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How Green Is My Valley - Select, November 1998

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Title: How Green Is My Valley
Publication: Select
Date: November 1998
Writer: John Harris
Photos: Neil Cooper

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Before Richey disappeared, Nicky Wire tried to quit the Manic Street Preachers, intending a quieter life. Ironically, he now has that life and the band. He also has an album-worth of unheard lyrics about Richey, revels in new depths to his Welsh identity and is never happier than when he's cleaning up dog hairs. This is the story of the new Manics album...

Three years ago, someone decided to leave the Manic Street Preachers. Tired of the corrosive grind of touring and a particularly spartan chain of European hotels, he surmised that his role within the group could only continue at the rather extortionate cost of his own sanity - and so that was that.

"We were touring ‘The Holy Bible’ in Europe with Suede," recalls Nicky Wire, "and it was probably the worst time I’ve ever experienced in my life. In some respects it was worse than when Richey actually disappeared, because he was on the verge of madness.

"And James just didn’t stop drinking. Nothing to do with Suede: it was just absolute fucking hell. I said to James one night, ‘I’m going to leave’, and he went out, got wazzed out of his brain and couldn’t even fucking remember what I’d said to him. Everybody was totally oblivious to everybody else’s needs.

"Every morning I woke up and wanted to go home. Richey had stopped drinking, he’d come out of hospital and he’d just start smoking 65 cigarettes a day. And I can’t stand smoke. I’m not having a go at him: he was fucked out of his mind, smoking that much and drinking about 30 cups of coffee a day.

"Everything was bad. Me and Richey stayed in a Hotel Ibis every night. I don’t know if you’ve ever stayed in one of those, but the only nice thing was waking up every morning and having breakfast together, with a bit of French bread and apricot jam. That was the only smidgen of normality during the whole tour.

"The one thing that pulled me back was that, luckily, it finished. And that was it: that was the last tour we did. The only thing we did after that were those three nights at the Astoria in London, when we trashed everything. Whether Richey had gone missing or not, it was obvious to us that smashing those instruments meant the end of something."

"If we could have," says Sean Moore, "we’d have trashed everything into tiny pieces and said, ‘That is it. We can’t do any more. We haven’t got any instruments to play, we haven’t got a stage to play on. That is it."

Thirty-four months later, after a chain of events that barely needs recounting, Nicky Wire - still proudly a Manic - sits on his bed at the Borehamwood Moat House, a hotel that lies on the British/American cultural border - where the two countries meld in a flurry of cocktails, bottled beers and family ‘meal-deals’. Hotel Ibis, cigarette smoke and apricot jam have long become stuff of the past: even today’s perfectly reasonable quarters, relative to his current elevated standards of luxury, represent for Nicky something dangerously close to slumming it. The release of the new album, ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ - the first Manics album to be solely scripted by Nicky - is not much more than a fortnight away.

Down the road at the BBC’s Elstree studios, meanwhile, Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield are attempting to extract a basic level of comfort from their Top Of The Pops dressing room, while All Saints, Steps and the inexplicable airbrushed phenomenon known as 5ive rehearse their dance steps. Somewhere in the warren of studios and corridors lurks Courtney Love, here to film a preemptive performance of ‘Celebrity Skin’, but no-one has glimpsed much more than the outer ring of her entourage.

The Manics, for the first time in their history, are the show’s climatic act, performing the single that has flown past its competitors to land at the Number One spot. Nonetheless, they still seem like some off-kilter adjunct to the rest of the show, following an unending stream of harmless musical nougat with a considered, just-short-of-dour reading of a song about the Spanish Civil War. That one of the audience members, pressed up against the stage, bounces around arythmically while wearing a pair of flashing devil’s horns only adds to the incongruity.

Infusing all this oddness is the same stirring sense of moral victory that has accompanied all the Manics’ successes since ‘A Design For Life’. No group has ever had their first gulp of hugeness while nursing such deep battle scars - nor indeed maintained their creative integrity while their finances were blown sky-high.

Think about it this way: since they reappeared, the Manics have had hit singles with a song that surveyed the history of British working class, another about the death of a traumatised war photographer, and two concerning the vexed fall-out from their own messy history. Today, meanwhile, the piercing mewls of teenage hysteria must be momentarily silenced for a song that says "If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists."

"Last time round," says James, sitting on a picnic bench outside the BBC’s rather grim ‘Elstree Club’ as darkness falls, "it was more of a gradual response. If you look at ‘Everything Must Go’, it didn’t actually have that many high chart positions, but - as they say in the industry, (smirking) it had a long shelf-life. It crept up on us. At no point it was like, ‘Wa-hey’, linking arms, thinking ‘We’re on our way’. We avoided that euphoria.

"So the first time I’ve actually felt any astonishment was with this single. But I didn’t know how to react, so I just didn’t react."

What were you feeling inwardly?

"I was just relieved - not to be a bridesmaid anymore, a perennial bridesmaid. It’s nice to be taken off the shelf. But even now, I’m not quite sure. It’s only one single: it could all go fucking wrong. That’s one part of us now: we never make any plans and we never take anything for granted. Superstition is very ingrained in us.

"But we are one of the more unlikely big groups, yeah. I wish I could be more arrogant about it, but I still don’t know quite what went right with ‘Tolerate’. I walked out of here today, and it was full of 14-years-old, and not one of them fucking knew me. You realise that, as a lobby group, they’re very strong.

"And it’s mad to think we’ve outsold that. It’s almost like you’re coming up against Ronald Reagan in politics. It’s just like, ‘Fuck! I’m a really intelligent man, I’ve got a first from Harvard in literature and politics, and I’m losing to fucking Reagan.’ It would feel like that."

Thankfully, it didn’t. Victory, however fleeting, went to intelligence, history and one of the more elegantly understand hit singles of the last ten years. Sometimes the right people win.

The Saturday before the Manics mooch through Top Of The Pops, Sean Moore is slouched in a Cork hotel foyer. Twelve hours earlier, the band turned in a deliriously thrilling performance at the city’s opera house in front of a crowd so devoted that some of them punctuated the show with a chanted request for ‘Revol’, the achingly obtuse song from ‘The Holy Bible’ that would doubtless have led the 1500-strong crowd to commence heartwarming singalongs of topical couplets like "Gorbachev - celibate self-importance / Yeltsin - failure his own impotence."

No-one casts Sean so much as a curious glance: he is merely an anonymous man on a sofa in a Stone Island baseball cap and a pair of ill-advised shorts. No matter that he, Nicky and James will soon climb aboard their bus and begin a journey to Slane Castle outside Dublin where they’ll play in front of 80,000 people; this morning, give or take a handful of autographs, they glide out of Cork with silent ease.

There are no discarded breakfast trays festooned with cigarette butts and whisky glasses, no bills to settle for damage to the sauna, none of the frisson of anxiety that usually ripples around hotel foyers when rock groups come to stay. James and Sean - who by 2am had sensibly switched from whisky to water - were up until four or so, happily re-acclimatising to the social milieu that comes with touring ( "It actually worries me that I still like being in a very blokey environment," says James. "I always get bored of the company of women really quickly"), but everyone then went quietly to bed and got up for breakfast.

As befits people of their age, success has brought the Manics deep-pile comfort rather than orgiastic excess: the low-intensity warmth that comes from good hotels, limitless taxis and the wherewithal to pursue your own idiosyncratic obsessions. Their road-life takes in such X-rated pleasures as Nicky Wire’s nightly swim (good for the joints, apparently), a fondness for room service - at Borehamwood Nicky chooses pizza and cups of impossibly milky tea - and Sean Moore’s propensity to tinker with his collection of gadgets, which he refers to as his ‘kit’: at Top Of the Pops he plays patience on one of those electronic personal organisers that comes with a digital pencil.

Around them is the same aura of control and graceful restraint that characterises elements of their music. They diligently keep appointments, maintain an extended, tight-knit family of management, road crew and record company employees, and stability is manifest in their every move. The gorgeously precise sleeve-art on the latest album says it all: in 1998, the Manics are an air-conditioned, sparsely-furnished kind of group. Were they to secretly visit your house, you begin to suspect, you would have no clue they were ever there.

Much of the impetus behind all this can be traced back to Nicky Wire. There are those who would like to believe that he unwinds after a concert by reading Marx’s Philosophical Manuscripts or making his way through his 37th Balzac novel. Far from it: by his own admission he spends more of his time diligently maintaining his pristine personal world.

"I’m not reading much at the moment, anyway, » he confesses. « I made a conscious decision after Richey went missing that my lyrics wouldn’t be infused with so many references and intellectualisms. They’re still there, but I’m just not as clever and erudite as he was. With some of his references, I didn’t even know them. He’d be reading three books a day. » So what do you tend to do when you’re ferried back to the hotel? You’re obviously not one for the wee-hours bar life.

"Telly, bath... I always pack my suitcase before I go to bed, so if we’re going the next day everything’s done the night before. I wash my pants: ever since I saw Joe Strummer in Rude Boy washing his T-shirt, I always was those and my socks. I have been known to spend three hours at night blow-drying them."

The fondness for the quiet maintenance of cleanliness and order applies just as fixatedly in his home environment.

"When I went home last wee," he says, " I was out with the Sellotape on the settee and chairs. The dog sits on them, so I use Sellotape to get the hairs off. It’s the best way - better than a hoover. It may sound odd, but I spent about an hour and a half doing that at 12 o’clock at night. But I actually enjoyed doing it, so I don’t think there’s any problem."

Fretting about dog hair and dust, mind you, is a mere fragment of Nicky’s domestic mindset. Home, for the lyricist of a group who ended their first album with the apposite words "There’s nothing I wanna see / There’s nowhere I wanna go", is everything.

The sixth track on ‘This Is My Truth...’ is ‘My Little Empire’: a quiet, contemplative song whose music conveys the creeping sense of a resigned passage towards doom. Its lyrics ("My little empire has risen and it’s set / My little empire is as good as it can get") are, at first sight, elliptical and opaque - but once you’re told that it’s about Nicky’s obsessive devotion to the world within his four walls and how it might eventually prove his undoing, it makes an affecting kind of sense. Tellingly, it also features Nicky’s first recorded outbreak of proper singing. "’My Little Empire’ explains how a lot of the songs are written," reveals James Dean Bradfield. "It explains the ideals and values that have constructed Nick’s environment. I don’t think there are many people who’d write a song like ‘My Little Empire’: it’s about the value of Nick’s style of authorship. And out of that song arises the album."

There follows a brief flurry of conversation about why, given that it’s the key track of the LP, it wasn’t placed at the start; James says that would have been too egotistical, threatening to turn ‘This Is My Truth’ into ‘Nicky Wire: The Rock Opera’.

"It is my favourite song on the record," says Nicky. "It’s saying that the things that make me happy can just be as destructive as alcoholism or drug addiction. Sometimes I think I lead such an introverted life, such a withdrawn life, with no social interaction, that perhaps it’ll lead to disaster - but it’s what keeps me sane.

"I just wonder about my own mentality sometimes: do I have a right to express all these opinions? My big thing writing a lot of this album was knowledge over experience - like that quote by Tracy Emin when she said, ‘I decided to experience all these other countries by just fucking men of different nationalities.’ It’s kind of the same with me. I never feel the need to go bungee jumping in the south of France for the sake of the experience."

Aside from touring, Nicky Wire makes a point of avoiding travel. Prior to ‘Everything Must Go’, he and his wife had a short break in Barcelona - hence "I’ve walked in Las Ramblas, but not from real intent" from ‘Tolerate’ - but his practical horizons seem to end some way short of the Welsh border. There are no holidays in Mustique or fact-finding missions to Cuba: all told, in fact, tourism seems to amount to something rather distasteful.

"I don’t travel if I can’t help it," he says, with a faint air of self-criticism. "There’s still so much I’ve got to know about Wales and Britain."

For the moment, Nicky Wire is happiest exploring his own world of Sellotape, his dishcloth and the new-legendary Dyson hoover. How close to obsessive/compulsive disorder does this addiction take him?

"There have been times in my life, for instance when I was 15 or 16, when I think I was really close to OCD," he says, tellingly opting for the requisite acronym. "I had certain little traits like switching the lights off 30 or 40 times to make sure they were off, and locking the door 20 or 30 times.

"It wasn’t so much cleaning stuff then, it was more of a safety thing. It only lasted a year. I don’t know if things develop, but I do love cleaning. It gives me such a sense of fulfilment."

‘My Little Empire’ manages to convey the sense that, on a philosophical level, there’s something rather pitiful about that.

"Exactly. The whole thing about ‘My Little Empire’ is that all empires crumble into dust."