With their second compilation in a year just around the corner, two of the band becoming fathers, and the dark insistence that their forthcoming seventh album will put an end to the preaching for good, could Move be the end of Manic Street Preachers as we know them?
The last three years as a Manic Street Disciple have been great, because it's just like the olden days. It hasn't been this uncool to like them since 1993 when all your friends were mad on Faith No More. Yet in a rockworld where people are dropping their bollocks for the Kings Of Frigging Leon, the most enduring rock group of the '90s still have the draw to sit up there with REM and The Charlatans at Manchester's massive grown-ups festival, Move. Next week, Manic Street Preachers release Lipstick Traces, their 'secret history', and the second MSP compilation in less than a year.
"It's just really to fill a gap," shrugs Nicky Wire, Manics bass player, lyricist, and man with biggest grin in rock. "There's no intellectual base behind it, I just didn't want to get into the rut of 'here comes this huge Manic Street Preachers release, huge album, huge tour', it just gets really pressurised and this is just a fan thing. In a way it's a companion piece to the Greatest Hits, and this is a very much a different way of looking at us, and this is very much for the fans who have stuck with us all the years."
Which way would you say was the most accurate?
"A bit of both I guess, because there's no doubt about it, we have been corporate whores, but we've also been..." he trails off as if to remember what it was they used to be, "we started off on Heavenly, we did start as an independent band, and a lot of our values are from that era. And I'm not ashamed of either."
It's a good job, because there are people who gave up on Manic Street Preachers. Even for their disciples, it was a little hard to stomach when, given a chance to spike their flag in history, they played the Forever Delayed greatest hits album so commercially safe as if to carry a life raft with them. While their worst single, 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' made the cut, their (oh go on, 'arguable') best, 'Roses In The Hospital', was omitted (doubly confusing since that's where the line 'forever delayed' originates).
"I think we had a couple of options really," says Nick, "we could have either done a double CD with all the singles, but we chose to do the mixes CD as well, just to show a different side. You can go about it two ways, you can do it like Bjork, where the fans chose her greatest hits and it went in at 67 and sold about 2,000 copies, or you can do it our way, where we wanted to do a big tour and a big album. I don't have any regrets because I think if we'd done something really perverse and it hadn't sold then that would have been pretty shameful as well."
So willingly or not, Lipstick Traces arrives as recompense. It takes its title from punk groupie Greil Marcus' 1989 'secret history of the 20th Century', a 'conversation of negation' through the nether reaches of C20 counter culture that places all art as necessary critique of Western capitalism, finding the elixir of the universe in ignored fragments of history. The record, pulling together B-sides, rarities and covers, does the same with the Manics' career, finding holy grails and little epiphanies in the least likely of places, like 'lost' track 'Judge Yr'Self' and original benchmark 'Strip It Down'. The visuals, meanwhile, dispense with the clinical Mark Farrowisms and knowingly revisit the leopard-print days. A nostalgic pushhead, Nick?
"Yeah, kind of, and also because I was so annoyed with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and everyone else nicking all my fashion tips really. Stripey pop socks, leopard print, I've been doing it for years!"
Has Karen O got a lot to answer for?
"Hehehe! It is a secret history; it's a different way into the valleys that made us. But it seems such a long time ago now, those things. I've done all the artwork on this, and redesigned the website, it's meant to be cheap and nasty, it's meant to be like the trash scum that we were when we first erupted from the valleys."
Would you dress like that again?
"If I could persuade the other two, maybe!"
The last Manic Street Preachers album, the stylistically messy, widely ridiculed return to political aggression that was Know Your Enemy came out in spring 2001. Running through it, on benchmark songs like 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children' and 'Baby Elian', was a bafflement and disgust with America and its government's practices that - funny to think now - didn't sit so comfortably with anyone. It was launched, pointedly, with a historic gig at the Karl Marx Theatre in Cuban capital Havana, and never one to miss a PR opportunity, Fidel Castro turned up. After 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and everything else that's happened since, you wonder how Know Your Enemy would be received if released today. And so does the Wire.
"To be honest, I think Know Your Enemy was such a prophesy, and we had such a hard time, we were almost ridiculed for the whole Cuba thing and our view of American foreign policy. I just feel a bit hollow about the whole experience. Because we did take an immense amount of stick, and we're seeing the same people realising what's going on in the world."
Did you go on the anti-war marches yourself?
"No, I mean, I find it hard to align myself with the politics of Chris Martin really. Nothing against them as a band, it's just I find politically naïve people incredibly infuriating."
Yeah, but he's one of the few popstars bothering to say anything.
"I dunno, I just think, anyone who's influenced by No Logo as a book I just don't have time for, because it's just the Janet and John of politics. All young hip things quote that as a reference point for what's going on in the world, maaan. If you read Engels or Marx or Gramsci 20 years ago you'd know that already. The thing is, I've always believed in political movements and today, now, problems are single-issue problems. They're more likely to be changed by charitable than political solutions, and I just find that a bit sad."
Earlier this year, in Manchester, hundreds of schoolkids risked getting suspended to protest against the war in Iraq, and they stopped the city in its tracks. That's inspirational, surely?
"All forms of protest are especially healthy, I'm not decrying that. But just from a personal point of view, I just felt like I expended all my energy two years previous. If you read 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children', it's just all in there really. All the protest is incredibly healthy, but perhaps it's not worthwhile in the end..."
Lipstick Traces finds Manic Street Preachers cleaning out their closet, and the most interesting thing they've dusted off is their 'You Know You're Right'. The absence of a Courtney Love-style berserker has denied it the same degree of legend, but 'Judge Yr'Self' is the last tune that guitarist and linchpin Richey Edwards played on before disappearing in 1995, and is just as telling a document of where a band might have gone had things worked out differently. Intended for the soundtrack of the Judge Dredd movie, it was recorded just after The Holy Bible, just before Richey went away. It's a fabulous, militant stadium stomper, but why bring it out now?
"The Greatest Hits helped in that process, facing those fans every night on the tour. Closing a bit of our history made it us feel comfortable enough to release it. At the time, the reason why it didn't get put on Judge Dredd was literally because Richey disappeared after we recorded it, and it's one of those weird things where it is left in the vaults and forgotten about. I dug it out this year when we decided to do this record and James remixed it and beefed it up. It really sounds like a young band. It fits quite close to The Holy Bible, it's a bit more proto metal."
It sounds like the gap in-between that and Everything Must Go, which it was...
"I think that's true, and it just felt right now. Richey was a big fan of Judge Dredd and 2000AD and you can read his influence into the lyrics."
Is it your lyric or his?
"It's pretty much all his, which... you know, it's fine."
Is that the last of the unreleased stuff now?
"As far as I can remember, yes, of that era. There's plenty of stuff since. Bizarrely, we've almost been more prolific since, but that's the last remnants of the Deep Purple Mk II, the classic line-up."
So closet clean, Nicky, James and Sean find themselves, like Blazin' Squad, at a Crossroads. With the split stories apparently red herrings, but the compilations ensuring that they can never go back to the way they were, the in-progress seventh album will either be a phoenix rising or a final Game Over.
"Y'know, it's 'elegiac pop', it's a huge lament for world society! Heheheheheh! But it's very snappy, I want the album to be quite short, ten songs of beautiful melody."
James said that your major influence was (the barrenly beautiful powerchord free) Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen.
"It is in terms of the almost frozen nature of everything, something that can be sad but really uplifting, just that really fractured, fragmented, isolated, but it really gives you a warm feeling. There's always gonna be politics, there's a song called 'Emily' which is about Emily Pankhurst, because when they did that poll of Great Britons, I just thought it was so incredibly sad that Emily Pankhurst was kind of ignored, and Princess Diana was number two or something. How can that be? I think it's a devastating slight on the population of this country that some women were prepared to die for the vote and just, no-one voted for her."
Where else are you looking for inspiration? "Just to get something uplifting out of the fragments of history. There is stuff there which can make things better, but it's not in a polemic way, not in a preachy way, it's more of a poetic way."
The Manic Street Preachers have stopped preaching?
"Well yeah, to be honest, after the kind of criticism and everything, I just felt, I don't know if I can put myself in that position again, it weakened me a bit. I think it'll be re-evaluated, Know Your Enemy, in ten years time, just like Sandinista was by The Clash, as an overblown, self-indulgent cul-de-sac. I think it was a glorious failure, a fabulous disaster, as Malcolm McLaren would say!"
So with their dials reset, and the perspective that recent fatherhood has given both Nick and Sean ("of course it's life-changing and life-affirming, but I don't wanna be one of those sad bastards who write songs about their babies"), this weekend at Move will see Manic Street Preachers coming into land. Since those early, hopelessly fabulously arrogant letters to journalists promising free heroin if they wrote about the band, the Manics have always thrived off an uncertain future, but what's never been in doubt is that they are still pretty much the best live band in the UK.
"This time it's just a bit of a busman's holiday, we're playing some new songs, we're playing some B-sides, it's not like a big pressurised summer for us."
And let's not forget that getting Manic On The Streets Of Manchester has always been the highlight of their tours.
"It has! Manchester's as good as any place in the world, it always has been. We supported Flowered Up at the International 2, which must have been 1991. Even when people thought we were dickheads, Manchester was so cool. We turned up in tight white trousers and spraypaint (at the height of baggy). We were laughed at, but in quite a nice way. And the first major gig we did was at the Arena in 1997 with Everything Must Go. It really felt like we'd won the election that day."