Provocateurs. Poets. Rock Stars. Radicals. Outcasts. Iconoclasts. Soothsayers. Survivors. The Manic Street Preachers are all of these and more. But one thing the Manics aren't is "just a band." Two decades into their career. they are a fractured myth. full of unbelievable triumphs and brutal losses, conflicts and crashes. and so many contradictions that their self-immolation often seemed imminent. Their constantly contrarian image is epitomized by the wide-ranging quotes they highlight inside the sleeves of their albums and singles (Marx. Burroughs. Chomsky. Picasso. Palahniuk. Marilyn Monroe) and the strange bedfellows they have covered over the years (The Dash, Guns N' Roses, Rihanna. Nirvana. The Happy Mondays. Burt Bacharach, Camper Van Beethoven). The band refuse to be pinned down. cornered or categorized. They are children of all this brilliance. all this high and low culture, and all these clashing ideas. They are the howl of the counterculture. the scream of the populists and an aching sigh of pain - all in one.
The Welsh foursome - singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore, bassist Nicky Wire (born Nicholas Allen Jones) and guitarist Richey Edwards - forced their way onto the scene in 1989 in a whirl of head-snapping sound bites, gender-bending and glammed-up punk riffs. Their early singles were unapologetically anthemic and unrepentantly provocative. "Motown Junk" found Bradfield boasting, "I laughed when Lennon got shot," before declaring, "You love us like a holocaust" on their next single.
The Manics' revolution was always just as much about image as it was about music. Some detractors believed this was only posturing and hubris. But when Edwards was confronted by a journalist in 1992 with such accusations, he promptly pulled out a razor and carved "4 Real" into his arm to prove his sincerity. After receiving 17 stitches, Richey and the band became mythic.
The group wanted their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, to sell more copies than GNR's Appetite for Destruction, so the Manics could have one perfect moment and then call it a day. Though it showcased a slew of now-classic singles ("Little Baby Nothing," "Motorcycle Emptiness" and "Stay Beautiful") and earned the band a dedicated legion of followers in the U.K., Europe and Japan, it wasn't the multi-platinum smash they had hoped for. Gold Against the Soul followed in 1993, and the year after that they had the gumption to release an album entitled The Holy Bible. Though it sold far fewer copies than the King James Version, its murky riffing and lyrical despair - courtesy of the unstable Edwards - helped the band build their mythical reputation for brutal self-destruction and unflinching self-analysis. The album was really Edwards' diary, the story of a drug- and alcohol-addicted anorexic with a penchant for not-so-secret cutting and depression. After an abortive tour for the album, the band returned home to Wales to work on new material. In early 1995, Edwards gave each of his bandmates a copy of a notebook he had titled Peeled Apples, which were his lyrics for the next album. Shortly afterwards, he drove his car to the future site of the Severn Bridge, which arches between England and Wales, and promptly disappeared. He has not surfaced since and was declared "presumed dead" in 2008.
The loss of Edwards could very well have been the end of the Manics. It could have snuffed out a hungry young band that had been struggling to find themselves, but had yet to mainline the zeitgeist. Instead, the remaining trio shouldered the loss and went on to create their high-water mark, 1996's Everything Must Go, featuring several songs with Edwards' lyrics. The lead single, "A Design for Life," became a Britpop classic of epic proportions and features a line only the Manics could have turned into a sing-along: "Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free."
Over the next decade-and-a-half and four more LPs, Manic Street Preachers turned into an international stadium act, achieving the kind of success they had only boasted of attaining as a four-piece. In 2001, they became the first Western rock band to perform in Cuba, and though a decade had gone by since a performance in the U.S., they recently embarked on a club tour of the States. Their 2009 release, Journal for Plague Lovers, is a bold new project embracing both halves of their career. Anchored by the lyrics Edwards gave them just before he disappeared, the gritty, paired down production courtesy of Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Jesus Lizard) and the band's longtime collaborator Dave Eringa (Idlewild, Nine Black Alps), the album is a gut-wrenching reminder of the band's brilliance and endurance. Another chapter in one of the great rock and roll myths, it echoes everything the Manics have been and ever will be. Here, Filter gathers Sean Moore, James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire to reflect on all the noise.
The lyrics for Journal for Plague Lovers were based on a series of journals that Richey gave you right before he disappeared. Did you have any idea of the significance of that gesture at that time?
Sean Moore: To be honest with you, no. We were not taken aback or suspicious. We had gotten bits and pieces from him all the time. So, when we got them all together in one binder, we just thought he was being highly efficient. He gave them to us literally the day before he disappeared, so we didn't get that much time to dwell on it; over the years we've come to realize its significance. It's a pity we didn't realize it earlier on, so that we could have maybe altered the course of history.
James Dean Bradfield: I remember looking at the lyrics and thinking "I don't know if this is the direction we want to go in at the moment" We had just come off of The Holy Bible and the lyrics weren't what I thought we needed. I didn't have a connection with them at the time. When Richey gave me the lyrics for The Holy Bible, I was mainlining into them; but with these, I wasn't.
Nicky Wire: I didn't want to face his words for a long time. I hadn't really looked at that journal of lyrics for years, but once I did, I just fell in love with Richey as a lyric writer again. I never forgot the beauty of his lyrics; I just remembered how brilliant he was.
Bradfield: When it became obvious Richey was not going to turn up anytime soon, we looked obsessively into the lyrics to try to find clues as to what might have happened; but, there were no clues.
Were you afraid that you wouldn't be able to do the lyrics justice?
Bradfield: Good god, I was scared shitless. Over the years, I kept looking at these lyrics and putting them away, again and again. But around late 2006, I started getting some ideas - seeing shapes and hearing sounds. The scariest moment was the first day we sat in the studio in Cardiff doing demos, wondering if we could make it sound like a four-piece again. If Richey had been around, would it have even sounded like a four-piece? And it did, so that was a big relief.
When Richey first disappeared it was clearly a hard topic for you to talk about. Now you've put yourself in a position where you have to talk about him. How hard has that part of the process been?
Wire: Working with the lyrics and making the record wasn't hard at all; it was actually really enjoyable for me. It was suspended disbelief for eight weeks while we were recording it, as if we were a four-piece, because we felt that perfect symmetry of 15 years ago. But, as soon as we finished it and realized we had to go play these songs every night, it did become more emotional and more difficult, because you're singing someone else's words. And it makes you wonder, "Have we made the record he would have liked?"
Did you ever wonder what he meant by certain lyrics?
Wire: We talked a lot about "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time," because it's such a great mix of high and low culture. "Doors Closing Slowly' is the one lyric that really perturbs me, because it's genuinely sad and seems to say, "This is it." There's a sense in that song that something's going to break. But overall, the thought process is much calmer than The Holy Bible, which is just rage and heroin. Here the conclusions are bleak, but they are rational. I think they're saying, "I've tried everything and I've been through everything and it just doesn't do it for me."
Is there anything left from Richey's years with the band that you would feel comfortable releasing?
Bradfield: I'm going to put myself in a position to contradict myself in the future by going on record and saying no; we've done it. That's it. There are lyrics leftover in those booklets that just didn't inspire music for me, and there are also lyrics in the booklets that I wouldn't feel comfortable putting out there. What we did is very much the end and definitive.
When you were recording, were there times where you could feel that Richey was there with you?
Moore: We like to think so, but when we're recording - especially with Steve Albini - you pretty much get on with it. It wasn't until we started the mixing process that we had a chance to think about it. Then you hope there's a guiding hand or another person there who builds the same sort of smile on their face you know you had when you were creating it.
What about Steve Albini's style made you want to record the new album with him?
Wire: We always admired him, and Richey admired him especially. We like the honesty and the realness of Steve's style. And I think Richey would have enjoyed it.
There are clearly two phases to your history: There's what came before Everything Must Go when Richey was still with you, and there's everything that followed. Now that you've lived a fair amount in the second phase, how would you characterize each one?
Moore: The first three albums were about the learning process. We were very young and very naïve; we didn't understand ourselves and we didn't understand the business. After The Holy Bible there was a steep learning curve in terms of survival as a band. Since there was not much commercial success for The Holy Bible, we were looking at the end of our career. If the same thing happened today, we would have been dropped after our second album.
Bradfield: The two halves, which are characterized by the band being a four-piece and a three-piece, also mark the two phases of our career, which have been analog and digital. When Richey was around, he never downloaded anything. He never owned a mobile phone. He didn't really know what the Internet was. But after he went missing, things started immediately changing. Peoples' lifestyles began to change and the music industry changed beyond all recognition. When Richey was in the band, people were muttering, "Oh God, the record industry is in a terrible state. Everything is fucked." Now, I realize that the record industry actually was in the dying throes of a Golden Age.
We knew after The Holy Bible, when Richey was still in the band, that we didn't want to pursue that tact for the next couple of records. We knew that we wanted to decipher the haikus that we'd been writing up until then and we wanted to get a point across with more of a human face. Up until then, we'd been speaking in tongues: "Motorcycle Emptiness" starts off, "Culture sucks down words/Itemize loathing and feed yourself smiles." I recognize that line when I hear it, but when you sing it in a rock song, it doesn't immediately transfer to a lot of people. We were looking forward to the challenge of writing things that were a bit more readily understood, but still saying the same things. When Richey was around, there was a religious fervor to what we were doing, but after that, we really tried to get the same things across in a different way.
In the beginning, you said you were only going to record one album, which would be as big as Appetite for Destruction, and then you were going to retire. What made you change your mind?
Moore: [Laughs] Contractually, we had to write it. But to this day I think that if we had come out with a 16-million selling album, we'd all have looked at each other and thought, "Yeah, we've done it." And we would have gotten out.
Bradfield: Didn't turn out that way. [Laughs] We resigned a contract with Sony and our boss went, "Yeah, not bad for a band that was only supposed to make one record." Our first album is much more perfect than I can ever realize, because it's flawed; it's dated and it's the opposite of what we wanted. That's cool in and of itself because, in the age of ProTools and producers shaping bands, it's good to hear a record that's so obviously a first record from a band that's so ambitious. Some of my favorite first records - such as the first Clash album - it's quintessentially them, but it absolutely falls short of perfection. Or Hatful of Hollow, which is essentially the first Smiths record, is a great record but it's far from realized.
Wire: In retrospect, I feel a bit guilty about that line. But we were coming from Blackwood, Wales, the middle of nowhere, so we had to be larger-than-life. There was a cartoon element to us in the beginning; we had to be noticed and provocation was a good way to get that attention.
It had been 10 years since the Manics toured the States. Where was the love?
Wire: We've been a bit naughty. [Laughs] There are really dedicated, hardcore fans [in the states], so playing to them has made us feel pretty humble. It's also made us feel like we're in a new country. When you're 40 and you've been in a band all your life, that does really give you a kick and make you feel like you're experiencing something new.
The trip to Cuba to promote Know Your Enemy was something that got the band a lot of press from outlets that had never written about you before - and a lot of it was negative. What was that experience like?
Wire: I remember doing a press conference that felt like The White House pressroom because there were 60 people there. I was really quite scared because I didn't want to seem like we were endorsing communism and the Cuban state. It wasn't about that; it was much more about the underdog who likes discovering something new It was also just showing that there are good points to Cuba, like the education system and the medical system. My only regret is that it came across as a publicity stunt when we were trying to do something deeper. Once we got there, it felt like we were in Forrest Gump-shaking hands with Castro while his whole cabinet was standing around. The trip ended up costing so much money that it nearly bankrupt us. Ironically, Sony couldn't even sell records in Cuba because of the embargo.
After the success of Send Away the Tigers, you were feeling uncomfortable about writing singles again. Now that you've done Journal for Plague Lovers, do you feel like you're ready to follow-up Tigers?
Bradfield: We are immensely fucking contrary about what we do. As soon as we start enjoying some success - or lack of success - we want exactly the opposite. And there's nothing you can do about that. It might be the wrong way to react as a band, but that's just the way it is; you can't stop it. We had the No. 2 single in Britain with "Your Love Alone is Not Enough" from Send Away the Tigers and I knew we didn't have another one of those in us then. The worst thing you can do as a band is try and force yourself in a direction. We've done that before, and you end up with a virtual version of yourself; with something that doesn't quite ring true. We've succumbed to the pressure before, and we welcomed it. But, to be brutally honest, when you get to be 40 years old, you don't react to that pressure as well as you used to.
The Manics - through both design and fate - have become almost mythical. What is the legend of the band today?
Wire: At the start, the myth was self-inflicted but then it became fatalistic and we lost control of it for a while. Then the myth takes you over. Having grown up loving the rock-and-roll myth, I'm glad we've got a mythology and have become part of that lineage of great British bands. If we have one more great album in us, then we'll be up there with the rock gods.