Two decades, ten albums and still raging - Manic Street Preachers talk to Stephen Dalton
Barely a petrol-bomb throw from the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff lies Faster Studios, nerve centre and war room for the Manic Street Preachers. Inside this anonymous industrial bunker, the walls are emblazoned with a giant collage of photos and quotes reflecting the Welsh trio's broad hinterland of icons: artists and athletes, porn stars and politicians, from Dylan Thomas to Morrissey, Hillary Clinton to Traci Lords, John Lydon to Picasso. "For us, Never Mind The Bollocks was as important as Guernica," explains the band's brawny singer, James Dean Bradfield.
The Manics have always had high ambitions for rock's cultural significance. Working-class intellectuals raised in the Welsh valleys on a heady blend of old-school socialism, punk rock and heavy metal, their swaggering guitar anthems have often felt like dense patchworks of literary quotes and incendiary polemic. Sometimes this rich mix feels clumsy and verbose, at other times soulful and triumphant. Their new album, Postcards from a Young Man, is firmly in the latter camp. An operatically lavish affair, featuring a gospel choir and guest vocals by Ian McCulloch (of Echo & the Bunnymen), this tenth album is their most confident since the 1996 bestseller, Everything Must Go.
As Bradfield, the drummer Sean Moore and lyric-writing bass guitarist Nicky Wire are all now fortysomething family men, we might have expected an album full of midlife contentment. They are certainly more affable than during their firebrand years: "I don't mind if you call me the Peter Mandelson of pop," Wire grins. And yet their new songs still burn with the rebellious glamour of nihilism, despair and alienation. In other words, vintage Manics.
"We are raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas would say," Wire says. "We wanted to try to transfer the enthusiasm and love we still feel for that silly thing called being in a rock'n'roll band. We still believe in the power of it because it changed our lives. Not many bands, apart from the Beatles, still have a chance of relevance and selling records on their tenth album. Most bands have become a museum by then. We still want it, and we're not ashamed to say that."
Even after two decades of controversy and tragedy, including the loss of their suicidally depressed guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards in 1995, the Manics are still hungry for the big prizes. As one of the last survivors of their Britpop generation, they give us their ten-step guide to staying together and relevant for more than 20 years ...
1. It's all about friendship
Wire: "Pre-band is crucial. That I was in school with James since the age of five, James and Sean are cousins, Richey and I went to university together - I knew Richey anyway, we used to play football together - all that stuff has meant it's been really hard for any of us to develop a massive ego. There are so many intimate details we know about each other; so much failure and awkwardness and shyness growing up."
2. Work with your heroes
Wire: "Ian McCulloch was the first gig James, Sean and Richey ever went to - Echo & the Bunnymen, Bristol Colston Hall. We've got a fine tradition of duets: Shirley Bassey, Kylie, Traci Lords, Nina Persson. But this time we thought of getting a bloke, and Ian was like, 'Yeah, I'll be the man, James, you be the girl'. Ha! I would never have thought he was the cool, aloof person from 20 years ago. He was doing impressions of David Bowie and Stan Boardman."
3. Turn tragedy into triumph
Wire: "When you talk about Richey as a friend, someone's son, someone's brother, all those human things are really depressing. But in a kind of mythical way, he was just a brilliant rock'n'roll star. My only regret is that the platform he could have had, from us being so big, would have just been amazing."
4. Stick to your principles
Wire: "My problem with New Labour was that it was based on the City. The ultimate irony is that the only nationalised industry we've ended up with in this country is the banks. Under a Labour Government! We're all waiting for the next leap forward in politics. Communism has failed, but capitalism has failed even more, in some respects."
Bradfield: "The age of ideology is dead when it has no opposing force. The start of the Labour Government had some great ideas: devolution, minimum wage, Good Friday agreement, Sierra Leone, sending soldiers to Kosovo to save Muslim lives. It just got unbalanced by a big boulder called Iraq."
5. Never trust a Liberal
Wire: "It was a blessing in some ways, having Thatcher, because it did give you a giant target. Having said that, surely someone must be inspired to say what a c*** Nick Clegg is? He is the David Brent of f***ing politics. He's like a bad motivational speaker."
Bradfield: "Cameron's a Conservative, so you know where you stand. With Clegg it's just the disingenuous snakeyness of him. I believe in compromise, sometimes you've got to sell a tiny grain of your soul, but that's just too much."
6. Feed off your enemy's rage
Wire: "It's really funny when we're doing festivals and I walk past bands who I know despise me because I've slagged them off. For some bizarre reason, that gives me a sense of strength. I do feel guilty for James and Sean, because it was always me and Richey who were the most polemical. We were like the chief whips. But the situation demanded we were larger than life at the time."
7. Fight cosy consumerism
Wire: "I can't believe the lack of spite, the lack of politics, the lack of meaning in bands today - in the deepest recession we've ever had. New Labour sold the lie that a free laptop, wi-fi and Costa Coffee could bring the working classes out of poverty, and it seems like the lie worked. Decadence ruled for all those years of economic growth, and it is reflected in the music."
8. Mellow, but not too much
Bradfield: "You become more aware of people's perception of you. So when you do an interview, perhaps you're a bit more guarded, especially when it comes to being a vicious c*** who's prepared to take a Gatling gun to other bands. You worry about what the wife's family think, so there's a bit more diplomacy involved."
9. Other bands are rivals
Wire: "That element of competition is strong in pop and rap, but it has died out in rock. It seems that the high point in culture is to be playing one of your old albums at the South Bank Centre. What the f*** is Meltdown about? An endless parade of bearded men reliving their not-so-great former glories. I don't know why people see nihilism and narcissism as bad things, especially in rock'n'roll - that's what it was f***ing built on! Wayward outsiders feeling they are going to have revenge on the world."
10. Subvert the mainstream
Wire: "If we were offered Strictly Come Dancing - unlikely, I know - we'd do it as a Situationist spectacle. Just like when we won a Brit award and I wore that T-shirt saying 'I Love Hoovering', with 18 million people watching. Us and Ian McCulloch on Strictly, with a load of dancers behind us? I'd love that. I still have that sense of subversion."