In Depth: Manic Street Preachers - Alternative Ulster Magazine, 22nd September 2010
By James Hendicott
“Go and listen to David Guetta and tell me what that says about modern society? People just don’t care. I think we’re all to blame.”
Throughout their 20-year career, Manic Street Preachers have always stood out as a band intent on doing things differently. Having conquered the world with household name Nineties albums like The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, their het-up brand of politically feisty rock has been hanging around near the top of the charts ever since. They’ve performed in Cuba and – with the band’s well-documented socialist leanings coming to the fore – been granted an audience with Fidel Castro. They’ve penned angry tracks about every issue from the British monarchy to class wars, and cemented their status as Welsh home town heroes by selling out the sizable national stadium on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the band have revisited the past, taking their own glance at their iconic history and the as-yet-unsolved disappearance of former lyric writer and rock legend Richey Edwards, producing Journal For Plague Lovers using words taken from their former bandmate’s old notebooks.
The ‘emotional’ Welsh lads will be dropping into Dublin this week, where they’ll be performing with Snow Patrol at St James’s Gate, before moving on to play to an extremely fortunate pub; they claim the band themselves are yet to be told exactly which pub it’ll be. Their tenth and latest album, Postcards From A Young Man – bound to feature heavily – is a return to their more commercial days, angst-ridden and angry yet still palatable to a midday radio audience. When AU caught up with guitarist Nicky Wire, it soon became clear that edging into your 40s, scrapping the booze, having a couple of kids at home and a not insignificant selection of medical issues have done nothing to mellow the sense of political injustice, frustration and downright anger that have always been a part of him.
AU: It’s been quite well publicised that the new album – Postcards From A Young Man – is a lot more commercial. In some ways, is that a response to the less-mainstream album that came out of basing a record around Richey’s [Edwards] lyrics last time? Or do you just want to get the message out there a bit more?
Nicky Wire: “It’s a bit of both really. Obviously with Journal For Plague Lovers we just worked with the words and made them fit to the songs. It wasn’t really made for commercial success, we just wanted to feel like we had Richey back in the band, like there were four of us again. It was a great experience, but not one that could go on forever. With Postcards…it was time to come back and do something commercial. As a band we’ve always wanted to be heard by as many people as possible. There’s no point in having a message if no one’s going to hear it.”
What are the political themes of Postcards From A Young Man?
Wire: “A lot of stuff about the economy, saving the banks and the demise of the Labour Party, especially in the second half of the album. The first half of the album’s very much a celebration of the band, but in the second half we get into topics like the democracy of freedom, and plenty of commentary on the government. ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ in particularly is quite cutting, but not particularly straight-faced. You can’t be serious all the time.”
There’s not a whole lot of political music going around now, at least not in the mainstream. Given the current circumstances, this seems an odd time to stop making it…
Wire: “Well I’m completely baffled by it, because we live in the most extreme economic and political times of our lives. There seems to be a generation now that doesn’t want to face up to the reality. They prefer to listen to throwaway electro and Europop. You come to the point where you can’t force people to care. Music’s a reflection of society. Go and listen to David Guetta and tell me what that says about modern society? People just don’t care. I think we’re all to blame.”
It seems harsh to include yourselves, as one of the few bands still writing with political venom…
Wire: “Yeah I guess so. What I find hard to understand, though, is there’s so much to write about, so much interesting stuff going on, yet this generation would rather listen to David Guetta then The Sex Pistols. It’s just absurd.”
You were quoted in the paper the other day as saying you’re increasingly losing interest in political activism. Given that you’ve always been such a political person, what is it that’s pushed you this far?
Wire: “Well I really believe in the idea of politics, I always have done, but with the way things are at the moment it’s pretty hard to believe in anything. That sounds very negative, but I think the buy-out of the banks by a Labour Government was the final straw really. The government’s let industry after industry die, and then we go and bail the most profiteering industry in the world out. It’s just not right. They didn’t show any interest in the car industry but they saved the great profiteer.”
Does it bother you that bit more because it was a Labour Government that did it?
Wire: “Well it does, yes. They’ve become more Tory than the Tories. It’s almost surreal; it doesn’t actually feel like it could have happened. The Labour Government made promises about health and education and to be fair to them they did actually achieve some of their goals, but they did it at the expense of the people they’re supposed to believe in.”
Producing and performing Journal For Plague Lovers must have been quite an emotional experience…
Wire: “Well we’re three pretty emotional Welsh lads anyway, so….
There were a few suggestions from the band that you thought Journal For Plague Lovers might seriously damage you as a group. Did you mean damage the band emotionally, or did you mean threaten your future as musicians?
Wire: “Well it was emotionally difficult. Obviously when you write a record, you then have to go and play those songs every night, and with the lyrics all coming straight from Richey that sometimes turned out to be pretty difficult. In some ways as a band we’re our own worst enemy. We’re always doing things that perhaps wouldn’t be the most sensible in terms of selling records and continuing as musicians. We shoot ourselves in the foot. Having said that, if we didn’t do it I’m not sure we’d have lasted this long. We might have been a lot more successful in terms of sales, but it would just have got boring. It’s just the nature of us really. It could have all gone wrong when we went to Cuba and met Castro.”
Was it a difficult decision to make that record public, rather than just do it for yourselves?
Wire: “Yeah it was. James started it, and once he did the music fell together very naturally. It felt so good producing it, so exhilarating, to make him a part of our music. We new it was working so we decided to release it. I know what you mean, because it is very personal, but we thought he wrote the lyrics for a reason, and we felt compelled.”
As much as it might sound a little bit crass, do you ever get bored of questions about Richey, and the way in which he’s always seen as such a part of what you?
Wire: “We don’t really, no. He was a great songwriter, and he has a massive place in the band’s history. The only thing that does get a little annoying is the human element. People talk about him like a complete icon, and like in all these cases, he’s someone’s friend, someone’s son, someone’s brother. The human element gets pushed out of things. I mean we grew up with rock mythology, so it would be really stupid of us to pretend we don’t understand the interest in Richey, but sometimes it’s a bit much.”
As much as it might hurt sometimes, I guess it’s a big compliment to both you and him that there’s still so much interest…
Wire: “Yeah, one of the reasons we wanted to do Journal For Plague Lovers so much is that writing lyrics was his art, and he was very dedicated to it. That album gave us a chance to bring that art to life.”
Cuba was such a massive statement. Have you contemplated doing something similar, heading to somewhere with limited international musical heritage like Iran or Iraq?
Wire: “Well there’s not really that many places left! As a band, though, we’re always looking for angles. Let’s be honest, these days you need something more than music to sell. We’ve come up with some pretty outrageous ideas over the years, some of them work and some of them don’t, but we always try and do them.”
How much more difficult is it to get yourselves out there touring than say 10 years ago?
Wire: “We’re very privileged. If we were a young band now, I wouldn’t know where to start. I mean these days you have to break in to the scene in different ways. We put out a record, it sold copies and that was enough. For new bands you’d need to look at getting your music on adverts. For new bands the iPod advert is about the peak of things; bands just don’t get the same chances anymore. So yeah, it is more difficult, but we’re aware that compared to bands coming through now, we’re very lucky.”
With the music industry the way it is at the moment, is it actually possible to be as commercially successful as you used to be?
Wire: “It’s the impossible dream, isn’t it? All I can say is since we started the change in the industry has been enormous. We made a conscious decision just to be our own band and not concentrate on other factors. We’re doing the same things that we used to do. This’ll be the third album in four years, so we’re not going to let the relative lack of sales hold us back.”
You’ve always been quite an angry musician, especially when you first started out. Is that something that’s faded with age?
Wire: “Not at all. I mean, we’re far more in control now. Like you said, when we first started out it really was a big thing. Maybe it doesn’t come out quite so much now, but we’re not suddenly going to push it back under the surface. We’ve grown up. I like to think I’m more mature, I mean I have kids, but I can’t deny that I’m just quite an angry person. I can control it more than I used to, but I just haven’t stopped being negative and angry.”
Maybe its just realism?
Wire: “I’m glad you said that, not me!”
You’ve had a lot of big singles in the past, including a number two single no more than a couple of years back, but you seem to have reigned things in on this singles front. Is that a reflection of the ‘urbanisation’ of the charts?
Wire: “Yeah, well we had a number two with ‘Your Love Alone’ and it saved our career in many ways. Even though it was only three years ago, it does feel like a lot’s changed since then. I think you’ve just got to write the best songs you can and hope that they connect with people. We’ve had a pretty big radio hit with ‘It’s Not War’, perhaps our most successful in those terms since ‘The Masses Against The Classes’. It’s not going to go number one, but we’re pretty happy with it. We’re the highest new entry on the midweeks on the UK charts, and we’re literally the only guitar band in there, it’s all so urbanized. That’s just the way it is, all we can do is fight our corner.”
A few years ago you went though a solo stage, as did James. Is that a thing of the past now?
Wire: “Well, I don’t regret doing it, but I think I’ve got that out of my system now. You never know for sure, though. We have our own studio, so there’s ample opportunity to get in there and make music. It helped me with the Manics, too, though. I think having the solo experience benefitted me in terms of my song-writing role with the band. I felt I contributed more to the new one.”
What made you want to play Arthur’s Day?
Wire: “To be honest a lot of it’s a sense of mystery and fun. We don’t even know where we’re playing for one gig. We’ll find out on the night, and it’s great to have something slightly different going on. We genuinely have no idea what we’re going to do or where we’re going to do it. The money’s not bad either, I won’t lie.”
James [Dean Bradfield] has talked quite a lot about Postcards From A Young Man being a ‘last shot’ at commercial success. What does that mean for the future? Does that mean you’ll call it a day if the success doesn’t come about, or just that you’ll write what you like from then on?
Wire: “Well the concept of being a commercial guitar band is becoming more and more of an everyday struggle, we’re certainly not going to sell records the way we used to. We’re really happy with the album, so in a way James’ comments are a tribute to that. Being commercially accessible actually comes fairly naturally to us, even early on with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. I think what we’re really getting at is if this one doesn’t sell, it’s more than likely that any future albums won’t either. I mean sometimes we’re naturally commercial, sometimes we’re really dark and moody. In the future we’ll just see which side comes out on record.”
You’re all in your early forties now. How long can you see yourself continuing as a touring rock band? Does it depend how successful you are?
Wire: “Yes and no. There are other elements there, as long as we can feel relevant I think we’ll keep going. I mean we can always make money touring around and playing ‘greatest hits’, but I can’t really imagine a time when we’re not putting out records and pushing them forward. We don’t want to be a kind of living museum. We’d never let ourselves get into a kind of ‘Axl Rose’ category.”
Manic Street Preachers play Arthur’s Day this Thursday (23rd September), as well as a ‘to be announced’ pub later on in the same evening. If you feel like a gamble, limited pub tickets are still on offer in Dublin (as well as Cork and Galway).