Manic Street Preacher Nicky Wire rules Brit Rock from home
Nicky Wire doesnt get out much. Nor does he feel the burning desire to do so. As bassist/lyricist for the Manic Street preachers inarguably the biggest rock band in the U.K. over the last few years Wire gets more than his fill of lengthy tours, exhausting video shoots, endless interviews, and all the other promotional duties associated with being a Professional Rock Star. But at heart, Wire is more a homebody than anything.
"I just think that cleanliness is next to godliness. I love doing the washing up. I actually enjoy it," remarks the lanky, affable Wire at San Francisco's venerable swanky Bimbo's 365 Club. "I don't drink or take drugs at all. I like the odd glass of wine, but I've only been drunk about five times in ten years." Indeed, a rock star worth bringing home to Mom. Can this seemingly gentle soul be the same human jumping bean onstage in the eye-liner, frock, and feather boa?
Of course. "Wales is a schizophrenic nation, you know. It's really small - there's only 2.8 million people. Most of its leading cultural figures...(pause)...managed to drink themselves to death. Richard Burton did it. Dylan Thomas did it. Richard Roberts, who was a famous actor, did it. And Ray Milland, who played an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend - he got a Oscar for it! Playing an alcoholic! it was his dream part!" Wire may as well be referring to "Ready For Drowning" from the Manics' most recent release, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. "Fascinated by good/Destroyed by evil/What is there to believe in?" goes the song's telltale lyric, giving the case of supposed Welsh self-destruction en existential twist.
"It is something in the water, and it's also probably down to the fact that we're kind of dwarfed by England and their national identity. But I like that fact. I suppose it makes for more interesting art."
Dwarfed by England or not, the Manics are Wales' most successful pop export since Tom Jones first started draping panties over his microphone stand. Since the hyper-publicized disappearance of guitarist/lyricist/figurehead Richey James in early 1995, the trio Wire, singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, and drummer Sean Moore have released a pair of era-defining albums that have sent their critical and commercial popularity soaring. 1996's Everything Must Go, featuring the waltz-metered, working-class touchstone "A Design For Life," as well as five songs written around typically soul-wrenching lyrics James composed before he went missing, established them as irretrievable superstars on their home island. The multi-platinum This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours only solidified their position atop the Brit Rock hierarchy upon its U.K. release in 1998, gathering Album of the Year honors and Brit Awards galore (the U.K. equivalent of a Grammy) in the process. The Manics own Britain right now, as well as most of the rest of Europe, Japan, and just about everywhere else the kids listen to The Rock. Everywhere, that is, except North America.
Near the end of a club tour throughout the U.S. and Canada, Wire comments, "I'd be lying if I said it was great playing little clubs and 'getting back to your roots'. We might play to 55,000 people this coming New Year's Eve in Cardiff. I'd be lying it I were saying this wasn't a bit of a slog." The band's recent Stateside fortunes turned so sour that, in the interval between their last two albums, they lost their American record deal with Epic Records. They ultimately signed with Virgin Records for the long-delayed U.S. release of This Is My Truth Tell Me yours in the summer of 1999.
"It's a lot better here now than it was then (three years ago)," says the soft-spoken Wire. "Our relationship with (Epic parent company) Sony had deteriorated so badly. This has been our best ever American tour. 700 people tonight for us is quite a boost. The mad thing now is that we go to Japan or Finland or virtually anywhere in the world and play to at least four or five thousand people, if not more."
Wire maintains his sense of humour about the band's cult popularity on this side of the Atlantic, however. "It would be a nightmare if we broke big in America. Then Sony would re-release our old records and make money off them! Watered-down packaging and all." Furthermore, Wire wryly appreciates the fact that he can meander down San Francisco's Columbus Avenue in peace, as opposed to most any High Street in the U.K. The anonymity here is nice. I can walk around and go shopping."
Unlike many of their Brit Rock contemporaries, the Manic Street Preachers arent openly aloof and disdainful of the United States and its decidedly different points of pop culture reference than those often found in the U.K. The best explanation for this openness might be that, again, they're not English.
"America had a big influence on us growing up - the music, really. Especially Public Enemy and Guns 'N' Roses. They were two bands we just devoured." The Manics' full-length debut, Generation Terrorists, elucidates Wire's claim. The album's most memorable songs "You Love Us," "Slash 'N' Burn," and "Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds" (perhaps the only rock song to list the names of four banks in its unwieldy title), not to mention "Motorcycle Emptiness" (every existentialist rockers anthem) - harbour the painfully direct, vitriolic barbs associated with Public Enemy's early material, while at the same time displaying GNR's glam-tinged penchant for making the Really Big Rock Statement at every possible turn.
Unlike his more emboldened bandmates, Wire still views the States with boyish awe upon every visit. "I get intimidated by it. I don't think James and Sean do, but I'm just generally intimidated by it everywhere we go. The scale of things...I mean, London scares me, but New York...I feel so anonymous in those places. Where I live there's about two hundred people, so it's a bit of a culture shock."
This is a man with all the riches anyone from a working-class background could ever wish for. And yet, Wire still lives a mere two miles from where he was born in Blackwood, just outside the Welsh capital of Cardiff. "When I go home after this tour, I'll still be living in a really cheap terraced house. Incredibly cheap - 39,000 pounds." Clearly the notably unpretentious Wire adheres - consciously or not - to the chorus refrain of "A Design For Life," perhaps the Manics' signature song:"Right here in my pretty face/To wear the scars to show from where came."
"Wales doesn't view the United States like the Holy Grail so much," he notes. "But it is like telling someone a myth when I say I'm going to tour America. If I say I'm going to tour Denmark, they're like 'so what?'"
"There's a lot of Welsh that came to America - they just never made a big deal about it. It's not like the Irish, where people in America love to think they've got an Irish accent for some sort of ethnic belonging." Wire begins to chuckle. "Sharon Stone was asked who her favourite Irish author was, and she said 'Dylan Thomas'." Chuckles turn into all-out laughter.
Beginning with the media circus of their controversial early days, continuing through the media circus of 1995/6 surrounding James' disappearance and the band's figurative rebirth, and up through the current media circus concerning their recent headlining slot at the Reading Festival (Britain's premier summer music event), it's safe to say the Manic Street Preachers have experienced their fair share of public scrutiny. Then again, when the band burst onto the scene in the early '90s with all the subtlety of a train wreck (the usual arrogant rock band stuff: claiming they were going to make one album, have it sell ten million copies, and break up immediately; James bloodily carving the phrase "4 Real" into his forearm with a knife when an NME interviewer verbally doubted his credibility; and, dressing themselves in military uniforms, drag, or sometimes nothing at all), they did nothing to close themselves off to such detailed press examination. But these days, with the exception of Wire's notorious onstage wardrobe skirt, mascara, end ever-present feather boa at the San Francisco show - the band has, more than ever, toned down the theatrics considerably.
Wire explains: "This Is My Truth is just more peaceful than anything before. It's the first time in our life we've reached peace as a band, The baggage is gone." Although unspoken, it's clear that Wire is referring to the fact that this has been the first Manic Street Preachers project to receive no creative input from James.
"Perhaps it's too peaceful in that respect," Wire laughs. "I think This Is My Truth and Everything Must Go kind of go together bookends of a sort. It's hard for us to talk about this record since it was recorded two years ago and released one year ago." When asked to compare the pair of albums, he replies, "There's a lot more euphoria on Everything Must Go - the fact that we were still together and getting through stuff. It's not happy, just kind of vaguely triumphant. We were proud of ourselves."
Listening to Generation Terrorists and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours back-to-back, you may wonder if it's the same band. The answer is, yes...but yet, no. Over the course of their five albums (1993's sleek Gold Against The Soul and 1994's harrowing The Holy Bible complete the band's album catalog), the Manics have managed to drastically alter their overall sound without sacrificing one iota of their grandiose musical ideal. Where once there were slick, pounding drums, synth flourishes and confrontational, buzzing guitars, there are now organic drum textures, epic string arrangements and sweet guitars. Cue up 1991's "You Love us" next to last years #1 single "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" for evidence.
But anything can happen next, according to Wire. "We'll change dramatically. It'll be as dramatic as The Holy Bible was from Gold Against The Soul." When asked about The Holy Bible, which was not only James' brutally frank autobiography, but as it turns out, his swan song as well, Wire compares it to Nirvana's final studio album, the ragged masterpiece In Utero. "I think they're two of the best out there. In Utero has the best drum sound ever. Those two albums...I can't listen to them that much. They're that scary, so heavy. They came out around the same time. The Holy Bible has never even been released in America. I don't listen to it much, 'cause it's a little bit painful." Noting the obvious connection between Kurt Cobain and James, Wire concludes, "Some of Richey's lyrics took things a lot further than mine ever do anyway"
As devoted Nirvana fans, the Manics used to cover In Uterto's "Pennyroyal Tea" in their quartet days. "What made Nirvana so great is that they were steeped in British pop culture," says Wire. "It wasn't a hardcore macho-type thing like with a lot of the other Seattle bands. Kurt Cobain, whether it was from either the Sex Pistols or the Beatles, had that kind of pop sensibility."
Wire's favourite song on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is "My Little Empire", a quieter number featuring Bradfield's hypnotic, cascading guitar line, a foreboding cello, and Wire's own deeply-toned backing vocals. Possibly taking a cue from his boyhood friend and ex-bandmate James, Wire readily - and honestly admits that the song's lyric (e.g. "My little empire has risen and it's set/My little empire is as good as it can get") is more autobiographical than not.
"It's quite eloquent for me, actually," he says. "It's half about being trapped in my own world, and half about living it. I know it's destructive that I spend so much time sodding off, watching telly, walking up the mountain and not communicating with people whatsoever. I know that's not great all the time, but it's the only thing that keeps me sane. I know it's unhealthy, but I know it's good as well."
Wire has teamed to effectively juggle his schizophrenic life as both Hoovering Househusband and professional Rock Star. And if the Manics never attain household-name status in the States the same way they have in Blackwood, Wales, and London, England, and every other community in the British Isles, it's fine by him. "It's kind of come to us that, back home in Europe, maybe you can be the biggest and the best," he says. "Maybe you can marry those two and be happy with what you're doing."
The Manics were (almost) dead. Long live the Manics.