The Manic Street Preachers were wearing Boots No.17 eyeliner and women's fun-fur coats way before Brett Anderson could even spell androgyny. "Our idea of glamour is far removed from most people's," Richey James helpfully tells Simon Witter.
On a grey afternoon, in a faceless apartment above a West London studio, a genial, petite Welshman rests his winkle-pickers on the coffee table as he liltingly unravels his peculiar world-view. Re-styled, skinny-thighed denim flares and a white-on-black polka-dot shirt, its cuffs dandily open, point to the unusual profession of our protagonist, but nothing in his sweet, unrufflable demeanour hints at the anarchy and anger for which he’s become famous. Richey James is the 25-year-old lyricist and linchpin of Britain’s most tabloid-friendly rock band, the Manic Street Preachers.
In the two years since they delivered their raging calling-card, 'Motown Junk', his group have become the darlings of the old journos who want to put the punk back into rock, to believe that guitar bands can still mean something. They’ve jammed, glammed and scammed their way around the world, striking enough poses and delivering outrageous statements to – almost – obscure the fact that they write good songs. And now, on the eve of the release of their second album, Gold Against the Soul, Richey is taking stock.
Behind him, several thousand pounds-wroth of Sega games surround a Megadrive console and, mysteriously, a Nintendo Super NES deck. Nothing else in the flat betrays the character of its inhabitants, save in Richey’s room, a cramped three-bed space which is decorated with five mural montages, each bearing testimony to the boy’s influences. Marky Mark, trousers at half mast, is framed by Egon Schiele portraits, while Marilyn Monroe is outnumbered by copious Kate Moss clippings. Richey has only spent 30 days at home this year, and cutting up books and magazines is a favourite way of killing time on the road.
"I just think she’s pretty," Richey volunteers when pressed about his Kate Moss shrine. "She looks delicate, that’s what I like about her. I’m not the kind of person who could like Cindy Crawford. That’s not my type of look.
"Our idea of glamour is far removed from most people’s. Keith Richards in ’72 was glamorous, but I don’t mind flicking through magazines for beautiful, vacuous images. To me there’s no contradiction between reading Sylvia Plath or Primo Levi and sticking a picture of Kate Moss on my wall. It’s something to look at, no big deal."
The waif-like androgyny of Kate Moss fits in perfectly with the Manic Street Preachers’ fake rock ‘n’ roll drag. Not that you can expect Richey to agree. "The makeup and androgyny things was really overplayed in the press. Boy George and David Bowie were androgynous, but a bit of eyeliner and some eye shadow is not my idea of androgyny. People say we wear a lot of make-up, but Kiss wore make-up. We wear black kohl eyeliner – Boots’ own or anything – and use a bit of powder to make our faces pale. It’s nothing subtle or time-consuming.
"One of the worst things that ever happened to us was when we had to start shaving. James can’t even be bothered to do it any more; he’s walking around with a beard. Everyone at school was ecstatic when they had to start shaving, and got straight on with trying to grow moustaches, but we stopped going out, went round to James' and got guitars. It’s a way of divorcing yourself from your background.
"There’ll always be girls who like feminine boys, just as there will be girls that like muscular men with strong jawlines. For all the talk about Brett from Suede, half a comprehensive school is going to like Jason Orange from Take That or Gary Barlow from East 17. Gary Barlow is very hard, a karate black-belt. He’s just a strong man." (Richey seems to have got a bit confused about who’s in which group: Gary Barlow is actually the fat one in Take That – East 17’s hard man is Tony Mortimer. But really, who can blame him?) "There’s still a lot of people who find that appealing, and a lot of people who find skinny people appealing.
"People in Bradford or South Wales walk around looking like a hangover of a really casual Stones look," Richey rants on. "Not so much any more, now that techno is the music of the working classes. There’s no Moschino or Gaultier shops in the valleys of South Wales, so you’re left with cheap market clothes. Your jeans might even be stretch-fibre KS jeans, rather than Levi’s. There’s just nothing. I still shop like that. This shirt cost £8 at Shepherd’s Bush market, and I got these jeans second-hand, and had the tops of the legs taken in so that they’d look like jeans I’ve seen Iggy wearing in pictures."
Trouser-styling isn’t the only thing Richey has in common with Iggy Pop. While the lead Stooge used to cut himself regularly with bottles during his act, Richey notoriously slashed the words "4 real" into his forearm with a razor blade during an interview a couple of years ago. Internalising your rage and taking it out on yourself seems to be an aptly feminine thing to do. Richey concurs: "Coming from where we come from, everyone puts up with a lot of shit, be it on the dole or in the factories, but they it in. then on weekends they go down the pub, drink as fast as they can and end up having a massive fight. If they can’t find anyone to pick an argument with, they end up having a big fight with their mates. That’s one thing we’ve never done and never would do. When we get really pissed off, we never scream at each other, we just leave the room and go be on our own. What I did that day was similar, only more extreme than things I have done before. I’d rather do it to myself than go and do it to somebody else. If you’ve got nothing left to say other than going and smacking someone in the face, what’s the fucking point? We never regret anything. There’s no point, once something’s done."
In a lot of interviews, the Manics sound like they’re trying to bond with women in a conscious anti-macho stance. "It is a lot to do with anti-macho stance," Richey agrees, "Like all that about moustaches when we were growing up. It was all something that we found really distasteful. I like the ways girls always cope better than men. It’s really rare to see frustrated girls kicking the shit out of each other. Generally they’re forced to come to terms with life much quicker than men. Even when they get together with a man, the reality for most people is that he’ll fuck off down the pub, while she decides what they buy, who pays the bills and what gets done. All those articles about the '80s or '90s New Man, he never existed. We rehearsed in Putney, and you see a few men like that in Putney and Barnes, but you don’t fucking see them anywhere else."
So what kind of girls sleep with you? "I couldn’t say. The rest of the band haven’t slept around for the last eight months or so. When a girl wants to sleep with one of us, there’s no big dance around it. They just walk up to you and say: "Do you wanna fuck?" There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t happen, because that’s the only reason people come and see us backstage. We don’t have great parties after our shows; we’ve never been into parties, and the autograph-hunters wait at the stage door. The only people who force their way in are people looking for someone else."
So has success changed Richey’s attitude to sex? "I haven’t got an attitude to sex. I’d never slept with anyone till I was 21, and it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t spend my teenage years wanting to fuck." They don’t have peer pressure in Wales, then? "No. The only people I bothered with were Nick, James and Sean. When we left school, we went and did our own thing; we decided not to grow moustaches. We weren’t any different to anyone went to school with, we were just really self-obsessed."
When the Manics stopped pretending to be a punk band and started pretending to be a decadent glam-rock band, they became a much more interesting proposition. Strangely, however, they didn’t adopt the decadent lifestyle’s notorious sexual accessories.
"Sex for me is really functional. It’s not that enjoyable. It’s just an iota removed from a wank. A little more pleasurable, but nothing else. I’ve never slept with anybody I found really attractive. I’m just really fussy about girls I like, I suppose," says Richey.
Let’s get this straight. Richey’s an incurable romantic, but he doesn’t mind shagging the arse off people he doesn’t even remotely fancy?
"I barely sleep with people. I’ve slept with one person this year. There’s one person I’ve found attractive for about two years, but I barely see her, and we just talk. She’s not a friend. I just like talking to her as a person, and I find her really attractive."
Richey’s fans send notes saying things like: "You beauty insults me, because I can’t touch it." Enough to make anyone ego-trip? "It’s just a teenage band thing. Half the 13-year-old girls in Britain walk around thinking that East 17 are biblical fucking re-incarnations, above everything, more than real, godlike. The level we’re at is just some posh little band that some people find attractive."
What everyone’s waiting for, of course, is the group’s new 10-track album, Gold Against the Soul, due out next month but currently held up while they get clearance to quote a Primo Levi poem on the sleeve. I don’t even have to ask Richey what it’s like before he’s off: "It’s about the loss of innocence. Childhood pleasures are more natural and real. When you’re a child, you always want to grow up and do adult things, but when you get those things, it doesn’t increase your enjoyment of life.
"Most people look back on their childhoods with more fondness than their early 20s or their teenage years, which are pretty horrendous. As a child, you put your head on your pillow and fall asleep with no worries. From being a teenager onwards, it’s pretty rare that you don’t end up staying awake half the night thinking about bullshit."
It seems a bit sad to be looking back already at the age of 25, but it doesn’t seem to worry the nothing-if-not-pragmatic Richey.
"I’m not nostalgic. It’s more a general statement of fact. I don’t wake up every morning and wish that I was 10 again. I just know that I was happier then."
I’m musing about old heads on young shoulders, but by this time Richey has already moved on to how the Manics started out.
"Every review of our last album talked about the meaning of the band in the scheme of things," he offers. "We came out at the height of Madchester, when technology had supposedly done away with the electric guitar. All we ever wanted to be was a really obvious British rock band like The Who, The Stones, The Clash, Zeppelin.
"We wore white jeans and white spray-painted shirts, had pretty poor equipment and could barely play, and our songs didn’t last for more than about two minutes. So I suppose people would’ve seen us in those terms. But we did find it odd, because we’d come up to London listening to Springsteen in the van and then get compared to all these groups we’d barely heard of. When you come from a place like we do, you’re more likely to find Janis Joplin in the local Woolworth’s than the New York Dolls."
One of the best stories about Manic Street Preachers is that one of the record companies they visited before eventually signing to Sony believed they were such a heavy-metal band that they invited them to smash up their offices. "They said ‘Look, if you wanna come in and chuck everything out of the window...’ So we didn’t sign with them,’ cause they just had no idea at all. They thought a rock ‘n’ roll band should do things like that, which is so pathetic."
It doesn’t seem like a very upbeat note to end on. One last try at a different approach: So, I ask, are you really just a miserable bunch? Don’t you ever have a laugh?
"The most obscene thing in this world is how everyone always pretends to have a good time." Oh dear. "That really annoys me, when people go on about how they’re having a good time and their life’s going really great. Most people are deeply unhappy. If they weren’t they’d lead a healthy life, but nobody does that. Most people can find 50 words to describe being unhappy, but only one or two for happiness. People always moan. We fucking do anyway."