us these lyrics before he made the decision to actually disappear. But I think we reached that point a long time ago of distilling these memories and keeping only the good ones. But, inevitably, bad ones come back.
Is there still hope that Richey might come back someday?
JB: We've kind of gone past that stage of counting on any resolution on where Richey is or in what state. We don't go to that B-movie land where people like to theorise or where people like to come up with the answer, it's a pointless game.
NW: I think you just realise that you don't have to make a decision either way. You don't have to have hope, you don't have to have despair. Where there is no answer you just find a middle ground really - it's hard to explain, but you just get on with it.
How did you start finding the sound for Richey's lyrics?
JB: I think the first thing that dawned upon us once we made the decision that we actually wanted to create something out of Richey's words, was that there was a sense of responsibility. He left us the words briefly before he disappeared, so he definitely wanted us to do something with them. You have this massive sense of responsibility, that's the first emotion. And then very quickly, it felt like the old experience of trying to set music to his words. It's a different kind of challenge, as his words are so full of intent but there's no punctuation, so it's a different exercise to writing to Nick's words. And so, any sort of emotions that might come to the surface quickly dissipate as you're so caught up in the practical experience of trying to make this work. It is quite a physical experience to try and sing these words, so it's not as emotional as you might think. It feels like a challenge.
Did you rewrite his lyrics?
JB: Most of it is written in lyric form - in bridges, verses, chorus, and sometimes there are just too many words to be sung. It's just a matter of choosing the right parts.
NW: To be honest, it's just like working with him when he was around. He was always working so he was always giving you lyrics and you chopped bits out like a natural process. You know 'Jackie Collins' was just a natural process of leaving bits out because it doesn't fit. Apart from 'William's Last Words', which was about two pages of prose. That was obviously a big editing job. We used to write lyrics and he took it really seriously, he loved writing lyrics. It was a really nice thing when we used to sit at the table and write lyrics together, it was quite an odd and unique thing.
What are the main topics of his lyrics?
NW: I gotta be honest with you, some of it I just don't understand. I won't pretend I do, as obviously the boy's not around to explain himself. In some ways, it's less painful than The Holy Bible, as he seems to have come to a lot more conclusions, and seems a bit more resigned in himself to situations. It is really hard to explain - I'm scared of putting meaning into something I don't really know. There are some lyrics where you can see the kernel of truth. Songs like 'Peeled Apples' is just about giving up hope that you can find a belief or find an entity or find any kind of ideology you can believe in. I think 'Peeled Apples' is a song about what we're left with. We're left with conflict and collapse, probably re-iterated with the line "the more I see, the less I scream", and that's inverting the cliché. And there are other songs like 'This Joke Sport Severed', which is a song about abstinence. You know, 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony' is just a song about something [Richey's] read about. He's relating to himself when he was going through Health Care, I suppose. In 'Doors Closing Slowly', it's pretty obvious that that's not a very happy experience he was going through at the time. It seems like every avenue, every bit of joy or pleasure that he once had seems to be closing one by one. The recognition of "nothingness" is pretty bleak.
According to NME you said Journal For Plague Lovers is the direct follower of 1994's album The Holy Bible. What do you mean exactly?
NW: I think it is more a natural conclusion than a follow up. It does seem like a natural step as you grow, but there's a couple of years difference between the lyrics and obviously we're different as musicians. The fact that we're writing the words of a 27 year-old definitely energised us. They're not the lyrics of a young man, there's a man that's at the peak of his intellect and powers. But they did give me an opportunity to feel. Songs like 'Marlon J.D.' or 'Me and Stephen Hawking' are probably our fastest played songs in a long time, so it's like going back to that time capsule of 1994. [The lyrics] did dictate in an energetic sense.
Another link between Journal For Plague Lovers and The Holy Bible, is that Jenny Saville is responsible for the cover art of both. What can you say about Jenny Saville?
NW: She's just an unbelievably lovely lady that she donated back in The Holy Bible era, that cover for free. She didn't charge us for anything, it was just something we saw in a newspaper and loved. For continuity, we thought it'd be great if we could use one for free again. Her paintings go for a quarter to half a million pounds, and I know, having gone through artwork for the past seven years, it can be really expensive. [Jenny] gave it to us for free. She's just a really beautiful woman.
The picture on the cover is not clearly defined. You could say it is a boy with a bloody nose. What's your association?
NW: That's the idea, it's actually a girl. I love the idea of the androgyny - people just read so many facets into that painting. I've never seen the blood, to me it's just a birthmark, and it's just her style of painting. It's just like Lucian Freud. But some of the supermarkets in the UK won't stock it as they say it's just a child with a bloody nose.
JB:It's like a Freudian test. I never saw the bloody nose, I just saw a painting style to be honest. It's really strange. NW Just the piercing eyes, and that idea of beauty and violence and innocence - it just looks like a puzzle. The way the mouth is open, there's a sense of doubt.
Why did you chose Journal For Plague Lovers as the title for the album?
JB: It does seem very obvious, that's quite simple. As Nick said earlier, the lyrics were left in the form of a book, and as you went through the book, it almost felt like a diary as there were lyrics, little scrawlings, collages - it actually did feel like a journal. There was one song in there called 'Journal For Plague Lovers', and it just seemed very obvious, very apt.
Tell us about the origin of the music on Journal For Plague Lovers. Does this album mark a return to powerful rock after rather introverted, calm albums like Lifeblood?
JB: Well for me, it was a very mixed experience in terms of styles. There are four very contemplative, acoustic moments on there, and I was very aware that we couldn't really create a sequel, or follow up, to The Holy Bible as not everything in the lyrics was as angry. The only rule was that you had the lyric in front of you, and you had to let the lyric guide you. It was as simple as that.
Why did you choose Steve Albini as producer?
NW: I think, obviously, we chose Steve Albini to record the music as we did want his essence, not just his engineering. A lot of the sounds on [Nirvana's] In Utero were a big influence, especially the drums and bass on there... big drums, he definitely brought that to it. We didn't want to make a post-punk album like The Holy Bible, which was much more based on stricter parameters. I think Journal For Plague Lovers is really joyous, there's more uplifting moments on this album then The HolyBible. It is more of a rock album in texture, but it does have that acoustic side to it as well.
What was it like to work with a producer like Steve Albini, who is known for having a major influence on the sound of an album?
JB: At first it was kind of strange, as everything about the session was different compared to the way we usually work. But we knew it would be. We wanted to work on tape and we didn't want to do many takes, and he was up for that... the less takes the better. And also, we didn't want anybody interfering with the lyrics. Producers can be notorious for sometimes saying, "I can't understand what your singing, perhaps you should re-write the lyrics?" Obviously we didn't want any of that, as they're Richey's words and we didn't want them touched.
NW: We didn't write anything in the studio really, we're not a 'jamming' band. Everything was quite disciplined and very well rehearsed. It's very much a pre-digital album. All of Richey's lyrics were written, he never had a mobile phone or a computer. He wrote everything on a type-writer...
Journal was recorded at Rockfield Studios, where legendary albums of bands like Rush, Black Sabbath and Queen were recorded. How inspiring was its atmosphere?
JB: We've recorded there before, our two number ones were recorded in Rockfield. Every time we go back to Rockfield there are two certain records I think about as I go through the gates. Obviously Hemispheres [by Rush] and Heaven Up Here by Echo and the Bunnymen. Jim Kerr [Simple Minds vocalist] was there as we were there, which was very strange as I'd been listening to Real to Real Cacophony, Simple Minds' second album, in my flat in Cardiff. There is a sense of history [at Rockfield]. We weren't as pompous to think that we were creating a small piece of history, but there you feel like you can record something that will last.
How much is left in you of the young, wild, angry men you use to be?
JB: We still have a lot of the same anger about a lot of things. Sometimes we're angry about petty things, sometimes important things. I think we're a bit more obsessive in nature, but I think we're a lot more constructive in the way we deal with our anger. I think we're a bit more susceptible to being influenced by things. When you're younger you're inspired by your own anger, but as you get older, you let yourself get inspired by things that are a bit more positive - though that gets harder sometimes too.
What do we learn from his lyrics about the late Richey Edwards?
JB: Believe me, it's hard to not go into a solo or create a section that is just guitar. It's hard to not be like that. We were just very, very aware of our responsibility to the lyrics.
NW: For example, in 'Joke Sport Severed' there's a verse, a kind of bridge, a chorus, and a feedback, breakdown section, but it's still a really short song. I think it's down to the pace. We are generally playing faster on this album then we have done in a while. Nothing drags on, which we probably have been guilty of as a band - just like every other band.
In August of 1989, your first single 'Suicide Alley/Tennessee (I Feel So Low)' was released. What are your thoughts when you look back on 20 years of Manic Street Preachers?
JB: It's nothing dramatic. It's nothing like, "This is brotherhood, we must stay together. We must fight the world!" I just love being in a band.
NW: I think the last three or four years have actually been the best we've had as a band. I don't know why that is. Perhaps just a certain age where creativity just seems to explode everywhere. Can't stop it. We've just bought our own studio, as everywhere's closing down. We're bucking the trend and opening one up! We started the band as we felt we had something to say and wanted to express it, and that's never changed. Deep or hateful, or positive or political, that's our one form of expression - putting it into a song.
JB: I suppose last year, it did help that we had some new experiences. Obviously we'd been apart for such a long time. We played so many festivals last year, which we used to hate, but now we seem to like. But we committed to playing places we'd never been to before. So we had so many experiences. Last year we supported Bob Dylan in Croatia. It was just us and Dylan. It was just amazing to play in front of an audience that had never seen us before. We played in Poland and Latvia, Russia and Turkey and Greece, places we'd never been to before, where we had strangely good reactions from audiences, no cynicism, no "come on then - impress me, I've seen you before!" So to actually have new experiences at the age of 40 in a band is a miracle.