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High Fidelity - Melbourne Herald Sun, 17th May 2001

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Title: High Fidelity
Publication: Melbourne Herald Sun
Date: Thursday 17th May 2001
Writer: Cameron Adams

The Manics are more subversive than most, they tell Cameron Adams.

Welsh trio the Manic Street Preachers have made a career out of politically charged songs, but for their past two albums have managed the difficult trick of also being a million-selling stadium rock act.

A Design for Life, one of their biggest sellers, even starts with the suitably non-rock line "libraries gave us power".

But the Manics have found success costs.

Their latest album, Know Your Enemy, is so titled because they had become their own enemy.

The album features a deliberately tougher, rawer, more political sound designed to shake off casual fans drawn in by previous radio-friendly singles.

And though they welcomed the new millennium with a sold-out show of 60,000 in their hometown of Cardiff, they turned down an offer to stage a similar show to launch Know Your Enemy.

Instead, they chose to play a gig in Havana, Cuba, where they were not only unknown, but were the first major Western rock band to visit.

They sold tickets for next-to-nothing, and met Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"It was a very surreal experience," says Manics bassist Nicky Wire.

"It was like being in Forrest Gump. You're on a movie set and Fidel Castro walks in. He came to our gig, he was very witty and charming. He invited us to dinner."

Castro had been worded up on the Manics before their meeting, which reduced the band, fans of Cuban sport and politics, to veritable nervous schoolboys.

"I'd warned him about the noise at the gig and he said, 'It can't be louder than war.' The next day we saw him he said, 'It was louder than war.'"

"No one in the audience knew who we were," Wire says, "because (their record label) Sony doesn't trade with Cuba, which we disagree with, so we had to fund everything ourselves."

"But that was the point: we could have just played in Cardiff, done a big gig and made money, but we went to Cuba, lost a load of money and did everything off our own back."

Back in England, many dismissed the Cuban show as a publicity stunt, taking amunition from the presence of UK journos and a documentary crew.

But Wire, who later said "some bands go to meet Tony Blair, we go to meet Fidel Castro" has a different theory about the backlash.

"Some people were jealous. A lot of journalists have tried to interview Castro over the years, he's notoriously hard to track down, and we did."

Indeed, Know Your Enemy has seen the Manics receive some of their harshest reviews for years. This has not escaped Wire, who admits he "reads everything" about his band, having just polished off some New Zealand press.

"We're on our sixth album now, and you have to be careful you don't become irrelevant, so I'm glad there have been quite hateful reviews because that shows people still have an opinion about you," Wire says.

"We wanted to get back that spirit of when we started the group."

"Bands like Primal Scream or At the Drive In or Rage Against the Machine - who stand up and say something - even if it's not particularly eloquent, they tend to get more criticism than bands who say nothing."

"I think a lot of bands want to do it the easy way. People take career moves, realise it's much easier to write songs about their girlfriends."

Know Your Enemy has very few love songs. With a musical palate that extends from the Clash to Chic, Wire's passionate lyrics detail several Cuban political issues, including Baby Elian, about Elian Gonzales, the child caught in a tug-of-war between Havana and the US and Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children.

The album follows This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, the record that consolidated them as a stadium act, and brought them to Australia for the first time.

Their previous album, Everything Must Go, was their most personal (written after the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards, who remains missing), and their most successful.

When they released their debut, 1992's double album Generation Terrorists, they claimed they'd sell 15 million then split. They didn't and they didn't.

But, with millions of sales and dollars under his belt, Wire says making music for the masses isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"We always wanted success from the start, but it gets to the point of saturation, where you get caught in such a bubble and people keep telling you you're great all the time and sometimes you're not."

"We had a moment of clarity. Playing in Cardiff for the Millennium show, it was our home town, our country, 60,000 people...you realise it's not going to get any bigger or better than that, it's time to go a different way. That was the peak. There's no point chasing that again."

Know Your Enemy, recorded quickly minus rehearsals or strings, has also trimmed back their sales, as the chart-savvy Wire expected.

"I know a record like Know Your Enemy can't really sell that many. We knew that a song like (This is My's) The Everlasting would do really well in parts of Europe. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. John Lennon always used to say, 'Come on let's write another swimming pool.'"

"We haven't got to that level, but it was just too well rehearsed. Not the songs, just the way they were treated. But it wasn't everything, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next is still one of the best things we've ever done."

"I think it's the strings. Everything Must Go had been so successful, and you know that if you make a similar-sounding record you cash in on the previous record's work. That's how it goes."

"With this album a lot of people have come back to us. We shed a lot of the Mondeo drivers as we call them and got back a lot of the glittery, f...ed up kids who are looking for something different, people perhaps we lost on the previous album."

Their latest chart subversion tactic was releasing two singles on the same day, Found That Soul and So Why So Sad, with both entering the UK Top 10.

"We've had 25 consecutive Top 40 hits in the UK, which is more than any other band of the '90s," Wire says proudly.

"Blur are one behind us. If you look at our albums, the way they sound, the way we've changed and the soap-opera angle to us, I think it is quite an achievement."

Their next single, Ocean Spray, features singer James Dean Bradfield's first lyrics (Wire usually writes them all), written as a tribute to his late mother.

"I think a song like Ocean Spray or Let Robeson Sing should be a massive hit, but I'm getting very cynical, really."

"In today's music the most challenging thing is something like Coldplay or Travis, which is all very nice, but it's not challenging whatsover. I'm a student of the music industry, unless it's a fluke, it's impossible for a record with lyrical meaning to get through these days. It is frustrating."

The Manics will release their greatest hits album (already titled Forever Delayed) next year, and aren't secretive about their plans to split soon after, rather than falter.

Wire hopes to return to Australia soon, although we're coming to him at the moment.

First, there was the Avalanches remix of So Why So Sad ("If we'd had it earlier we might have released that as the single, it's genius") his love of Chopper ("I'm absolutely obsessed with Chopper. It's a scarily likeable, charming film. The actor who plays him is amazing, he's like De Niro in it") and then Powderfinger, who just supported the Manics in Germany ("they seem like nice chaps").

Wire remembers their sole Australian visit fondly.

"I loved it, which surprised me. I think it helped having Marilyn Manson along on the Big Day Out. I loved Melbourne especially."

"I went to Don Bradman's museum in Adelaide. I'm a big cricket fan. But I've always had the dark, gloomy, artistic Nick Cave impression of Melbourne, I didn't see that side...but it was summer, I guess."

Wire's World - Loves and Loathes

The Manic Street Preachers' Nicky Wire holds Texan rock act At the Drive In (above) up as an example of a quality modern band.

"If I was a young kid that's the band I'd want to be in. I was actually too scared to go and see them, because I saw them on TV and I thought they were everything I hoped we were when we were younger, but they could also play! That was frightening."

"They should have been the band of last year, but because they actually said something it ended up being Linkin Park or Papa Roach, who say nothing except teenage angst written by 30-year-old Americans."

"I find it really frustrating. They don't even criticise America, they just criticise the fact they can't have a nice car. It's very materialistic. Or they're moaning about school...These are 33-year-old blokes with beards. Get over it."

"Everywhere is swamped in that sound. That's why I think a record like ours faces an impossible task against the band with the baggy shorts and tattoos. It's easy to rage about nothing, it's harder to rage about something."

Eminem however, impresses him more.

"I respect his lyrical prowess, not his views. If you want a poet that dissects America at the moment then he's the best poet because he does sum up America. He's America's ultimate product, he and George Bush go together like peas in a pod. He documents America in a truthful way, it's not pretty or nice, but that's the way it is."