By their own admission the Manic Street Preachers are more confused than they've been in a long time. Confused and scared even. But there's one thing they're certain of - they're not about to turn into Boston.
"At the end of one cycle of time, they say, we experience kenosis and plerosis. Things lose meaning, they erode. The decay of time, at the end of a cycle, leads to all manner of poisonous, degrading defiling effects. A cleansing is required. Plerosis, the filling of time with new beginnings, is characterised by a time of superabundant power, of wild, fruitful excess." - Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Smack bang between kenosis and plerosis, that's where you'll find the Manic Street Preachers right now. And while the band have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity only they could have foreseen, in terms of relevancy - the symbolic status that separates so-called "important" acts from also-rans - they are at their most precarious juncture since the flailing that followed Gold Against The Soul and eventually produced the black-minded masterpiece The Holy Bible. And while the success is long overdue and certainly deserved, it has also alienated certain of their hardcore fanbase, not to mention long-time champions in the press.
In the wake of the This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours campaign, scribes and tribes alike are asking themselves, "What do the Manics mean anymore?"
But then, in lines like "So where are we going?/We're not ready for drowning" from that last album, lyricist Nicky Wire could've been anticipating such concerns. Besides, one could agree that extrapolations on the "meaning" of music are the result of folk having too much thumb-twiddling time on their hands. The records alone should carry their own conclusions (and beginnings), and This Is My Truth...certainly bristles with the kind of uplifting bleakness only The Manics can summon - after all, songs like "If You Tolerate This...", "SYMM" and "Black Dog On My Shoulder" are hardly the stuff of Kula Shaker albums.
Still, people have always entrusted this band with impossibilities, projected upon them 40 years worth of countercultural iconography, and consequently, the stakes are higher thanw ith any old common-or-garden beat combo. For sure, there aren't many groups on which a writer like Simon Price, author of the new biography Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) could hang essays about gender bending, Welsh culture and the cult of fandom.
But more about that later. For now, James Dean Bradfield is sitting opposite your reporter in the lounge of the Westbury Hotel, taking the edge off a few early evening beers with a coffee, and considering his band's current place in the firmament.
"The general thrust of it at the moment is that I think we're at our most confused than we've been for a long time," he begins. "I just mean that in terms of writing songs, because everything follows from the songs in terms of direction and how you're going to deal with releasing another records, what you're gonna look like, etc, etc. And even thought we've probably got another five months before we're finished touring this album, we feel a bit in limbo at the moment. So I'd say we're a bit scared. But whenever we've been really, really scared in the past, we've always come out with a something that made us feel better about ourselves, a la `A Design For Life'."
While agreeing to disagree, James acknowledges a consensus which holds that the band have jettisoned elements some might see as being essential to their core manifesto.
"In terms of this album, it's obvious there was definitely a consistent opinion that we'd somehow sold out to something, or somehow changed forever, never to be the same again," he concedes. "And regardless of whether a band says, `Oh, I don't read the press', you're always aware of it. If there's an opinion around about you that something's gone awry, then you start taking notice of it. So yeah, I would say that some stinging remarks definitely made us think a bit. We've always been a band that tried to take something positive out of any criticism. The only thing I think was valid is that I think sometimes are a bit too finished. I would like there to be a bit more of a lack of focus on the next record, I'd like it to be a bit dirtier, have a bit more dirt under it's nails.
"But a lot of the people in the press who thought they had sole possession and understanding of us definitely thought they'd lost that this time around, and reacted accordingly. I'm not bothered by that so much. One thing that pisses me off was that at the day, nobody really pointed out that we'd had our first number one single with a song that was nowhere near a stadium song or anything like that. When we wrote `If You Tolerate This...' we thought it was a b-side, and it was other people who thought it was our first single (off the album). That's the first time we haven't chosen our own first single. And it's not as if we tried to create a number one - there's no compromise in the song whatsoever.
"To me, 'If You Tolerate This...' has almost a kind of organic futurism to it, but also there's a strong historical content. I don't think anybody pointed that out. Somebody said it was `the sound of the Manics trying to sound like Boston', and I was like, ` I can't be bothered with that, 'cos it's just so off the mark, it's unbelievable'. It was a song that was dripping with loss, the sentiments were saying, `I want to feel like people used to feel, I want to have as much courage of my convictions as people four decades ago'."
To this writer's relatively unbiased ers, the problem is not one of content, but of style. Bands who write melodies as unabashedly stirring as those in `You Stole The Sun From My Heart' or `The Everlasting' will always be viewed with some suspicion by the raincoat brigade. And, let's be honest, the vast majority of the Manics' expanded audience are here for the tunes; an understanding of the themes comes later, if it comes at all. Granted, the Manics were never just another band, but sometimes the amount of cod-philosophising that goes ona round them can be wearying. James' response is characteristically direct:
"Yeah, I've thought there have been some songs journalists would rather have been plodding dirges, a monolithic quagmire of impenetrable proportions...then they would've thought I was serving the lyrics a bit better. But fuck it, I'm not gonna dumb down just because somebody doesn't wanna hear a tune."
Besides, no matter how visceral the thrill, no matter how celebratory the gigs get when the band slam into `Australia' or `You Love Us', melancholia is never more than a hair away. This Is My Truth.. sounds like the point where the happy haze of a drunken hour gets cruelly speared by a moment of horrible clarity, precipitating into a nosedive into sudden sobriety.
"I think all that stems from when we were growing up, the old miners' strike adage," James reckons. "Not having mnuch in the first place, coming from where you're coming from, but then seeing it all systematically dragged away. And rather than wallow in self-pity, I think that's replaced by melancholia. It's just a longing for a recent history that you no longer have. And we did sometimes turn a lot of that anger into something that was just a bit more beautiful than pure anger itself."
This notion has intrigued your reporter since last writing about the band ten months ago, the idea that artistic beauty in itself can be a potent political statement.
"Yeah, it can be," James elaborates, "because, y' know, whatever beauty is there is created out of a lot of base ingredients, and if it does come out of an environment that really was just like metal ore. It's carved out rather than created in loving strokes. And that's completely the economic surroundings and the landscape and everything, it's all born of where you come from, it's a different kind of beauty."
Here's where the band's love of acts like Joy Division ("It's the sound of machinery clanking, almost like old-fashioned gears just grinding in, and then the music starts moving and it gathers pace and then it breaks down") conects with other, less - or perhaps more - obviously rock 'n' roll reference points.
Like, for instance, RS Thomas. Born in Cardiff and brought up in Holyhead, Thomas, a Welsh nationalist poet-priest whose savage depictions of rural Wales and its natives echo Patrick Kavanagh's finest works, has written over 20 books, the latest of which, No Truce With The Furies, was published by Bloodaxe in 1995. It's his verse ("The furies are at home in the mirror it is their address") that adorns the sleeve of the last album and also the video for the band's new single 'Tsunami'. It's not hard to understand the affinity - Thomas' work is hacked out the soil in much the same fashion as the band's music.
"It is, yeah," James concurs. "There's a brilliant RS Thomas line where he talks about being poisoned by his mother's infected milk. He was a very fervent, down-the-line nationalist, very much a pro-Welsh-speaking poet. We're not, y'know, we're from South Wales, but I love the fact that he even thought his mother's milk was infected just because his family ate English produce. And like I said, that's not lovingly created, it's just fucking carved out."
Moments later, we're discussing the peculiarities of James' role in the band as a frontman and singer who interprets (and sometimes misinterprets) rather than writes the lyrics, when he comes out with the following:
"On 'Ready For Drowning' I knew what the main theme was, but I had a different take on what some of the other themes were. The lyric "seeing orange everywhere", I thought that was about when a lot of the pits and stuff were closed in our area, they'd flood the pits to close 'em down, and that would bring a lot of the ore out of the ground. And a lot of the rivers turn orange. I just remember asking my dad why, and he told me."
The image is almost too perfect, suggesting not just the aborting of an industry, but the haemorrhaging of the land itself. One gets the impression that the rapid eye movements of all three Manics, or indeed any South-Welsh artist, must be a mess of such Freudian visions. In hindsight then, it's no surprise that Madchester hedonism just couldn't translate to the musical landscape that the band shaped and were shaped by in the late '80s.
And although the young Street Preachers might've coveted the jaded laissez faire attitude of the New York Dolls or Guns 'N' Roses, it was inevitable that the socio-political climate would instill in them a code of ethics more in sync with orators like Aneurin Bevan and versifiers like the Thomases. This act was always going to be, if you'll pardon the phrase, 4-Real.
"I was asked a question by a journalist the other day," Bradfield pipes up. "He said, `My sister has a passive picture of Richey on her wall, and it's the `4-Real' picture (depicting the guitarist having infamously carved the phrase in his arm to prove a point to journalist Steve Lamacq): do you feel worried about that?' ANd I was like `Not really no, becuase myself, Nick, Richey and Sean, we were so obsessed and in love with dead martyrs when we were young'.
"(When you're a a teenger) you have no sense of your own mortality, so the one thing you want a connection to is death, because you want to know what it's all about. That's because you're at your most indestructible, your most potent. You had your Ian Curtis and your Arthur Rimbaud, all dead martyrs in a sense, but I never ever felt as if I wanted to emulate them, I just wanted to know led to that."
And now the band, who once devoured biographies of Plath and Pinter, are themselves the subject of such scrutiny. But while journalist Simon Price has written extensively about the band for the best part of a decade, and certainly knows his subject as well as the next pand-eyed penslinger, the process of trial-by-biography is never a painless one. So James, how, as the poet said, does it feeeel?
"I'm on page 100 at the moment, and there's two things that struck me," the singer considers. "There are some facts in there which I don't know how he got hold of, and there are other facts in there which I don't know how he got the imagination to make them up. It's really schizophrenic. I'm reading it, and so far we seem like a better band than I ever thought we'd be. It's just really fucking in there, it's just unbelievable. And there are a lot of, like, scary accuracies in there as well. The one thing I'm aware of so far, is it makes us seem like a brilliant band. Even the bits that are made up make us seem better. So I've got no problem with it so far, it adds a lot of weight to what we've already done and anything we might do from here on it."
Does the intrusion bother him?
"Well, we didn't help him with it whatsoever," he points out. "We didn't do any interviews for it, but it felt slightly vulnerable knowing that perhaps he might be talking to people. I could feel my ears burning a little bit. I asked one of two close friends not to say anything for it, just because I didn't trust the way they'd phrase it, basically! And because they were close mates. It's obvious how some people get misrepresented in print, and I didn't want to put those friendships at risk. But no, there was no mafioso type rearguard action to like, 'Hey, keep quiet!'"
I'd read that Price asked Nicky to proof it and...
"...he got past page 50 and he's like, 'There's no way I can proof this, there's so many little inaccuracies.'"
The story I heard was that it was too painful for him to read.
"That's definitely part of it as well," James confirms. "A lot of the things I'm remembering are really, really good memories, ones that are in indelibly mixed with Richey as being part of us, so it is quite painful to read, because you remember a lot good stuff that you feel disconnected from now."
At this juncture, the afternoon's alcohol intake is being to trickle down from James' brain to his bladder, so we take a raincheck while he adjourns to the li'l boys room. Before the singer returns however, I should explain that, prior to the interview, my wife and I met him having a jar outside Sheehan's pub on Chatham Street. I introduced by better half, or thought I did at any rate, and we chatted about the last time we met, at the decidedly debauched MTV awards after-show bash in Milan last November, James impishly rubbing your correspondent about his state of disrepair on the night, much to the amusement of my eagle-eared spouse. Now, as he settles back down into his seat, it's obvious that something's been bothering him.
"One tip," he says, fishing out a cigarette. "When you're introducing your wife for the first time, make sure that the person knows that your wife is standing there. Just in case I make some kind of, 'Heeeeey, had a good one in Milan!' (Winks) Make sure, because I might be daft and say something stupid, now what I mean? Which I've been known to do!"
Ah, it's that pesky conscience again. James' concern at having perhaps dropped your correspondent in it seems to bear out something that has become a cliche in industry circles - that the Manics are The Last Decent Skins in rock 'n' roll. Does the singer get fed up of hearing that and occasionally want to throw TV set out the hotel window?
"Yeah,Yeah, I do really," he admits, "because I know some of the nasty things I've done, and it just makes a hypocrite out of me every time. I just think some people are surprised that we're one of the only big bands that have never succumbed to any mad drug intake. Myself and Nick have never taken a drug in our lives. I don't think Sean has either. That's one of the big factors, I think - if I became like some kind of London-addled coke fiend, that opinion would soon be revised. I mean, there's a condescension about it sometimes, people have described me to my face, going, `Oh yeah, James is just James, he'll stand up at a bar with any bloke and down the pints, he's just a simple, pint-lovin' lad'. But I'll take that, I'd rather be an amateur lovable barfly than some kind of cocaine fiend."
Then there's the sex symbol thing. James and Nicky have been consistently topping the crumpet polls in the Brit-inkies for a couple of years now, and while Bradfield's diminutive stature and stocky build might not quality him for a walk-on part as a Baywatch hard-body, certain females of my acquaintance go weak at the knees at the very mention of his name.
"Well, I'm not into false modesty at all," James responds, "but obviously being in the top ten just seems daft as fuck to me. Really stupid. I'm not a man-mountain of male symmetry at the end of the day. I understand Nick being there, I'm all for that, he's qualified for the job. That shows an appreciation of bone structure, I think. No, I've always managed to get away with being a singer rather than a frontman, if you know what i mean. It kind of suits me."
Ah, you're just a natural born sex god James, admit it.
"Well, once you get to know me, I suppose, yeah!"